Office Hours: I’m a Director of Product Management at Duolingo. I’m Nickey Skarstad. AMA!Featured

Hi everyone!

I’m Nickey Skarstad and I’m a Director of Product Management at Duolingo.

I have 13+ years of experience building consumer products across diverse product stages, from pioneering 0-1 ideas to large-scale, monetized solutions reaching millions of users. With over a decade of experience building at some of the world's most beloved brands, including Etsy, Airbnb, and Duolingo, I’ve honed my product sense to a fine art.

On the early team at Etsy, I helped power seller businesses with meaningful tools. And on the early team working on Airbnb Experiences, I helped the team find product market fit and scale the business. Now at Duolingo, I’m working on some fun new products that you’ll hopefully get to use someday soon. Tricky product problems are my jam, and my product sense has helped me navigate complex challenges time and time again.

In my spare time I am a mom to two little girls, write a substack about building consumer products, and follow my many curiosities on TikTok.

Ask me anything about product, managing product managers, building across diverse product stages, marketplaces, consumer tech, or anything else!

Thanks so much for joining us @nickey!Elphas – please ask @nickey your questions before Friday, June 9th. @nickey may not have time to answer every questions, so emoji upvote your favorites 🔥👍🏾➕
Hi ! I’m having extensive experience in hospitality. Looking to pivot into product management related with hospitality. Would you mind sharing any insights for me on how to land product management Job
Hey Nickey! Hope you're doing well and thanks for answering questions. I've been involved in the Duolingo user community for a while and it's a fascinating product! I've been really curious about the amount of A/B testing that's done. I'm a growth PM and controlling for variables when running multiple experiments is tough, of course I don't typically have the amount of users that Duo has. Could you give a estimate of how many A/B tests are running at a time, and your advice on keeping everything straight?
Hi @nickeyThanks for sharing your experience and taking the time to response to these!I wanted to know, what is your advice for an early startup trying to find product-market fit for a digital course marketplace? Learning isn't as easy to sell vs vacations on Airbnb or buying cute handmade items on Etsy. What do you think keeps users engaged with learning on Duolingo?
@NickeySkarstad Thanks for doing this AMA! I really wanted to work at Duolingo but couldn't pursue the role there because of its in-person requirements. I heard that the CEO is very hands-on. What is it like to work with Duolingo's CEO who has a great vision and expectation for the product and how do you balance unbiased product approaches ensuring that the needs of the user are addressed in ways that work for the business? Speaking of balance, how do you ensure the balance between the gamification and the learning aspects of the product, making sure that despite any motivations to progress in gaming level (and lean heavily on hints along the way), the user still does get that much closer to being able to speak and read in their chosen language?Any advice for folks who want to get into EdTech, especially in a company that leverages gaming?
Hey Michelle! Good question! I’ve found this to be pretty common for consumer-facing product companies where the product IS the business (and the business IS the product). Not surprisingly all of the consumer-facing product companies I’ve worked for have had very hands-on CEOs who are engaged with and plugged into product work. A great equalizer is prioritizing an incredible user experience. If people are aligned on that goal it helps everyone (across roles and levels) make tradeoffs more clearly. Re: balance. We prioritize learning value over retention and monetization every day. I answered a question on product-led growth above, but the thing that makes Duolingo so special is that it gets more successful when it does a better job teaching because users extract more value from the product experience (and then are more likely to share, subscribe, etc.). Duolingo is unique because we have a whole team of learning scientists and language curriculum experts whose job is to build, measure, and then refine the lessons in the app to ensure people really are learning.Re: EdTech or Gaming, working in the consumer product space will set you up to thrive at either type of company. Start with consumer and then it’s easier to focus later!
Hey Nickey! I peeked at your LinkedIn and saw your degree is in Communication. So I was wondering how did you get started in product? I'm coming into product with a similar background. Do you have advice on getting started in product management with a less technical background?Also I'm a big Duolingo fan -- Any hints at what's coming?? Thanks!! 💚
Posted this above, but relevant here too! My first tech job was at Etsy and I wanted to work there because I was a huge fan of the product, so much so that I was a super user! I applied to be a Forums Moderator and took a $5k pay cut and a demotion to get in there but wanted to work there so badly that it didn’t matter to me at the time 🙈To break into product management, I became an expert on their users (specifically sellers) and consulted with the product team on what to build and how to build in a way that would resonate with their community. This created an entry point for me to start as an APM. This was a mixture of good timing and extremely low ego and it set my career on a path that I couldn’t have predicted at the time.To break into product management today, there are many paths - some like that above and some different. You can get relevant experience in a different function and try to transfer it, get an APM internship, work for a start-up where there are lots of opportunities and all-hands-on-deck moments, build your own thing to get practice shipping, and more. Good news is that communication is a foundational skill that will help you land a role like this. Good luck! 🍀
