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5 Minutes with Ken Sandy

Product Managers often have varied backgrounds before becoming a Product Manager. How did you get into Product Management?

Ken SandyI was very fortunate to have found my passion very early in my career. I studied computer science and worked briefly as an engineer. While I enjoyed solving the complex technology problems, I lacked context for why we were building these solutions and the impact I might be making to the company or customer. I shifted my career into Management Consulting. Over the next three years I was exposed to business strategy, analysis, and operations, contributing to some key decisions at some of Australia’s top companies. While this was exciting I missed getting hands-on. Often us consultants would disappear after making the recommendations, leaving the company to implement.

Several of my McKinsey colleagues were leaving to start an internet company and asked me to join then. I quickly found my niche. Product Management struck the perfect balance between being highly strategic on one end, yet detailed and executional on the other, to bring a quality product to market. And you simultaneously get to work across an entire organization, over all business and technology realms.

People often help along the way, has there been somebody that really helped you and how?

Absolutely! Too many to name. Two of my past managers stand-out. One, Martin Hosking, a leading entrepreneur in Australia, and another Lee Kirkpatrick, now CFO at communications company Twilio. Both spent time to understand me – strengths and weaknesses – and what drove me. They were, and remain today, wonderful mentors unafraid to provide feedback, insights and advice to make me a better professional and person.

I am a firm believer in paying-it-forward. Generously offer time, help, mentorship, or connect others to your network. Do so for anyone who seeks it without any immediate expectation of quid pro quo. This isn’t so much “karma” as playing your part to create an open, supportive culture within the industry and building a professional reputation for being a knowledgeable go-to-person. All my Product Management heroes practice paying-it-forward.

We love reading here at Brainmates and have quite the library of books. What book have you read lately that has really influenced you?

I’ve been reading dozens of book and blogs. There is so much good information out there. An old favorite is Inspired – How to Create Products Customers Love, by Marty Cagan. The book does a good job at laying out the necessary product, process and people skills needed to create outstanding, delighting customer-centric products.

But, and forgive the shameless plug, I feel there is a gap in the market. There are few condensed, approachable, and highly practical resources for Product Managers to learn practical skills or avoid common pitfalls. We all know that we should carefully manage a product launch, communicate effectively with stakeholders, conduct highly-effective customer interviews, or motivate an engineering team. However, what are the tried and true strategies and behaviors to go about these tasks? Most of us PM’s learn by doing and we make critical mistakes along the way. So, I’ve set about writing a book that articulates specific tools, frameworks, and techniques any PM can deploy that I know are successful. The book will be launched later this year and I’ll have more to share at the Leading The Product conference.

How do you do Product management? What’s your secret sauce? What we really want here are things that others can apply in their job.

Much is spoken about Product Managers needing to “lead by influence” as they have little direct authority over the teams that they rely on to be successful. Conceptually this seems fairly straightforward – however what techniques work to master it are non-obvious. Product Managers rely on persuasive power not positional power to achieve goals. I believe this is a positive force that makes a Product Manager more effective. The role is structured to be independent and central to the organization, yet dependent on the success of others. By not having direct authority over a team, PMs are forced to rely on:

  • objectivity and data to drive decision making,
  • cross-team collaboration and compromise to deliver outcomes, and
  • the needs of the customer and business to guide priorities

Here are three critical techniques to employ

  1. Set context, not requirements, for your team – so they reach similar insights
    Context is the underlying reasons that guide the product direction. It is the “why” you are doing something, not the “what” or “how”. Inexperienced Product Managers are often prescriptive on the latter without enough of the former. Teams that don’t anchor their discussions around the “why” tend to be very demotivated, even rebellious. They don’t feel connected to the business nor convinced that what they are toiling away on will be useful to the business or customers. I tend to patiently share, in detail, the bigger picture and my supporting data. I ask them questions, without leading them by the nose to my own conclusions. As they voice their thoughts they reach similar conclusions for what needs to be done – or perhaps they surprise me with a new perspective I hadn’t considered.
  2. Focus on hypotheses and evidence over opinion – be objective and impartial
    Know the difference between an opinion versus a hypothesis with strong evidence behind it. Ideally, I arm myself with persuasive, supporting data – qualitative and quantitative – for any decision. But that isn’t always possible or time efficient. Even then, I ensure we don’t forget we’re working on the basis of a set of assumptions that will eventually need to be tested, and may well be wrong. I deliberately use terminology like “our hypothesis is” or “we’re testing and validating X” in conversation to keep this top-of-mind. It surprises me even today how many strategic discussions, at some of the most senior levels, are based on personal preferences, anecdotes, or opinion alone. Even the most experienced senior exec isn’t going to be right all the time. By highlighting hypotheses, assumptions, options, data, and risks, a Product Manager can cut through opinions and align stakeholders behind a course of action.
  3. Create opportunities for open discussion – while appreciating individual perspectives and incentives
    Stakeholders, even executives, are often misaligned with each other. They are too busy, too focused on achieving their specific goals, and too harried by their own teams to have identified all the cross-department issues and to have hashed these out. One of my favorite influencing techniques is to get key stakeholders into a room to discuss a critical issue. By first structuring the discussion – setting context, explaining the problem, and sharing all the data I have – I sit back and let them start to talk. About half-way through I will ask a couple of probing questions and suggest possible courses of action. Usually the room has already reached the same conclusions as I have – but now they also feel deep ownership for the outcomes.

There’s a lot happening in the area of Product Management. What do you see as the most exciting development for Product Management?

When I first started, you had to build your own “everything”. Now the internet has become much more of a platform where it is possible to bring together all kinds of tools and off-the-shelf systems to compose your product. Prototyping, rapid development and A|B testing are the norm now.

All this has allowed PM’s to test their assumptions with much more rigor, in less time and at lower cost than before. Being “wrong” is no longer big deal – instead it is about trying and testing as many ideas as possible (continuous validation). This is transforming the PM role into one who guides an organization gradually from product vision, towards product-market fit, and ultimately to product excellence by leveraging data, customer insights, and talent and ideas from around an organization.

A second exciting development is that Product Management is finally becoming a more standardized, well understood, strategic function – at least throughout Bay Area technology companies. More companies recognize the need to bring on strong Product leadership early, and recognize Product Management isn’t simply working with a development team to define and ship a bunch of customer requirements. PM has become the “glue” bringing together a cross-functional group of professionals – marketing, engineering, executive – all who contribute to product success.

Want more from Ken?