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What It Takes To Become a Great Product Manager



Julia Austin head shot


And the biggest reasons why early-stage companies succeed (and fail)

Julia Austin is a glutton for punishment. A quick scan of her LinkedIn profile reveals she is an investor, board member, or advisor to over a dozen companies – this is in addition to her role as a Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School. Or it could be that she just really enjoys what she does. Fortunately for these companies and her students, it’s the latter.

Julia highlighted two things that feed her enjoyment of these many roles. One is “adoring the founders and just wanting to see them continue to grow and flourish and achieve their dreams and visions.” The other is being able to impart “I have seen this movie before” experience. Indeed she’s seen many business challenges play out in many companies, and she enjoys being able to discuss the different ways to overcome them with her founders.

She’s also identified some of the most common reasons early-stage companies succeed (and fail).


It seems cliché, but the number one thing is the people. If you don’t get the team and the culture right in the beginning, you are likely to fail. “One of my theories is by the first 10 people you’ve nailed your culture, and it pretty much stays that way unless leadership changes or something significant changes.”

The have tos, the want tos, and the good ats

Managing what you have to do, what you want to do, and what you are good at is a critical success factor. There are a bunch of things that just need to get done, and you (as the founder) are probably the one who has to do it. Finance is a great example. There are plenty of technical CEOs or CTOs who own the financials. They don’t love it, and it’s not really what they want to do, but it has to get done.

Similarly, there may be things that you want to do, but you need the self awareness to recognize you should hire someone else to do it. Where this fails is when a founder hires someone for a task, but it’s still “their thing.” So they let the new hire do it but keep undermining or micromanaging the process.

Finally, as a founder, you need to stay true to what you are good at. If you are a “product person” at your core, and you dislike “doing CEO things” (dealing with the board, finances, etc.), then don’t. If you don’t love it you’re allowed to not do it.

Having a Product Vision and Executing On the Roadmap

Of course getting product-market fit right is critical. Really understanding your customers and their needs and not over-architecting or paying too much attention to the competition is important too. But you have to know where you’re going from there – you must have a product vision and a roadmapGet product-market fit and then execute like mad on the roadmap. She sees a lot of companies fail because the problem(s) they are trying to solve are just too broad. They’re too afraid to focus on one or two things.

Listen to the interview to hear us discuss her article “What It Takes to Become a Great Product Manager.”

Oh yeah, and I almost forgot to mention that Julia’s speaking at UX Fest 2018! Join her and hundreds of thoughtful people just like her by registering now!

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Listen to the Show:

Show notes:

Do you know a Product Hero that we should meet? Are YOU a Product Hero? Drop us a note or hit us up on Twitter.

Podcast Transcript:

Heath: You have a background in MIS and engineering and yet you’re now clearly both feet in the product world. Tell me a little bit about your background how you got from an engineering focus now into product.

Julia: Yeah so really interesting, I was thinking about this question around how does one with an MIS engineering background end up in product. But the reality is in the early days you were doing product because the product management function has always been sort of nebulous and vague and it depends on what company you work at and how you’re structured or how your role is structured.

For me I’ve always been much more on the business requirements user requirements, translation between those things and engineering more so than programming. I never was a programmer in my career, I never coded for a living. I coded to get my masters and I’ve worked with some of the smartest engineers.

Heath: They didn’t hook you?

Julia: No I loved it. Truth be told and there’s other stuff on this, my background I learned how to code when I was eight. My dad was an engineer he taught me how to code for fun, he’d bring me in on the weekends and give me things to code just to keep me busy.I thought nothing of it, I didn’t think of it as something unique or different, I was doing basic programming.

In undergrad, I was an art major and as an art major I also had four majors before art where I was doing more business oriented things and then I realized my calling was art. To do graphic design back then was all programming. I was doing basic program to just make stick figures jump across screens and that’s how we did things back then.

We didn’t have Apple II to do things with Stylus or anything. Conceptually I got this understanding to be very technical and hands on and understand code, but to build something beautiful then you had to code but you had to understand what it is you were trying to achieve.

Actually I attribute a lot of my background in art to how I was able to do that translation because you had to create something whether it was technical. I did computer-aided design and graphics but I also did drawing and painting and sculpting. You had to defend your work and explain to your classmates and your professor what you did and why and what your approach and how you thought it addressed the assignment.

It was really early training for me to try to describe work and understand or get others to understand how I was meeting an objective through something I had to execute on and build. I was always building, I wasn’t always doing code, but I never actually was an engineer in my career. I more commonly especially after my MS was the person who was between the programmer and the business folks were going and figuring out and defining what was to be built.

First half of my career when I was doing IT systems it was much more of a business requirements to buy an application and implement an application in health care mostly for me. I was doing that as a consultant at Coopers & Lybrand I was an application analyst at New England Medical Center. Then I implemented PeopleSoft when I was at Partners.

