The Traveling Product Manager

Above the cloudsFlying above the weather, I can only admire the technology that keeps me aloft. It affords a unique vantage point, enjoyed by only a fraction of the billions of humans ever to roam the earth. The pristine setting and wide-angle perspective remind me of the time before starting work on a new product.

Traveling down from 30,000 feet through clouds of uncertainty until the outlines start revealing themselves, continuing to an altitude of a minimum viable product which then evolves into its optimal manifestation. Traveling from “customer wants x” to “customer needs y” to “y requires a, b, and c” to “make a, buy b, outsource c” to “thank you for delivering y on time”. Traveling with creative experts and artisans from varied backgrounds and cultures, forming a melting pot of talents. From mountains of data through countless iterations of careful analysis to informed decisions. From backstabbing to back rubbing, from isolation to cooperation, from suspicion to harmony, from squeaky gears to a well-oiled machine.

I was fortunate enough to make this trip multiple times – sometimes as a passenger and often in the pilot’s seat. I love repeating these trips from a clear slate all the way to a satisfied customer. The journey never gets boring and always offers new challenges. I hope I’ll to be fortunate enough to experience it many more times.


9 Professions Product Managers Would Excel in

Experienced product managers share several key skills like being good listeners and understanding technical concepts. On top of these, they must shine at specific “vocations”. In the course of a typical day they may practice any number of these. As the years go by they either become competent at all of them or pursue a different career.

  1. Technician: In a perfect world the products you build work flawlessly and customers are always happy. Our world is far from perfect though. Troubleshooting skills are essential for figuring out what went wrong and improving the product. Being able to come up with quick (and correct) solutions is invaluable. Product Management pros identify solutions that minimize resource spend and prevent negative side effects while maximizing customer satisfaction.
  2. Psychologist: Caring for people and facilitating their growth can do wonders to your team, your company, and your career. Good product managers are good listeners and excellent problem solvers. They are particularly skilled at making it possible for others to solve their own problems, just like good psychologists.
  3. Hostage negotiator: Some people choose to make their point by swinging a “big gun”. It’s crucial to disarm these hotshots and help them diffuse their anger. After the hostage crisis is over, make sure they understand the consequences of their actions.
  4. Detective: Being a good sleuth will ensure that you can get to the bottom of things quickly. There are no shortcuts for doing meticulous detective work. It doesn’t always involve technical skills – human blunders are more common than most companies would care to admit.
  5. Arbitrator: Make a sincere effort to keep everyone happy, starting with the customer. Because you are often “in the middle”, you have opportunities to mediate all kinds of disputes. Being a peacemaker will give you a major advantage; people will come to you with arguments and concerns that you haven’t even heard of. Helping resolve issues will help you better understand what’s going on around the organization and contribute to the company’s success by making people happier and getting processes to flow smoothly.
  6. Clerk: You must be organized. You have to do menial work like filing documents in the right folder and perform tedious tasks like maintaining an ever-growing list of feature requests. These kind of tasks pay dividends almost immediately, so you better learn to like them.
  7. Craftsman: Product management is a craft. Like other crafts, it involves creating beautiful things over and over again, honing your skills and techniques from one release to the next. Enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and pride when your finished work is delivered to the customer.
  8. Professor: Being lifelong learners, product managers like studying new things and researching hypotheses. More importantly, they love teaching and mentoring the next generation.
  9. Curator: Good product managers gather requirement and cull the list continuously, leaving only the masterpieces that will wow customers and leaves a lasting impression. Like the best art exhibits, your products should show no trace of redundant features and present a greater value than the sum of their parts.

While a good product manager could excel in all these professions, product management is a well-balanced combination providing variety and new challenges every day. I suspect that if product managers had to work in any of these jobs full-time, they wouldn’t last long.

Embrace the Fear


Fear is real. It may instinctively paralyze you or prompt you to fight or run away. In some situations, none of these reactions will get you very far.

Being an executive involves making decisions that are not for the faint of heart. I’m constantly evaluating competitive threats, technological challenges and partnership risks. Some of the findings are frightening. Needless to say, freezing up or fleeing away are not viable options. Fighting isn’t necessarily a perfect one either. In most cases, simply hanging on is the right strategy. You have to learn to live with panic-inducing situations that can break (or make) the business. You must resist the fight or flight instinct and learn to tolerate the risk.

Andy Grove, Intel’s ex-CEO, titled one of his books “Only the Paranoid Survive.” This summarizes a management philosophy that helped him turn the company into what it is today. There’s no doubt that healthy paranoia is essential ingredient in running a successful business. The question is how to deal with the strong feelings it evokes and avoid getting scarred by it.

