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An Interview with GPS Sports Watch Pioneer Claudette Stevenson


Did you know that the $700M GPS sports watch business was started by a fifth grader who created a lawnmower out of a coffee can, a fan, and a crutch? Well, sort of.

Claudette Stevenson was on the forefront of the GPS-enabled sport watch. She started her career as a software engineer at Garmin International back in 2000, and by the time she left she had co-invented eight patents that are the foundation of the successful Garmin GPS fitness enterprise.

Garmin 101 and 201 sport watches
Garmin 101 and 201 sport watches

It’s hard to believe we were not only willing to wear one of those monstrosities (by today’s standards) on our wrist, but as Claudette correctly describes it, it was a “badge of honor.” And as I might have described it at the time, wearing one signaled to others you were serious about your training – at least that’s what I kept telling myself.

Claudette’s interest in creating products started with a fifth grade invention contest and was nurtured along the way by influential teachers (shout out to Mr. Price) and work experiences.

Now the Senior Director of Product Development at the fitness software company TrainingPeaks, Claudette is responsible for both product and engineering. This role plays to her strengths of breaking down silos between departments and aligning the entire product team around the same product vision for the user.

As a fitness enthusiast, I was particularly excited to have the opportunity to speak with someone who was so instrumental in bringing the first wrist-worn GPS device to what is now part of the six billion dollar global wearables market. And yes, I’ve owned just about every Garmin model since.

Listen to my interview with Claudette as we talk about:

  • How she got her start in engineering
  • Her biggest challenges as a product leader
  • Understanding customers enough to have high confidence that what you’re building is going to matter
  • Using automation to improve how the human coach serve their athletes rather than eliminating the need for a coach

Listen to the show:

Show Notes:


Claudette: No. Well I really do love it. I love all the education that Fresh Tilled Soil’s putting out. I think it’s important because how I become better at what I do is learning as much as I can, and getting as much experience as I can in a variety of different challenges, right, and knowing how to apply certain things to certain needs. I think it’s awesome what you guys are doing within the product space.

Heath: Describe to me your background and your journey into product. You started, it looks like, with a physics background in the software engineering, and now product management development. Tell me how you went through that path to get to where you are today.

Claudette: When I ask people what got you here, and there’s critical things, even way back when you’re young that start shaping your path. For me, a couple of things that really I remember of shaping me into what I think were critical decisions in my own career path was, I was in this invention contest when I was in fifth grade, and I created this lawnmower out of a coffee can, a fan and a crutch. And I just remember the experience of creating something new and getting an award for creating something new. It obviously stuck really deep into my mind as being something really positive.

Then, I think it was seventh grade, my computer science teacher really instilled in me that I belonged with computer science. He was a really difficult teacher. I remember I got a top student award. For a female, 13 years old it was really critical to be like, “You belong in this space and I believe in you.” I would say thank you Mr. Price and probably thank you Nintendo, and you know, giving me this love and desire for the computer science space for creating new things with computers.

When I started out, first boss was actually Cliff Pemble, who is now the President and CEO of Garmin. I had an internship project, as a senior, with Garmin. That was where I started, was they hired me right away into software engineering, and it was a very fun space because there was no competition. We were brand new to everything, and it was this culture of creativity, and no timelines, just keep thinking and innovating, and developing new things that have never been done before. That was really, obviously, critical and influential into my career of just thinking creatively, just thinking about how we design something brand new and how to bring it to market when it had never been done before.

Then, I naturally started realizing my colleagues were really good at “what,” and we can build all these things, and do all these things. I was really good at asking “why.”

Heath: The path you took is similar to a lot of paths, including my own in as much as you were doing product management, either without the formal title or before you even really knew that’s what you were doing, so there’s that common theme. There’s the curiosity part of it, always asking why. I was asked to become a company’s first product manager simply because I was a pain in the butt. “You keep asking why we’re doing this. Why don’t you go figure out why we’re doing it and if it’s the right thing to be doing.” There’s that link to the customer, always thinking or attempting to think with their set of eyes and their brain about whether or not we’re doing the right thing, so yeah, I’ve yet to come across answers that don’t include at least one, if not all three of those components to it. I think we’re on to something.

Claudette: Yeah.

Heath: You mentioned you were a runner, or would you call yourself at the time a fitness enthusiast or just Garmin, it happened because the connection with the physics professor?

