00:09:43 How do you get from product exec, that role, to product manager, or what sort of advice would you give to people who want to go on that journey?
00:12:00 What would you say the main challenges are within a career within product management?
00:15:49 What advice would you give to your 20 or 30-year-old self now?
00:17:23 What technical skills are needed to jump to the director position?
00:20:40 How do you get involved in the board strategic decisions from a product management perspective or angle?
00:24:41 What’s the best career advice you’ve ever been given or found for yourself?
00:27:02 Is there anything that you sort of miss from your years in Australia and San Fran? Where did you sort of enjoy living the most?
00:29:47 What advice have you received from your mentor that made the most impact?
00:34:17 What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in marketing or business or product management, and how did it come about?
00:40:23 What’s the worst experience you’ve had working for someone?
00:42:33 What’s the worst advice you’ve heard and why?
00:44:51 With pressures of general life, how do you manage the work-life balance, and how important is that in today’s society?
00:49:25 What do you listen to when you need to focus?
00:50:21 What is the book you recommend the most for marketers or product managers or anybody really today?
00:51:28 What parting words of wisdom or advice would you share with our audience?
Welcome to Market Mentors, a podcast for the marketing leaders of today and tomorrow. I’m Fiona Jensen, a director and co-owner of Market Recruitment. For over a decade, I’ve been helping B2B marketeers find the best jobs with great companies. Together, we’ll discover how marketing experts reach the top and learn from their experience. Ask career-related questions you can’t get answers to elsewhere. Be tough, be challenged, be mentored.
With a products-management career spanning the globe from Sydney to San Francisco, Silicon Valley to [inaudible 00:00:51] on the south coast of England, listen to Thor Mitchell’s sound advice on product management as a career. Follow his philosophical journey based on empathy, diversity and his experience of bringing product to life, not just on the shelf, but as a valuable function for any business, which then in turn has led him to set up Product Minded, a products-leadership coaching business.
Welcome to Market Mentors, Thor Mitchell. Thank you ever so much for meeting us in sunny Sydney.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
What I’d like is for you to talk us through your background experience and the lovely product management world you’re about to take us into.
Sure. My journey started while I was in university. I originally studied physics, but I was always dabbling with computers and I was living outside of [inaudible 00:01:58]. I was living at home in Bournemouth, and was looking for a summer job and ended up working for this little internet service provider back in the days when you have like provincial internet service providers. I had the inspired name of Bournemouth Internet and they needed someone with some technical skills just to manage their infrastructure. They had nobody at the time to do that, so self taught myself how to set up the Unix service and at how to run websites and things like that.
This was 1995, so this was before even Windows 95 had launched, and early [inaudible 00:02:32] of Netscape and things like that. It became pretty clear quite quickly that this internet thing was probably going to go somewhere. When I graduated, I took a job at a much larger internet service provider and that in turn led me to accepting a role only six months later with Sun Microsystems who, hopefully, some of you still remember, but they were a big Unix work station and network infrastructure provider in the late 90s, and early 2000s and they were responsible for the Java programming language and a ton of really powerful technology. I started working for them in the UK, I worked for them for a total of eight years.
The second half of that was in Silicon Valley, at their headquarters, and then moved back here in 2006 to start working for Google. At that time, I was still in more technical roles, mostly more support focused, so technical, but with a lot of a big-people element to them. It was while I was at Google, a few years later after I’d moved to Sydney, that I discovered product management, and had some good conversations with people down there who recognised that perhaps that might be a good fit for me, because although I had technical skills, I was never going to be a Google-level software developer. I didn’t have the computer science theory and background to do that, but I understood the technology, and I knew how to work well with people.
I had opinions about how the products could be improved, because I spent so long on the phone to angry customers. I made this transition into product management and started managing a product called the Google Maps API, which essentially is a set of developer tools for embedding maps in websites in order to display your own information. If you’ve ever seen a Google Map on Expedia or hotels.com or a travel site or store finder, you’re looking at that product. That was my introduction to product management. I worked on that product for about three, three and a half years before moving from Sydney to San Francisco and working on broader developed products at Google out of their headquarters in Mountain View.
Then came back to the UK in 2015 to join a startup down here in Exeter called Crowdcube, who do essentially equity crowd funding. So they help companies raise finance as an alternative to going to a VC or an Angel Investor, by tapping into their existing customer base and partner base. It was a great company, really interesting business, interesting people. They brought me in to lead the product team, I build out the product management as a function within the business. One of the things that makes them so interesting is they have this great perspective across all the stuff that’s happening in the UK technology scene, so it was a really good place to meet people and sort of understand more about how other businesses were doing product management as well.
Very interesting. There we go. So real international product manager, a raft of different levels of experience and, as most product managers, not someone who aspired to be a product manager in the first place.
