Tag Archives: Bill Campbell

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.


Bill Campbell says, hire Product Management First!

Back in early July, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Forrester’s Tom Grant for his weekly podcast on the Heretech site.

About half way through the podcast, Tom asked me:

You recently wrote about Product Management in technology startups. Where do you see is the point when a very distinct Product Management role pops out in the natural growth of a startup?

A summary of my response (and Tom did let me speak for quite a while uninterrupted!):

I think any venture-funded startup should have someone with a core focus of Product Management. If someone is giving you $5,000,000 to build something, to me it makes no sense to say, “OK, we’re giving you this money and you don’t need to have a person who can find the right fit of the technology in the market and bring that together in an efficient way.

Because I’ve seen too many cases where a CTO and a CEO are leading a company, and the CTO really is technical, and the CEO is very business focused, and yet they fail because they don’t understand how to bring those two worlds together and how to bring products to market in a scalable, efficient way.

After the podcast was published, I got a couple of emails wondering if what I was saying was simply self-serving, given that I work in technology Product Management myself.

I didn’t feel there was anything self serving, because I wasn’t telling people they should hire me :-), but rather they should hire experienced Product Management right from the start. Given what I know today I would agree with that whether I was in Product Management or not.

In fact, I wonder why VCs don’t actually stipulate that part of the funding they provide be used to pay for experienced Product Management services (whether full-time/part-time/contract) to help ensure the what is being built aligns with market needs, delivers real value and continues that way?

A lot of young companies make the mistake of building something fast and seeing what sticks, instead of understanding what is of value and then heading in that direction.

Well, later that month, July 28th to be exact, at the AlwaysOn Summit at Stanford University, Bill Campbell, former CEO of Intuit gave his view on this topic during an interview with Michael Moe.


Click the image above to open a window and view the full interview.
Play close attention starting around 2:45 into the interview.

Michael Moe:

So, I think many people in the audience know that before you got into business in Silicon Valley, you were in the coaching business. So let’s just say you have a first round draft pick; after the founder and CEO, who would be the first draft pick? Would it be head of sales, a CTO, human resources, finance? And why?

Bill responds:

The more I think about it, and it depends on who the founders are by the way, and when I say who, it depends on what functions they represent. Generally in Silicon Valley they would represent technology.  A guiding thing for me would be somebody like Mike Homer, probably the best Product Marketing guy, somebody that understands how to apply technology in the market.

You know, as strange as that sounds, you need someone who can work with brilliant engineers and try to take this creation, this technology creation and turn it into a product, and make sure it is for somebody, that somebody can use it; some kind of service or some kind of product.

And so, I know that sounds like a strange answer, Product Marketing, some people call it Product Management, but somebody who can really understand the dynamics of what goes on in a marketplace, apply technology to that marketplace, see how the technology can work, and continue to advise brilliant scientists so they can adapt their products to make sure customers are happy.

Alrighty now. Glad to hear my views on the subject match those of someone like Bill Campbell. Or vice versa. 🙂

So I wonder, are the VC’s listening to people like Bill when he says the first hire for startups should be someone who understands the dynamics of the marketplace and how to apply technology to it?

This person is not likely to be a technologist or strictly a business minded person.   Find experienced Product Management who can bring the two worlds together to create products (and not just “technical creations”)  and give your startup a greater chance of success!


Also see: Bill Campbell says, It all starts with great products!

Share this article:

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine