Be the Compass for Your Team

Growing up (in Sweden), we had team-based orienteering on the gym class schedule (note: this was way before Google Maps). This cumbersome activity was a frequent item on the agenda during every out-door season (which by the way was calendar based rather than weather based – yeah, gym class was hard). We learned how to read maps and use both nature and a compass to get a sense of direction. We ran in “unknown terrain” of the woods (i.e. a small forest next to the school campus). Every year, in the same forest. I can’t count how many bruises, cuts, and mud-soaked, smelly gym clothes I had to endure. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…

Senior years we had learned enough about the forest to know ahead of time approximately where the controls were placed. And of course this enabled us to optimize our strategy. Our teams divided and conquered by sending out scouts to each control separately, and then copying the stamp pattern across all our stamp cards. I’m still not sure it was cheating, as we had advanced our skills. I.e. we had learned the basics the first years, evolved to develop a distributed system over the following years, and optimized for quickest time to results to achieve the goal. Additionally we gained the bonus of hanging out out-of-sight from the goal line and discussing “much more important things” (like boys, fashion, or random emergencies in teenage lives – i.e. creating social networks) than running around in a forest.

Fast forward 10s of years. I’ve realized only a few people (these days) here in the Valley can actually read a (real) map, use a compass, and survive 72 hours in the woods (without phone or without asking “the internet”). I kind of feel proud of my high-school acquired survival skills, in comparison. But more importantly, I’ve come to appreciate other aspects of what those gym classes taught me:

  • Don’t lose hope or sense of direction, just because you’ve gotten a bit lost from your original, known path
  • Don’t fret about tiny falls or bumps on the way, instead keep on moving towards the target
  • Be attentive, listen, and look for signs to get hints about what would be a misleading shortcut vs. the best way forward. It’s not always what seems to be the easiest path that leads you to your goal.
  • Stop frequently and course direct along the way.
  • Account for misinformation from your team, but don’t put blame – you’ll be the one making the mistake next time.
  • Struggle through rough patches – as a team!
  • Have clear milestones to enable measuring achievement along the way – to see progress, but also keep team spirit up
  • The minute you realize you are off track, backtrack to the most recent known place and re-plan from there – re-assess information you acquired that took you on the wrong path!
  • Plan a path, and create optional paths A, B, and C, in case of the unknown.
  • Be open to creatively come up with plan D, in case you need to, along the way.
  • Pick people on your team with different skills, to assure success.
  • Try to be the compass for your team when the rest of the team feels lost.
  • Don’t be scared of unknown terrain – with the right tools and a team that communicates, you’ll get through.

Perhaps not all of this wisdom is purely derived from orienteering, but the metaphor helps inspire me at times and to get some perspective on project planning and execution, team management, and utilization of skills to reach a goal.

On a side note, I probably owe my old high-school gym-teacher a proper thank you for the tedious effort of motivating 20-or-so grumpy and freezing teenagers to run in a wet forest, for no obvious immediate reward. In the hindsight I do appreciate some of the endurance practiced and the inspiration to ponder decades later.

Engineering a Cup of Coffee

I love talking to engineers on random topics! One of the best parts of my job is to have a mind-challenging conversations with engineers who are enthusiastic, curious, and creative by nature.

Today I ended up in the lunch room in the Cloudera office with a couple of engineers discussing an earlier event that morning around how complicated it seemed to create a cup of coffee. Of course it really was a meta-discussion-battle about engineers vs. customers vs. product managers…

The steps that the engineer did to make me a cup of coffee, while explaining it to me:

  • You first grind the coffee (automatic), actually you first choose if you want a single or dubble (different holder for different sizes)
  • Then you stomp it (manual)
  • Then you put the thing into this holder and lock it into position
  • Then you push this button to make it a single
  • Then you wait…oh…hm…something is wrong…why isn’t water coming through? This happened to me yesterday too, I fixed it by scraping off some coffee.

(He goes and scrapes out some of the stomped coffee grinds and stomps it again)

  • Now, lets do that again (in the same mug btw…)

(Meanwhile I had frothed the milk and poured it into the cup…)

  • Ok, now you see, well almost, how the coffee runs through…
  • Voila! Here you have your nice cup of coffee!

The whole process took about 10 min.

Engineers normally don’t think about end-to end process, but probably should strive to do so more often. Think beyond where the feature ends – how does it integrate with the overall system and user experience?