No, I mean, certainly when I moved into product management there was a chronic lack of understanding as to the nature of the role, or even awareness of its existence. When I moved back to the UK and started a Crowdcube, one of my first tasks was to build the team. So I needed you to hire some product managers. To make matters worse, I needed to hire them in Exeter rather than in London. I was looking for an experienced product manager, and I was also open to hiring a graduate [inaudible 00:06:01] entry level, a person I could coach into the role because they have a graduate recruitment program at Google for product managers that’s very effective. I’d seen how well a graduate could perform in the role if properly coached.
To my sort of surprise and horror, I discovered that it was easier than I expected to hire an experienced product manager, because I knew where to look and the people I was talking to understood the role and what they were applying for. But finding graduates was almost impossible, because none of them even knew the role existed. So, even if you put the role in front of them, they wouldn’t necessarily recognize it as one that would be a good career path. Often the sort of people I was looking for would just end up going into management consultancy or one of the sort of traditional milk round roots. I have to say, this is getting better, this is improving. Product management, as a function, the profile is increasing over time. We’re was starting to see more young people expressing interest in the path, but for the time being, at least, most people stumble across it at some point and move in later in their career.
When you were interviewing candidates, what sort of key things were you looking for and what sort of questions were you asking?
Yeah. There’s a couple of key things. I always say when I’m advising people to prioritise the things that cannot be taught. There are certain behavioural traits that I think the strongest product managers consistently exhibit. As a function, empathy is core to the role. It’s possibly the most important skill, because you need to understand your users, your customers. You need to understand their needs, their pain points, how they’ll respond to a particular solution or a particular opportunity. But you also need to demonstrate empathy for the people you’re working with, because you are working with engineers, software developers who you’re relying on to build these products that you’re working together on. But also you’re working with all the other functions in the business, who have their own set of concerns, their own set of incentives.
You need to make sure that you can build confidence in them, that you’re going to deliver a product that will meet those needs. I start out looking for some of these behavioural factors, empathy, also curiosity, a certain degree of humility. I don’t think arrogance goes well with product management. You need to be able to listen and understand and care about the people that you’re working with. And then, I look for diversity in all its forms. You’re looking for diversity of, not just in the traditional sense of sort of gender and race and so forth, but also age and background and perspectives and interests. Ultimately, in order to exhibit that empathy, it helps to have some personal experience. The more different perspectives you can have, the better the team would function.
But then, obviously, from a pure skills perspective, you need people who have a passion for technology, who genuinely believe, don’t necessarily need to be deeply technical, but they need to be interested in technology, and believe in the power of technology to affect a positive change. They need to have a certain degree of analytical skills, because you need to be able to look at the data and understand how your products are performing and be able to do both qualitative and quantitative research. A good eye for what makes a good product and what makes a good design for a product. Making things easy to use, making things accessible. And then, obviously, a certain degree of business acumen, understand that products need to be sustainable, they have to have a business strategy behind them, they need to, not just meet the needs of users, but also the needs of the business as well.
Very good. If we go back to your background then, when you sort of were a product exec, how do you get from product exec, that role, to product manager, or what sort of advice would you give to people who want to go on that journey?
In order to move upwards into more of a leadership role?
Yeah. Well, maybe from a sort of entry-level product position to a product manager position, maybe that [crosstalk 00:10:11] journey.
Yeah. The framework I use for people who are in my team or people I’m coaching is that, essentially, progression as a product manager is a function of the degree of complexity that you are comfortable dealing with within the projects you’re working on. And complexity as a product manager comes in a variety of forms. It’s not just about technical complexity, although that is an aspect of it. It’s also about, how many stakeholders do you have? How many partners are you working with? What are the compliance or legal or privacy or security issues that you’re dealing with, and how large is the team of people who are involved in this project?
There’s a lot of different ways in which complexity manifests itself. In order to be able to demonstrate that you can cope with additional levels of complexity, you need to build confidence within the business that you are capable of handling that. To do that, it essentially comes down to communication and over communication. Obviously, you need to be very, very transparent about how you’re tackling the challenges that your product is facing at that time, what progress is being made, challenges or roadblocks that you’ve come up against, and making sure that everybody involved, at all times, feels informed and comfortable that things are moving.
Or that if there are problems, that they’re being tackled. The worst thing you can do as a product manager is leave people wondering what’s going on. That just drains their confidence in you very rapidly. So that’s the sort of … I sort of call it the three C’s. In order to progress, the projects that you deal with need to have more complexity. To do that, you need to build the confidence of the people in the business, who are deciding who’s working on what, and the way you do that is just from a very strong communication.
Very good. What would you say the main challenges are within a career within product management? What are the toughest things that you’ve sort of come up against on that issue?
That’s an interesting question. It really depends on the business you’re in and the culture of that business. In some businesses where product management is a relatively new discipline, a part of the challenge is just making people understand what you’re there for. To actually can recognise value in what you’re bringing to the table, and also at the same time, especially in the early stages, product management conceptually always happens in every business. It’s just not every business actually has a function called product management.