If you succumb to the fear, you end up making regrettable mistakes that can kill your business and/or derail your career. Accept the fear as an important ally in your route to success. It helps you stay the course by keeping you alert. Fear is a strong natural urge, and like many other evolutionary artifacts meant to keep us alive, it can be controlled. In fact, learning to keep it under check is essential for building a successful career while maintaining your sanity.

Some people deal with fear-induced stress through yoga, meditation, boxing, running, or cocooning. I prefer to not lose touch with reality and try to stay on top of things, risking an emotional overload. After many years of dealing with this kind of fear, I learned to embrace it. For the most part, I sequester it and don’t let it interfere with the rest of my psyche. This approach is working for me so far, but I still have a many working years ahead of me. Time will tell if I get a nervous breakdown or retire rich and content. I’d put my money on the latter.

Hiring Product Managers

The Little Prince by RinianTwo qualities matter most when hiring product managers: smart persistence and attention to detail. Everything else is secondary: experience, education, and technical aptitude. Finding out if a candidate is persistent (but not annoyingly stubborn) and fanatically detail oriented is not trivial in an interview setting. After trying out different approaches I zeroed in on a series of questions that consistently help uncover the truth. I didn’t make these up, but found that out of all the product management interview questions out there these work best.

I start by asking the interviewee to pick a market area they know and love – anything goes. Then I ask them to propose a new product that this market needs. The first mistake some candidates make is to come up with a complex product that relies on some emerging technology or is based on shaky foundations. This choice actually works great for my next questions. Unbeknownst to them, however, they are going to sweat much more for not coming up with a simple product.

Now comes the fun part: I zero in on one aspect of the product and keep asking narrower and narrower, deeper and deeper questions about it – to the point of failure. The questions can be about the business model, technological feasibility, time to market, cost structure, social aspects, or anything in between. I only stop pushing when one of three happens:

  1. We run out of time.
  2. They give up and admit defeat.
  3. They start crying (yes, it happened a few times).

This series of successive questions, which sometimes takes an hour to go through, tells me all I need to know about the candidate’s most important qualities. On the way I pick up clues about their other capabilities. Though these interviews can get stressful (for both sides), they help weed out weak candidates who’ll end up being bad hires.

Try it out and let me know what you think.

March On

Fremont High School Marching BandBack in high school I had many opportunities for extra-curricular activities, but marching band wasn’t one of them. In fact, I don’t think I even knew such a thing existed. My son graduated high school this year after four successful marching band seasons – one of the most rewarding activities he engaged in. I can’t imagine his high school experience without it.

Marching band teaches you team work and discipline, requires you to work hard, and gives you a hands-on (and feet-on) experience in shipping a product before it’s fully baked. Marchers practice for hours on end, day after day, rehearsing each detail over and over again. They build their product step by step, bar by bar, and movement by movement. When it’s ready or when the deadline hits – whichever comes first – they start their performance tour. Feedback starts flowing in even before the formal launch, but the critical one arrives in the form of competition judge reviews. Leveraging this feedback to drive product enhancements is a priceless lesson in continuous improvement.

Next week I’ll be dropping my son off at Cornell University where he will be studying for the next four years. Many factors led to his admittance into one of the world’s top engineering schools. His marching band experience played a significant role, helping him cement his academic and technical experience through solid work ethic and product-oriented thinking.

My daughter will be starting her marching band Journey in high school this year, playing the Sousaphone. I can’t wait to see where it takes her.

How to Move Ahead: 9 Rules

photo-1416339276121-ba1dfa199912These are rules to live by for people who aspire for more at work. They may sound pessimistic but I’d rather call them realistic.

Focus on what matters
Distance yourself from anything that is not part of the core value creation process. Make meaningful things happen. Don’t waste your time and your company’s. Don’t waste your resources and your company’s.

Have an opinion
No one hired you to shut up. Don’t just stand there, echoing what others are saying. Develop original opinions and don’t keep them to yourself.

Know when to shut up
When talking to people material to your career advancement, don’t say everything that comes to mind. And for goodness sake, don’t beg for promotion. Instead, plant seeds – useful and memorable actions that will make people think of you. Leave it up to them to check with others and arrive at a conclusion about you.

Be a skeptic
Don’t believe your own hype nor others’. Assume that everything you hear is an exaggeration meant to make someone or something look better. Only after cross referencing multiple independent sources can you be sure that the information is authentic. Even after you verify that it is, remember that facts can go stale very fast. Don’t base your decision on information that was once true; make sure it still is.