During this coffee-making event the engineer seemed totally fine with the process – more focused on how great the new machine is, and how great the coffee turns out. Very proud of the end product and that it is being used – i.e. the cup of coffee I received (and enjoyed). Basically no real biggie to the engineer that there were some manual steps involved, or that there was some debugging in the middle of it, as obviously he knew immediately what to do to solve it to get to the end goal. From the engineer’s perspective it worked, hence the project / feature was successful!

It doesn’t matter that it works by jumping through hoops, the customer still sees it as 10 min for one cup of coffee!! And what about the part where I had to fix the milk myself? How often do we hear or solve gaps with something like: “well that is just a small custom modification you need to do to make it work” in our industry? We need to get better on out of the box experiences!

Last but not least, to shine some light on product management in this context. These are the questions a product manager might have asked based on the pretend-customer feedback.

  • What is the expected time for delivery of a cup of coffee?
  • What kind of milk should be offered? Could it be offered at different temperatures?
  • Can’t the stomping be made automatic too somehow?

I hope this tiny sudo-story inspired to some new thinking around end to end experiences and how every context can teach you or inspire you to look anew at product requests and what is important. I’m sure this parallel can be taken further too…let me know in the comments, if you like.

A Banana Peel Road to Your Dream Job

I have had a very interesting career so far. And for that I am very grateful. My journey spans from engineer, team lead, and project manager, to customer advocate, partner engineering manager, and product manager. How did I travel this path? Many younger career people ask me if I had a plan, if I asked for promotions, or if it was random.

Well, I think it was all of the above. I didn’t really have a plan, but I knew I wanted to grow and challenge myself. I thrive in uncomfort-zone. And best way to get there is by adding new assignments, changing jobs, get a promotion, etc. In my opinion. Below are some sample experiences from my journey around “promotions”, or rather shifts in jobs.

The step from team lead to engineering manager was a big nag to my boss at the time. I kept on asking over and over again for “more responsibility” and “new challenges” and “motivation”. I told him I was ready. Now, you have to understand that I was much younger then, more fierce, less patient (is that possible?), less mature, and really believed everyone was holding me back, so I just had to carve out my own path. I used all the code words I had learned lead to promotion (see the quotes above). But for what might have been a year, nothing really happened.

I don’t really remember why I felt this way, why a promotion was everything to me at the time. Maybe it was the slightly sarcastic, yet warm, but still very male environment I worked in? Maybe that made me feel like I needed to prove myself? Maybe it was that I had been brainwashed by media that girls had to fight their way forward much harder, and that I had a responsibility as a woman in male tech environments to take the stride, to make way for women after me, etc. Maybe I had low confidence in myself, thinking external cred was a better truth of my worth than working internally on my self esteem? Whatever reason, it was almost like life or death for me. It was so important to get promoted and recognized, like my whole worth was in that title.

So I didn’t stop nagging. Then the day came when my manager went on parental leave. He finally said with a tired sigh something like “if you think you can do it better than me, why don’t you try take on the team while I am out?”. That was my sort-of promotion. I said yes without hesitation.

The next six months were the most exhausting in my life. 25 direct reports, 3 releases, and a bunch of other crisis items that happens continuously when you try to build a Java Virtual Machine an ocean away from the mother ship in Silicon Valley, and at the same time deal with 25 Swedish super-engineers who refuse to adapt to a large corporation culture of an American company. It was tough.

Although I wanted the promotion above anything else, I got more than I could chew, and it left a bitter taste of management. So when my manager returned, I became a project manager instead. Still dealing with people, but not responsible for their entire well being and future development.

Half a year later or so, I felt ready again. A management position opened up, and this time I went for it with eyes fully opened. I actually was ready this time. However, I was bypassed by a guy to the full time management job. A job I had looked forward to, especially when my manager had told me I would be the one taking the role. And then it ended up being this other guy, completely random! And no one told me. You can imagine that I was angry – by the surprise, the disappointment, and the unfairness. I resigned a few days later, as I saw no further growth for me. That is when a couple of VPs in the US reached out (from the mother ship) and offered me a quite different position in CA. I was to represent strategic customers’ roadmap needs across the entire company’s product stack. I said yes without blinking, and landed in CA a few weeks later, ready for my new job. There was very little thinking involved. I just took it. Sometimes you just need to jump!

