Category Archives: Honda

Questions for Product Managers

It started with an interview on Red Canary, talking to Product Management leaders in Toronto, including Alan Armstrong, Stephen Pollack, Lee Garrison and Roy Pereira.

Interestingly enough, I know all of these people personally. I have worked with  Lee & Alan, worked for Stephen, and know Roy through very close common contacts.

In the interview, they each answered the following six questions:

  1. Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?
  2. How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?
  3. What’s your favorite interview question?
  4. When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?
  5. What has been the defining moment in your career?
  6. Mistakes. What was your biggest?

Steve Johnson took up the challenge and posted his answers to those questions on his blog, and most recently Scott Sehlhorst did the same.

I thought it was time to join the discussion myself.  So here are my answers to those same six questions.

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

I’m a big fan of any product that “just works” or surprises/delights me in some way. I don’t have a “best” product, but here are a few that I really like and use regularly.

  • The Blackberry – It does what it promises,efficiently and in a very compact form factor. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it can take a beating like no other device I’ve seen. I’ve dropped my Blackberry many times and it is no worse for wear. To quote an old advertising phrase — “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking”.
  • Dyson vacuum cleaner — I’ve blogged about Dyson previously, but after 3 years, the thing still sucks more than any other vacuum and leaves it’s competition in the dust. Sorry couldn’t resist. 🙂 What really amazes me about it is that their customer service is also really great. A small part broke on the bottom of the machine. I called the toll-free number clearly visible on the cleaner itself. The person on the phone quickly confirmed which part was broken and they shipped me a replacement free of charge a couple of days later. The cleaner was clearly designed for this kind of diagnosis and service. Awesome.
  • The Honda Civic — We’re a Honda family so I don’t have experience with other brands of cars, but then why would I need to? I love the Civic because it just works. I’m terrible when it comes to maintenance and oil changes etc. but even with minimal attention it gets me where I need to go.  It’s both totally reliable and easily affordable. That’s what I want in a car.

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

If a product manager adheres to all of these rules, then they must be great! 🙂  Certainly product managers need to be smart, analytic, understand technology and markets, and be great communicators and leaders.

But if there is one thing that I think really defines a great product manager, it’s the ability to “connect the dots” in seemingly unrelated or conflicting contexts.  Perhaps another way to say this is product managers need a strong mixture of creativity, curiosity and intuition.

Steve Johnson answered this question with the line:

A great product manager sees patterns.

Scott wrote:

Great product managers are polymaths, with several areas of deep expertise and skill.

While written differently, these are similar answers and tie in well with the ability to connect dots.

A lot of times product managers need to find solutions to problems that are highly constrained — usually WRT budgets, resources or time. Finding solutions that satisfy business, technical and market requirements, and being able to sell those solutions to executives or other doubting Thomases are hallmarks of a great product manager.

What’s your favorite interview question?

The one I like to ask potential product managers is:

What one word best describes Product Management?

I’ve asked that question on the blog. Here are the results.

It’s always interesting to observe interviewees struggle with the question as it usually catches them off guard. And of course, once they come with an answer, the obvious follow up question is “Why?”

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

This is a great question and core to how our industry understands and values Product Management.  I’m clearly biased here, but I have to agree with Stephen Pollack’s response:

Thirty days before you start the company.

This answer also lines up perfectly with what Bill Campbell of Intuit said about Product Management.

Too many people don’t actually realize the full scope of the Product Management role. It’s not just about product requirements, even at the very earliest stages of a company. I’ve seen too many founders of companies create offerings (I won’t call them products), that didn’t completely address market problems, that weren’t differentiated from competitors, or  that didn’t target specific market segments and problem domains.

And what happened then? They brought in “a product manager” to help address the issues. Sorry, way too late. Why spend another year and potentially millions of dollars to fix problems that you could have addressed right at the start?

What has been the defining moment in your career?

I’d say it was leading the Product Management efforts of the flagship product of a public company in Silicon Valley. The release was described by the CTO as “the biggest, most ambitious release in company history.”

That effort consumed my focus  for almost 2 years, and I learned so much during that period. I’ve shared some of it publicly.

I ran a large beta program during that release and used that experience to write this article on betas.

I gained a greater understanding of how to optimize cross-team communication.

I also gained some insights into leadership, particularly when dealing with people across departments, geographies and areas of focus.

Mistakes. What was your biggest?

I’ve certainly made my share.  My biggest was probably not understanding (for far too long) the impact personal motivations and politics played in Product Management. I’ve written that for product managers,  “Every activity is part of a sale.

Virtually everything we do in Product Management relates to influencing others to support our goals. In most companies, Engineering won’t simply do what the PM asks.  Darn. 🙂  And certainly in larger organizations, with significant constraints, misaligned objectives and even compensation conflicts, people will focus on what is of benefit to them. They will optimize locally (i.e. what’s best for them or their team).

A lot of what Product Management is about to get teams to optimize globally (i.e. what’s best for the product or the business), sometimes at the cost of local optimization. This is where selling becomes important. The sale is in getting other teams to agree to do what you need, and to get that, you have to understand their motivations, drivers, goals and objectives. Once I understood that, life became much easier for me as a product manager.


