Continuing our series of candid, one-on-one interviews with product management professionals.
In the spotlight today is Paul Young, an instructor for Pragmatic Marketing and the founder of ProductCamp Austin. How did a degree in Radio-Television-Film lead to product management? And what practical advice does he have for harried Product Managers? Read on…
Paul, can you describe your career path for us? Did you always want to be in product management?
I never thought I would end up in managing a product, or a team of people doing products, or even teaching people how to manage products — after all, my degree is in Radio-Television-Film!
Connect those dots for us!
At the time I graduated the University of Texas, if you wanted to make a go of a career in film, you had three choices: New York, L.A., or work for free in Texas. None of those looked particularly appealing to me, but I was pretty handy with technology. So, I taught myself how to program, work with databases, and caught on with a mid-sized local company in Austin as a software developer.
Eventually my VP of Development came to me and said, “Paul, about your software development skills… they’re not that good.”
Fortunately he tempered his criticism with a compliment! He said, “I have noticed that you work really well with customers and Marketing, so I’d like to make you our Product Manager.” I said, “Sure. What’s a Product Manager?” He replied, “I have no idea. Why don’t you go to this Pragmatic training and find out?”
So like so many others, I backed into my career of choice, and it’s been a fun ride. Thankfully, I get to exercise my right brain’s film and storytelling creative side, and my left brain’s analytical software engineering side at the same time. It’s perfect.
Why and how did you decide to join Pragmatic Marketing as an instructor?
There came a point in my career a few years ago where I was at a large company and made the decision to move on. I had some ideas to do a startup of my own, and also I had good contacts in the industry that were recruiting me. I was blessed with options. Before I leapt, I decided to take stock of what I enjoyed in my career path the most.
What I found was that I did love setting strategy, building products, and helping to grow companies. But what I loved even more was building a successful team, and helping the people I hired shine. Mentorship is a big deal for me, and I keep in touch with many of my past hires as they’ve grown in their careers.
I had used Pragmatic Marketing as a tool at several companies before I joined them, as well as taking the training myself. Pragmatic’s teachings speak for themselves with their common-sense and practical approaches. It’s easy to buy into and see the positive impact, so it was fortuitous that they were looking for an instructor at the same time I started my search.
In becoming an instructor I get to check off several boxes on a personal level: helping others, growing skills in teams, and honing my public speaking. For me, being an instructor is one of the best jobs in the world, because I get to change people’s lives and careers in a positive way, every single week.
As you travel the world meeting and instructing Product Managers, what are some of the memorable stories you’ve heard from your students and how did you encourage them?
Every week I get the opportunity to work with teams of all sizes and all over the world. Usually the challenges I hear from people fall into a few broad categories: time, budget, resourcing, and roles and responsibilities.
Time constraints should be familiar to everyone — there is always more work to be done than there is time to do it all. I had a student on of my classes awhile back who was the first product manager hired at his company and they were asking him to do it all: listen to the market, feed Development’s semi-weekly sprints with requirements, create positioning for the Marketing team, and support Sales efforts. He was trying to do it all and was breaking down fast. I advised him to do an analysis against the Pragmatic Marketing Framework to determine where his highest impact would be felt and focus there, dropping other items (with buy-in from his management). He contacted me a few months later to tell me that there were bumps along the way, but he felt that he was on a much more sustainable path.
I often hear budget and resourcing issues arising from situations where the executive team doesn’t yet understand the full value that the product team can offer to the organization. Product managers say things like, “I don’t have any travel budget to get into the field and research customers!” When faced with a constraint like this, we have to get creative. Can you visit someone locally that you don’t have to fly to? Can you extend a trip that you’re already going to, such as a trade show, for another purpose like a field visit? Can you do any of your market research over the phone? I met a product manager in a training I delivered last year who faced this type of situation and after trying some of these low-cost methods, his CEO bought into the need for more, and budget situation started to improve in his favor.
What are you most proud of accomplishing?
In the realm of product, I am most proud of the work we’ve done in Austin and around the world spreading the seeds of ProductCamp.