For the first three months in this new country, new position, and new language I had no idea what I was doing, but somehow over time – and with help from kind coworkers and managers – I figured things out. Slowly but surely I felt ground under my feet again, and less like I was drowning. I learned on the job, but also was provided a lot of training through the company – something I hadn’t realized how helpful it would have been in the Stockholm office years earlier. I grew not only as a person, but also as a professional and as a manager – yeah, I had a team again. I had been assigned a team of partner engineering. This was just assigned to me. So more of a random promotion I guess?

Then we got acquired by Oracle. That was an interesting story in itself, and I choose to leave that for another blog. But I ended up with responsibilities of enabling product suite sales, spending most of my time educating sales, while capturing customer use cases and showcasing them to the rest of the company. Not really my dream job, so after a year I went to a startup as a Senior Product Manager. I was recruited for this position, and it came with a promotion. Worked as a happy product manager for a few years. I really enjoyed product management. Yep, it took this many years and positions to figure out what I actually wanted to do. Sometimes a journey filled of random banana peels is the best path to your dream job!

And then long story short, I got recruited to Cloudera, and worked very hard to again find some stable ground for my drowning feet within this completely different technology space, building an enterprise platform from an emerging open source technology, bringing in new products to meet rapidly changing market needs etc. After hard work and some great ROI projects, and some additional personal growth on that, I was recognized and rewarded by a promotion to Director. This time I did ask for the path to promotion a year earlier, and it was not easy to get there, but in the end it felt like the most deserved promotion and the role I was most ready to shoulder in my career so far. So I am very proud of it.

Takeaways, take’m or leave’m:

  • Make sure when you strive for a manager position that you are sure you love people problems more than technology
  • Please be sure that you are mature and self-analytical before you start managing people who are not
  • Be careful what you ask for, it might just come true – and it is NEVER what you expected it to be on the other side of the fence
  • Be a rookie as long as you can
  • You either win or you learn
  • Your direct manager, or his/her manager, isn’t the only way to promotion – always network sideways too!
  • Nagging is a bad approach to promotion. Do your job, work hard, and show results instead!
  • When you don’t see a growth path, resign. You are wasting your time to fullfil your largest potential. Now, growth path doesn’t have to mean a title promotion. It means what it means to you at that particular time in life.
  • Enjoy and celebrate rewards and recognitions and promotions. It is what you worked so hard for!
  • It doesn’t hurt asking for the path to promotion – get concrete metrics you can show for later, also set timelines for when to have the conversation again
  • As a manager and leader (see previous blog post) your responsibility is to help people fulfill their greatest value to the company – not stand in their way!
  • Just do it. You can do it!
  • And if not, ask for training!
  • If you don’t feel like you are drowning at least a couple of days a week, still learning how to swim, you are not on the steep learning curve anymore and at risk of stagnating – hence you need to find a job that makes you feel like you drown three to four days a week.
  • Remember: Sometimes a journey filled of random banana peels is the best path to your dream job!

What I Look for in a College Candidate

Students, young professionals, engineers in career thoughts, and attendees of my tech-presentations around the world are usually the ones who most often ask me this question.  The previous and these next blog posts are for you!

How do I pass my first interview? I get this question a lot. There is no exact recipe as it depends on who you are, what qualities, strengths, skills, and values you bring, and of course what the job is. In this post I’ll talk about what I look for in any candidate I interview who happens to be right out of college. Of course it depends on what position I am looking to fill, so these are the high level themes:

  • Are you committed to doing the work or are you just talking the talk?

I will look at what you did in college. Higher grades usually show that either you are talented or you worked hard in those topics – or that you played it strategically well with faculty and tests. What is more important to me than top grades all over, is to show top grades in the areas where you have most interest. It shows passion, dedication, interest, and ability to deliver when you are motivated. At least it could be seen as a lithmus test.

Also, if you have done other things throughout college, beyond studying. Internships? Working to pay for your studies concurrently? Volunteering? Driving different student departments or activities? Whatever it may be, it shows me a more balanced candidate, that works hard across responsibilities and areas. When you start in “real life” or at least outside academia your ability to stretch beyond your knowledge into organizational skills (be it for yourself or others) and to deal with other kinds of tasks than just studying to accomplish goals and deliverables are also valuable in the “working hard” bucket. It often indicates ability to communicate and collaborate with others, which is important in team contexts.

  • Are you curious and open to learn, as well as are you open to ask for help and do you use critical thinking?

