Leaders in Product Management

February 18th, 2010 | Posted in Interviews and ShopTalks by

Welcome to ShopTalk. This is the place where smart people from the neighbourhood share their ideas on a whole range of subjects. The premise is simple: Laudi Group assembles a panel from the local tech sector. Red Canary asks them all a handful of questions. And you get to see, not just one person’s perspective, but several of them. ShopTalk is ideas, information and inspiration from good people who live and work in your backyard. Get to know them!

And don’t be shy. Feel free to join the conversation, share a comment or cajole your friends!

You can click on one of these images to read that individual’s complete interview,
or you can scroll down and see how the panel answered each question.

Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered?
Why do you like it?

Stephen Pollack “The best hardware technology product tends to be wireless modems, routers and switches. They work out of the box with little customer knowledge required. It’s one of the few I would say fits the bill of addressing the consumer market — low complexity, good packaging, does what it says.

The best software product is a somewhat equal match between Google Chrome and Microsoft Windows 7 (yes, Windows 7). Both are well designed, easy to install and work with. For Microsoft, it’s a bit of a shock to finally be able to say this about Windows, I find version 7 exactly what the consumer needs — friendly, easy to install, does what it says. Finally the everyday person can manage their own PC.”

Alan Armstrong “I marvel at strategy as much as I do at individual products. Right now my favorite combination of great strategy, execution, and products is Apple. 10 years ago the company was nearly off the map, and yet they have completely redefined the industry. They are a media company, a smart phone company, and a laptop company. Before 2003, I didn’t own a single Apple device. Now I have an iMac, two MacBook Pros, an old PowerBook, three iPhones (various generations …), 4 iPods, and an Apple TV. I have over 120GB of media, and it all just works. I recently redid the IT infrastructure for my church, and we went all Apple. It’s compatible, and it doesn’t require on-site IT administration … how much of a premium is that worth? Besides, the staff was giddy when we bought them MacBooks.”

Lee Garrison “Just about anything from Apple. Every aspect of the product has been thought through from the user’s perspective – not just great design but usability, the purchasing process, packaging and even disposal – the complete user experience is the product.”

Roy Pereira “The iPod has to be the best product that I have ever encountered.

It has great design, usability, functionality and the best part was that no one had any need for it.

Once the iPod launched, people started to listen to music again. Before, music was stuck at home on our CDs, but due to mobile phones, our life’s were becoming more mobile and we had to do without our music. Also music piracy was about to kill all music companies.

iPod brought the music industry back from the brink of disaster and brought music back into people’s lives.”

How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?

Stephen Pollack “The right combination of interpersonal skills, technical depth, sales and marketing awareness and drive to succeed. They are rare and generally come from within the technical side of a Company (but should never remain there).”

Alan Armstrong “A great product manager talks about buyers and market more than about product features and internal politics.

It’s something like the waiter at a restaurant. When I eat out with a client, I often ask about a specific dish at a restaurant and wait to hear the waiter’s response. Most waiters tell me what THEY like. The best waiters talk about the responses of their customers. The waiter is in a position to collect a massive amount of feedback from patrons! Why would I care whether this person enjoys the salmon after a long shift, when people have been raving about today’s special?

Likewise with a PM. Everyone knows what development and sales thinks about specific products and features. Tell me what the users and the buyers think. That distinguishes you from the pack.”

Lee Garrison “They are entrepreneurial. They think of their product as a business with attention to P&L and how best to satisfy the challenges and requirements of their target market in order to grow the business.”

Roy Pereia “The best product managers don’t know the answers, they know who (customers) to ask and what questions to ask.”

What’s your favorite interview question?

Stephen Pollack “Tell me about the computing environment at your home?”

Alan Armstrong “Tell me about your biggest failure. What happened? How did you handle it? How did you recover? What impact has it had on you as a person?”

Lee Garrison “When was the last time you had fun at work? Tell me about it.”

Roy Pereira “Red or White wine? (pass or fail)”

When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?

Stephen Pollack “Thirty days before you start the company. No kidding, a key role that often goes unfilled for too long — if you have a product idea and are working on it, find someone who can make sure you do more than just release code to your customers.”

Alan Armstrong “It depends on the skills of the founders. It’s very natural for the founders to act as de facto PMs while they nail down the first product. I use the phrase “nail it, then scale it.” The founders job is to nail it. You really can’t hire that skill. In the early days I would hire people to assist a great founder or co-founders. But once we’ve nailed it, and we’ve seen that the model works, I think the founders should move on and hire professional PMs to manage things. But again, it all comes back to the skills of the founders.”

Lee Garrison “Asap before sales people. If a startup intends to be market-driven (rather than enamored by their own technology), then a good product manager brings market-sensing skills to the team and will be critical in defining the “problem we solve” and what the most important requirements are.”

Roy Pereira “Product managers typically replace the strategic vision and add strategic discipline of the founding CEO. Typically, a PM is hired once the company grows enough where the founder can no longer handle product strategy. This is normally at about 10 employees.”

What has been the defining moment in your career?

Stephen Pollack “Realizing I had learned a lot after leaving a Company I worked for 10 years for. I think most people don’t realize what they are learning on the job, especially if they are lucky enough to experience real success in the business they are involved in. Once you realize you have learned a lot, you’re confidence and experience becomes a greater asset to everyone else you might work with.

I put all this together at www.insidespin.com where the experiences learned are being shared with others.”

Alan Armstrong “It’s hard to pick one. I led a from-scratch product build at Sitraka, and later at Wily in silicon valley worked with a team of 4 guys to redefine the product from the ground up. Both of those were cauldrons of innovation and learning.

At Wily we worked for months straight from early in the morning to late at night, and we bonded so closely. We had a brilliant scientist technologist, a careful philosopher designer, and a great thinker executor. I was the market and strategy guy.

I learned so much from those guys and that experience. The currency of my career has been great relationships, and I define my career by the teachers and mentors that I have had. There is a Zen expression that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”.

I can point to a couple of great CEOs that taught me a ton. But I’ve also learned so much from some just brilliant people around me, and some spiritual guides that have walked with me along the way. The situation is a teacher too, if the student is paying attention!”

Lee Garrison “Being hired for a Java product management role and being introduced to Pragmatic Marketing. It has made me an evangelist for building market-driven products and companies that address problems worth solving.”

Roy Pereira “My defining moment was making it to VP of Marketing for a publicly traded corporation. It was the goal that I had set out for myself, even when I was in the engineering department as a software architect.”

Mistakes. What was your biggest?

Stephen Pollack “Often the times I do not trust my instincts — mistakes happen. Trust, confidence and experience tend to lead you in the right direction, stop trusting what you know and you often find yourself in the wrong direction.”

Alan Armstrong “In the first half of my life I was too afraid of failure, and played it safe more than I wish I had. I feared that failure would spell the end of my career. How untrue! One of my mentors told me once, “you learn more from failure than you do from success, and I’ve learned a lot in my life!” It was told in a humorous way, but he was very serious about it. I study the character of those who bounce back from failure.

The upshot is that everything we do – in life and at work – is an experiment to some extent. We put forth our best efforts, but we don’t control all the variables, and success is not assured. But I’d rather look back at a failure in the second half of life than at a chance not taken out of fear of that failure.”

Roy Pereira “My biggest mistake has been not understanding that emotion and passion are two different things and that passion is positive, but that being emotional is not positive nor constructive in a startup or public corporation.”