The Truth About Engineers and Product Managers
Vera: Hi. I'm Vera Ruel-Wunsch, and I'm the Director of Product for AudienceView.
Suzanne: I'm excited that you're here in particular because your story into product management ... Everyone's got a different story into product management, but your story into product management is one we don't hear a lot, which is a very deliberate pivot into product management.
Suzanne: You were not a product manager for most of your career, and then what? Woke up one day and said, "I want to be one?"
Vera: Kind of.
Vera: So my master's degree is in corporate communication, and I had to do a thesis to get this master's degree. And I wanted to find a novel segment that had been underappreciated by academia before. So I choose software engineers, and I'm married to a software engineer, so it was an easy end to get to know some of the thought leaders in the community. And one of the questions I ask them was, "What's the hardest part about your job?" And they complained about product managers. They said, "The product managers I work with are the hardest part of my job."
So digging into that, and learning what that even means, that's when I learned that product management was even a job. And it sounded a lot like what I did before, but applied to software. So in my previous life, I focused in crisis communication, corporate communication, I did some marketing, I was a editor for a social research journal, and it really leveraged those skills, but you get to actually build stuff, and everything moves quick, and you can turn an idea into a reality within days.
Suzanne: So let me just get this straight. Your spouse indicated that product managers are a real pain, and you're like, "I'm going to go and be one."
Vera: Well, I actually reached out to a lot of software engineers that I really respected. I just sort of cold emailed them, and I realized how friendly they were. They actually responded to my emails. And so I interviewed them, and yup. That's what they complained ... A lot complained about that.
Suzanne: Right. So the mission was like, "Well, these product managers can't be that bad. I know what I'm going to go do, I'm going to be one and then shift the paradigm."
Vera: A little bit. Yeah. It was kind of a hero mentality I think at first.
Suzanne: It's funny because we talk a lot about engineers on this show. As product managers, one of the challenges that we have, one of the responsibilities that we have is aligning all of our stakeholders, which includes our team members. We talk a lot about the challenges of working with engineers.
Suzanne: I'm curious given that you pretty much did a thesis on this, what did engineers have to say about product managers that were so bad?
Vera: That they stood in the way of shipping stuff that they spent a lot of time working on.
Vera: And that they changed the plans without context around that decision, and they felt like they weren't involved in that. And so that lack of alignment was really the biggest issue, which is something that is probably the biggest part of my job is building alignment across all those stakeholders. And one thing I find people in product management talk about, what's the hardest thing to work with engineers? Why is that difficult? And for me it's not directly working with the software engineers that's the hardest part, it's protecting them from other stakeholders that want those resources.
Vera: So explaining why something can't be done faster, or why something can't be done at all given our current resources, and helping the team understand why it's not fair to the engineers to jump the line, and reach out directly to an engineer to try and implement a feature, and sort of skip the level of product decisions that are really required to make that an effective choice in the first place.
Suzanne: So you're hearing all of this feedback about why product managers complicate the process, why they act as roadblocks, what was the exact moment where you started to realize, "I think I want that job"?
Vera: It's hard to pinpoint at a exact moment in time, but getting to know product managers kind of on the scene, and seeing how there is that link to being a founder or a future CEO, that's kind of my game plan. And so I wanted to find the best place to learn about this. There's not a lot of programs for product management, and that's when I found the immersive program at General Assembly here in New York. And just doing the application assignment for that, which is basically like founding your own company and pitching it to the team there, I really knew this was something that I have to do.
Suzanne: So I teach with General Assembly as you know. I teach the part-time course, which is a ten week course, and this immersive program that you're describing is really intensive. It's like Monday to Friday, 9-5, for what? Three or four months, something like that.
Suzanne: So you were like in school learning this stuff day in day out.
Vera: Yup. And the instructors that I had it to ... Shout out to Haywood and Chaz. They were amazing, and they really took no prisoners. You're doing the work. You are a product manager the minute you start that program, and you're expected to deliver and back up your solutions with data.