Will you actually stop me when I talk about something that you don’t understand or will you ask me to clarify a question? Something that is really important is to be curious, to learn new skills and technologies as you go. To be curious about other people, process, and how to improve. If any company is to be successful, building a culture based on curiousity, openness, along with critical thinking and willingness to question and rethink is very important. Hence these corner stones need to be in any future employee of mine. You should question your own assumptions, you should be comfortable to ask for help. And you should also not be afraid to question my assumptions.

No one knows everything – especially not right out of college. Keeping a humble and open attitude is important. Usually such features comes with skills of how to utilize existing skills in the organization instead of arrogantly reinvent the wheel at every opportunity. While the latter can give you temporary self-fullfilling satisfaction, by delivering your own solution, it is the former that I’d argue raises your value to the organization ten times more. There are exceptions, i.e. real innovators, but they are few. Most successful people I’ve seen find out first if it has already been done and if so how it can be improved. Humble attitude gets you further, long term, and creates better teams. Success is all about building great teams.

  • Do you have the required skill set?

Depending on what the role is, I try to check your major and other classes where you performed well, and see how they align with the job at hand. It is not set in stone, but it gives a good start if this is aligned. Otherwise there is some convincing that need to happen – i.e. why do you believe you are the right candidate? Also, I might ask you to solve some problems, to learn how you solve challenges, how you handle conflict, pressure, or failure – all normal things that comes with any job. Problem solving is a skill set valuable for any position, any job, and if you can explain to me how you think, it will help me understand how you will work together with the team, the manager, the customers, etc., or how you will be efficient for a role or not.

  • Are you respectful and mature?

In the end if you are right out of college it is mostly about your classes and extra activities (your skill set and your way to work in teams or deliver larger goals), but also very much on maturity as a person – are you ready to be a professional? How do you interact with me or with people around you – everything from the admin where you check in at the desk, to the other people in the lobby, or other interviewers. Your people skills tell me you will be respectful towards coworkers, be reasonable to dicuss with even in conflict, will be presentable in front of custmers and at conferences, and be a good representative for the company in other contexts.

After the intervju I try to assess how excited you seemed to be about the opportunity. Only to take a guess at if you would be a good candidate to invest in. Hiring someone is castly if it fails. For all parties. So the commitment level is important. Can I see you work at the position at least three years and stay motivated? If I cant see it, I usually find it better to let the candidate prosper elsewhere than just hire someone for a year. Contractors are better for short term gigs. My 2 cents.

The Out-of-college Job Interview

Students, young professionals, engineers in career thoughts, and attendees of my tech-presentations around the world are usually the ones who most often ask me this question.  The previous and these next blog posts are for you!

How do I pass my first interview?

I will answer this question two-fold. First what I did in my first real interview out of college that led to me getting the job. Secondly I’ll talk about what I look for in any candidate I interview that is right out of college. In later blogs I might share more about later stage interview methods I use.

The interview that lead to a job

If you read my previous blog post you probably gather I was quite under pressure and nervous to get the job. I basically walked up the stairs to their office with sweaty palms and with a pulse higher than a 100m sprinter. My mind was slightly panicking as I was to meet the founders of the coolest start-up in the city at that time. Basically I had been told they were the top students of every year in college since 1998. I felt very out of my league. What was I thinking applying for a job there?

I had “prepared” the day before my interview (that got scheduled way to fast – no time to prepare) by reading up on their product. I wanted to at least be able to answer simple questions on it, if asked, without sounding too stupid. What on earth was a JVM anyway?!? I also wanted to be ready to propose my own idea on what I had scrabbled together on very lose grounds around a self-learning JVM. So that I could do a Thesis project on the topics I was passionate about and had studied for so long. In reality this meant me basically using the early morning hours to create a hypothetical approach to use machine learning to solve one of the trickier challenges of the dynamic memory management system (the garbage collector) at the time: the decision of when to collect no longer referenced memory.

(Side note to y’all: you might want to consider to prepare a little bit more in advance for any interview. You don’t want to be as sleep deprived as I was, nor in a state where some of your brain capacity needs to focus on controlling the shaking due to high caffeine levels in your system, further enhancing your already high pulse to unhealthy levels…).

I was obviously completely an alien walking into their typical start-up office. Noticing quickly I am in minority wearing business casual – i.e. a skirt and a nice top. Everyone was wearing jeans and t-shirt. Even the two or three girls I could spot in a few corners. Not a great start for my confidence that was already telling me I did not beling there.

