Navigating the World of Product Strategy: Ana-Cecilia Alvarez from MapBox

Not a lot of product people have the United Nations as the starting point of their career, but Ana-Cecilia Alvarez, a product strategist at Mapbox, says that’s not such an unusual trajectory. “I’ve always been interested in problem-solving,” she says, “that has been a constant skillset and passion through my career, and so it’s only natural that I landed in product. Technology is constantly evolving and I’m motivated by solving new problems.”

A circuitous route to product

Ana-Cecilia Alvarez

Ana-Cecilia began her career at the UN Foundation – after studying business and finance at American University in Washington, DC. She worked on administering microfinance grants to Latin America, and after a few years joined the then newly-established Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) as a member of the first analyst class. There, too, she was interested in solving something new: how do you size and monitor industries that have never been previously regulated? Thinking through complex problems and trying to come up with creative solutions for the government was thrilling.

She left CFPB when was awarded a Fulbright, and moved to Mexico City, where she worked in venture capital for a few years, before moving out to San Francisco to help start a new fund. She realized her favorite part about VC was working with the actual entrepreneurs on new business models and go-to-market strategies. She missed the creativity that is inherent in any problem-solving work and wanted to get her hands dirty, which is how she found herself at Mapbox.

What does a product strategist do?

We chatted at Mobile World Congress last week, where the Mapbox team was showcasing their location data platform. It was one of the coolest booths in Hall 8.1, with a variety of interactive screens that would make you think of maps in a whole new way. “Location is relevant to everything we do and everything around us, so the use cases for Mapbox are endless,” says Alvarez, “that’s what makes our product so unique.”

Mapbox provides developers tools to build applications that use aspects of mapping that we don’t normally think about – from property data to efficient routing of packages – and by powering these apps they touch over 300 million end users.“The data we get back is key to our living map strategy”, Alvarez explains. “In the past, maps were static objects. Today, our maps are constantly updating in real-time thanks to the hyper-connected world we live in.” She shared a demo of this map, which shows how long it would take to walk (or bike or drive) somewhere from a given point – the perfect tool when you’re traveling to a new city. We think of travel in terms of time, not distance, and Mapbox is able to make the map fit people instead of the other way around. 

Sample of MapBox mapping capabilities

Ana-Cecilia first joined Mapbox’s Business Development team in May, but at Mapbox an understanding of the product is crucial for having strategic conversations, internally and externally, and so she became a product strategist. In this role, she uses her problem-solving skills to identify market gaps, introduce new opportunities, and take existing products to the next level – all enabling the company to further compete with legacy players. This inherently means touching multiple teams. She works with engineering, product management, marketing, sales, and leadership to make recommendations for their product roadmap.

“I love quantifying theories – putting data and numbers next to ideas we have”. Her favorite part of her job is not just brainstorming on product vision, but helping product managers execute on that vision. “It’s fascinating to think about the future of our product as technology and consumer behavior evolve”. Take, for example, augmented reality, which was on display almost everywhere at MWC. “Headsets might seem silly to us today,” Alvarez admits, “but 10% of smartphones are already AR-compatible.” Mapbox can help unlock AR’s full potential by providing “the geographic context to connect these new AR experiences to the real world around us,” Alvarez explains. “And the best part is we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible.”

Experiencing AR at the Mapbox MWC booth

In order to improve product and break into new areas, it’s important for Ana-Cecilia to understand not only current Mapbox customers but also think about future ones. “Genuine curiosity is an essential trait for product people,” Alvarez shares, “and becoming an end-user myself gives me that much more insight into different use cases”. It also gives her more credibility when reaching out to people. She downloads a ton of consumer apps to do user research, and engage with developers to learn about their story and pain points. “Obviously, knowing our product is important, but knowing their product is just as important.” Understanding their journey helps her help them.

A planner at heart

When I asked about her favorite product, Alvarez gushed about Slack. She admitted she wasn’t an early adopter, but she loves the ability to ask questions in an open environment and get answers instantaneously. She also loves weather apps, “I’m such a planner,” she says, “and even though the weather in San Francisco is basically the same every morning, there are a bunch of niche apps that make checking the weather more fun.” She named Kitty Weather, Grumpy Cat Weather, What the Forecast?! and a few others.

Using a product for the sheer delight, Ana-Cecilia’s experience proves that product is, in fact, better than any marketing. It’s the biggest form of compliment from this product person to those who are making those apps. It also makes her own job as a product strategist “that much more fun and exciting.”