Claudette: I was competitive. I was sprinter in college, but I never had run endurance sports, so I got the fact of what we’re trying to accomplish, and what people really wanted, but it was really simple. They were just amazed by having distance on something, and they didn’t have to know landmarks anymore, to know how far they even ran, and so that was the first part of it. Then once I realized, “Hey there’s multi-sport people doing that. I have to go do a multi-sport sprint in order to really put myself in there.” And so that’s what I did. I need to go get on the bike and learn how to do this, and build product, and build features that really fit that mold, and so I did what I needed to do to learn.

I was one of two software engineers that created the first Forerunner product, that was the first GPS product out there, so yes, it was …

Heath: That, don’t tell me, the 310? I’ve had it.

Claudette: It was the 201 and 101, so there was about a team of five of us total that, you talk about the industrial design, electrical engineer, two software engineers, were all kind of a part of this, and mechanical engineer, all part of this team that created that first device.

Heath: That must have been an exciting thing, an exciting time to live through. I was in a similar situation, a company that made mobile apps for physicians, at a time when mobile meant a palm pilot or a trio, pre-converge device, pre-cellular. We didn’t even know what was possible until the advent of the true mobile phone. I’m sure you guys, it opened up such a treasure trove of potential product innovation, when GPS on the wrist became a real possibility. It just took off. That must have been really exciting for the business.

Claudette: It was very exciting, I mean it really came down to how big did it have to be? How small did it have to be really, to get on the wrist, that someone would wear it. It was still quite big when we first came out, but it was good enough to get a GPS signal that someone could run with it.

Heath: In a way, it sort of crystallized for you probably what features your customers really wanted, right? If I’m willing to wear what in hindsight was a pretty big thing on my wrist, I must really want the ability to track statistics without landmarks.

Claudette: That’s right. We call it the toaster. It was the toaster, but it was a badge. That was something I didn’t realize is that it became a badge of honor for people that actually had them, like “I have this thing and that me into this exclusive club,” and that was something that we didn’t really realize would happen once we put it out there, but you’re right, like what was the minimum that they would really tolerate as far as, you know, some people would say, “No one would ever run with that unless it was as small as a wristwatch,” but it wasn’t true, yeah, and were willing to wear it because of the value it provided.

Heath: All these roles that you’ve had in your career, do you have a favorite one, whether it’s engineering, product, all the same or, you know, you’ve kind of, you’ve vacillated between them. Which one do you think is your favorite, your sweet spot?

Claudette: My biggest strength is playing the middle. I think it’s an important role because things often had been done, at least in my experience and continuous experience, in silos. We were talking about the evolution of how product and design is continuing to evolve, and really there’s this sense of alignment that has to happen across the whole product development, every stakeholder in it, on the same vision, thinking the same way in order to execute things faster, and getting instant feedback from customers, to have really high confidence in what you’re building. For me, I’ve always sat well kind of in that orchestrating the disciplines to be with that same vision, to be executing, to removing any kind of obstacles or challenges in that path.

I would say my favorite job is the one I’m doing right now, because I’m able to actually really execute on that fully, and help grow the team, and to get more aligned even faster, decision making, more knowledge up front, to make the best decisions for the product.

Heath: Well I might argue you’ve kind of just described the role of the project manager.

Claudette: It is true. It’s the same thing.

Heath: Your title is product development, so I gather you’re engineering focused, but …

Claudette: I’m over both product and engineering.

Heath: Okay, well that explains it. I look at the product manager, one could argue that the product manager doesn’t make anything. They’re more of the quarterback coordinator, the facilitator, the connector that gets all these other departments, who are actually creators, designers, testers, together working toward the end goal of serving the customer with this, if it’s a product organization or a service organization, what have you.

Claudette: That’s exactly right, and so managing the resources is just the same way, except doing the management side as well, so I’ve always been strategically influencing, and then starting to be more officially managing, and really it’s the same thing. As you said, doing this right is really the same kind of skill set that’s needed to empower people to do what they do really well and execute on it as a team.

Heath: Now you find yourself at TrainingPeaks, so tell me a little bit about what TrainingPeaks does and for whom.

Claudette: At the heart of TrainingPeaks, we really care about helping people achieve their goals, getting the best at what they want to do in endurance sports. It’s always been the heart of the company. The company started with coaches, and how coaches can better effectively coach athletes, and that still is the mentality of how do you train the best way possible to get you to your goal, and how do you know what that goal should be based on all the technology and information we have now to get there. Bringing that expert instruction to people like you, customers who …

Heath: Who need it.