Sometimes that function is distributed amongst various different people out of necessity. Some of those people may be doing it reluctantly, and some of them may be enjoying whatever aspect of the role they’re doing. So when you introduce products into a new business, sometimes you have to tease those responsibilities out of the hands of people who actually see their role as including that work at that time. There’s a certain degree of relationship management and that’s sort of a fine line to walk where you demonstrate to them that you can handle this work more effectively.
Getting to a point where people within the business understand the role and you’re comfortable that you can do it well, is a part of the challenge. Another common thing I see, particularly with the younger product managers, is they operate under the belief that they carry a huge amount of personal responsibility for the product. That the entire success or failure of the product rests on their shoulders. They fail to recognise that they’re surrounded by a team of people who are there to support them and who they can share this burden with. You’re not expected to come down from the mountain with the perfect product vision that you formulate it in your own mind independently.
That it’s important to work with other people and, collaboratively, converge on the right direction for the product. Until you realise that, it can feel quite high pressure, and it can feel quite lonely, but it doesn’t need to be. Encouraging people to draw on the resources around them is important. I also think that, because their role is relatively young and still not that well understood, there’s a lot of impostor syndrome amongst product managers who are constantly worrying about whether they’re doing the job correctly, whether they could be doing it better. How are other people doing it? Are not helped by a lot of medium articles written by people that make it sound as if they’ve got it figured out, whereas in reality, they most certainly haven’t.
They’re just writing about what they’ve learned so far really. I think you do need to have a certain degree of confidence in yourself and your ability to learn. Also, one of the things I mentioned is that the funny thing about product management is that almost everybody in the business is an armchair product manager. Everybody has an opinion about the product, where it should go, what it should do, and so, although, perhaps as a product manager, you wouldn’t think to try and tell the product council what position they should take on some legal matter, that doesn’t mean the product council won’t take every opportunity to tell you what they think you should do about the product.
So is true of everybody else in the business. It can be very frustrating at times, because you’re just there, everybody is telling you how to do your job, but actually when you recognise that, that’s just a reflection of [inaudible 00:15:40] that people care about what you’re doing, and if you can somehow channel that feedback in a constructive manner, it’s quite powerful. But it can be quite unnerving at first.
Yeah. I can well imagine that [inaudible 00:15:51]. What advice would you give to your 20 or 30-year-old self now?
I would say, I’ve been very fortunate and I’m very conscious of this, that I’ve been able to carve out a career path doing something that I find interesting and enjoyable. I also learned, fairly early on, that I perform much better when I’m doing something I find interesting and enjoyable. My advice would be, when making career-based decisions, is to prioritise it over some of the other things that you might traditionally think to prioritise, like salary or title.
It turns out, for me at least, that if I focus on doing something that I enjoy and find interesting, then success will follow, because I’ll put more time into it, I’ll put more energy into it, I’ll put more passion into it and that, hopefully, will translate into positive results. There certainly were times when I was younger where I struggled with that, where there was a sense of, “Well, the sensible thing to do is to take this particular opportunity, because it is a more senior role,” or it pays better. But actually, because it wasn’t necessarily the thing that sort of pulled at me from an emotional level, it wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do.
Very good. What technical skills are needed to jump to the director position?
There has in the past been a bit of a debate within the product management community as to how important technical skills are. This was largely driven by the fact that, in the sort of early to mid 2000s, when product management was really beginning to establish itself in the US, particularly in the larger technology companies like Google and Facebook and so on, those companies almost exclusively recruited their product managers from people with a technical background. They would hire people who had computer science degrees or who were former software engineers. That was driven largely by a cultural belief within Google at that time that, if you’re going to have …
Well, essentially, the founders of Google were computer scientists, and they put computer scientists as the most important role within the business culturally, and felt that if you’re going to have a group of people come in who work, to some extent, let’s say heavily influencing the things that those computer scientists would work on, that those people themselves needed to be computer scientists in order to earn the respect of their team. This was the sort of the conventional wisdom for some time, but it led to a fairly unhealthy dynamic, where you had very homogenous teams, where everybody in the team basically building the product or working on the strategy for the product, came from very similar backgrounds.
That led to some fairly significant blind spots in their perspectives, which in turn led to some of the issues around privacy or policy that have, of course, those companies who tripped up in the past. The good news is that conventional wisdom has moved on now and there’s a recognition, if you go back to when we were talking about hiring, that diversity of perspectives and background is actually extremely valuable within product management. When I’m hiring, I don’t filter that way. I’ve interviewed people who have English literature backgrounds, who’ve studied music. I’ve hired people who’ve studied architecture, but also C-STEM disciplines as well.
But what I do look for, as I say, I think it’s important that you’re sufficiently interested in technology, that you’re willing to learn the fundamentals, because a critical part of the role and a critical part of your ability to succeed is that you can consistently maintain high bandwidth conversations with engineers. You can talk to them about what they’re doing, what’s working well, what approaches that you might have been taking are not necessarily going to pan out for some technical reason, and they don’t have to spend a lot of their time explaining basic technical concepts to you. That will wear them out quite quickly. I think that you can come into the discipline from any direction, but once you’re in it, you need to sort of develop an understanding of the principles.
