Interview: 7 Questions With… Saeed Khan

Today, we have another great conversation in our continuing series of one-on-one interviews with product management professionals.

This time, we’re talking with Saeed Khan of On Product Management. Saeed has worked in startups and public companies, both in Toronto and Silicon Valley, in roles ranging from individual contributor to Vice President of Product Management.

And he understands the potent combination of Legos and Star Wars, so you know he’s good people.

Image source: Inside Sugab’s Brain

What’s the best career advice Saeed received early? And what’s he find distasteful about “Agile product management”? Read on…

Saeed, what key people helped shape you into the Product Manager you are today?

I’ve been working with computers and software for a long time. It started in high school. This was in the late 70s — before PCs, Macs, Windows, or even DOS for that matter. We had a Wang microcomputer, and my first job was as a computer operator for the school’s daily attendance report.

Teachers would fill out computer punch cards with the class attendance. Every day after school, I would run those cards through a program that the Computer Science teacher wrote. That was my start with computers.

So the first influential person was my CS teacher, Mr. Hay, who not only taught me about programming, but helped me really understand how computers could be useful beyond games.

Beyond games? Impossible!

It’s true!

Much later, as a Product Manager at a small development tools company, I learned a lot of fundamentals from my boss at the time, Dewaine Miller. He was the VP of Marketing and was truly a great mentor.

How did you decide to become a Product Manager?

After high school, I went to university and had numerous jobs related to technology. A particularly bad startup experience with an out-of-touch CEO, an egomaniacal engineering VP, and no product management made it clear how important good product management is!

I’d always been very customer and user centric and that startup experience convinced me to become a Product Manager.

What’s the best career advice you received as you entered product management?

During my first stint as a PM, I went to the VP of Sales about some frustrating experiences with his sales team. The VP was a great guy. He listened to me and then said something like the following:

I can understand why you feel that way. Your approach to the problem is very logical, but you have to understand this one thing about sales people – they are coin operated. If you want them to do anything, show them how it will make more money for them.

Seems pretty basic today, but back then, it was news to me.

From that day onward, not only did I understand how to work with sales people, but the philosophy of knowing peoples’ motivations helped me understand how to work (albeit not always perfectly) with most groups.

What trends do you see in software product management?

First I think one of the good trends is simply the growing awareness of both the role and value of product management in the overall technology and software community.

Most, if not all technology companies have product management in some form, but clearly there’s a ways to go before all of those companies get to a stage where they implement strong product management teams and practices, and realize the full business benefit that can be had.

Even early stage companies and startups are realizing that product management is important and are heading in that direction. Terms such as “customer development” and “product-market fit” are becoming understood as being critical to early stage success, even if people don’t currently associate those terms directly with product management.

Another good trend is the growth of the PM community via blogs, associations and particularly events like ProductCamp. I believe this ties into the growing awareness, and perhaps curiosity about product management.

In Toronto, we’ve held two camps and will hold our third this year. Aside from Toronto and several cities in the US, there was a ProductCamp in Amsterdam last fall, and one in Sydney a few months ago. It’s truly becoming international and that’s a great trend.

Sounds great! Any negative trends?

One negative trend, in my opinion at least — and I think I’ll ruffle some feathers here — is this recurring notion of “Agile product management“.

The Agile movement in the engineering community is well underway, there’s no denying that. And for the record, I think it’s a good thing, particularly when it truly helps change the mindset of those development teams and enables them to be responsive to needed plan changes.

But, when those in the product management community prefix the word “Agile” in front of “product management”, we do ourselves a disservice, because it too closely ties product management to the engineering teams, and further pigeonholes us as an adjunct to engineering.

When working with Agile development teams, the interface between product management and engineering needs some adjustment, but that doesn’t change the fundamental goals and ways that we need to do the remainder of our jobs.

I’ve argued on my blog (albeit a little bit tongue in cheek) that product management has always been responsive to change, that we really want working software, that we’ve always put people ahead of process, and of course customers well ahead of contracts; in short, that we’ve always been Agile. And it’s engineering that is finally (and thankfully) in the process of making that adjustment.

Some people don’t agree, and that’s fine, but I honestly feel that associating too closely with words like “Agile” or “Extreme” or “2.0” or whatever else becomes the latest engineering or industry buzzword is detrimental.

As long as people don’t have a clear understanding of the basic goals and value of product management, these kinds of associations will bring more confusion than clarity.

If you could thrust yourself, “Being John Malkovich”-style, into someone else’s shoes for a day, whose shoes would you choose, and why?

I can’t give you just one answer, so here’s a few but I’ll keep it brief:

  1. My wife – she’s the ultimate multi-tasker, prioritizer, coordinator, and cross-team leader. We have a big family and she somehow brings order to what could otherwise be utter chaos. I honestly don’t know how she does everything she does.
  2. Steve Jobs – for obvious reasons. Though I’d like it to be on a day when he’s making key decisions and interacting with a lot of people. Not on a day when he’s giving a well rehearsed speech at a product launch or other industry event.
  3. David Suzuki – an outstanding Canadian, but more importantly an incredible person who has been (seemingly tirelessly) speaking out about the potential harmful impacts of climate change for over 20 years.

Follow Up

Thanks, Saeed! If you want to connect with Saeed, please follow him on Twitter @saeedwkhan or visit him at On Product Management.

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