Siobhan Quinn Says “Technology is the Underdog” in New York; A Check-In with Foursquare’s First Product Manager

If you’re a software engineer turned product manager who’s overseen the seventh-most-visited website in the world—Google’s Blogger platform—what do you do for an encore? You move to New York to work for a little startup trying to change the world through mobile check-ins, of course.

Siobhan Quinn got her BS in computer science at the University of Washington in 2003 and spent the next seven years at Google. Last summer she became Foursquare‘s first product manager, overseeing new feature development for the startup’s mobile apps. Those apps—in case you’ve been living on a desert island for the last two years—allow users to earn virtual badges, and often discounts and other rewards, by checking in at locations like coffee shops or restaurants.

The check-in concept didn’t exist five years ago, but it has spread at lightning speed thanks to Foursquare and competitors like Brightkite, Gowalla, SCVNGR, and Facebook. But now that the novelty of earning a Bender badge (for going drinking four nights in a row) or a Jobs badge (for checking in at three Apple stores) is starting to wear off, Quinn’s job is to make sure that people keep using Foursquare. And that means making th app truly useful—for example, by giving merchants new ways to reward loyal customers who check in at their stores, or helping third-party developers invent totally new uses for the platform. (There’s one that your dog would really like—read on for that.)

In a conversation last week, Quinn told us that she loves working in New York, in part because “technology is the underdog” here and has to compete for attention alongside finance, fashion, the arts, and all of New Yorkers’ other obsessions. Ultimately, being just one element in the city’s diversity—rather than the dominant force, as in Silicon Valley—may help tech companies develop more balanced products, says Quinn, who is an Xconomist (a member of our board of informal editorial advisors). Quinn says Foursquare resembles Google—where co-founder Dennis Crowley also worked after it acquired his previous location-based-services startup, Dodgeball—in the sense that it’s full of whip-smart engineers and business folks. But she says Foursquare has the advantage of being much smaller and nimbler—and, of course, of being in New York. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Xconomy: First question. What does a product manager do at a company like Foursquare, where there’s only one product?

Siobhan Quinn: It’s funny, the term product manager is so ill-defined. I guess the product manager plays an essential role in the entire development of a product, from the idea stage to actually getting it out the door. That means defining the functions of our application, prioritizing features, performing market research, gathering requirements, and taking the vision and turning it into a plan that designers and engineers can execute, and finally getting it into the hands of customers.

Until recently, I was the only product manager at Foursquare, so I kind of focused on everything. But now I can be focused on something I’m more excited about, which is how to encourage users to use Foursquare. That is one of our big problems—making it easier to check in and maintaining the feedback loop with users when they interact. For example, sending people an alert to say ‘Hey, you haven’t checked in six months,” or creating rewards and incentives to get people engaged.

It’s true that we only have one product, but there are large features that span across the whole product, and sometimes totally new features. For example, we recently launched … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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