That was my first time working with software engineers building enterprise-grade software. That for me was like oh I’m good at this, I like this, I think I like this whole, I’m helping them figure out how to build something that my users are going to use and I understand their pain points, their unmet needs.

I understand how they use the product. I sat on patient floors I watched them get supplies out of closets, and eliminated that through these quick just-in-time delivery of supplies, I want to do that. I want to do more of the sort of go between, between the engineer and the users. It really was like a product management function without actually calling it that.

That was the tipping point for me where I said I want to do this more and I ended up at Akamai. Even at Akamai my role … My first job there was as a release manger but I wasn’t actually deploying software myself personally. I was the glue between all the engineers and the business people to try to figure out what we were shipping and when. For the internet back then it was crazy time we were shipping daily.

Heath: It’s not as if you had, you were deep in engineering and then morphed into this product role you really were … The release manager sounds probably appropriate title if only because you were having to keep in tune with both sides of the house and come together say look people we have to get your code and your needs and requirements met and ultimately get this thing out the door so that it meets the customers needs.

Julia: Right so it’s probably I mean it was, I was director, I went from release manager to director of program management, which was a new function at Akamai. Worked with PMs every day, worked with engineers every day. But it wasn’t necessarily project planning right a lot of it was mission driven.

Our founder, Danny Lewin, would come back from the west coast all fired up about some meeting with David Filo at Yahoo or someone else that he had just talked with and we have to change the ship and completely redo our roadmap and everything that we were doing. I was the one who like was grabbing that making sure that we actually did that a middle level and then working with all the PMs on the execution side.

Heath: It’s interesting were there times where you ever felt like when he did that which Richard has this term he called it the swoop and poop was it?

Julia: Yeah.

Heath: Did you ever find yourself saying well okay I hear you that this exec at Yahoo says they need this but do our customers need this and-

Julia: All time right so that was-

Heath: Or we rip this out.

Julia: Yes. That was my job and Danny and I had many moments where I would just say to them that’s very nice thank you very much let’s talk about that the next planning meeting but no we’re not moving the ship all the way over there right now, because we’re doing the thing last week you got all excited about and we decided to.

We had a good working rapport, which I think is important when your leading product teams to have that with your CTO or your technical co-founder whoever it is all the time. Or we had things where especially when you’re running a 24/7 system that’s supporting, we were pretty much the backbone on the internet. In the early days you couldn’t just rip things out and change things around because of the ripple effect and how we tested it was pretty complicated.

I’ve always worked on products traditionally that had been much on the very technical complicated not as simple as just you know send an update to the website kind of thing it had been much more a backend algorithmic stuff. It’s a different type of product management too there because it wasn’t always very customer facing.

We weren’t really worried about user experience in the early days; I was not as focused on user experience as I am now. But much more the user experience was really what was happening on the backend or you know performance and capabilities. But also ensuring as the internet was evolving, which I equated a lot to where crypto and Bitcoin and such are at now.

People were figuring out as they went how they wanted to use the internet. We were not only trying to do what we were doing, which was making sure it was fast but also saying oh so they want to do like dynamic live streaming now, or they want to go to this new region we don’t have any data centers in. We were dealing with a lot of that kind of stuff too.

Heath: I was going to say, I don’t know that anyone really focused so much on the user experience back then because there really wasn’t one, it was what you got, you got what you got, right?

Julia: Right.

Heath: Now with technology what it is, experiences being what they are, the expectation has ratcheted up a million fold right. If you don’t give me something that I can use right now does anyone really write any user guides that’s much anymore?

Julia: Right we talk about this a lot in my course of, should there be a help screen, should there be hovers, should there be an onboarding process where you have a tutorial at the beginning. I always push back and say if you need all of those things you haven’t built a product that’s simple enough and easy enough to use.

Heath: Yeah so you’re by my best count, and this assumes that your LinkedIn profile is up to date. You’re an advisor a board member investor for 13 companies. Either you really enjoy that or you’re just a glutton for punishment, which is it and why?

Julia: Can I say both?

Heath: Yeah.

Julia: No, that’s about right I say it’s about a dozen companies and they peak and valley in terms of when I’m very busy with them and not depends on where they are in their life cycles. I love it; it’s definitely been since I left VMware in 2013 it’s been, I sort of found my way into this. I didn’t intended it, my whole career has been like that, I just kind of find my way into things and say oh this feels really good I want to do more of this.

For me it’s been a combination of two things. One is adoring the founders and just wanting to see them continue to grow and flourish and sort of achieve what their dreams and visions were. A lot of times for them it’s they’ve got all the right skills and abilities but they just don’t have the experience. For me I love the, I have seen the movie before, doesn’t mean it’s going to end the same way. I never do it the way I did it at my last company because who knows for these guys.

The more I’ve done now about dozen now but I have had others that have succeeded or failed or I’ve spent time with and don’t anymore. So, I have a lot of variety of experiences, not just the companies I personally worked for. To say these are different ways you could approach it, this is stories that I’ve seen play out in different ways and here is how whatever. Seeing them grow into those things or calling me when they get stuck in certain areas.