Claudette: Yeah, and so the customers can be anyone that really is, at least dedicated enough to do an event, and want to do the best they can, not someone just trying to complete it probably, but someone that’s actually really wanting to train the best way they can to get to the goal that they’re trying to accomplish.

Heath: Tell me a little bit about what it’s like to be responsible for a product that has these different user bases.

Claudette: Yeah, that’s exactly it. You know the coach, the athlete have different needs, but they’re trying to go towards the athlete’s goal, which is what I kind of first stated is, we want people to achieve success, and that is our success. Coaches’ success is also enabling the athlete to succeed in the best way possible with their expert knowledge. Athletes often don’t want to know all the ins and outs of the data. There’s a lot of science that can be used, and more and more sensors coming out on how to best effectively use them to understand what a lot of coaches knew before, but even more tailored now in the best way to train someone, based on their physiology, their strengths, to get to whatever goal they’re trying to accomplish.

Having these two different users, we’re still identifying where do these align, where do these not align? With both of these needs, how do we address them to give each of them a seamless experience?

Heath: From my perspective, as one of your customers, I think we’re a pretty picky, demanding bunch, but customer expectations, really for any technology, are at an all time high. I think it’s particularly so with athletes because again, they tend to be Type A personalities. They are on tight schedules often with training regimes, and they don’t want to miss anything. In your experience how, if at all, has this changed the role of product development in your space? Balancing the competitive pressures of the market with the needs of your customers, do you think the expectations have really ramped that up, and if so, how do you manage that?

Claudette: The greatest success of a product manager is to see something you put out, and people just adore it, and buy it, and want more of it. There’s no competition, there’s no expectation. What you put out was just dead on and it continues to grow. Fast forward, lots of competition, lots of expectation, and the bar gets higher and higher, and less time to think about it, and to execute on it, and so I think really product is really evolving more and more to how do you get the best information quickly, and how you make decisions on not only what we’re doing, but what we’re not doing in order to be able to really focus on what matters and execute the smallest chunk of that, and keep iterating on it in order to keep delighting customers and keeping them satisfied with what they’re trying to achieve, and understanding customers at such a level that you really have that high confidence of what you’re building is going to matter.

I think just having all the time and energy in the world to, having very short amount of time and energy, and resources to get to where you need to do is just refining what product has to do in a very short amount of time now, and orchestrate it very quickly in order to do a really good job at what you’re doing, and utilizing your time and energy the best way.

Heath: Yeah, it sounds like you’re describing in some way prioritization. It’s one of the bigger challenges, and we certainly hear that as a common theme. What is it that keeps you up at night at TrainingPeaks? What’s your biggest challenge right now?

Claudette: We’re fortunate enough to be at a place where we’re really growing, and so for me, managing that growth, hiring the right people for where we are right now, that can take us to the next stage of the company is what’s really critical and important, and keeps me up at night, because not everyone fits that mold, thinks that way, for where we are. I would say from a product standpoint, from a design standpoint, we’re in the merging space. We’re a merging company and we’re starting to be more sophisticated in these disciplines, and so again, being able to think about that and think about where the future needs to be in order to start working towards that is what I think about a lot.

Heath: What’s the most exciting thing in your space right now?

Claudette: I mean there’s obviously more and more connectivity with devices, which is pretty interesting. I think about how technology and data can help people really tailor their strengths and weaknesses, and understanding that, at an individual level, not as a group level in order to do what’s right for them to get in better shape and to accomplish what they need to accomplish. I think everyone’s different.

I remember the first time, someone saying, “Oh, I don’t have to run hard every time I have to go run?” That was such a light bulb for that person that like, “No, actually you don’t want to be doing that. That’s not a good way to train.” I think, again, there’s a lot of people that don’t have that knowledge of trying to do what someone else told them to do, and getting a training plan and just being like, “Oh, this must fit everyone.” Yeah, that gets you somewhere, but I think how data can be used to really help that person train individually, I think is really cool.

Heath: I suppose there would be a path for products and companies like TrainingPeaks to eventually remove the coaches, but that’s obviously a potentially loaded question because they’re part of your … They are, as we mentioned earlier, one of your users, and part of your customers, and that may not be a goal. It may be an unintended consequence, I suppose.