Hi Nickey,Your experience in Product is truly inspiring! In your growing years, what were the top 2-3 skills or traits that you picked up as a PM that helped you excel? On the same lines, how would you recommend others to learn that?
Hello, @NickeySkarstad/ @nickey!I'm an avid Duolingo learner and I recently learned about the English Proficiency Test Duo is offering in partnership with education and vocation programs. What has the reception been like for these tests? What's next for this product? Will it eventually expand into other languages like French?Will Duolingo expand into certifications for the general users that learn through the app?Thank you in advance!
Hi Nickey - thanks for making time! You say you’ve honed your product sense and I’d love to hear if you did it strategically and if so how? I find I am very intentional about my progress when picking a job but not so much on a smaller scale, eg week to week. Also - any favorite lessons learnt from building 0 to 1?P.s. will be shouting about your substack - so many useful insights!!
Thanks for the question @sunnypatch!If you know me, you know that I LOVE to talk about product sense. It’s this weird mythical skill that feels hard to build but actually isn’t. Here’s how I’ve refined mine through the years:- Build empathy. Empathy is a kingmaker. You’d be surprised at how many product builders don’t talk to their customers?! This is the most simple way to hone your product sense. If you understand how your customer will use the product you’re building intimately, you’ll make better product decisions that compound into the product experience. - Dogfood. Use the product you’re building every day. Use it in different contexts, on different devices, and across different accounts. Encourage the company you work for to roll out company-wide dogfooding programs so everyone is encouraged to do this. It’s essential to help build empathy for your users. Walk a mile in those Louboutins 😉- Consume. Especially if you’re working on consumer-facing products try different apps, use them all, and immerse yourself in the market. I’m always trying new things. I downloaded Me+ just this week because I heard it had a good widget. Last month it was Whatnot because I heard it had awesome live shopping. Note, I am building neither of these things right now but I’m endlessly curious and want to understand burgeoning consumer trends! - Just ship. My product sense is refined at this point because I’ve done all of the above AND have shipped a ton of products that have impacted millions of people around the world. Shipping something (even if you’re not in a product role and it’s a side project) pushes you to think in different ways and is always worth your time!
@nickey If I wanted to move into product, where would you suggest learning about how to do that?
Hi Nickey, I'm a data scientist, so I'm curious to know your perspective on how Product and Data teams work best together. Duolingo is known for its "A/B test everything" culture - what collaboration patterns have you seen that enable high velocity and impactful (statistically significant!) learnings?
Hi Nickey, I'm curious to know what metrics or KPI you use to evaluate ROI of product decisions (new features, etc) or of a product over its lifetime. From my Finance perspective, there's focus on the direct financial contributions, of course, but I'm interested to know how you think about this quantitatively from a Product perspective.Thanks for the AMA!
Firstly thank you for building DuoLingo - my husband loves it (and I want him to learn French!). My questions are:- your career path is inspiring: what experience do you recommend that a PM with 4 yrs of experience gain in order to grow in responsibilities?- my experience is with B2B products; how does that transfer with B2C experience, what are the challenges in moving between B2B and B2C?Thank you thank you 😊
Hi @NickeySkarstad , I appreciate you taking the time. I'm currently conducting research for my master's degree on High Growth Firms (HGFs), focusing on companies such as Revolut and Airbnb. I would be grateful if you could provide insights from your experience with Airbnb regarding the internal and external factors that played a role in its growth during both the early stage and rapid expansion stage. Thank you.
Thanks so much for the question! Two of my favorite reads on early Airbnb growth are "Blitzscaling" by Reid Hoffman/Chris Yeh and "The Cold Start Problem" by Andrew Chen. Both books dig into early growth work (and challenges, specifically with Wimdu a Berlin-based competitor) for Airbnb.Also this (super old but weirdly relevant) YouTube has a ton of great context too: researching!
Thank you Nickey, I'd be sure to check them out.
Thank you for opening up and sharing your knowledge and experience @NickeySkarstad !How would you direct a project manager (with a little new product and a lot of SaaS implementation experience) to get into a product role? Thank you!
I'd suggest that they shadow or get indirect product management experience and then try to transfer it. If they're project managing can they pick up product-adjacent work? Could they get an APM internship? Or could they ship their own project as a way to back into PM experience? There are lots of paths and project management foundations are super helpful!
Thank you Nickey! Great advice.