Some of them are the most basic things, employer related stuff, or board related stuff, which in the early days of doing this, I didn’t appreciate what I knew. I don’t know how to raise capital and I don’t know how to do all these things. Then I realized not only is it some of it just common sense but I actually do know those things, but I have just seen it from a different perspective either from the inside of what have you.

Certainly seen a lot of scale so I know how to take a company from three people in a garage to you know hundreds of people thousands of people. That’s one side of it, it’s just the personal growth and seeing the personal growth of the leaders that I coach and advice. Then the other side are the companies themselves and their products, which light me up.

They just feel, you’ve seen on my list they’re really different, from machine learning AI, to Lovepop doing retail on cards, which is a great story of a company I didn’t know how I was going to help a card company. But it turns just again the basic scale and raising money and the operations and manufacturing a lot of those things are things I’ve done before.

So being able to help on that side, health care just kind of all over the place. For me it’s fun to have such a broad range of types of companies to work with. They’re all at different stages in their growth.

Heath: Do you have a favorite stage or?

Julia: No not really, I thought I did, I thought my sort of sweet spot and certainly where I had the most experience is like the post B rapid growth either profitable or close to profitable gearing towards IPO or some big exit. Certainly where I have sort of the bulk of my experience but no I love, I’m finding out even more as I’m doing more of them the earliest stages the better my class. Everybody is coming in for the most part in ideation stage so they haven’t actually built anything yet.

I love getting them early where I can say here is where you can, it’s the 80 20 rule, right we can put a lot of time now into figuring this out first before you overbuild or build the wrong thing. When you come in later either they have product market fit this was digitalization is a good example of this. Had product market fit for product one, they hadn’t built anything new or shipped anything new for two years when I started working with them.

Some of it was just pent-up stuff that just didn’t know how to get the flywheel going and get more out, but the other is the market had shifted over the years from product market fit to where they were, was getting far more competitive and how do you start thinking about the product in a more mature way.

That’s fun and interesting but also getting it early where you can say are you sure this is really what your customer needs, are you sure that’s even the right customer that you’re going after. Getting that right in the beginning can be transformational for the earlier companies.

Heath: As an advisor and also as a professional, which we’ll get to in a moment you obviously have a lot of exposure to companies in various stages of success or lack thereof. Is there anything that you can point to for the biggest reasons why the companies you advise succeed or the opposite or just one of the biggest reasons they fail?

Julia: Yeah so many factors there’s not just one killer bullet, right there’s a couple. I’d say there’s probably three or four things that I think really make the difference for the winners versus, I hate saying losers but those who tried and just couldn’t pull it off.

Heath: We’re losers and winners.

Julia: Yeah so I would say the number one thing and it seems almost like a cliché but is the people. If you don’t get that team right and your culture right in the beginning. One of my theories is by the first 10 people you’ve nailed your culture and it pretty much stays that way unless leadership changes or something significant changes and that can be great or that can be a disaster.

Heath: Change or?

Julia: No the culture that you nailed it at the first 10 people or so. I think we make a few mistakes earlier on I see this with a lot of companies where they hire people that either were great for the first year or two for the particular job that needed to be done that time. But either the company outgrows them or they just lose their momentum or their steam or they don’t like politics or whatever, there’s something that doesn’t motivate them anymore.

We don’t make a decision to say, it’s time for you to move on now. You’ve done your job thank you so much but like now we need somebody else in this role. Or somebody is going to come over and mentor you because this role is now way bigger than your experience right?

Heath: Well it gets back to and we’ll get to the article in a minute self awareness that’s to me-

Julia: Right 100%.

Heath: … one of the more difficult core competencies to have and important.

Julia: For leaders for sure.

Heath: I’ve seen that a lot of times where they were if not a co-founder they were an early person involved in it and how could I possibly let go of this. It takes great self aware on the part of the head of the company as well as that individual say look this is, I can’t bring anything to this I’m probably going to be miserable in it.

Julia: Right.

Heath: All this equity I have in it is going to be crap because it’s going to go down.

Julia: Right so there’s a model that I use when I coach CEOs and CTOs called “the have to dos and want to dos and good ats.” The theory is when you start a company there’s a whole bunch of things that just need to get done and you’re the one that probably has to do it because you’re maybe one in four or five people and so you just divide and conquer and say whatever.

You might be good at it you might not. Finance is one of those great examples where I see plenty of more technical CEOs or CTOs owning the financials pro forma, excel spreadsheet whatever and they can handle it but they are not good at it, right it’s good enough. They don’t love it, and it’s not really what they want to do, but it has to get done.

Then having a plan so if I coach them through, okay so when you close your series A or when you finally find the perfect person like what does that person look like and what are you not doing any more than that they’re now doing. You hear a lot of times I just want a controller or I just want a general counselor or I just want someone to do marketing or sales or whatever.