Got you. Yeah, I can understand that. Then, say from the technical skills question, how do you get involved in the board strategic decisions from a product management perspective or angle?
Yeah, I think it depends quite heavily on the culture of the business, that’s sort of what I’ve seen. If you have a business that’s quite traditional, quite hierarchical, then the senior leadership will hold the board relationship quite close to their chest. It can be quite hard as someone who’s more junior to get any visibility with the board or spend any time with them. However, younger companies or companies that are perhaps a bit more open minded will actually recognise value in bringing the domain expertise into the right conversations. The reality is that, another common mistake I see younger product managers make is that, when they go into a meeting with more senior leaders, they can be executives within the business or potentially even the board, is they might go in there expecting those people to have perfect judgment, and essentially go in expecting to get clear direction from them as to what they should do.
But the reality is that, senior leadership in any organisation, can only speak from their own experience and, as the product manager, the problem space you’re working with, because you’re focused on that full-time, all of the time, you almost certainly understand that space better than they do. So, they are looking to you as the product manager for guidance and recommendations, so if you end up in a situation where you’ve got a junior product manager who comes in looking for guidance, and the leadership team looking guidance and there’s no content within the conversation, that meeting will go badly. Something I always sort of reinforce to people on my team is that you’re the expert. If you get the opportunity to spend time with more senior people, don’t be afraid to assert your opinions, because you’re better qualified to have them.
However, it also depends on what relationship the business has with the board. Is it a very collaborative one or is it quite a confrontation one? Is the business going well or is it a time of crisis? Are they closing ranks or are they quite open minded? But if they are open, and things are going well, then simply demonstrating that you have a lot to offer, means you should be invited into the conversations that apply to you. Unless you’re actually a head of product or chief product officer, kind of at that level, you shouldn’t necessarily expect to be in every board meeting, but it’s reasonable to ask to be included in those that are specifically focused on your product.
And it’s good experience, good exposure, and maybe a way of gaining some insight or experience to help you get to more of a head of product or senior position within a product, if that’s where you want to go.
Absolutely. I think that’s very true. I also think that it’s quite eyeopening for younger people to understand how businesses really operating at the most senior levels, because I think that it’s easy when you’re younger to have an impression that there’s some sort of hive mind operating at the top of the business that’s directing it. But, actually, board meetings are messy things. There’s a lot of different opinions, a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different conversations that go on. People have their own agendas and their own perspectives, so understanding that actually these things are a collaborative, but also they can be quite lively, I think sheds some light on the way the business works, but also helps people empathise better with the leadership of the business, which then in turn allows them to better anticipate the way that they might respond or behave under different circumstances.
Very good. What’s the best career advice you’ve ever been given or found for yourself?
Well, we touched earlier on from a focus on the things that you find enjoyable and interesting. I think that’s the thing that perhaps sticks out for me as a message I would pass on. Again, I realise I’m fortunate to be able to do that. That’s not always as simple as it sounds, depending on your personal circumstances, but yeah, I think I’d probably focus on that.
So try and find something that you enjoy or that you can …
When you’re faced with a career decision, ask yourself which of those opportunities is the one that makes you feel most excited to get started. One decision I made when I was in my late 20s was I realised that I’d never lived abroad. I’d never traveled, and I didn’t take a year out or anything like that. My family, we would take holidays abroad when I was younger. My mother is Norwegian, so we would travel to Norway quite often. Both my brother and sister lived abroad. There was sort of a bit of a precedent within the family for living abroad, but it’s not something I’d ever done. After a particular trip overseas, I realised, “Actually this might be an interesting and worthwhile thing to do.”
From that point onwards, for probably a period of about 10 years, I made a set of career decisions, which allowed me to travel and to live in different [inaudible 00:26:27] places, but at a cost. There’s no doubt of that, from a pure conventional career progression perspective, career ladders, salaries, titles, I would probably have been better served by not moving about as much. But I decided that that was something that was more interesting and valuable to me. Looking back on it now, I’m really glad that I did that. But there are concrete points in time where I was faced with that decision and, consistently, when I have prioritised my own sense of personal fulfilment, that’s worked out better.
Yeah. I can well imagine [inaudible 00:27:03]. Just out of interest, is there anything that you sort of miss from your years in Australia and San Fran? Where did you sort of enjoy living the most?
The quality of life in Australia is extraordinarily good, or least, we certainly had a really positive experience there. Culturally, they have a really strong work-life balance. It’s a very friendly society and it’s a beautiful place. It’s just a lovely place to be, the weather’s great, there’s so much to do. There’s a strong expat community, so plenty of people and friends to meet and that sort of thing. In terms of just looking back on, when do we have the most enjoyable time, then, there’s so many good things about living in Australia that I look back on fondly. Whereas, living in San Francisco is a very, very different experience, not in a negative way, but just far more work-centric, far more intense, in a sense.