Seated in a conference room, on one side of a long table, I was facing four of the core members of the team (some of the founders) at the same time. All known in college to me as either teachers or really savvy coders. Again – WHAT WAS I DOING HERE? I wanted to run out of the room and say it was all a mistake. I wanted to admit I had no idea what a JVM was. But my sweaty sticky hands had glued me to the table, holding on like I was slipping down into a dark hole. And I sat there with sweat running down my back, hoping no one would notice, and experienced 30 min of terror while the team took turns explaining what they were building.

I was in too much panic to really absorb anything. And then the guy that lead the garbage collection efforts stood up and talked a bit. I came to life. Started recognizing some words and concepts from reviewing my lecture notes on garbage collection the night before. I started breathing (apparently I had stopped?). Just in time for their questions. To be honest, I don’t even remember what they asked me. What classes I had taken that I liked? What areas intrigued me the most? If I could explain various sorting algorithms and their complexity? I don’t remember. What I do remember is when they ended up asking me which area I found most interesting and which of the proposed projects in compiler optimization I would be interested in, and I heard my brain tell me: just pick one, just pick one, and instead I started in shaky voice and stumbling pieces to formulate how I had this brilliant idea of my own of self-tuning garbage collection and the room came to a big silence. Think crickets. Everything stopped. The seconds after felt like eternity. It made me think I had just said the most stupidest thing in world history. And then the question from the most quiet guy, the GC-guy: “Are you saying we can do that? Teach the GC when to collect?” And with a moment of temporary confidence that someone had actually understood what I had said, I said with a clear voice: “Yes” (although I had no idea if it would work).

And that ended my interview. I was assigned the second Thesis project that year with them. And it turned out to be a great experience, eventually leading to full employment, but more about that later.

More importantly: I got the job on my terms doing a project I felt excited about.

Take aways, take’m or leave’m:

  1. Your crazy idea from 2-3am in the morning might be the next big thing. Don’t disregard crazy ideas until you’ve discussed them with experts. And don’t fear talking to experts about them – they won’t bite!
  2. There is no one recipe for how to pass an interview. Try your best to show interest, ask questions. Talk about what motivates you, what you like spending time doing. Be yourself.
  3. Believe in that you are right for the job. Or at least try to think you can do it!
  4. Right out of college the interviewers should know you are a rookie. What makes the best impression is you being your respectful and curious self – they will mainly look for
    1. if you are willing to work hard and open to learn in the areas where your skills fall short
    2. if you’re personality is a good match or complement to the team
    3. if you can ask for help when you don’t know how to solve something
    4. if you are creative in your approaches while also able to think critically
    5. if you have studied and done well in the areas that are relevant for the job at hand
    6. if you have people skills and know how to interact in a respectful and humble way
    7. if you are curious, interested, and ask valid questions

How to Become a Product Manager

Students, young professionals, engineers in career thoughts, and attendees of my tech-presentations around the world are usually the ones who most often ask me this question. These next blog posts are for you!

How did I get a job after college? 

My background is engineering. I have a M.Sc. in Computer Science. My major was Autonomous Systems (i.e. AI, ML, and Robotics). It wasn’t very popular at the time, I actually think I was the only girl in my year to take that major in the CS division. Not sure though. Most students wanted to go the UI and client/server or the Database route. Not me, I wanted to develop my own self-learning and user-adaptive game engine or alternatively simulate brain activity and create neural networks to help reflect impact of medicines etc. NOTE: this was late 1990s… I think I was a bit “before my time”. At least my ego tells me I was cool… 😉

Then the IT crash happened. The same month I was to start my Master Thesis project (6 month research project in the industry)! The company that had signed up to host me did no longer have resources or time. I have to admit I didn’t know what would happen. Would I even graduate? I had fears, many fears, but I never lost hope and the will to succeed. I used the fear as a driver. I decided to get resourceful and creative. So what if I didn’t get my dream job simulating a heart pacemaker in virtual form? How can I instead just find a job and then take it from there?

I tried every connection I had collected throughout college. I called, met for coffee, emailed, chatted at parties – you name it. I did it all. And in the end connections turned out to be very helpful.