The self awareness are the ones who say I can do it, it’s not really what I want to be doing. The flip side happens I see this a lot where founders this is one of the most common pitfall I think for either founders or their companies failing is I want to be doing that thing over there and I don’t want to hire anybody else to do it.

Or I hired someone to do it but it’s still my thing, that’s what I want to do. So, I’m kind of letting them do it but I’m undermining or micromanaging or what have you. I see that over and over again. Great story about a CEO friend of mine from a few years ago who founded his own company, very successful CEO of the company, co-founder was a former co-worker of his.

He called me one day and just said, Julia I hate being a CEO. he said, I’m a product guy I really just want to work with product and talk to customer and engineers that’s what I really love. I don’t want to deal with finances and the board and all that stuff, I hate it, I just hate it, I’m happy my company is doing well but this is not what I love. I said, So don’t do it, you’re allowed to not do it. If you don’t love it you’re allowed to not do it.

You have seen some examples I think this happened recently with GitHub’s founder CEO of companies in self awareness founders and leaders who say, this isn’t my calling, this isn’t … I love my company I’m proud of what I build but this is not what I want to do.

I think the leadership and the people side I think is really fundamental for the success. The other element is the product. Obviously, which is again either you have the one hit wonder or you have the one thing that got product market fit. But then knowing where you’re going from there not having a roadmap, not just having a vision but being able to execute on the vision.

Really understanding your customers and their needs and not over architecting or paying too much attention the competition. Just trying to keep up with them versus staying laser focused on your mission and what it is your trying to solve for.

I see a lot of companies either this is really common, peanut butter across a bunch of different things because they’re afraid if they don’t focus on something they picked the wrong thing. That’s scary I say that all the time where I say, why are you doing five things when you should really be doing two things. Execute like mad on those, get it right, get product market fit and then you can move on to the other things if those are still relevant.

I see a lot of companies fail because they’re just too broad or they’re not, they’ve got their fingers in too many things. They’re too afraid to just focus on one or two things. Then the last piece and this is I’m seeing more and more for any companies that are venture backed as their boards. I’ve seen everything from incredibly supportive appropriately holding accountability and guiding and helping versus over involved micro managing operating out of fear.

I see a lot of boards put a lot of money in and then they’re panicking because they’re not getting their 10x and staff says they want their 10X. Then they’re misguiding their leaders that they’re invested in to go after short revenue versus long term vision. Jeff Bezos who was just talking about this the other day, like no one wants to hear we’re going to make money some day but if you don’t stay focused and work towards the longer goal and just you’re near sighted and thinking quarter by quarter you’re never going to get there.

I have seen a lot of boards hurt their companies because they’re too short narrowly focused or inappropriately involved, making hiring decisions joining discussions on minutia on product stuff. That’s okay if you are that domain expert. So there’s somebody on your board who is a domain expert who has the right background and experience, absolutely please come to the meeting super helpful.

Heath: Hopefully the CEO asked you hey you’re on our board for a lot of reasons one is, which, your expertise.

Julia: That’s right. I sit on a board now where when it comes to software development and execution they’re still getting up to speed on that stuff and that’s where I spend most of my time with that company. But yeah if you’re invited to the table please come, if you have appropriate skills don’t over insert yourself if it doesn’t make sense. I do see a lot of founders fail because they rely too much on their board to sort of tell them what to do or to give them permission to do things.

The ones that succeed really are the owners of their companies and really say, thank you very much appreciate the advice, appreciate your input but I’m going this way because I’m spending time every day with my customers. Or I’m spending time with engineering team or whatever and I know what we need to go do.

That balance is tricky it’s not easy to figure out. How do you structure and build your board? As again I’ve seen companies just nail it and say wow that’s the difference between this company succeeding or failing is they built such a great board. Others where they’re just lagging or just not going to make it because they’re just too caught up in board politics.

Heath: I’ve seen boards where it looks like a big reason the board is structured the way it is, is because of the name like whether it’s the company that the person works for, what they’ve done in their past. Were they really a good board member or is there really a good fit there with the board.

Julia: Right.

Heath: But so back to the have to do and the want to do. It’s interesting I’ve seen, I don’t even know if I have seen that, I’ve seen the other version you described way more often where the CEO has begun to build their team and they opt to want to no longer do this role or this role and they need to give it to the person that they hired to do that but they can’t let go either sub consciously or even consciously.

Julia: Consciously yeah.

Heath: Richard wrote an interesting blog post on this about how part of leadership is letting go of that and recognizing that it’s not only better for me, for my sanity because I’m in this for the long haul since I’m the founder I’m the one with the original passion. But I hired these people to do these things and I expect them to do well but I had to let them do it because we’ll end up in a better place for it. I have seen that over and over again.

