We were delighted to have Ken Norton join us for our inaugural members-only AMA. Ken is a senior operating partner at GV where he leads investing operations and provides product and engineering support to startups. Prior to joining GV, Ken was a group product manager at Google. In his years as a product manager at Google, Ken led product initiatives for Docs, Calendar, and Google Mobile Maps.
Ken joined Google in 2006 with the acquisition of JotSpot, where he was vice president of products. Before JotSpot, Ken led product management at Yahoo Search. Back in the day when he was a software engineer, he was one of the first 50 employees of CNET and the founding CTO of Snap (which became NBC Internet). He has written extensively about the craft of product management. His classic essay “How to Hire a Product Manager” became the playbook for a generation of PMs. He’s also the reason donuts and product management have become synonymous.
- In the current situation, how can we still ‘bring the donuts’?
- How much does a Product Manager need to own vs lead the team?
- When hiring, what’s more important – experience or a collaborative mindset?
- How much tech background is enough for a Product Manager?
- How can you get senior staff to understand the value of strong product teams?
- Where do you think our craft will be in two years?
- While we can’t get out to see them, how can we still do a good job of talking to customers?
- You’re known for reading a lot – do you have a reading goal for 2020?
- What are your product book recommendations?
- What did the process of building Google Docs look like?
- How do you convince the business that investing in this product or betting on this idea is the right thing to do?
- Any tips for a product leader joining a startup where the founder is the Head of Product?
- All companies tell you they have the best culture – how can you verify this at an interview?
- What won’t change in product over the next few years?
- How do we use the current situation with COVID-19 as an opportunity to reinvent or become stronger?
In the current situation, how can we still ‘bring the donuts’?
(Not familiar with the donuts thing? Ken explains it on his site)
Today, probably more than ever, everyone is challenged with dealing with COVID and being distributed. Even if you were already remote. Things are very different, your business is probably challenged, your team is probably challenged and there’s no playbook for how to deal with this. We’re all figuring it out and so my first piece of advice is – if you’re doing your best you’re doing fine! There’s no right way to do it. There’s no wrong way to do it – everyone is struggling.
In terms of what this means in relation to bringing the doughnuts, I think it’s really understanding what people on the team are dealing with right now. What are their individual needs? Ask people, ‘how do you want to be communicated with?’ and ‘how often you want to be interacted with?’ or ‘how can I help you?’, ‘what is it that you’re worried about that’s fallen on the floor and that I can pick up to help make your life easier?’
A lot of teams have a fun budget or an off-site budget. Those dollars might not be being used right now. So, if you have access to this, maybe see if you can use it to send out some goodie bags or gift certificates.
How much does a Product Manager need to own vs lead the team?
In most of the jobs I’ve ever had, where I was a Product Manager, if things went really wrong the CEO came to me. They didn’t go to the engineering manager or the design lead, they came to me and so you have the accountability for it and I think that’s accurate and appropriate for Product Manager. But, CEO also implies direction and being the boss, and being able to command people and that I think is really probably not the case and nor should it be the case.
I think Product Managers, oftentimes, are accountable without the direct authority and so that means you need to lead through influence, to convince people what’s the right thing to do, not because you have the official authority to command people in terms of what to do. I have mixed feelings about the CEO of the product term and I think I probably tend to skew away from it for those reasons because it does imply that you’re the boss.
It also tends to attract the wrong people to product management. If you think you want to become a Product Manager, because you’re going to get to be the boss of everyone, to tell everyone what to do, and be the highest paid person on the team then that’s probably the wrong motivation because that’s not what the job is. You don’t you don’t lead in product management by commanding people. You lead by encouraging them, by motivating them, by helping them, by being the first one to pitch in when the chips are down.
When hiring, what’s more important – experience or a collaborative mindset?
It depends on the role. If you’re looking for someone to take the leadership role at a company that’s fast-growing, and who’s already delivered product/market fit, and who is looking to scale from 100 people to 1000 people and from, 1 million revenue to 100 million revenue, then I think you want someone that has experience.
If you’re looking for someone to be an individual contributor, who is going to be in an environment where they’re going to be supported and mentored by someone more, with more experience, then it doesn’t necessarily have to be someone that has the Product Manager title. It could be a founder with experience or senior engineer with good experience. In that instance, I think the actual product management experience is less important. There you look to see, do they have the chops, are they technical enough for the role, do they have the right mindset, the right mentality.
How much tech background is enough for a Product Manager?
When I started at Google years ago, you had to have a computer science degree. It was literally a requirement. And the big secret for me is I don’t have a computer science degree! Somehow, I was one of the very few Product Managers who was hired at Google back in the days we didn’t have a CS degree. That’s now evolved. It may have been right for Google at that time, given the type of environment, given how engineering-driven, our environment was and given how technical some of those products were. But that doesn’t mean that it made sense for every company, in every stage, and that’s not even the case today at Google.