Suzanne: Right. And so it was successful for you because basically, you'd already had a very successful career kind of 1.0, Vera 1.0, you do this product management immersive, which in a way is like putting your life on pause. That's a big investment to say, "I'm going to go all in on this thing. I'm going to be in school for three months, and the goal is to come out of that, and then get an opportunity working in product." And then you did.
Suzanne: You've had several product roles since, and now you're in a director level position, so it was worthwhile.
Vera: So worthwhile. Our final project was to validate an MVP with actual financial transactions. And for me, it was really overwhelming. I did an MVP, it was a website that looked like you could book rehearsal studio space via the website, it had stars, but it would send me an email. And I did this five times where I got their PayPal, and I booked rooms for five different people. I was like, "This is so much work. If I want to do this, I can do this now, but why don't I work for somebody else and really learn what it's like to do this in reality?" And that's when I found my first PM gig at Eventable.
Suzanne: Because you'd had to do this application to kind of get in, and then culminate it with an MVP that you could prove out, was it your initial intention to build out that business? You saw this more as, "I want to build out a business. Here's a path for learning how to do the right things," and then you changed your mind.
Vera: Yeah. So learning about product market fit along the way, it wasn't my original intention, but once you figure out what that means, and you're super validated in it, why not try it?
Suzanne: So many great companies as they went crashing and burning all the way to the ground. "Well, let's just try this product market fit thing. See how we do."
Vera: Exactly. So it's something that I use every day for features even, not just new products.
Suzanne: In the classroom, the benefit that we have is we can speak about best practices, we can introduce all of the great ideas, and the newest frameworks, and all of the contemporary thinking, and we can go at a pace that we can somewhat control. In the real world, best practices are like a distant memory, there's lots of constraints, there's way less time than you ever thought possible. How did you start to negotiate that adjustment once you kind of started working in active product roles?
Vera: So if I had a to-do over again, the immersive program, I would go back and think with every lesson learned, and every best practice that you acquire, how would I teach this to somebody else?
Vera: You can join a team that maybe embraces most best practices, but it's a matter of educating everyone on what that is, and then learning why what you may have thought was a best practice doesn't quite fit the way you thought it would for the organization.
Suzanne: Okay. Do you have an example of one say even in your current role where you came in the door thinking, "This is a great way to do X," and then for reasons that quickly emerged, you thought, "Well, I guess it's not really going to work well for us."
Vera: Yeah. So our team really knows their personas, and that's one of the first things I like to do when I join an organization is really nail down the personas, and get the persona into the user stories, make it beautiful, put it on the wall so we're always thinking about the people. But my team knows our users so well that it's kind of in their bones. They don't really need this super formalized way of viewing our users because there's so many. We have like 17 personas.
Suzanne: Right. Wow. Yeah. So I think what I'm hearing you say is you were a little bit more forgiving about the fact that they didn't actually have 17 printed images and quotes of all of these different folks.
Suzanne: But the work must have been done. I mean, for the personas, for the customers to be sort of viscerally understood, that does require a certain amount of knowing the customer, knowing the customer, knowing the customer, and staying consistent with that over time. Does some of that happen even before your arrival? What were they doing that they got to know the customers so well?
Vera: Absolutely. So my team is so cool because a lot of us have entertainment backgrounds. And even if you don't, we're around each other, so we're encouraging each other to be ourselves and be open, and we support the arts and nonprofit performing arts organizations mainly. So our customers and ourselves are very similar. And having that natural empathy is everything.
Suzanne: Right. Do you think that it ever can work against you being that you embody so much of who your customers are? Maybe you leave work and you are theoretically those people. Does that ever run the risk of blinding you to making certain decisions correctly because you're the product person and the customer, and you know what's best on sort of both sides.
Vera: Right. Being mindful of the assumptions you're making, and calling each other out on that in a kind way as a team is something that we're always doing. It's really easy to slip into that, and something that luckily we're all mindful of.
Suzanne: Yeah. I say a lot that the better we get in our discipline, the more susceptible we are to making the mistakes. And when you're early, when you're straight out of school, when you're doing the job of the first time, you're nervous in a way.