Julia: Likewise, and again that’s part of that model is saying I had another CEO this was a number of years ago who was a developer and was trying to figure out their schedule so that they could code one day a week. I said, guess what, you’re the CEO you can’t. If that’s what you really want to do, then go find someone else to do your job. But the CEO does not have time to code once a week.

But to your point another thing that I do often with managers and leaders is talk about there are sort of categories of things where it’s I’m rightfully so the most appropriate person to do this thing. I’m going to do it because it had to be done my way. There’s the I hired this person to do this thing either because they’re better at it than I am and so therefore that’s their job now.

Or I can’t do that anymore even though I know I’m good at it and they just aren’t going to do it the way I would do it but that’s okay. That letting go and saying but that’s okay, for any manager. I’ve seen junior managers for the first time dealing with that challenge of saying but they’re not going to do it the way I would do it. I’ve challenged back and said does it have to be the way you would do it or is it just going to get done?

Heath: The path or the output shouldn’t matter as much as the outcome.

Julia: Right exactly so I agree with you. I think that’s where I see some companies really struggle is often again the founders and how they decide to execute who they bring on board as their team and the boards.

Heath: Let’s talk about the article. You wrote an article for HBR, “What It Takes to Become a Great Product Manager”, and you sourced a lot of great books and authors who have spoken eloquently and written about the topic. Just straight for our question, what is the role of the product manager?

Julia: There’s not one role that’s the answer. It’s not the myth of they’re the CEO of the product. They are chief cook and bottle washer, janitor. They are the voice of the customer, they’re voice of engineering. There wear a lot of hats. I tell my students in my course you know it’s sort of thankless but most glorified position depending on who you are. if you have a great EQ it can be the best thing ever. But their job is ultimately to make sure you’re building and shipping the right thing for the business.

That is often times through relationship building and without authority over the people who actually need to do the work so it’s a tough job. Great product managers to me are the ones that have this nice and yin yang relationship as I speak about in the article between them and engineering. There’s this nice sort of I get your world you get my world. A lot of times we’re in the room together making decisions and collaborating.

But there’s a breakpoint where it’s you go off and do the how. I will tell you the what or we will agree on the what, you will figure out how to do it and I will continue to test that against our customers and with our product to make sure we’re actually on the right track. There’s no set, to me there’s no one job description that says this is a product manager just copy this job description and everyone can be that. It’s so dependent on type of company, type of product, type of human to really define the role.

Heath: The core companies that you list in the article, I think those could be your copy paste job description but those are just tables stakes to use an overused word. It’s that relationship management that EQ piece where you really have to decide how to describe those and what you’re looking for, for your company and in your organization I think.

Julia: Right, going back to my point earlier why I say even though I never had the title of product manager ever or engineer ever, a lot of it was really that role was being fulfilled because of the nature of the product I was working with. Very technical product I have a, at VMware they used to call me the geek whisperer because I had for whatever reason the sort of PhD-level hardcore engineers and I just really connected.

I would oftentimes say I have no idea what you build and how you build it but if you draw it on a white board and explain to me how it all works I’ll get it, I don’t need to code it but I’ll get it. Then I can build some empathy for the challenges that they’re having and in the same end give them some empathy around what our customers are facing or need and ultimately we would get there.

You got to be able to do that. If you’re a PM who doesn’t like to hang out with super technical high quality engineers or you prefer to work more with designers or front-end folks and do more of the customer facing or user facing stuff, then go do that. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re going to work with engineers or customers.

I have a student who is building a product right now, where he said I love my product and what I’m solving for but the reality is I really don’t like our customers. They come from a particular industry and ilk where he doesn’t enjoy talking to them every day.

He’s really … He is like I want to be a product manager but I realized in order to do that I got to like my customers because I have to talk to them a lot. If you don’t like them then that’s not what you should be doing but it doesn’t mean you couldn’t find another industry or a customer base that you enjoy taking with every day.

Heath: I just think it also helps to be passionate about the problem that you’re solving.

Julia: Sure.

Heath: I guess it’s not a requirement per se but one would think there is a relationship between loving that and the customers and end users.

Julia: Yeah, it’s true it’s an interesting point I was talking about this recently with someone at DigitalOcean actually because I’ve always done cloud and infrastructure it’s just where I keep ending up. But if you say at the basic level do I get excited about storage or networking, I do kind of like networking but let’s pick on storage for example.

It’s an important vital component of a cloud, right? If, you’re going to do anything where you need to upload stuff you need to have some kind of storage. Does that get me excited? Not really. What gets me excited though is the developer, or the IT administrator dev ops person who has a job to get done, and they need that job to be as simple and easy as possible because that’s not their favorite thing either.

My job by building this thing, which by itself is not that sexy helps them be heroes then that’s fun, to me that’s fun. VMware we had this user conference every year they still do  VMworld every year 25,000 or so customers come. A big chunk of the customers are dev ops or data center type people. We would always have some new product or feature we were releasing that was like the killer feature we’d hold until VMworld to announce it.