ProductCamp was founded by Rich Mironov in Silicon Valley, and it made so much sense that I followed up with the second in Austin. For the uninitiated, ProductCamp is an “unconference” aimed at people in the product space. They are typically free, organized locally, and held on a Saturday. ProductCamps put a heavy emphasis on peer-to-peer learning and driving strong bonds and connections within the local product community — something we didn’t have in Austin (and many other cities) before ProductCamp became ubiquitous.
ProductCamp Austin hit a nerve in the Austin area and became so successful that we rapidly outgrew several venues. After several years running the organization, I stepped away and we put an elected board of directors in place and established a non-profit organization. To this day, ProductCamp Austin attracts 400-500 people, twice yearly to its major events.
Seeing the success in Austin, dozens of prospective camp leaders have come from all over the world looking to replicate the success of the Austin ProductCamp. As a result, I’ve made some great connections and seen the model replicated in cities like Denver, Atlanta, Boston, Vancouver, Portland, Southern California, Chicago, London, Berlin, Sydney, and more. In fact, when I was in Vancouver a few years ago my friend Stewart Rogers introduced me as the “Godfather of ProductCamp.”
There have now been over 100 ProductCamps on five continents and its served to connect tens of thousands of our peers. That is a record I am proud of and the small part I played in making it happen.
What’s the biggest mistake you ever made — and what did you learn from that experience?
This is a tough question — there are so many to choose from! There was a time when I gave into executive pressure to release a product too early and resulted in poor customer experiences.
I have let others define my role for me, given into daily firefighting and pursued the noisy over the important, and I have made prioritization calls incorrectly.
I consider my biggest successes to be with relationships by mentoring and helping people. Unfortunately it’s also the source of my biggest failure, and destroyed a relationship I valued. Through the pain of that experience I’ve learned more about boundary setting and what lines can’t be crossed.
What’s the best career advice you ever received?
One of my mentors gave me sage advice I try to follow today: Always think two steps ahead with regard to your career. It’s not about the next job, it’s about the two after that. Can you construct a story and set of life experiences conducive to where you want to be?
What positive and/or negative trends do you see in product management?
I see much more positive than negative today, but I am an optimist at heart! First, I see an increasing recognition of product management as a distinct and unique discipline that is different than other groups.
It may be hard for people reading this interview to believe if you’ve been in product management your entire career, but the concept of having “product managers” in a company is still relatively new. Not every company has them, and many are still doing what I’d refer to as first generation product management and are figuring it out by the seat of their pants.
Over the past 5-7 years, however, I have seen product management hit a positive inflection point in terms of maturity. Product teams are now much more commonplace, a set of skills and training has become standardized (we at Pragmatic Marketing are delighted to play a role in that), and executive attention and budget has started to materialize for product teams.
In many ways the rise of product management is where the rise of project management was 20 years ago — but I believe that the ceiling is much, much higher for product teams because of the strong impact to company and product strategy they can affect.
On the negative side, as product teams continue to mature and grow, there is a lack of standard metrics for measuring success. Revenue and profitability are good measurements for products but poor for individuals, so how do you determine success at an individual team member level? I also see people becoming victims of their own successes; if they put out too many fires they turn into what I refer to as “professional firefighters,” and pretty soon they realize they are out-of-touch with their market.
For people looking to sharpen their product skills, or just learn more about product management, what would you recommend?
I would definitely encourage anyone who hasn’t participated in a ProductCamp to go to one and check it out — and if there isn’t one in your area, start one up!
Beyond that, Pragmatic Marketing provides some wonderful, free continuing education resources that anyone can take advantage of, such as:
The Pragmatic Marketer Magazine – published once per quarter, there are ten years of back issues on the website available for you to read.
Our monthly webinar series – our Marketing team does a great job hosting interesting speakers to discuss areas of importance to product teams.
Pragmatic’s Instructor Blogs – our instructor team has a wide range of experiences from product management, to product marketing, to pricing and we write on all of those topics regularly.
Also, we recently introduced a new course, called Price. It’s all about learning how to effectively price your products based on what the market is willing to pay, so that you maximize your revenue and not leave money on the table. We’ve heard a lot of demand for this content and are excited to interact with our students on this important topic!