P.S. I’d love to see the Cranky PM’s answers to these questions.


$20,480 per Gigabyte!!!

Here’s a great example of where cost vs. pricing is completely out of control.

I have a BlackBerry for work. I travel quite a bit in my job. My travel is primarily within Canada and the United States. Living in Canada, I needed a phone plan that included North American long distance and roaming, as well as data access throughout North America.

Clearly with a BlackBerry, data access is critical.  I do try to minimize the data I access with it where possible. I don’t open big email attachments with it, and I have turned off image download when browsing websites.

I spent a few weeks this summer in the US. I got my bill and was surprised to see data overage charges amounting to about $40. I have a data plan with a 1 GB limit and I know I don’t even come close to that amount in a given month.

When I called my service provider to ask about the overage charges, the CSR said that my data plan only applies to Canada and that when in the US, there is a charge of about $1 per MB of data usage.

This was surprising for two reasons:

  1. I have a fairly expensive plan that I thought covered all my my North American dialing and data
  2. $1 per MB is $1024 per GB of data!!!

Think about that one a minute.  About $1000 to wirelessly download 1 GB of data when I’m in the US. I didn’t realize electrons and radio waves were that expensive! Thank goodness I turned off the image download when browsing the Web.

When I expressed my surprise to the CSR about the extreme cost of this, he said that I was actually getting a discount on my US data access because of an option I had purchased with my data plan.

Without that option, the cost would be $20 per MB. Yes, that is twenty dollars per megabyte, or over $20,000 per gigabyte of data! WTF??

I said in shock, “Are you kidding me? That’s completely ridiculous!”

He started a sentence where he was going to tell me how expensive it is for them to provide the service. In mid sentence, I asked him to stop because I really didn’t want to hear whatever excuse he was going to give.

I know this cost of $20 per MB is artificially high because the companies want to extort incent people into getting additional service options, and (at least in Canada), the lack of any effective competition and incentive makes Canada one of the most expensive countries in the world for cell phone rates.

honda accordBut really? $20,000 per Gigabyte??? I could buy this car for about that much money?

So, if you’ve got about $20,000 burning a hole in your pocket, give it to me(!), or go to your nearest Honda dealer and get a new set of wheels.

Or, make sure you DON’T have a US data plan with a Canadian cell phone provider, go across the border with your Blackberry or iPhone, and then click this link, login, download and look forward to your next phone bill.


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The New Rules of (almost) Everything?

economiccollapseEvery day there seems to be a new story about the economy that spells doom and gloom. Words like “meltdown”, “depression” and “collapse” are spoken with a frequency I don’t recall from previous downturns.

Like many others, I was living in the heart of Silicon Valley during the last downturn. I was laid off from my job just days after 9/11. Talk about a tough environment to find work.

While the last downturn was focused very much on the technology industry (hardware, software, semiconductors etc.) – I still remember how much emptier Hwy 101 was in the spring of 2002 vs. a year earlier – I’m wondering if this one won’t be equally difficult for us “techies”.

Consumers and Business are hard hit

Both consumers and corporations are in financial trouble. Consumers in the US in particular because of the housing meltdown (there’s that word again), but in general because consumers have a much higher debt load (even outside of housing) than say a decade ago.

And I don’t have to tell you about the issues in business. Finance is a mess and will take time to unravel. The interconnectedness of the worldwide financial system was laid bare these last few months. Aside from the collapse of firms like Bear Stearns, nations such as Iceland, Peru, Turkey and others, who had nothing to do with the root cause of the financial problems are being held hostage because of international investment portfolios and an international credit squeeze. Iceland’s currency has dropped almost 40% against the US dollars over the last 6 months.

When entire nations are impacted so quickly and severely by, what was originally, a financial problem in the United States, it’s clear that other industries will follow.

In Canada and the US, the automotive sector is in deep trouble. In Canada, the resource and forestry industries are lining up behind the auto companies, looking for help. The housing industry is hurting, and so is manufacturing. I don’t have data on other industries, but likely they’re not immune.

Impact on Technology Companies

One interesting thing I noticed is that not yet in this downturn, and I don’t believe in the last one, did the High Tech industry go in front of government bodies and ask for bailouts or financial assistance of any kind. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall any of Cisco, HP, IBM, Yahoo, RIM,  Microsoft, Google, Oracle, Siebel etc. doing what the bankers, auto manufacturers or even in recent years, the airlines companies have done and ask for money to “save” them from collapse. Yes, most tech companies had layoffs and many failed in the last downturn, but there were no cries of the industry disappearing or industry segments disappearing.

So why is that? First, let me say that my view is somewhat biased as I work in technology and thus have a deeper insight into how the technology industry functions. I don’t have that same insight into other industries. But as a somewhat educated outsider looking in, I will say that the North American auto industry let foreign car companies (primarily Toyota and Honda) take away their marketshare.