Have a healthy dose of paranoia
Yes, some people are out to get you. Disarm them and make their game irrelevant rather than fighting them. If you fight, you expose your vulnerabilities and are much more likely to lose (this fight or the next). Win the war before it starts.

Be your own mentor
Having a mentor is great, but don’t wait for one to show up. You can find plenty of resources online and offline, join meetup groups and consult with friends and colleagues. However, none of these understand you completely and works solely on your behalf. Be your own mentor and coach yourself to success.

Do your homework
Try harder. Work smart and focus on what’s important (see #1). Pay attention to details and don’t cut corners. If two people are up for promotion, in most cases the more productive one is likely to get ahead.

Forget about job security Love your company? the people? the pay? the location? it can all end in an instant. When you go home in the evening, don’t assume you’ll have a job the next day. This may sound bleak but it happens all the time. Always have a plan B. Don’t burn your bridges, keep your eyes open, and most importantly: don’t be afraid to quit. Non-exempt goes both ways.

Be resilient
Everybody says “don’t give up”. Well, don’t give up alright, but know when giving up is the right thing to do. “Have a thick skin”, another cliché, is more relevant. Keep calm and don’t let the shit through no matter how “interesting” things become.

10 Sure Ways for Giving a Lousy Presentation


There’s no shortage of resources and opinions about how to give a good presentation. At a risk of repeating what others have already said, here is my list of presentation faux pas. These are guaranteed to derail any pitch regardless of how relevant, important or interesting the message is. I skipped obvious mistakes that I haven’t seen in a while like adding audio or animated GIFs. Good riddance.

  1. Meander between random topics without a common thread. This will keep them guessing, build tension, and deliver a stronger message. For maximum impact, end with a bang – preferably unrelated to anything you mentioned earlier.
  2. The more slides, the better. You have a captive audience so be sure to make the most of the time you’ve been given by going through as many slides as you can. Cover every nook and cranny to make sure all their questions are answered before they even ask.
  3. Put a lot of text on each slide. The more the merrier. The more the better. The more the greater. The more the awesomer (use a thesaurus if you run out of words.) While presenting, be sure to read every word. The font is so small that they can’t read it themselves anyway.
  4. Jump up and down levels of abstraction. Talk about the overall picture, then about some specific detail, then jump back up and down again – this time in a different direction. Do it fast to keep the audience on their toes.
  5. Ignore the audience. After all, you know your stuff better. Their job is to listen, and since you did your homework and rehearsed several times, you know exactly what they want to hear. Who cares if they are bored or can’t keep up; just keep talking.
  6. Sprinkle tyypos, wrong letTer Case, and, bad, punctuation throughout. Grammar and language don’t matter when the presentation is so fascinating and the speaker is so engaging.
  7. Don’t bother with the visual design of your presentation. A good design is a distraction, masking what’s really important. Black Times New Roman bullets on a white background are fine. It shows how focused you are, not wasting time on trivialities.
  8. Give plenty of irrelevant examples. Examples directly related to the topic are lame. Think creatively and come up with examples that have nothing to do with the message you’re trying to deliver, to get the audience to think out of the box. Like eating cheese in the dessert.
  9. If you’re pitching a product, don’t actually show it. Who says a picture is worth a thousand words? Who says a demo is worth a million? Your presentation is so good that they should understand what your product does without seeing it. And if they can’t, they’re not the right customers anyway.
  10. Mumble a lot. If the audience asks you to speak up, ignore them. They should make an effort to understand you. If … you … speak … clearly … and … slowly you won’t be able to cover all the material you worked so hard to prepare.
  11. Run over time. The audience is there already so you might as well take advantage of that and drone on for a while. They’ll be thankful; their next meeting must be worse than this one.
  12. You promised 10 slides? give them 11. Every presenter is a sales guy, and as such nobody expects you to say the truth. If you do, they’ll be surprised and confused. Believe in yourself even when you lie.

Tastemaking: The Art of Product Management


Product management is an obscure art. Many people, especially outside the tech world, have no clue what it is. When I tell someone what I do, they often reply with “You mean project management?” The lengthy explanation that follows sometimes falls on deaf ears.

In an effort to explain it effectively I realize that I have to use a few words that everyone understands, put into a succinct, easily digestible sentence: “product management is like x for y.” The object (y) is the overall experience or quality the product provides. Even if the product doesn’t have any user interface (like an API or a power supply) it is a part of something people use, and their experience is the ultimate goal. But what is the subject (x)? Before we get to that, let’s talk about taste.

a: critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation
b: manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation

After all the data is processed, customers consulted, competitors studied, and engineers brainstormed, the essence of product management is to use good judgment and make the right roadmap decision. In other words – and referencing the dictionary definition – a product manager should have a good taste. Not just general taste – a good taste in the subject matter and the market they play in. Good product managers are connoisseurs in their field.

an expert judge in matters of taste.