Hi @nickey, Thanks for putting yourself out there like this. We've built a career performance tracker and coach that helps people get better performance can review results. We are getting good feedback from users, but they are not sharing (even when nudged or rewarded). When I conduct interviews, the feedback is that they don't talk about these issues with their friends and they don't really want to share with colleagues. What can boost sharing of a consumer app like this (that seems to draw out competitiveness).Thanks,giselle
Hi Nicky,I am an early builder of two B2B product lines, SAAS and platform as a service and a . How do you think about hiring a B2B product originator from the early 2000s? I, like you, have had experience across diverse stages of product build.Thanks so much!
Hello @nickey! My question is what would you recommend for people in their early twenties do to break into Product Management and work at the companies they enjoy and align with? Thank you and have a beautiful day!
GOOD Q! But first, storytime ... My first tech job was at Etsy and I wanted to work there because I was a huge fan of the product, so much so that I was a super user! I applied to be a Forums Moderator and took a $5k pay cut and a demotion to get in there but wanted to work there so badly that it didn’t matter to me at the time 🙈To break into product management, I became an expert on their users (specifically sellers) and consulted with the product team on what to build and how to build in a way that would resonate with their community. This created an entry point for me to start as an APM. This was a mixture of good timing and extremely low ego and it set my career on a path that I couldn’t have predicted at the time.To break into product management today, there are many paths - some like that above and some different. You can get relevant experience in a different function and try to transfer it, get an APM internship, work for a start-up where there are lots of opportunities and all-hands-on-deck moments, build your own thing to get practice shipping, and more. The last thing I’ll leave you with here is that I consider my career path to be more of a playground and NOT a career ladder. I’ve been moving around trying different roles and products and haven’t been obsessed with one singular growth path (or title). When you’re early in your career this is a good strategy. Focus on the experience and what you want to learn and make career decisions that way. You’ll be happier, build deep intuition for work that gives you good energy, have a well-rounded skill set, and you’ll likely be more performant in these roles as a result. Good luck! 🍀
Hey Nickey, My question is... what practices have you seen for embedding inclusion into product practices to ensure diverse user needs are systematically catered for? Full disclosure - the reason I ask is that we recently launched an open and collaboratively created Inclusive Innovation Playbook to shine a light on good practices to help propel the industry forward in creating more inclusive digital products and services. With your experience at such a great range of brilliant businesses I was hoping you might have some nice examples to share. forward to hearing your thoughts.Warm wishes,Marissa
Hi Nickey!I read your Substack article on product quality and found it highly informative. It emphasized the importance of aligning with your team to define quality together, ultimately leading to the delivery of a high-quality product. I tend to get caught up in the details and focus solely on having a functioning product! Sigh.By the way, I also noticed that you have two girls! I'm curious to know how you managed to maintain such an incredible career, delivering great products, while still having quality family time.Additionally, if you have the time, I would greatly appreciate your advice on job searching. Coming from a non-technical background (analytics to product), I'm facing significant challenges in receiving outreach or opportunities in the market. If you were in my shoes, what would you recommend to maximize my chances of securing another PM role?
How are product decisions made at Duolingo? How do you decide what to build?
Hello Nickey!! My question is has Duolingo explored product operations in the organization?If so, how and if not do you see value and the organization continues to scale?
Hey @jamesadixon!YES! Duolingo has a product operations team and they’ve been critical to helping the larger Duolingo product organization scale itself. I’ve worked with this function at a couple of different companies and find that it’s critical, especially for growing organizations that are benefitted from operational processes.An example of what a function like this does is running a tight product review. With dozens of people all shipping different stuff, creating shared visibility and feedback channels is mission-critical, and product operations help create just the right amount of process to make this work. I think we should write about this at some point, Duolingo’s (team and process) is unique and impactful! Have you worked with product operations? How has this function impacted your product org?
@NickeySkarstad I haven’t worked in product operations per se but I have led and collaborated on several operation improvements as our stakeholders increased. I am interested in product ops and wanted to take the opportunity to ask you!
Hi @nickey ! Thanks a lot for giving us a little of your time ! I have only one question that may seem simple but I think is not : If you had to choose just one lesson that you have acquired during your experiences and which seems to you the most important and which has brought you the most, which one would it be?Thanks a lot !