There would always be this fear of oh we’re going to announce it and our customers are going to panic because basically we’re going to make their jobs obsolete because of this new feature this new automated thing whatever there is less of them that are needed to do the job. There maybe five people in the data center maybe they only need two now because of this new tool. We’d announce it and without fail they would all scream and applaud and wave their hands, they were so excited because they were like you’re turning us into heroes, you’re going to make us heroes.

We’re going to be able to get that phone call, we had great videos we would do of a phone call from the person in marketing or whatever who says, hey I need to build this new thing can you spin up the server for me, and they’d say, yeah no problem give me five minutes. They just press something, and they’d say five minutes really? This used to take a couple of days you had to buy the server or set it up whatever. Setting up and buying and server and all that stuff exciting? Not really but being able to turn to somebody who is using the product into a hero that’s kind of cool.

Heath: One of the other things you said that made me think what had changed was this notion of making the end user a hero. I encountered in other companies or other products a similar concern real or imagined whereby one, if not the real end user let’s call it an interested party. They are impacted by it, there may not be an actual user of it. A stakeholder.

Julia: Yeah.

Heath: Would either actively resist or just make it very difficult for us to, implement, train et cetera on a product. When at the end of the day let’s take nurses for example, the notion that a nurse wants to sit down and bang all these keys and manually dictate document submit all these orders versus use some sort of intelligent tool that allows she or he to go off and actually treat patients is ludicrous.

Yet there used to be this fear that oh gosh I’m going to have … Who are my delighted end users when I announced this feature and who are the ones I got to look out for because they’re going to be blockers to it, which is crazy.

Julia: Right. I think the world is changing and even just healthcare is a great example because it’s always been behind other industries when it comes to technology. But when you look at how many nurses do you know on patient floors who don’t have phones now and don’t use apps every day. When I was putting software on nursing floors, I was doing PeopleSoft at Partners, they didn’t have computers at home the only computer they used was at work and there was no cell phones and that’s how old I am. Trying to get them to adopt technology was frightening for them.

My approach has always been to take the ones that are most prickly or the most potential blockers and get them involved in the process in some way because if they feel like they are part of the process, this isn’t being manipulative this is just human psychology. Get them involved early, make them feel like they actually help decide how should we roll this out.

If we handed you the keys and said you were going to drive how would you do it? Not only does that teach you more about the user behavior and how they’re actually going to user your product but then they’ll be your biggest champion, that’s been my experience anyway.

Heath: That gets into some of, I think the second factor. We’ve talk about core competencies that sounds more like the EQ factor as the product leader?

Julia: Yes and no I mean EQ for sure in terms of relationship building and trust, right?

Heath: Right.

Julia: If your users-

Heath: Right, empathy for the end users and-

Julia: Right. Empathy for the end user but also I think it’s less EQ and just basic listening skills, which is don’t be listening for what you want to hear, listen to what they’re actually saying. Often times especially you are requirements gathering for a new product, what they’re saying will light you up in some new thing you hadn’t even thought about.

There is a problem in “space” I think I know what the problem is. I started talking to customers and realize there is this whole other thing that they actually suffer with every day that I can solve for. A good example of that is SyncOnSet is one of the companies that I work with it’s not on my list but it’s a company I work in.

Heath: What’s it called?

Julia: SyncOnSet.

Heath: Okay.

Julia: These guys were trying to solve for sort of the Shazam for TV idea where you could, if you saw a clothing item or a piece of furniture on a set or whatever you wanted to buy you could buy it. They said we’re going to create that so you can point your phone at a TV show or a movie and buy the thing.

They went to TV houses at film production companies and TV production companies and said, give us the data for all your set information and we’re going to create this app. Everyone came back and said, what data? We don’t have data. We use three ring binders and pads of paper and we keep track of seeing continuity by just sketching it down in these books, take photos whatever.

They could have been either stubborn or said, never mind it was a bad idea but instead they said these guys need a solution for that. They need to stop using three ring binders right? The created SyncOnSet and it’s now … They just won an Emmy last year for engineering for building a product that now, something I don’t know what the exact number is. But some percentage of all US made films and TV shows use their product and now they have the data.

That’s an example of they went on sets they talked to people who do costuming and production design and make up and said what do you guys use and how do you use it and they pulled it together. They actually were extras on movie sets just to learn how it all worked. That’s a great example of EQ was part of it, certainly of just listening and building a good relationship and listening and using their network.

But the other was like oh there is this whole other problem that we didn’t even know existed and we listened and they say oh if you could build something for us that would be amazing. It wasn’t just a couple of people it was trending, like they were hearing it from everybody and they build it and they have a great product.

Heath: They were successful in not building a product in search for a problem right, they found the problem and they said we could build that.

Julia: Right. That’s another good example too, I see a lot of product people in love with an idea or a technology and then try to find a problem to go solve with that. Either they’re lucky and have this situation happen where they find out actually there is this whole other thing and perfect let’s go do that instead. Or they’re stubborn again and they say, no but I want to do this.

Heath: Yeah, the third part that you mentioned in your article is company fit. We talked a little bit about that in terms of structuring your team as the CEO and how important those first employees are in culture but coming at it from a different angle how does a perspective product manager evaluate company fit?

Julia: Yeah, you mentioned something earlier, which is important about the product and really feeling like it’s something you can get excited about. It doesn’t necessarily again have to be the actual tangible product, it could be the way you’re helping the customer or the user. Again a great example I was doing materials management supply delivery on floors in nursing floors and bedpans and bandages are really not that exciting.

However having nurses be able to just have all that stuff real time and not spend part of their time doing inventory management was game changing for them. I think for PM’s to say I’m doing something that’s actually helping people’s lives or people get excited about it when I tell them how I’m going to solve all their problems I think is really important for a product manager to find that around the product.

I think it depends on what kind of person you are and whether you want to really own and drive the outcome of the product versus be with other people who’ve already figured that out and your job is really focused on the execution. That could be where you are in your career. I advise a lot of students who are trying to debate between going to a mature company as a PM versus a startup as a PM. Certainly the advantage of being at a startup is that you get exposed to a million different things and you get to do a lot more than if you’re a company where you maybe get a slice of the product or just once piece of what has to get done.

But you won’t maybe have any mentorship unless the founders are serial entrepreneurs or came from an industry where they know how to do this stuff already. Or you have people outside the company you can rely on to be your mentor or guide you through certain things that no one at your company will be able to help you with. If you feel like you want to work at a best in class organization and you’re okay with having a slice because you’re going to have these great role models and people to learn from that’s a reason to go to maybe a more mature company. You have to kind of evaluate those different things the type of product.

Then the size, the nature and scale of the company but then the last piece is obviously the humans. Because PM’s are relationship builders by nature you have to find these are people I want to hang out with every day. I stayed at VMware for eight years because I just loved working with those humans.

They were just really scary, smart and motivated and fun and down to earth and cool and that’s important to me, for someone else they may not care but for me personally that was really important. As a PM or any company especially a company that’s growing rapidly you’re spending more time with those humans than you are with anyone else in your life so you better like them.

Heath: It feels like to me if you were the PM that goes to the small company and gets the benefit of being able to be exposed to a lot of things yet the lack of perhaps a mentor. There are so many people that go to groups to join meetups to go to where you can learn from one another.

Julia: I think you’re right in that, it’s prolific and it’s everywhere. It’s very hot and trendy right now to want to be a PM or a join a PM meet up or what have you, but it’s a mixed bag. I recently started here at HPS PM coffees I started last year with just Boston and they were HPS alumni who were in product roles together once a month and just talk product. Whatever careers, product specific stuff, challenges at their companies. They run the garment from very mature companies to early stage startups.

They were craving that sort of more intimate conversation and there was the fact that they were HPS alumnus so they felt like they were like minded in some ways. I got demand to do it the same in New York and in New York there is a million product of product groups and product meetups and product experts.

I mean New York is a pretty hot place right now for product people yet when I said, hey do you guys want to do a product coffee for HPS alumni and friends, I opened it up to their friends too. The demand was crazy I was really surprised I want a more intimate setting with people who are both experts and new at this, they were very clear about what they wanted.

What I think is happening is just like anything else it’s hot. Everyone is trying to find out the right out the bitcoin group to be part of or crypto currency group to be part of. There is a lot of them but who are the ones that are … Again it goes back to joining the right company is it the, these are people I want to hang out with, are these people who are really experts. Are we all kind of figuring it out together, does that matter?

I think it’s happening but it’s not, I don’t think it’s settled into, like there’s a perfect … There’s the BPM, the Boston Product Management group it’s a good group too. There is lots of groups but I think you still have to find, just like you have to find the right company you have to find the right-

Heath: I had the women in product on the podcast a couple of weeks ago.

Julia: There is a slack group-

Heath: Caite and Vanessa.

Julia: Yeah, there is a slack group that I just joined women and product group and it’s massive, it’s global and it’s just for women and product and so it’s yeah, it’s all kind of exploding right now.

Heath: What do you think is missing in product management? That’s an intentionally a broad question. And then how do you think the role of product management has evolved over the years if in fact you think it has?

Julia: What’s missing in product is going back to the core competencies a little bit and what I’ve seen is product managers who are really good at some of it but not all of it or don’t appreciate it, the road mapping is a great example.

Heath: That seems to be bugger for so many people, prioritization.

Julia: Right. First meeting I have with any company I’m going to start talking with whether it’s for consulting or coaching or whatever is show me your roadmap. I’ve never gotten anything consistently from anybody and what everyone calls a roadmap is more often than not way too short sighted. To be clear-

Heath: A release plan instead of.