I was living in San Francisco, Google’s headquarters are about 30 miles south of San Francisco in Silicon Valley. So many people, who work at Google, choose to live in San Francisco, that Google now run a network of commuter shuttle buses from the city down to the office and back every day. This is in a huge network. I mean, there are about seven to 10 routes that run through the city every half an hour in the morning and every hour in the evening. But the traffic is so bad that it takes about an hour and a half each way every day, and these buses are set up to help you get stuff done while you’re on them. They’ve got tables and power and Wifi and seats that slide out into the isles, so you’ve got enough elbow room to type, things like that. They’ve been very carefully thought out.
But the net effect of that is that you get on the bus at eight o’clock in the morning, and then you don’t get necessarily home until seven o’clock at night, and you’ve just done an 11-hour day, every day. You get to the weekend and you’re exhausted. But on the other hand, because so much of what happens in the technology industry sort of grows out of that part of the world, you genuinely feel like you’re living in the future. I mean, you’ve got a six to 12-month advantage in terms of what you can see coming just by being in that place where all these interesting companies are trying all these interesting things all the time. So I certainly miss that sense of having this amazing perspective on the direction of the industry. Don’t get me wrong. San Francisco is also a great city and really interesting, lively, hugely culturally diverse, real character, particularly for an American city, that’s perhaps a little bit unusual, and a fascinating place to be.
Wow. Yeah, I can well imagine. I can just have you talk another hour [crosstalk 00:29:51]. What advice have you received from your mentor that made the most impact?
One thing really stands out to me, and I mentioned earlier that I made the move into product management while I was at Google in Sydney. That did not happen overnight. What actually happened was, I was at a point where I’d been in the role, my current role, there for a number of years and I was trying to decide what to do next. I had an offer on the table to move to San Francisco, at that time, to manage an engineering team. I also had another opportunity to stay in Sydney, but move into software engineering. But as I said, I was always conscious that I would probably be a competent engineer, but I would never be a stellar one, like Google standards.
My manager, who was also a very good friend, approached me when he heard I was struggling with this decision, and he said, “Before you make that decision, I know in the past you’ve expressed an interest in product management, so you should be aware that I am considering doing a rotation into engineering.” Google offer a program where program managers can spend six months doing software engineering and vice versa. He said, “I will need someone to cover for me, and I think you would be well suited to do that.” He said, “I can’t guarantee that that would turn into a full-time role in the end, but I can offer you six months on the team as their product manager, and you can use that opportunity to build relationships and get an experience and, hopefully, make it easier to convert.” Conversion was known to be quite tough.
Product management is quite … it’s a role that there’s a lot of applicants. Even for internal transfers, they put you through the full interview process. He went to great lengths to stress that this was not guaranteed. But, just talking back to what I was saying about focus on things that you most interested in, I took the decision to take that rotation even though I had solid offers on the table for other things that we’re also interesting, but just didn’t grab me as much. I had six months in which to prove myself as a product manager at Google. I went for lunch with another very senior product manager in the Sydney office at that time, and this is a fascinating woman called Stephanie Hannon.
Stephanie has had one of the most extraordinary careers. She was one of the early product managers on Gmail. She was one of the people involved in launching Google Maps in Europe. She was in Australia, because she worked on Google Wave for a number of years, which was an interesting project, which unfortunately didn’t survive. But after Google Wave, she went on to work at Facebook for a while, and then came back to Google, did probably policy and then went on to become chief technology officer of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign. These days, is the chief product officer at Strava. Amazing woman, just a force of nature.
So, I went for lunch, and I said, okay, I explained that I was going to do this rotation and asked her whether she had any advice. She said, “Well, the most important thing is that you ship something.” She said, “It sounds simple, but the day to day is so hectic and busy, and you can lose sight of the fundamental goals.” She said, “This business, Google in particular, and it is true of many, part of business, as a product manager, it doesn’t matter how hard you’re working, if you don’t actually deliver products. So if you’ve only got six months, that’s not very long by Google standards, but you have to be able to point to having delivered something concrete.”
I took that to heart and actually went back to the team, and I told them this, I said, “Look, I want to do well here. A big fact of that is whether we are able to deliver some real value while I’m in this role.” They were super supportive because it was just a great bunch of people. We had a big event coming up about four months later, which is Google’s big developer conference called Google I/O, which was one of our main thing targets for the year. We basically set out this really aggressive program of delivering some really compelling new features for Google I/O. It was like one of my favourite times there because, I didn’t know how it was going to work out. It was only a few months before … Actually, I was planning my wedding at the same time.
And I had this intense period of time to prove that I could do this job. I think we ended up launching like six or seven things. It was amazing. I wouldn’t have gone into it with that level of focus if I hadn’t of had that advice.