There’s this notion of being technical enough for the particular product you’re working on, and if you’re developing, and you’re working at Stripe where you’re responsible for developer-level APIs then you probably need to be more technical than if you work at Twitter and you’re responsible for the feed from that. It’s now more a question of whether enough about the technology and the technical decisions that are being made to, number one, not appear to a clown with the engineers and number two, to be able to -on behalf of the technical team – make decisions around what might be the right answer technically, e.g.
what might be really hard and what might be really easy.
How can you get senior staff to understand the value of strong product teams?
It depends! The first thing is to consider the motivators of the senior decision-makers in the company. Is it business revenue? Is it being able to move quickly? Is it being able to have stability as an organisation or is it being able to win customers? Different companies have different cultures and different motivators, and so whatever argument you’re making for why product is important, that has to feed into that. If you’re arguing from a completely different rationale to the one(s) that matters to them, you’re always going to be running up the stairs. If the CEO cares more than anything about customer acquisition and growing revenue, and you’re trying to argue about agile and not having technical debt, that’s not going to resonate – you’re speaking two different languages.
Also, think about how long you want to try to keep convincing this organisation that just doesn’t seem to have the right culture to change. At some point, it’s time for you to change organisations, and I know that’s hard. Not everybody can just decide to change jobs, especially in this environment. But you should define – for you – what success looks like in this battle. What you need to see the organisation do to make you feel like this is the place that you can be for a long time and build a long career.
- Is it respect?
- Is it a seat at the table?
- Is it just acknowledging what product does?
- Is just getting the CEO to care about product excellence?
Whatever it is, articulate that. even just for yourself so that you have an outcome that you’re hoping for and a language that you can speak. That’s what Product Managers do – build arguments and plans.
Where do you think our craft will be in two years?
Even though I’m in the business of making predictions, I don’t like making predictions! But, in terms of how the craft of product management will have evolved, independent of our current environment, and COVID, I think is a little bit hard to tease out.
Think about 9/11. There are a lot of things we thought were going to change. Some of them did, some of them didn’t. One was that flying was never the same again, at least for Americans. And so there are certain things that just fundamentally are probably going to change.
One being remote work. I think this is going to be less of a – you’re allowed or you’re not allowed thing. I think we’ll see more companies being receptive to it.
While we can’t get out to see them, how can we still do a good job of talking to customers?
Some of it hasn’t changed at all. Right now we’re talking over video conferencing, and speaking directly with a customer – asking them what they’re looking for, or getting some research or feedback, that’s just happening. It’s just happening when you’re not in the same room. It may not be as good, or it may even be worse, but at least we’re talking to people.
I think the harder part is the informal communication. The communication with the person you saw in the hallway and said ‘oh I tried that thing and I struggled with it’ or ‘I tried to log but it didn’t work for me’ to which the reply can be, ‘oh I’ll come by, let me see or show me what happened’. It’s the small things and the small product ideas, like ‘try clicking here or there’ that are much harder now.
Now you’d have to send you an email and say ‘Martin I want to show you something, let’s schedule some time are you free on Zoom’. It’s that little stuff that just tends to happen normally in hallways, that’s very very hard to replicate remotely and I don’t have the right answer for that. Even our team has been struggling a lot with that. We were using Slack a lot and then we just felt it was overwhelming. Then we were having longer meetings and now we’ve all decided that we want shorter meetings and so I think we’re all iterating, struggling, and evolving with that.
You’re known for reading a lot – do you have a reading goal for 2020?
Well it’s out the window now! It’s funny, this is one of the first things that I struggled with in lockdown. I go back to this point I’m making again and again around self care and being kind to yourself and recognising that things are just different right now.
I’ve maybe read three or four books since then, which for me, is a low number. In the evening I’m exhausted, and mentally exhausted. I’ve got a teenager here, my wife. We’re constantly running the dishwasher and vacuuming and it just hit me. Reading just hasn’t been as unwinding as just scrolling through Reddit for 45 minutes and falling asleep. I was really frustrated with that at first. Now I’m happy to say that for the last week or so I’ve been able to get into a little bit more.
I want to read because I want to learn, and I want to enjoy it. So if it starts to feel like a job, or it starts to feel like an obligation, then I’m doing it for the wrong reasons.
What are your product book recommendations?
Well, Martin’s book of course (Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams)!
I have a page on my website where there’s a link with my favourite Books for Product Managers. Lots are about product management, but there are also a lot of books you may not naturally think of that are great for Product Managers.
One of my favourite books is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s Stephen King on writing horror nonfiction and written communication is such a big part of what a Product Manager does.