Julia: It’s like sprint plan at most. I personally don’t believe a roadmap should be any longer than 18 months nobody knows what 18 months from now is going to look like. I think it’s nuts. I’ve seen also boards say where is your two to three year roadmap? I’m like are you kidding me I’m never going to give you that 18 months maybe. Degree of confidence is higher as we get closer. The next six months I have a higher degree of confidence when I know I’m going to ship versus when I’m going to shoot for beyond that.

Heath: We have Now, Next, Later.

Julia: Exactly. Sizing and estimation is another place I think we fall short. The more experienced PM’s are much better at … Often times it requires sort of pulling that out of engineering and saying really what’s it going to take to get that done and manage the don’t over architect it. Factor in the things either the unknown’s we get bugs we have things that happen that we’re going to have some buffer for as they come in.

Any kind of scalability ability or other things that always seems to get deprioritized because we need to have that fancy thing. I’ve dealt with that a lot with companies of we’ll do that later, so tech debt just builds and builds and builds and we don’t factor that in ever. We’re a real estate company we don’t have time for this, so great. When the system actually falls apart when you have wild adoption what are you going to do? Tell everyone to just like stop using it for six months while you go get it up to speed, it’s never going to happen.

Heath: No way to fix this.

Julia: I think that’s a place we fall short and the better product managers know how to constantly balance that and have a roadmap that isn’t in a constant state of change because what also happens is engineers and your company lose confidence in the roadmap. How do we know that’s really what we’re doing? Because, two weeks ago we were doing something completely different. They need something to hold on to that they feel okay we’re committed to this, this is what we’re going to get done, this is why we’re getting it done. Everyone understands true north in terms of where we’re going and they march forward. I think that’s a place where we’re really falling short in terms of the function.

Heath: How do you think that the role has evolved over the years?

Julia: I think the most way that the product manager’s role has evolved is, it’s more prominent and known quantity at companies. Having more and more companies come to me or founders come to me and say, I think I need product management. Which is funny it’s like yeah you do or you have been the product manager essentially at your company now you realizing it’s a full time job.

That’s one of those have to do not good at it, don’t want to, I should really be giving this to someone else to do. Although the don’t want to I think is a little tricky that’s a part where the product manager of today is still grappling if they are coming in with a product founder, how that role works can be really tricky.

I think it’s recognized as a necessity more so than a critical necessity as opposed to just an average role that you hire for. Sort of like you look at a lot of companies and are realizing they need to hire designers or data scientists. We’re shifting from I need a front-end developer or a UI UX person to I need a designer and a user experience person.

When I was at DigitalOcean I hired a VP of user experience and everyone was kind of surprised. We’re going to have a VP of experience? I said well our whole product is successful because we have a stellar user experience, so yes that’s what we’re going to do.

Heath: It feels to me like product, I hadn’t thought of this before. It feels to me like product or rather user experience is where a product was several years before right? People are beginning to understand the importance of that role and what it truly encompasses. It’s not oh, you mean make the product colors look good? I was like no it’s much more than that.

Julia: Exactly.

Heath: It’s design it’s not just UI, or just UX it’s the product.

Julia: Well, it’s truly emphasis on experience. The difference especially today and I think this is where also where the role of product manager is evolving how a product, how a user first meets a product and adopts the product and keeps using the product is all based on their experience.

It’s not just price, it’s not performance, it is delight. We used to use that word all the time at VMware. Customer delight when they say I can’t wait to use it again tomorrow or it’s my go to for anything related to x, y and z why would I use anything else? Or as my friend David Cancel likes to say, if I killed the product tomorrow and the only way you could get it is to pay two or three X what you were paying for, would you?

If the answer is absolutely I’m renewing tomorrow and yes I’ll pay more for it, then you have a great user experience. What’s happening now is I think product managers are winning if they get that. It’s not just feature list, it’s not just to close a deal. I think earlier days product managers were, let’s throw those features in because we can close these three accounts.

Heath: Right.

Julia: It’s much more longer term, it’s much more delight and the core differentiator for a product is user experience and the bigger picture.

Heath: That’s a third group they have, we talked a lot about the relationship between product management and engineering but the sales is an important internal stakeholder that the PM has to be facile at communicating with. To avoid, to know when and how to avoid those look if you just release this feature we can close these three huge enterprise deals and you say yes, but we also get hated by all these other deals we have right now of our existing customers.

Julia: Right or it’s not a recurring revenue opportunity I see those a lot where it’s like great you just made the books look awesome for the quarter but are there are 100 more of those behind those three customers because if not we just totally wasted our time to build something to make the numbers look good.

Heath: It’s tough.

Julia: Yeah.

Heath: Well, thank you this has been awesome.

Julia: You’re welcome it was fun.

Heath: I appreciate it, yeahJulia:Right?

Author Heath Umbach

Heath is an avid cyclist and runner who brings athletic rigor to everything he touches. With over 15 years of experience building and marketing digital products, he has a deep passion for solving our clients’ greatest challenges.

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