Oh, very good. She sounds amazing. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in marketing or business or product management, and how did it come about?
That’s an interesting question. I think I’m going to cheat and give you two.
That’s good. All right. Two for one.
One of the most challenging formative projects I’ve ever worked on, I mentioned that my time at Google was spent working on the Google Maps API and that was the product I was rotated into. By good fortune, my manager and friend was promoted while I was on rotation because his manager left Google. That left his role open for me, and when I did successfully convert, I was able to stay in that same team and continue to manage that product, which I loved. You’ll see around you there’s maps everywhere, because I just found maps fascinating. But the challenge was that this was a product that had been launched in 2005 in response to developers creatively figuring out how to do it in an unofficial capacity and unsupported way by hacking away at Google Maps itself.
It had been launched because it seemed like an interesting opportunity and it spoke very much to Google’s mission, which is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, but it didn’t really have as business strategy behind it at all. That’s fine at first, when it’s just this interesting sideline, but it had grown and grown and it continued to grow. Over the time that I was working on it, it went from 300,000 developers to over a million. There came a point at which the maps’ API was generating and delivering more maps to people than Google Maps.
At that point, the business started paying attention and saying, “Well, why are we doing this? What is the value proposition of this product? How is it delivering value back to Google?” We had to go through a very, very painful process of retrofitting a strategy to this thing, which essentially boiled down to setting reasonable limits on how much it can be used, and then putting a pricing model in place on top of that, which, as you can imagine, went down like a lead balloon with all the developers who’d be using it for free and in unlimited quantities up to that point.
There was a lot of negative press and we had to do a lot of, “Well, we didn’t get the pricing right the first time, because we have no framework in which to price it, because we’d set the market price at zero for so many years.” You can argue that it played a significant part in the diversification of that space, like OpenStreetMaps got a lot of additional attention as an alternative because of this pricing and so on. It was a real formative experience for me to say, make sure you’ve got a strategy, make sure that your products, not just meets a use and need, but also is sustainable. You hear product people often talk about how you need to put the user first. You need to focus on the customer needs and everything else will follow.
I think that’s good advice, but it can’t be in isolation. You have to understand why you’re doing this, and you have to understand you’ve got a balance value proposition on both sides. That was one form of two experience. The second thing I’d say, just briefly is, when I think of this in terms of what advice I give people who are starting out on this journey, I can’t pinpoint a particular instance where I learned this, but I’ve seen this mistake made so many times that I always feel a need to stress it.
Which is that, one of the most common mistakes I see product teams make is assuming that potential users or customers will behave the way that that team needs them to behave in order for their product to succeed. Users aren’t like that. They’re just messy, unpredictable things. Often, I’ll see people come and they’ll pitch ideas or they’ll talk about their product strategy, and it’s so dependent on users behaving or responding to the product in a particular way. The answer is often, have you validated that they will do that, because nine times out of 10 they won’t.
How would they validate that the users would do that? What’s that stage?
Well, let me give you a concrete example. I was doing what they call team, was it, I think it’s just called a team coach for a starter weekend. Starter weekends are an event … I think Google somehow started or sponsored them, but they happen all over the world now, and they were doing one in Exeter. Essentially, you can come along on a Friday evening, anybody can come along. They form teams around some ideas and then they try to deliver a prototype of a product in a weekend. It’s a really fun exercise. They asked me to come along and just drift amongst the teams and give them some advice and keep them on track.
There was one team that was trying to help, I think, they were trying to help people save money at the supermarket. The idea was that you would scan the products that you were buying with your phone, and the product would tell you essentially whether they were available for cheaper elsewhere. I think it could do some other things that they might have been sort of telling you how much [inaudible 00:39:23], and things like that. It sounded compelling, but I said to them, “Your whole proposition relies on people doing this. Now, let’s empathise with the people who are actually doing the shopping. You’re a mother of two. You’ve got your kids in tow, you’re juggling a shopping trolley and, potentially, some bags and you expect them to get their phone out and scan every product they’re buying?”
Their sort of face just dropped. Like, “This is never going to happen.” It doesn’t matter how compelling the data that you’re providing, once they do that is, you’re just not going to get them into the habit of doing it. It’s just not practical in the real world. They’ve not gone out to a supermarket and just looked at the way people shop. The simplest of things is they always tell you, “Get out of the room.” Get out there and just observe, talk to people, understand them. Just the smallest bit of research would have demonstrated that, and what they were asking people to do, wasn’t practical at scale.
[inaudible 00:40:23] really good examples, thank you. What’s the worst experience you’ve had working for someone?
Well, I always say that I would hope I’m a better manager for having worked for some bad managers. I’m not going to name names, but there’s no doubt that I’ve had some managers who I felt were really invested in me as a person and cared about my personal progression, and others who saw their people management responsibilities as a necessary evil and, essentially, just tried to minimise their own workload. One of the things I say to people who are moving into people management for the first time is, it’s important to understand your place in this relationship. You as the manager work for the people who are in your team. It’s not the other way around. Your job as a manager is to facilitate their success.