Vera: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suzanne: So you've got your checklists, and you're making really certain that you don't make assumptions, or that you set aside a time and in certain circumstance for validating them, and then you get better and better, and the let's go sees start to devolve into more and more, "I know this is the right direction, which is of course, that's our danger. That's our blind spot."
Vera: Right. As your confidence increases, so does the risk that you'll make a bad decision.
Suzanne: Right. So the balance is be confident ... I have a slide in my class. I say, "What are the skills and qualities of a great product manager?" And skills, I don't give as much credence to skills because they're learnable, they're teachable. Qualities are learnable as well I believe, but those softer qualities, we have to dig deeper, and sometimes go through a lot more personal stuff to overcome. The first one on the list is confidence, right? Because as product managers, we don't have a lot of power, but we sure do have a lot of responsibility to get different folks rowing in our direction. And as your thesis proved, sometimes those folks don't want to come with us. They don't agree with our decisions.
Vera: Absolutely. And I find I've seen some more junior product managers suffer from overconfidence a little early on. So that's a pitfall too because it's possible that one might think that they know everything after exiting the General Assembly program, but you really don't.
Suzanne: Right. That's a good testament to the quality of the General Assembly program, and a bad testament to us as human beings that we can puff ourselves up so quickly and so readily. "I've got this."
Suzanne: My favorite stories from students come ... So we teach ... I teach a one week format of the course, which is hyper-compacted and accelerated. And then a 10 week version of the course. And I always say to people who are maybe considering doing one or the other, the one week is a great format if you're already working as a product manager, and you want to sort of jam as much knowledge as you can into a tight timeline, and then go back to the office Monday and start assimilating it. But if you don't have to do that, there's no merit in rushing through all of the content because actually the time is where the beautiful discoveries happen.
And so we do ... The idea is you come in class one, and we talk about how to look for ideas, right? In the form of sort of problem observation. And by the end, you're presenting kind of a holistic go to market plan for a product that you've validated, that you've researched, that you've understood. And final project starts day one, but I've had students come to me week three, week six, week nine, and they're like, "I'm just going to change my idea because I realized as I was going through this work, this isn't a good path. There's not enough market." And I think, "That's amazing," because that's the build measure learn loop in action. It's like I started to put together a plan, I realized it's not a good one, I realized it doesn't have merit, I made an adjustment, and now I can kind of go faster through that loop.
Vera: Absolutely. That's the power of failing in action.
Vera: Really quickly. I'm sure that's an intense course.
Suzanne: Yeah. Well you know, if you do your homework, then you stay ahead. But I always say, "I'm not here to manage you and your homework, but I will advise you that it takes longer than you think." Looking at it as a checklist, go and do three or five customer interviews looks like something that you could just go and do and check off, but as we know from sort of branching exploration, what starts out as three customer interviews, or five customer interviews quickly becomes 15 or 25 because five people told you five different things, and now you have to kind of go and look for the patterns.
Vera: So true.
Vera: So time consuming.
Suzanne: Aren't you glad you're not in class anymore?
Vera: Yeah. I'm glad that I survived. There's those moments of, "What did I do?" But it's so worth it, and it's required to ... I like the stretched out experience because you have some reflection time, and the ability to sort of do your own retrospectives every week and say, "What could I have done better? What will I do different next time?" That kind of attitude.
Suzanne: Yeah. I don't know if all of our listeners are familiar with AudienceView, so tell us what is AudienceView?
Vera: So AudienceView has multiple products. There's the AudienceView ticketing solution. It's a white label solution for arts and sports organizations. Whether your audience is from 99 to 100,000, it's super customizable, very cool product. We have TheaterMania, and WhatsOnStage, which are the premier sources for Broadway and performing arts news in New York and London, and other communities around the country as well. And then there's OvationTix, which is what I work on, and it's a platform that's an all in one ticketing, fundraising CRM software. We have an API, and our goal is to support mission-focused organizations. So what I work on is there's the ticketing part, right? And we're a white label solution. So you go to a website, and it looks like you're buying it through the website, but it's our product that you plug in.
Suzanne: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Vera: But so many of our clients drive their revenue through fundraising. So fundraising is a big aspect of this as well.
Suzanne: Right. So tell us a little bit more about who is the customer, or what's kind of the fundamental need that your product addresses?
Vera: To have the data all in one place. So a lot of companies in this industry, they'll use Raiser’s Edge, or a separate fundraising solution.
Suzanne: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Vera: And then they have their ticketing solution somewhere else, and then they have their financial reporting in another tool, and we bring it all together into one place, and we provide analytics on that data, best in class reporting ...
Suzanne: So the API is available so that companies like mine, The Development Factory, could if I had a client that wanted to create a product and kind of augment it with some of the functionality, we would be your customer in that context, right? We could leverage the API to do some fun customization work.
Suzanne: So the product has a fundraising component, it's got a CRM component, and it's got the core ticketing component. And all of those modules if you will, you're kind of bundling under this title OvationTix.
Suzanne: So do you consider them three separate products, or do you consider it one product with three separate functions? How do you delineate that?
Vera: We consider it one product, but we have separate teams that support that because it's delivering on different customer needs.
Suzanne: Right. So do you oversee then all three of those product teams?
Vera: I do. So sometimes one thing you'll catch me saying is we a lot, but right now it's just me. So the product team is me, so we're actually hiring product managers, so if anyone's listening and wants to work with me, please apply.
Suzanne: I'm sure they will want to work you. You have other folks hopefully, you've got engineers. They're not expecting you to do all of the work on your own.
Vera: Yup. We have 10 engineers, we have an amazing sales team, customer success, UX team. So we're well resourced, we just need more product managers.
Suzanne: Yeah. And what's so interesting too is I sit at this intersection where I get a lot of listeners will email me their resume and say, "Hey, I appreciate the show, and I'm really trying to get into product. Could you take a look at this resume and kind of tell me what you think." And I equally get a lot of companies contact me and say, "You know a lot of product managers. We're really looking for someone. Could you help us?" In fact, one of the functions that we've been experimenting with, but will be rolling out more fully in the coming weeks at 100 Product Managers is a job exchange, or a job board. And what I find so interesting is that if you ask either side, everybody has a problem. Everyone who's looking for work is saying, "I can't get a job as a product manager," and then there's all these companies, yours included, that are looking ... Not just one, multiple product managers.
Suzanne: What do you think is the problem here?
Vera: What is the problem? This is something I've thought about a lot, because product management is the most in demand, hottest job. You see it in Harvard Business Review and Mackenzie Reports. It's the job of now and the job of the future. But it's so competitive at the same time.
Vera: I don't understand why.
Vera: I think people perhaps have different ideas of what a good product manager looks like. Different companies care more about being human centered in your way of thinking. I've seen other companies that want you to be Scrum certified, and really care more about process. It's the Agile versus Waterfall thing.
Suzanne: Well, and it goes back to another thing that I talk about a lot, which is when you're looking for a job, it's so important to be connected to what kind of job you want, because all product manager positions are not created equal. I mean in large part, it's why this show exists is to say, "Product management can look very different. If it's B2B, if it's B2C depending on the business model of the product itself, depending on the vertical that it's in." So the more you hook into something that you're excited about, the clearer it will be.
And if you don't want to be technical, you don't consider yourself technical, and you're not really particularly passionate about learning code, do not go and apply for a job at a company like Amazon, which requires a deep level of technical expertise, or Google. There are lots of organizations who, as you say, want a different type of product manager who shines well in other areas of those skills. So it's important to know your mix, and lead with that rather than always sort of framing it up in terms of inadequacy, which also isn't good for us emotionally.
Vera: I think that's a really good point is sort of know your brand. You are a product as a product manager, so manage yourself accordingly, and how do you want to position yourself amongst your peers.
Suzanne: Right. Let's say I'm listening in, and I'm like, "I'm going to go and apply to be a product manager and work with Vera." What are you looking for? What are the skills and the qualities that you see as being kind of essential for making a good fit both culturally with where you're at in terms of you as a leader, and just that you think every product manager should have?
Vera: Really it's about grit. If you don't know something, do you have the ability to learn it quickly? Respecting other people's opinions. Our team currently, we never have to worry about someone's opinion not getting voiced in the room, because the team takes care of each other. We're super respectful, we're ourselves in front of each other, and someone who could slot into that and support that culture is very important. Technical wise, it's really great to know SQL.
Vera: So you don't have to write code, you have to understand how code happens, and the process around that. We are a Kanban team, so we have some of the agile ceremonies, but we do stuff in a super just in time fashion.
Vera: Road mapping is great. So you need to have some level of experience, but I'm open to considering people from different backgrounds.
Suzanne: Let's talk about Kanban, because it's not something that we get to talk about a lot on the show. So was the environment already running in that process, and then you walked in and you're like, "I thought we were going to do Scrum?"
Vera: Yeah. It stays exciting. Yeah. There's things that I kind of miss about a two-week Sprint cycle, but we actually end up getting a lot done quicker, so there's things that I embrace about that. So we're not waiting until the grooming to discuss issues, we are in constant communication, and deciding what's next, and we have the ability to shift focus quickly.
Suzanne: Share with our listeners just a little bit of the basics of how Kanban works as opposed to a Scrum ritual just so that we can kind of see that distinction when you talk about just in time for example.
Vera: So in agile Sprint, you sort of have a moment where you look at the backlog of issues, and you say, "In the next however long, a week, two weeks, we're going to get this amount done. And this is a release perhaps." And there's a lot of ceremonies around estimating, how much can we fit into that Sprint? And with Kanban, we're saying, "How much can we get done to solve this problem quickly?"
Vera: So it's a lot looser, but having a team that knows how long things actually take to get done makes that way easier.
Suzanne: Yeah. No, I've heard a lot of people who use Kanban. They talk about the four stages of teams, right? Forming, storming, norming, and performing. And I think Kanban is a process that works very well for performing teams, which are usually teams that have worked together for a while, they have a good rhythm, there's not a lot of volatility because it sounds like we're saying, "We're not going to put estimates around anything. We're just going to like do it as we can," which would be very scary, which is why the idea of time boxing it, and holding people accountable in Scrum seems appealing, but in reality it's, "We don't need to go through that exercise because the time that it takes is the time that it takes, and we've already ironed out a lot of the kinks to get it working and flowing as well as we possibly could." That's why we're just we're working on this until we're working on the next thing, and we know that we've got good flow.
Vera: Exactly. I know when I joined I thought, "Wow. This is crazy. How do you live like this?" But no, it's super efficient. And having a team that communicates along the way really supports that structure.
Suzanne: So do you use Trello then for ticket tracking, or you have a manual board? How does it all-
Vera: We use JIRA.
Suzanne: You use JIRA. JIRA and the Kanban configuration.
Vera: Yes. Correct.
Suzanne: Very cool. Okay. What does a day or week in the life of you look like in your current role?
Vera: Okay. So it could be so many different things, but the things that I do in a given day, it could be scheduling usability tests, conducting usability tests, distilling those insights, presenting it to multiple teams. It could be roadmapping for the next month, the next year. It could be roadmapping features specifically, and all the communication work and alignment that even gets you to that point, which is the harder part of that. It's not just putting items onto a time frame or calendar view. Interviewing customers. Wow. What else do I do? Write user stories all the time. Since it's just me, I'm kind of in that mix of being super tactical and super strategic at the same time, which we all are anyways, product managers, but yeah, I'm writing the stories for all the teams, and ensuring that they get done.
Suzanne: Do you have a process that you use for kind of generating stories, or running them by folks? I mean, one of the things that is a challenge is not being a bottleneck to the team, right?
Suzanne: That if you as the product manager are kind of owning the user stories, then it's really incumbent upon you to make sure there's always a healthy batch of stories available so that as the team starts picking tickets up, they can work on them.
Suzanne: But one of the challenges of course that that presents, especially when we talk about product managers not necessarily going very deep and technical, or maybe not being strong in terms of design thinking, or user centered design, is how do I write a user story, or more importantly, how do I create acceptance criteria that are kind of well thought out, and are multidimensional, and are considerate of functional requirements and non functional requirements and performance based? And you learned a lot. You learned a lot at General Assembly, and in all the roles that you've had between then and now in this current position, and you surely have gaps in your own expertise. So how do you backfill that knowledge?
Vera: So one of the things we do is we talk through the user needs, and there's so much that I don't know about the code to make the acceptance criteria, especially when it's a data centric user story, and it's all about reporting and analytics. So it's about talking with the team, and I take notes constantly. So if it's something about a query that would populate a visualization, really understanding that, and having the team explain that to me so I can fold that in to make sure the QA tests that.
Suzanne: Right. So do you actually set aside like a regular meeting for that purpose, or is it a lot more ad hoc like, "Hey so and so, can I just discuss this with you for five minutes?"
Vera: So in our morning stand ups, we'll say, "Hey, is this the day that we need to touch base on this?" And so we'll actually schedule a couple of hours and just go through everything. That could happen once a week, it could happen twice a week. We're in this very small open office space, so we just talk to each other too. So that helps a lot.
Suzanne: Yeah. Yeah. I ask the question because we've been exploring this idea of the tension between best practices and theory, and the reality and the constraints kind of in the day to day. And I know this as an instructor of product management is that we teach a lot of best practices, we don't always talk about the granular choices that you need to make. The class will teach you you need to write user stories, and here's how you write them, and you can't be a bottleneck.
Suzanne: And the world will teach you, "When should I write those? How often should that be? When will we talk about that?" So I like to hear about the processes that individual folks have set up for themselves because those are the best examples of there really is no one way, just a way that works for you and your team.
Vera: Definitely. One of the things that I wasn't exactly prepared for is just learning when to break a story into other stories. So I will Slack somebody a draft of my story and say, "Hey, does this sound right?" And they're like, "No. Actually, this applies to another thing." So it's that whole invest framework of making sure that the stories aren't too dependent.
Suzanne: Yeah. yeah. That's the art, right? And they're almost always too big. I say that a lot when we talk about epics. Epics just being really big user stories, and I say to people who are just trying their hand at writing stories for the first time, "I don't want you to worry about trying to make this story smaller because you're not going to make it smaller. I'm still writing stories that are too big, and it is that just practice and doing over time, and getting more acquainted." And this is fundamentally why we have teams is that there's somebody in the room to go, "That's two tickets, not one."
Suzanne: And break out the sort of proverbial sledgehammer, and split it apart, and split it apart, and split it apart. So good team report. It goes back to communication, really.
Vera: Right. Yup. So that takes more time than you think.
Vera: And even then, it's probably going to be broken down into something else. And it's just a matter of understanding that that helps the engineer document the work they're doing and keep track of it in a way that is super efficient.
Suzanne: Validated learning, which we've been speaking a lot about, is about risk mitigation, right? It doesn't preclude failure, it just gives you a better chance at not failing. That's the fundamental belief. It's just like a better chance at not failing, or a better chance of not failing spectacularly because if you're only sort of doing things incrementally and checking, you can't really kind of go too far, and therefore the impact of a mistake isn't too great. We talk a lot about failure.
Vera: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suzanne: We don't talk a lot about success. And I look at your story as an incredible success story of saying, "I want to go after something," and then going after it, and then just crushing it. I mean, do you consider yourself to be successful in this trajectory?
Vera: Yeah. Well, I'm always learning, and I also appreciate very deeply that learning that comes from failure, but I think the harder thing to do that isn't often talked about very much in product management is what do you do when you are successful? Because that's really the harder part is does that shift focus for the team, does that shift the road map around, do you have to grow the team, does it matter if you're successful because maybe the strategy is something else, or maybe you define success in a way that doesn't resonate with the executives. So doing that, it just means more work, and it's harder than failing in a lot of ways. We're introspective people or we wouldn't have chosen this career, so failing in a way is that we love it.
Vera: Being successful, especially for anyone that has any imposter syndrome. Like really? Is this actually happening? It's a challenge.
Suzanne: Yeah. It's so funny because in a lot of ways, we're told over and over again nine out of 10 companies are going to fail at this. Probably if you're listening in, you've worked at one or two companies that tried to make it and didn't, and moved on to something else. So it's an interesting point that you bring up, which is like you're watching the numbers, and then one day they really start trending in exactly the right direction, which is of course a direct result of all of this work.
Suzanne: So you're saying there's initially some shock where you're like, "I think it's working."
Suzanne: How long does that shock last?
Vera: It can't last too long because you have to decide what to do next, and have the ability to make quick decisions.
Vera: So if something's successful, clients or customers will want more.
Vera: And more could even mean less, so streamlining an experience, but the core of it, you got really right.
Vera: And what do you want to do next?
Suzanne: Right. It sounds like one of the challenges that you're facing is you're being successful, and you're needing to grow your team.
Vera: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suzanne: And then that's going to bring that sort of syncopation, that storming phase back upon you because now you're going to enter new people, maybe some of the processes that have worked really well are going to start to break because they don't scale. Process doesn't scale. That's an important point, right? Are you prepared for it? Are you like, "Yeah, bring it on. I want to break stuff again."
Vera: I hope it does. I hope it all breaks because that's where progress comes from, and it's literally how you grow. It has to break.
Suzanne: You're a true masochist.
Suzanne: All right. We do this segment called Get the Job, Learn the Job, Love the Job. And I would like to frame this first question specifically given your kind of the path that you've taken. So I think we have a lot of folks listening in who are novice, and intermediate, and experienced product managers, and their goals are to level up, to make that sort of next move. I think we have a lot of folks listening in who operate or work currently in PM adjacent roles, and are more interested in kind of becoming a product manager from a developer role, or from a designer role.
I think we have a lot of entrepreneurs listening in going, "Somebody told me I need to learn and think and do like a product manager until I can afford to hire one, so what's this product management thing?" And I hope we have a lot of listeners out there who are not product managers, are not developers, are not entrepreneurs, but think this could be a role for them. Think that product management could be a job for them. And they've been hearing these stories kind of week over week. And given that you were not a project manager, and given that you were not in a PM adjacent role, what advice would you offer to somebody sitting in exactly that position who wants to make the leap?
Vera: I would say initially, put yourself in the way of product managers that you admire, and build that relationship. And from my experience, the best mentors that I've had in my career never knew they were my mentors. We never had a formal conversation like, "Will you be my mentor?"
Vera: It's a matter of observing closely, building that relationship, and sort of sneaking in questions that don't waste their time. And once you have that relationship, for me, my network that I've built over the years is everything for me, especially because I'm just me right now. So when there's a hard question, I can say, "Hey, what would you do in this situation?" And then they, because they're amazing people, will ask me questions that get me to where I want to go without telling me what to do.
Suzanne: Yeah. I think that's excellent advice for the reasons that you gave it, and then also for when we talk about getting out of the building, that kind of classic phrase which really refers to going out and talking to real people, but I think when we are product managers ourselves, we can become very used to how we do things at our company.
Vera: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Suzanne: And if we are prone towards self-examination, and I hope we are, and you talk about being introspective, then at some point we think, "Are we doing this the right way or the best way? How are other people doing it?" So really I think that advice also applies to people who are product managers to say, "Look, don't just now that you're a product manager somewhere sit around on that. Still go out and make friends with other folks, and other teams, and learn about their processes because there might be some usable nuggets there."
Vera: Absolutely. And I would also say talk to people that aren't product managers, but are great leaders.
Suzanne: Right. Yeah.
Vera: Because the leadership quality is something that's absolutely necessary. So find people that you respect that manage their team well, because that's crucial.
Suzanne: In terms of learning the job, right? Can you remember any specific instances maybe in some of the roles that you had kind of shortly after you took you product management course where you're like, "Oh. That was a lot harder when I had to do it in real life than when it was in class." Or just places where you stumbled in practice, and that you would advise to somebody listening to say, "Watch out for this, because in the books it sounds easy, and in real life it looks and manifests a little bit differently."
Vera: Yeah. Things can take more time than you think they would. In the General Assembly program, everyone's on the same page. When you work with the UX designers, and the engineers, and then there's roles in real life that you don't have exposure to in the program like working with product marketing and the sales team.
Vera: So being in lock step with an even broader group of stakeholders, it's different.
Vera: It's super important. So we talk a lot about over communicating being a great thing as a product manager, but it's even more than that. You're super over communicating to a lot of people all the time.
Suzanne: Yeah. And identifying those stakeholders I think goes hand in hand with that, because to your point, whatever the format of your training or you're learning, whether informally reading books and listening to shows, or actually going through some type of program, there is a degree of a simulated environment. And although it would be really fun to bring in sales and marketing people into that role playing mix and saying, "Now you got to go and make these people happy, and they're only happy when they're selling." But exactly that. Showing up day one and saying, "Do I know who my stakeholders are? Do I know how to decisions get made within this organization? And am I making sure to have the right conversations with the right people at the right time?" Because your interaction designer and your developer, they're your closest allies, but everyone else has their own objectives that they're trying to achieve.
Vera: Exactly. So that's part of the fun. So if you like that kind of thing, you should be a product manager.
Suzanne: All right. Well, would you ever go back? Do you have any regrets?
Vera: No regrets because I feel like I'm still doing corporate communication every day. I mean, MailChimp has this image of a finger sweating when you hit the send button to a massive mailing list, and that's how I feel all the time sending like a all company email, or submitting my weekly report to like 100 people. So yeah, I feel like I'm still doing it.
Suzanne: Yeah, you're definitely doing it, and I think that's so great. What would you go back and say to all of the software engineers that you interviewed in your thesis now that you've been a product manager, and really lived into the challenges of the role to help them empathize better with us?
Vera: First of all, I would say thank you for letting me know ... Keeping it real with me, what this is really like, and giving me that insight to prevent me from doing all the things wrong. And to empathize with us, there's a lot of expectations on us from a lot of people. And ultimately, our mission in life is to make the user happy, and to solve their problems. So even if we do things that could potentially be annoying, have empathy because it's in the spirit of delivering on providing the user value.
Suzanne: That's beautiful. I love that. Recommended resources, anything that's inspired you in particular that you'd like us to throw up at 100productmanagers.com/resources?
Vera: Yeah, yeah. Benedict Evans’ newsletter is amazing. Hiten Shah. Love everything he does. I just read a really great book that applies I think to product management indirectly, and it's by Chris Voss and it's called Never Split the Difference.
Vera: He's an FBI hostage negotiator turned business negotiator, and it's amazing.
Suzanne: Oh, I love that. Okay.
Vera: The book Camille Fournier, she's an engineering leader, wrote on the manager's path for leadership in tech is great.
Suzanne: Awesome. Okay. Great reads. Well, we'll make sure to get all of those up and into the show notes. Last question for you Vera, is there a personal or professional mantra you use to guide your life, guide your work life, that's something that you want to share with us as parting words of wisdom?
Vera: Yeah. So I actually have two, and they switch depending on my mood and what day it is.
Suzanne: Okay, lay it on me.
Vera: So my first one is it's from Chris Rock, and it's, “No one cares. Work harder.”
Vera: So there's that one. And then this one I heard at a conference recently. It was Lea Hickman from Silicon Valley Product Group, and I think she was quoting Marty Cagan, but ... And it's cheesy, and I'm hearing everyone's eyes roll collectively as I say this. But it's, “Don't be a know it all, be a learn it all.”
Suzanne: Got it, got it. You need two different mugs with those quotes so that the rest of the team knows what kind of mood you're in depending on which mug you're drinking out of, and they can approach with caution or not.
Vera: No, I love it. Or even a hat.
Suzanne: Okay. Vera Ruel-Wunsch, thank you so much for being part of our program.
Vera: Thank you, Suzanne. This was amazing.