At every career day at college, I tried to attend. Even from year 1. I had spent those days going around and collecting business cards from every single company I talked to. Whether I liked or understood what they did or not. I just had taken to heart what so many graduated students had told me: college is a time of networking – make the most of it. This is the time to connect – college time never comes back! So I did make the most of it. I now had close to 100 business card in my desk drawer. Finally one weekend they came to use. I had gotten nothing from my other approaches, but now I just remembered my old pile of cards and started sorting, prioritizing and composing custom emails to them one by one. I think I emailed every single one of them a custom selling intro of me and how my skills matched to what their business seemed to be doing. Looking for a Thesis project.

Half of them were no longer valid – emails bounced as people had moved jobs or the company had disappeared in the crash. Others responded over the next couple of weeks but often said they didn’t have time or resources given the state of the market. I felt despair growing as the weeks with negative responses passed. I had one card left (yes it was that dramatic!). It was a company I hesitated contacting, as I knew they only recruited the top students from every year, and had already assigned a classmate a thesis project. So why would they even bother with me? I didn’t have outstanding grades nor did I know much about their product. So I had waited contacting them at all, but now that weeks passed with no luck, I decided to take the chance. It couldn’t hurt…or could it?

It was an infrastructure software company. They were building something called a Java Virtual Machine (JVM). I had a vague understanding of what it was, but had never really cared about “infrastructure software”. It sounded so boring. But what could I do?

It wasn’t my dream job out of college to hack C-code and write compiler optimizations for Intel processor architecture. But did I have the option (or luxury?) to turn this one down if hundred other opportunities had failed? I had bills to pay and I wanted to graduate. I felt like I had to postpone my dream a bit, and get realistic. But at the same time I knew I had doubts on how I could take a job after studying so hard for many many years and not have my heart in it.

Then a friend asked me the simple question: “How could you make it your dream job?”. This lingered with me into the late evening hours. The penny finally fell down! I might not get to develop an adaptive game, but what if I could somehow implement a self-learning and application-adaptive JVM instead? That sounded intriguing in my AI-tuned ears and finally I found a bit of passion in this new opportunity, by weaving together my personal interest with their business. And I found it just in time, only hours before my scheduled on-site interview (which you can read about in my next post).

Takeaways – take’m or leave’m:

  1. Network through college as you don’t know when you’ll need connections.
  2. Use fears to challenge you – you make the decisions, not your fears
  3. Don’t give up before you even tried – there is absolutely NOTHING WRONG with trying.
  4. If one way doesn’t work, try ANOTHER way
  5. Don’t disregard opportunities just because they are not what you were dreaming of during college
  6. Know that the path to your dream job might not be straight – actually it is better if it is full of twists and turns, as you’ll learn a lot more.
  7. Think creatively – a job opportunity can be found anywhere by talking to (random) people
  8. Never give up. Be patient.
  9. Always always always start by thinking: I can do this!
  10. If it isn’t what you liked, make it into what you like

Leadership is not a title

I saw this summary slide yesterday and really liked it. I think these points – of which my interpretation is: stop winning, stop forcing your plan, and stop cutting other people’s ideas down – are very important if you want to be a good leader in any position in a company.

I often wonder why new managers often make the mistake of believing people will follow them just by their new title and their power over their employees’ salaries? Leadership does not come that way. Being a leader is different than being a manager. A manager is a title you have either rightfully earned or acquired by other tactical means. Leadership is a skill you either have naturally or work hard on every day. You can be a leader in an individual contributor role, and you can be a follower (or confused on the matter) in a manager role.

You lead by action and initiative and respect towards others. You constantly keep the cross-organization well being and goals in mind in everything that you do. Within or outside your immediate team. You lead by example. Leaders inspire people around them to do better, go further, to work together, to accomplish more that first believed. They do so by believing in you and that you can do it! Leaders don’t cut you down to prove they are better than you, nor do they let their own management insecurities (probably rooting in power and responsibilities they have acquired and not earned) get in the way of you flourishing. Leadership does not come to you through a title. Leaders show respect by letting your ideas flourish too, by listening and asking guiding questions, by envisioning the impossible yet outstanding together with you. 

As a leader you don’t overrun the team with your own agenda, you enable the team to create and fulfill an agenda they can relate to and feel excited about, that aligns with the overall goals of the company. You facilitate every individual of your team to become valuable. You let everyone be a part of the brilliance that can only happen if you work aligned and together. And you give credit where credit is due! Meaning, you sincerely recognize that everyone matters and every step towards the right direction is worth reward, as in the end that is what will take you all there.