North American (i.e Ford, GM, Chrylser) vehicles are far less reliable than those made by Honda and Toyota. Toyota has out innovated other companies with the introduction of hybrid vehicles as well. The Toyota Prius has market share numbers amongst hybrid cars that are the envy of any market sector leader.

And while it can be said that American banks have lead the world in creating new kinds of financial instruments and have “innovated”, it’s also clear that they did so in many cases for short term gain. When I moved back to Canada from the US, I once again was faced with the much more restrictive financial market here as compared to the US. On one level, the lack of variety of financial instruments makes getting a mortgage much simpler, and removes risk from the system, but I’d say this same restrictiveness makes the capital markets in Canada, and particularly the venture capital markets much less open to risk and investment.

With respect to technology companies, I see one big difference. Technology companies are built on innovation and don’t have a history of government reliance (at least in North America) to get through hard times. No one ever said anything like “What’s good for <insert large technology company name> is good for America (or Canada).”

Research in Motion (RIM) is an example of an amazing company. They’ve built great products/services that have wide adoption and have fought off competitive threats from many other companies. Over the last 5 years, their stock price has been as low as about $1.50 and as high as $140. Yes, that’s almost a 100X spread. [Wish I’d bought some stock in 2003!]. And through that I don’t recall them once going to the Feds and asking for financial help.  They ran their business, made decisions to cut staff or expenses, to invest in key areas for the future and have continued to expand their business globally.

We all can take a lesson from companies like RIM. They succeed because they deliver lasting value, not because the price of the commodity they sell goes up 100% because of market speculators or temporary demand from other nations.

So what does the future hold? I have no magic crystal ball. But similar to the period after the dot-com bubble burst, there was little talk about “the New Economy” and more talk about business focus and fundamentals. I’m certain that looking forward, the same will happen yet again.

Hey, Twitter now wants to hire a PM to figure out how to monetize their service! Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. As more companies realize that eyeballs and users and downloads and hits and PPC advertising aren’t sufficient, they’ll realize they need to understand their true value to customers and users, and hire bright people, in particular Product Managers to turn their technology company into a business.

The New Rules? Same as the Old Old Rules.

  • Solve a problem that really causes problems for people.  Simply being cool isn’t enough.
  • Figure out how to make people do what they need to do easier or quicker or cheaper.
  • Help them do something new that they couldn’t do before, but always wanted to do.
  • Understand the value you deliver and communicate it to them clearly and simply.
  • Charge a fair price for the innovation and build a scalable business around it.
  • Hire smart people to help you because you don’t have all the answers.
  • Teams of smart people have the best chance of finding creative solutions to new problems.
  • Don’t forget that the next economic downturn will come way sooner than you expect so prepare for it when times are good.

BTW, as an example of really cool, but not necessarily valuable technology, watch this video. Hopefully these guys figure out how to monetize this.


We’re running a business, not a technology company (part 2)

I want to continue with the this topic a bit. In the part 1, I made a few points:

  • Product management must focus on optimizing for business success not simply technological leadership.
  • This must be done by addressing market needs better than other competitors.
  • A lot of what we deliver to customers may not be considered truly innovative, but is needed to address the way they need to use the product.
  • Technology can change much faster than people’s ability to accept that change.

I want to spend a bit more time exploring this, as it does raise some points of discussion.

Last week when I was in California, I rented a Toyota Prius at the airport. It was my first time driving the Prius, and I will admit that, it took me a couple of minutes to figure out how to actually get the car in gear. First time I drove a car that had a power button in the dash.

Click image to enlarge

Once I figured that out, I drove the car for the duration of my trip and was amazed at how little gas it used. I’m pretty sure it averaged well over 50 mpg.

Now, the hybrid engine in the Prius is truly innovative. Toyota introduced the Prius 10 years ago (initially only in Japan). But the rest of the car is pretty standard: doors, windows, steering wheel, gas tank, mirrors, cup holders, radio etc. It’s not a perfect car, but it’s a pretty good 4 door sedan and it get excellent gas mileage. And given the price of gas these days (over $4 per gallon in California), it will likely have a great future.

Now compare the success of the Prius, with the the complete lack of success of a the Honda Insight. The Insight was actually the first hybrid car introduced in North America (1999). It preceded the Prius by about 6 months. It also had better gas mileage than the Prius, with an EPA rating of 70 mpg. But the Honda Insight sold only about 18,000 units total in the US. The Prius has sold over 1,000,000 units worldwide.

While there is no single reason for the lack of sales of the Insight, the styling of the Insight, the fact that it was only a 2 door hatchback (vs. a 4 door sedan for the Prius) are certainly a big factor. The Insight didn’t look like a “normal” car was something that was said of the vehicle.

The point here is that while one car, the Insight, was first to market and had what appeared to be technical superiority (much better gas mileage), the fact that it didn’t fit well with how people wanted to use the vehicle made it less successful than the Prius, which fit people’s vision of what they wanted in a car. It wasn’t simply the technological innovation of the hybrid engine (or high gas mileage) that was key, but all the other aspects of owning and driving a vehicle that they wanted.