Product Managers have to be good at: communicating, marketing, presenting, technical challenges, dealing with different personality types and there are lots of great books that are going to help you do those things.
What did the process of building Google Docs look like?
It was really about allowing people to collaborate on docs. We weren’t trying to go after Microsoft or to compete with Microsoft. It was about trying to solve a problem that no one was solving – how do a bunch of different people write a doc together?
At the time, you would make a doc and I’d email it to you and you’d make edits then you’d email it to me and you’d have all these different versions and documents and red lines. That was a problem that Microsoft wasn’t solving, really no one was solving it. So I think that was the key piece – we started with that problem, which was all around collaboration.
I think there’s probably an innovator’s dilemma lesson here which is that, if you’re solving a problem that no one else is solving it, it doesn’t matter what that company is doing, how many features they have, or how entrenched they are with their customers, because people weren’t using Microsoft Word to collaborate in real time with other people on the internet like this.
A lot of our product discovery was trying to figure, do we need this feature because we just like it and have to have it if anybody’s going to use your product, or because people are asking for it because Word has it.
How do you convince the business that investing in this product or betting on this idea is the right thing to do?
Those conversations don’t ever actually even happen at Google – at least in that time. It was just – start doing something and if it’s interesting, keep doing it. So it’s really hard to translate how that happened at Google to another company.
I think one thing is that we had strong executive championship for this type of problem, and actually I came into Google, because the company I worked at (Jotspot) was building some of the core technology that became Google Docs and became Google Sites. There was a company called Writely that they acquired. There was a company in New York that was building the core of spreadsheets. So Google, and I think particularly Eric, Larry, and Sergey at that time, had a really strong opinion that collaboration in the cloud in a browser was inevitably just going to be better than anything we’ve ever seen before in the software world where you were tied to a particular computer and you’re paying to install some software where you can’t collaborate with anyone else. That executive vision helped create that vacuum for us to operate in because it didn’t matter what anybody thought – no one was going to shut us down because Larry, Sergey, and Eric were very, very passionate about what we were doing.
So there has to be some sense of executive championship, even if it’s not initially championship around the particular product you think you’re working on, but the championship around a problem that they believe your company can uniquely solve. That helps you create the little air pocket for you to be able to say “Hey, I know you’re really passionate about winning in this space or acquiring this category of customers – here are some ideas where I think we can innovate there”. I want the space to be able to prove to you that there’s something there. And maybe that’s just two engineers for a month, maybe it’s a prototype, maybe it’s 10 people for six months, whatever that is, you have to have that space created for you because it’s just very hard to get traction without that level of support from the top.
Any tips for a product leader joining a startup where the founder is the Head of Product?
It’s something that I deal with a lot. On my website I’ve written some stuff about this and I call it Product Management Zero.
All companies tell you they have the best culture. How can you verify that at an interview?
Let’s say you’re being hired as a Head of Product or a first Product Manager at a 50-person company – 30% of companies will be small enough that you can meet the CEO, the founder, the CTO and/or VP of engineering. This means you can piece together a picture of the culture – ask them questions!
Organisations with strong product minded culture are never afraid to talk about the shortcomings of the product. Instead, they’ll say ‘this is what we’re doing really badly’ and ‘I wish we did better here’. I think it’s actually a good sign when people are forthcoming around what’s working and what’s not working and hopefully they’re hiring you to help with those problems, so they should be able to articulate them.
What won’t change in product over the next few years?
In software, which is which is my world, I really don’t think that there’s going to be a change between the engineering piece, the design piece and product.
I don’t think the relationship between whoever is making the day-to-day product decisions and whoever is fundamentally accountable for the business side is going to change.
And, while more people will continue to be remote, people will go back to offices. I’m desperate to get back into physical space with people I work with. Maybe it won’t be as frequent, and the spaces will be different or there’ll be fewer people in the room but, you can get so much more done in person, in front of a whiteboard than you can virtually, as much as there may be advantages to remote work.
How do we use the current situation with COVID-19 as an opportunity to reinvent or become stronger?
Number 1, whatever plan you thought you had in January, throw it away. It’s gone. Just start over, build it back up from scratch. Everything’s different, personally and professionally.
If you think about these things in 5 or 10-year cycles, it’s a little bit easier. You can argue and debate around whether we’ll be back in an office in 2020 at all or 2021 or 2022, but if you think about where you want to be in five years or ten years it’s a lot easier. It takes you out of the uncertainty of the path ahead and resets you back to thinking about where you really want to be as a company or as a person in 10 years and how to get there. Then you can think about how this environment maybe made that harder, or maybe in some ways made it easier. Maybe now is the time to look for that remote job you always thought about? I think we just need to be willing to tear it all up and start over and recognise the reality of where we are.