One of my favorite lessons from the last decade is to treat your career like a playground rather than a career ladder. Can you prioritize taking on new experiences based on how they'll round out your skill set, scratch your itches, or give you energy, rather than try to just march up a career ladder? A lot of early career people put too much worth on climbing the ladder. Play on the slide, try the seesaw, move around, try different things, figure out what fills your cup and your career progress will feel more meaningful, more purposeful, more you!
You've worked with great companies known for a powerful combo of community and product! (Full disclosure: I work in community). From a PM perspective, how have you enrolled your EPD colleagues in the value of partnership cross-functionally with customer facing teams? Have you developed any processes that support that collaboration all the way from feature research & developmen to experimentation to rollouts and fast follows?
Hi there!A friend of mine is an experienced customer success manager and has some product management experience and wants to move more towards the product side. What skills do you recommend prioritizing to make that move?Thank you!
Any tips on how to move from Project to Product management within Tech?
This is so inspiring. I just completed my MBA in Marketing and enjoy market research and product marketing. Nice to connect
Good for you! Have partnered with research and product marketing teams for the last decade and would be lost without them. Thanks for posting!
@NickeySkarstad as advertising costs have risen dramatically, what are the most effective methods you are using for customer acquisition?
Hey @elysekaye! Customer acquisition is more expensive than ever 💸 With this in mind, as you’re mapping growth paths for whatever it is that you’re building leaning into a Product Led Growth (PLG) methodology is extremely timely. What is PLG? PLG = When your product sells itself (and your customers power the growth flywheel for you) Sounds extremely simple, but in practice, it takes work to do well. Start by laser-focused on building a strong product that provides deep, intrinsic value for your customer. By turning your customer into an advocate for your product they do some (if not all!) of your marketing for you. If you look at Duolingo’s product, it has a strong growth flywheel because it’s easy to use, accessible, free, provides high utility (learning!), and is suuuuper fun. Together those punch points make it a viral machine. Figma is another one. Early growth from Figma came from the fact that it was a killer, ahead-of-its-time product, AND it was highly collaborative (so designers had to share it if they were using it). If you’re looking to read more on PLG, these articles from Hila Qu are fire: to hear more about what you’re building and if this method is relevant. Share more!
@Nickey - as a expert on consumer brands, travel and marketplaces, what do you think of this consumer brand idea? Would love your take!
This looks awesome! I think this is a great idea. I think you're going to see AI support travel in many new/novel ways in the coming years. If I had to spitball some problems you'll need to solve to make something like this work:- How do you move from a list (or an AI-generated output) to a schedule that actually creates utility for the user?- Can you integrate with their calendar? A list while I'm traveling doesn't feel super valuable. Could your tool book and then auto-schedule things like reservations, travel time, etc. - What are the terrible parts of traveling that you could fully automate? I always feel deeply stressed trying to figure out how much time to give myself to get to the airport while I'm abroad. Could you do this (and other tasks like this) for them? - How do you provide support while people are on a trip? Also, feedback on the deck. As an angel investor, I'd want to see more about how you bring the product experience to life. What does the product do and how does it actually solve for the user problems you describe? Would be cool to show a real life use case of a traveler and how they use the product. At Airbnb before we launched Experiences we actually curated travel for people (booked everything, etc.), could you hack this by starting with a human using AI, to actually letting AI takeover? Have fun!
@NickeySkarstad A fully automated planing and booking service is the idea. Seamless is the name of the game! It would be a full service concierge for the user with customized preferences along the way. Thanks for the tip about real life use case! Stay tuned :)
I've been looking at the AI travel space too. Not for site development, but for my own use. I was checking out Live the World (which draws on their user base for more personalized intimate experiences) and an AI walking tour start-up. Not to mention using GPT for planning. It's pretty amazing. I'd agree with Nickey that the deck needs more real meat, if you will. Offering options, booking, scheduling, and coordinating are a lot to take on... but I think youre on a good track. This will be a highly competitive space; go get 'em!
Awesome, good luck!
Hi, Nickey! I'm a Duolingo user (Day 337 of Chinese, whoo!) --1. I started a new course in Italian; The difference between it and Chinese in the course layouts (They have fill in the blanks!) is night and day. I understand that the Chinese course using both Pinyin and traditional characters may make it difficult, but what plans are there to bring a more robust learning path to the Chinese courses?2. How do you approach finding the product-market fit for new features at Duolingo? Can you share an example where you successfully achieved it and what factors contributed to its success?3. I've found the Duo community did not immediately take to the new path changes instituted this year. What role do user feedback and data analytics play in your product management approach?