Nothing is as rewarding as being recognized for what you do and how it helps the larger goal of the team, the company, or the greater good. Leaders know this, and are generous with encouragement.

The Importance of Questioning

Question everything! Well perhaps not everything, but a pretty good assumption at any point in time is that your assumptions could be wrong. To give some examples:

Customer: “This is really important to us!”

Product Manager: “So please help me understand _why_ this is important to you?”
Product Manager: “Is it to solve it this particular way or to solve it at all that is important to you?”
Product Manager: “If we could do X now, and Y later, would that mitigate the urgency of full resolution of this issue?”

Question any and all assumptions you could think of. It will help give you a better perspective on what is actually important to the client and help you prioritize more accurately.

Also, always keep a creative mind going. Ask questions in your head. Is there someone on the phone they are trying to impress? Is there power play going on? Are they stressed on this matter by their organization because of other issues that are also open and stressing? Is the person having a bad day?

Try to keep an open mind, and keep asking questions (out loud or in your head) to help clarify and help bring in perspective. Do not decide to be right on any specific part, you will be much more successful in your final design or resolution if you question your assumptions. The product manager role should strive to be competitive, to win the market. Obviously. But you will fail as a product manager if you are stuck on the winning-juice in every context. If you find yourself always wanting to win the argument or always striving to be right or come up with the best solution themselves you should know that you are probably not a very good product manager at that point in time. Try to question yourself at that moment and bring back the openness to other approaches and alternatives. Perhaps there is an even better idea in the room or a better design around the corner?

One possible negative side effect of stretching or practicing this skill set is that you might become annoying with your questioning at first. Be aware. Especially if it does not come naturally to you, make sure to stay aware and balance when to speak out loud and when to ask the questions just in your head. People might get a bit irritated with too many questions. Especially personality types that are a bit insecure about themselves or their accomplishments. Being questioned can come across as you are questioning their capabilities, while all you are trying to do is to understand if the solution meets the needs of the customers. Something to consider if you see people get defensive around you when you question is to pay more attention on how you actually phrase your questions. Seek the helpful-seeking tone. Question the use of a proxy, a listener, or whatever component X, not the capabilities of the person presenting the solution. Example:

Scene: A solution to a customer need has been presented to you by an engineer.
Problem: You think there is a scale issue in the design.

Direct question: “Why did you pick just one server here, wouldn’t that become a scale bottleneck?” (by pointing out “you” it indirectly put a spotlight on the person that might or might not be mature enough to handle it well)

Indirect question: “Would the solution perform better if we added a way to run multiple servers and distribute the load between them, or would the additional complexity be too costly? Help me understand the pros and cons in this context”. (by focusing on the solution and putting yourself in a help-seeking position, you will offload the tension of who is right or wrong and instead set a foundation for an open discussion around the solution)

There is a time for questioning, but also a time to let other people ask their questions. Listening might be hard, but is key to be a good product manager. It is sometimes also hard to be approachable if you aren’t by nature. There are however ways to mitigate this, for instance by the “or did I miss something” ending to assertive conversations. Whenever you have presented a big piece of information or some new direction and you’d like to encourage interactive feedback in a group, it is sometimes challenging to facilitate the open discussion you desire – especially when you have multiple teams or organizations on the phone, with different company cultures, and where you can’t read their body language. Here are a few tips that have worked for me on creating a safer space for feedback giving and questioning:

  1. Make sure the groups are small
  2. If larger are necessary, make sure you have had 1-1s with most, if not all, attendees ahead of time, to collect feedback in private – creates much more interaction if people are prepared.
  3. Make pauses after each key delivery and ask any welcoming question, such as:
    1. Does this make sense? (helping them to question what you just said)
    2. Did any important aspect got missed? (opening up for other opinions and views being _important_, and everybody likes being important so it might encourage them to speak up…)
    3. What other options are there to achieve this goal? (reinforcing the goal, but opens up for other options to get there)
    4. Now time for feedback – and it doesn’t have to be fully baked, in this session I’d just like to hear initial reactions (this might help take away pressure on the audience to try to sound smart…)
  4. If it is a web meeting, you could encourage people to post ideas and questions in the chat privately to you.
  5. If nothing is said still, you might like to propose follow up afterwards: please email me once you’ve had time to brew all this new material…

This is what I had in my mind today on asking questions. Might pop up more tips at another point in time.

Enjoy!