Consequently, if you go into a one-on-one with them, for example, you need to give them the space and the sort of what we call psychological safety to open up about the challenges they’ve gotten, things that are worrying them and what they are looking to do in the long term career wise and actually be able to have constructive conversations with them. If I compare that to some of the managers I’ve had who have not been great, you’d go into a meeting like that and they would just want to [inaudible 00:41:47] update and they want to be out of the room as quickly as possible. Essentially, they were just looking, and they were only really doing it, because they knew they were meant to.
Unsurprisingly, with people like that, you get to the end of the year and you haven’t had a single good conversation about your performance or what need to do, or where to improve and then your performance review comes along and it comes as a complete surprise to you. As far as I’m concerned, if a performance review comes as a surprise to someone, then their manager has failed them, because those should be conversations that are happening all the time. So, I do look back on certain specific people and think, “What would that person have done in this situation, because I’m not going to do that?”
Right. That’s what not to do.
Not to do. That’s a good way to use it, actually, isn’t it? Even a bad experience can lead to a much better style of working.
What’s the worst advice you’ve heard and why?
Unlike the example I had earlier with the mentor, I can’t think of a specific case where someone said something to me, which, in retrospect, was clearly bad advice. What I would say is that there are some common ways in which product management is described that are not necessarily that healthy or useful. The most common one of those is you’ll sometimes hear a product manager described as the CEO of that product. This, I think, maybe came about, I might be wrong here, but I think it came about from a book called, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which was written by Ben Horowitz, who was one of the co-founders of Andreessen Horowitz, a VC firm in the States. It was written quite a long time ago, back in the days when product management was just beginning to emerge.
What he was trying to say was that, product managers have to think of the totality of all the issues that surround their product. You don’t necessarily have to be a top-class engineer, but you need to understand the engineering challenges. You don’t need to be a marketer, but you need to understand the marketing strategy. You don’t need to be a lawyer, but you need to understand the compliance issues and so on and so on. There is this sense of this is a fully-rounded, 360-degree role. That’s what he was trying to get across is that you do a little bit of everything. But the reason it’s potentially an unhealthy analogy is because it implies a level of authority that doesn’t exist. Product management is very much a role of influence, not of authority.
You have to build relationships, and you have to persuade people, and you have to build their trust, that your vision for the way the product should go is the right one, because you don’t manage the engineers that work on the product. The only people that product managers manage is, potentially, other product managers when they get into more senior roles, but they don’t manage any of these other functions that they engage with. They can decide to ignore you, they can decide not to work with you or to go in a different direction if they disagree. The suggestion that somehow you’re an authoritative figure, sometimes you see people who have worked closely or tangentially with product managers and feel like product managers are the people who decide what gets done, and they come into the role thinking they can tell people what to do. It doesn’t work out well for them.
Doesn’t compute, yeah. Absolutely. With pressures of general life, how do you manage the work-life balance, and how important is that in today’s society?
It’s an ongoing challenge. The funny thing is, what I found is that, going back to what I was saying earlier about how products that I find interesting and enjoy working on, I tend to work harder on, and therefore it tends to go better for me, well, unsurprising is those same products I find it harder to disengage from, and so I’ll be thinking about them at home or I’ll be continuing to work on stuff at home. Yet, at the same time, those are the things that I enjoy and find interesting, so that doesn’t bother me greatly. Whereas, there have been situations where I’ve perhaps been unhappy or disillusioned with a product, where I find it easier to leave it at the door because I’m just like, “I’m done with this. I’m going home.” You know what I mean?
That’s it. [crosstalk 00:45:47].
I’ve actually had more problems with work-life balance with the products I’ve really loved, but at the same time, it hasn’t been too problematic because it hasn’t felt like work because I’ve enjoyed it so much. I’ve been lucky in that sense. However, it is quite easy to get burnt out and not realise it’s happening. I think burnout is something that you hear people talk about, but until you’ve actually experienced it in some sense, you don’t really recognise it, because it creeps up on you. There have been times when I have certainly realised that it’s happening and I have to take a step back and try and wind down. But they’ve also been times when, I talked about Google I/O earlier, there was always a crunch in the wraps that there was always a high stress intensive period, but you knew it would be over, you knew there was a day, it would come when it would stop.
That was somehow okay, and that was better. It’s when there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight that I think it really gets to you. I think one of the things that you do learn as you develop, is just a better sense of introspection, ability to introspect and understand your own emotional and mental state. I think people talk a lot more about mental health now, which is obviously a very good thing, and companies increasingly recognise it as an important facet of people’s performance and people’s wellbeing. And so, in a sense, it’s not just about the cycle of work-life balance, that’s part of this bigger question of, how do you ensure that you’re in a good place and that you’re drawing energy from your work rather than it draining you? So yeah, I think it’s hugely important, but it’s a tough one particularly when you’re just starting out to really get your head around.