Outstanding product managers are tastemakers, setting a trajectory and influencing others to develop a good taste as well. This brings us to the ultimate definition: a product manager is a user experience tastemaker. Not all product managers are, of course, but it’s a noble goal to aspire to for everyone in the trenches.

a person who decides or influences what is or will become fashionable.

Crosscheck: Steve jobs is considered one of the best product managers ever. “User experience tastemaker” is an apt way to summarize his life achievement.


Paul Graham published and excellent post on the topic several years ago:

Hire Growers


Tech workers rarely take a job just because they need one. It’s a buyers market for the most part, and more so when the economy is booming. Rational job seekers – and I’d like to think they all are – choose positions that will allow them to grow and develop.

Finding the right person for the job is never easy. The hiring manager’s job is to hire people who are most likely to grow, and help them realize their potential. The ethical justification for a hiring decision does not revolve around saving the candidate from starvation or allowing yourself to take more days off. Instead, it centers on imagining a better future for the candidate and coaching them on their path to achieving it. Hiring someone only to fill an opening is as short-sighted as getting hired just for the paycheck.

Hiring people who want to grow and develop is the best option for both sides. Growers are people who constantly try to improve what they do and how they do it. Even though they think long-term, they don’t necessarily have to be young. Some employers use the euphemism “dynamic” to describe what is essentially a young person, hiding a discriminatory message in otherwise mundane job descriptions. Optimists see “dynamic” as a characteristic of growers of any age.

Growers want to assume increasing responsibility, and likely see the hiring manager’s position as their next career move. Understandably, hiring them can be intimidating. On the other hand, hiring candidates who are set in their ways is a sure sign of mediocrity; job seekers would be wise to stay away from such employers. As they say, A players hire A players but B players hire C players. Hiring an A player requires foresight and planning, but most of all courage, a rare commodity in many companies.

How do you identify growers? Look for these telltale signs:

1) They have a clear vision of their career path, and can articulate it.

2) They have a good understanding of your market and can envision your company’s next moves.

3)  They have the background required to base their growth upon.

The next time you’re trying to “fill a req”, be brave and hire a grower who will take your team (and possibly your company) to the next level. They will likely seek – and may eventually assume – your position, but if you manage it right this should propel you toward the next step in your own career.

Form over Function over Form

The technological revolution of the last decades created countless new products and services while burying many old ones. Things that once had physical presence are now done through software – documents (pdf), memos (email), pictures (digital), money (bitcoin), etc. Unlike previous revolutions in which one physical technology replaced another, this one is doing away with the physical altogether. Case in point: music moved from vinyl to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s. MP3s were first stored on handheld devices (like iPods), but these quickly gave way to cloud storage and streaming, reincarnating through invisible (yet audible) services.

Software is eating more and more traditional technologies. The cloud is swallowing software that used to run elsewhere, and products are giving way to services. As these trends become more prevalent, the lack of physical presence can be confusing and frustrating. Some companies try to counter that by adopting visual cues that remind people of physical equivalents, like Apple’s skeuomorphic design style. These are bound to be short lived not only because styles evolve, but because fewer and fewer people remember the technologies they depict. Take the floppy disk for example: a technology that died 20 years ago but still lives in the Save icon. I bet that the majority of people who use this icon nowadays have no idea what it represents. The reason this icon wasn’t replaced yet is simple: it’s not easy to represent “save” – sending bits from point A to point B – in a universally understandable icon.

The constantly increasing abstraction of everyday products explains the renewed interest in user interface design. Graphical user interfaces serve as means through which we interact with products that lost their physical form. Since the UI is the only thing left, getting it right becomes ever more important.

Every recent technological leap requires us to be a little more connected to our devices and the services consumed on them, and a little less connected to things of substance. Our brains, capable of rich imagination, are well equipped to deal with this abstraction. People yearn for a physical form but can easily get by without one. I suspect that before long we’ll get used to the absence of drivers in cars and the disappearance of coins and paper money from our wallets. What we now call “the cloud” will eventually lose any hint of physicality and be accepted as an ever present storage, computation, and communication infrastructure – much like the power grid is for electricity. When this happens we will finally focus on function and learn to care less about form. It might take a while, but I’m sure that my grand children will find it strange to go to the grocery store to buy food, drive a car, or sit through a lecture in a classroom. Doing all these things “virtually” will be perfectly natural to them.