Claudette: Yeah, I do think that we’re talking about that at a lot of fields, right? How much automation can just replace the human person and factor. There’s a lot that a human gives, and accountability and sometimes being a therapist are some of the things that with that expert instruction, that how close or how much can technologies replace that. I think it’s a big question. I think that, to me, doesn’t sound like any time real soon. Coaches provide a lot of benefits to people and it’s not just around the training. A lot of times it’s, “I’m going to go buy a new bike. What should I buy?” I mean and “I’m going through a really rough patch with all of this, how do I …” It’s so much broader of a discipline.

I think that we can help even coaches get smarter, and they can get smarter, and then we can help the people that don’t know anything get smarter, so I think there’s a wide range here that we can work with before that becomes even a reality, and then we’ll see.

Heath: I guess the positive way of saying it is you’re allowing them to do their job better, not removing the need for them.

Claudette: That’s correct.

Heath: Back to the general topic of product management, how has it changed since you got started? You’ve been in this game for, we mentioned, 12, 15 years at Garmin and now TrainingPeaks. How would you say it’s changed in your career?

Claudette: I think, going back to what you said at the very beginning, like those core elements that a product manager needs to do hasn’t changed. I think there’s more data and more information. There can be complexities with teams. There can be complexities with how the become more influential in the decision making process within a company. Most digital companies now acknowledge that product management’s needed. Not all of them know how to really use them, at least in my experience.

I think we still have some challenge again of building credibility within the product discipline, and really strategically influencing the people around, the people of why these are the right decisions and evidence based decision making, like this is not an opinion. I always give the analogy that the product manager is the lawyer for the customer, and so as the product manager is like, “No, here’s the evidence that we have and here’s why we need to make this decision,” you can’t forget that the jury members are often the engineering team, and the people around you that first have to really understand that you really do have that expertise, that you really are the one that’s bringing it forward, and really have empathy for not just the customer, but the people you’re actually presenting that information to, including the peers around you and the leadership above you.

Heath: We’ve all made failures in our careers. What’s a product management failure that you or your team has made in the past, and how did you overcome it?

Claudette: I think for me some of the worst failures have been to think about a feature or a solution as being agile, when it really was time bound, and not leading it in that way. There’s a really big difference if you’re going to be iterating versus really having a time bound feature that has to go out at a certain time, and how that is, really early on, how can that be executed on, and what can you really remove. If that happened way later on, and then you’re trying to do it at the very end, at least in my experience was a big learning, a very painful learning.

Heath: Here’s where I would interject kudos to Garmin, but it was more of a product failure. I haven’t seen it that often, but it there was one version of the Forerunner with the bezel, that just didn’t … Like I said, I owned every one of them, I think, and that one just … It was a very, very cool idea, just didn’t work, and as soon as you introduce sweat…

Claudette: Yeah.

Heath: To their credit, they killed it quickly, right? It was, to my knowledge there was one and only one version that used that particular feature, and so kudos to the product team, the company. I don’t know where the decision was made, but clearly someone was listening and saw that this just … It made it through QA, but in the wild it just didn’t fly.

Claudette: Well I think that was, yeah, the people involved knew the problems. I think that’s a hard, you know, for a company to kill a product. It is, once they invested in it. There’s others that I could tell you about that I’m so glad did get killed, pleading, “Please kill this. Please, please,” and finally getting some things actually killed that I think was a success. That one, I think again, learning how to do research and design separate than a product development cycle. They need separate spaces. There’s real, new technology, but it really has to be vetted out on its own, that’s not on a time bound schedule for getting something out the door, and yeah, that’s a good one.

Heath: Well sure, I think if you’re a truly customer focused company, you’re not going to … sunk cost aside, you’re not going to hesitate, and I think your customers are going to recognize that and see that as a positive. “Hey, they were willing to kill this off because it just didn’t work.”

Claudette: Yeah, and it’s hard, when there’s a majority or minority, I should say, that want, are dead set with it, and you have to make this decision that you can’t do all things for all people. I guess when you talk about product, in my experience it used to be try to do all things for all people. Now it’s like, “No, we got to really be focused on these people,” and then yes, there are definitely some people that will benefit from it, and there are some people that will not, and won’t like it. We’re still going to make this decision because it’s the right one.

Author Heath Umbach

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