I can imagine, really, the sort of opportunity talks about with Crowdcube where you’re coming in and sort of setting up product management. There’s maybe not just the product management job itself, but the scoping out of the role and building something from scratch. I think you do give a bigger part of yourself to situations and times like that.
Yeah, I think we all have a sense of the, for want of a better word, the gravitas of the work that we’re doing at any given moment in time. There are certain projects which feel more important, or certain challenges that feel more existential. Certainly, there were times at Crowdcube where I was very conscious that we’re working on things who were really make or break for the business.
One of the luxuries of working at Google is that, for the majority of people working on the technology products, is that Google essentially is this massive money-making machine that’s primarily driven by the ads business, so you can afford to make mistakes because the impact you have on the overall success of the business is marginal.
Whereas, in a startup, a totally different environment. You can make decisions that will dramatically impact the long-term success or failure of the business. You have to learn to be able to compartmentalise to some extent. Again, it comes down to managing your imposter syndrome and having confidence that you’re doing as good a job as you could hope to do, but that it’s okay if you try your hardest and you approach the role responsibly if things don’t work out and not to beat yourself up about it because sometimes things won’t work out.
Yeah, no, that’s in every walk of life, isn’t it? Every career. What do you listen to when you need to focus?
Two different mindsets I have for that. Sometimes, I just need silence. Sometimes, I just want complete peace, so I might work from home or something like that. If I’m in the office and that I’m surrounded by distractions, then I might take myself away somewhere where people weren’t necessarily expect to find me. If I do want to listen to some music, I tend to find that if I’m working on something that requires real focus, like intense focus, I can’t listen to anything with lyrics. I’ll put on something that’s more instrumental. It could be anything from classical or Fruit to Daft punk. It just depends on the mood I’m in.
And the [inaudible 00:50:16] knew you need to be in that space.
Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Very good. What is the book you recommend the most for marketers or product managers or anybody really today?
One book I rate quite highly is a book called Creativity Inc, which was written by Ed Catmull, who was one of the co-founders of Pixar. The book is … it’s hard, it’s a book about how to successfully manage creative people. But it’s also mixed in with a good amount of history and real-world examples from Pixar, which I just think it’s an interesting and fascinating business anyway.
It’s fantastic, yeah.
The book is quite easy to read, because it’s broken up with these nice anecdotes and stories, but it’s also a pretty remarkable story in itself about business. But to say, the interesting thing about that book is that, it is not just a biography, it talks about what they learned about how to get the best out of people. There are a lot of, obviously, books on managing people and being a manager, but this one, I feel, takes quite a healthy approach.
What parting words of wisdom or advice would you share with our audience?
Well, I suppose it depends on their personal motivations and what role they’re in. I think if you are someone who is interested in moving into product management, then my advice would be to spend time with, or get to know, the product managers in your existing business. Maybe look to attend some meetups. There’s a network of meetups around the world called Product Tank. There are some other smaller local events as well, but Product Tank is now in about 160 cities worldwide, including London, Birmingham, Oxford, Cardiff, Brighton, Exeter and elsewhere. So, try and find a meetup near you, spend some time with people and then offer your services to the product teams you’re working with, just to get a bit more exposure to them.
Just be honest and say, “This is something that I’m interested in and I’d like to learn more about,” because, actually there’s a huge demand for product managers, and it’s much, much easier to recruit internally than to hire externally. If you make someone aware this is something you’re interested in the long term, they are quite likely to be keen to coach you. If you’re someone who perhaps is in an adjacent role that works closely with product management such as marketing, my advice there would be … Obviously, it’s helpful to understand what product managers are trying to do, what their role is in the business, but I think also, product managers in general are juggling relationships with so many different functions and people that often they won’t necessarily understand your role beyond a fairly superficial level.
There’s always a risk that you can oversimplify marketing, you can oversimplify sales and so on and so forth. Spend time with them and explain to them what actually you’re focused on, what your performance is measured on, what kind of pressures you’re under from your manager. Help them empathize with you and understand the incentives you’re operating under. I think what you’ll discover, fairly rapidly, especially on the marketing side actually, is that you’re all trying to solve the same problem. If you look at the history of product management, it grew out of more of a marketing function.
When I was at Sun, they were people called product managers, but they were marketers, pure marketers. Businesses often increasingly now have these growth marketing teams who are essentially a hybrid of products and marketing. There is a healthy amount of overlap and a real opportunity to build a strong relationship there. But I’ve certainly seen too many cases where that’s a competitive relationship rather than a constructive one, and I don’t think it needs to be. I think, actually, you can each be each other’s strongest advocates.
Lovely. What a good mood to leave us Thor, thank you ever so much for your time [crosstalk 00:54:28].
No problem. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
So there your have it, career advice from a real marketing expert and leader in the field. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this podcast, then please leave us a review in iTunes. We’d love to hear your feedback.