When Petra Wille was in her first job, working as a software engineer for Burda Media, she visited Hamburg for a work project and promised herself she would live in the city one day. “I fell in love with it then,” she says.
Now an established product coach and the co-organiser of MTP Engage Hamburg, Petra has been calling the city home for the last 12 years. She says: “After Burda I joined SAP, where I was a technical consultant and I was still doing a lot of coding. But Hamburg was always nudging me, so I looked for a job there and stumbled on a product manager role at Xing.”
Petra is a developer by training – she worked for Burda as a developer throughout university as part of her dual-track IT degree, spending three months studying and then three months working throughout her university course. She was involved in lots of customer-facing projects at both Burda and SAP, “my colleagues kept pushing me towards writing concepts and speaking to people”, but there came a time when she made a conscious decision to leave development and engineering behind and pursue a career in product management.
Learning from the Best
Petra joined German social network Xing as product manager for Xing’s events platform and was soon also responsible for recruitment and job boards. It was a hugely influential and transformative time because she got to learn her craft from a couple of product management rock stars – Marty Cagan and Jason Goldberg.
She says: “Marty Cagan was our coach for quite some time. He worked with us for four and a half years, coming over from the West Coast once a month. We had no head of product for six months so Marty helped us through some rough times. So it was an intense time to learn from Marty.” Jason Goldberg also influenced her hugely – Jason went on from Xing to form Fab.com which at one point was valued at about $1 billion. Says Petra: “I learned about prioritisation from Jason, he was ruthless about it. He helped my product career a lot.”
After four and a half years at Xing Petra felt the company had grown too big for her to be able to make the impact she wanted, so she then spent a couple of years at tech startup Tolingo, first as head of product, and then as CPO/COO. “I learned a lot about organising teams of 60 to 70 people here, I was doing product work and COO work. It’s where I gained a lot of the knowledge I use these days if I’m consulting in startups,” she says.
Consulting and Coaching
Petra has just entered her seventh year as a freelance product manager and coach. When she started freelancing, she took on interim product manager roles, but for the last four years she’s focused on consulting and coaching product people. The coaching practice began through her work with startups who had hired their first product person but didn’t have anyone else in the company who knew how to do product management well: “I would back them up with weekly one-to-ones and from there it grew into a coaching business,” she says.
Petra works with five to six clients at a time, ranging from big companies to small startups. Last year, for example, she had a long engagement with Danish marine logistics business Maersk. “I worked with 20 product people at Maersk. I did some initial training for product discovery, and then gave ongoing coaching to the whole team on good product practice,” she says.
As a result of her experience, Petra developed a pack of coaching cards, initially because she wanted to leave her clients something when she finished coaching them, but which are now also available for anyone to buy from her website or from Amazon Germany. She explains: “Coaching always ends. At some point you have to leave, so I wanted to leave my clients something they could reflect on, and that’s how I came up with the coaching cards. It’s 52 cards – like a deck of cards – and is a collection of the questions I ask most often in coaching sessions.”
A Bespoke Approach
Businesses engage Petra because she delivers a bespoke approach, she says. “I’m as full stack as it gets if you’re looking for a product person. I’ve done it all several times – big companies, small companies, startups, big teams, small teams, remote teams, whatever. I’m super broad and I’m very experienced, but I’m not specialised. I know when I need to hand over to someone else.”
She thinks product leadership will be a hot topic for the next couple of years, citing Joff Redfern who talks about how to build the perfect shipyard, “whereas currently we’re all obsessing about how to build the ships”. She’s even writing a book about how to develop strong product people: “I’m looking at what makes a good product person, how you can grow product people, and how you define them, why you should define them.”
But she doesn’t think that product skill sets have developed as much as they might have, despite the increased recognition of product management as a craft. “I’m still asked basic questions about product management,” she says. “Certainly, there are more really great product organisations, and more people have figured it out, but people are still confused. There are small startups who want to be the next Spotify and so copy whatever they did to be successful, and then are confused because it doesn’t work. Established businesses are confused because they see the world is changing and they’re in a hurry to keep up. No one takes enough time.”
That said, Petra is an active member of her local product community and says it’s easier to find people she admires who tread a similar path than it used to be. She also finds a lot of support and encouragement from the Xing network of current and former staff. “I’m still in touch with a lot of former colleagues,” she says. “I think people who worked for a social network at that time were very social creatures.”
In fact, Petra’s co-organiser at MTP Engage Hamburg is Xing’s current product director Arne Kittler. They’ve known each other since 2011 when Petra was in the hiring interview for Arne’s current job – sadly the timing didn’t work out and Petra had left before Arne joined.
“It was such a pity because I really loved how Arne was in the interview and I would have loved to have worked with him there – luckily, now I do thanks to our work on the conference.”
Right now, the pair are gearing up for the fourth MTP Engage Hamburg in June, which this year takes place in a larger venue. Last year’s venue was packed out with 350 attendees, but the new venue, the Kampnagel arts centre, can accommodate up to 500 people.
Getting Ready for MTP Engage
The format is the same as last year, with the day of the conference preceded by a one-day product leadership event, and another day of workshops.
“We will do the leadership event in our old and beloved venue, the Katholische Akedemie. We cannot move away from this venue, we just love it.”
At the conference itself there are a series of keynotes and two tracks of smaller sessions, one in German, and one in English. Petra says that experience has shown that the German track is helpful in encouraging new speakers to take the stage – product people who might be anxious about public speaking in English, but who have great stories to tell.
The keynotes, Petra says, are a wishlist – “we invite people we think should be in Europe and talking to product managers” – and this year’s conference has keynotes from Jeff Gothelf, Christina Wodtke, Georgie Smallwood, and Denise Jacobs. The two tracks are then filled from responses to a call for speakers, and this year there were about 80 submissions for the 10 available speaking slots. “Unfortunately we have to turn a lot of people down,” says Petra. “We treat the speaking sessions as a product and have a few meetings to decide on our speakers. We have to think about our users and what they want to learn! With five slots in each track, we look to balance such things as the number of male and female speakers, the content for junior product managers and senior product managers, and take into account things like how far they have to travel.”
A Friendly but International Audience
The Hamburg audience doesn’t just come from Germany – a good proportion of delegates come from elsewhere in Europe and North America. Petra has some theories as to why this is. “Maybe Hamburg is on people’s bucket list?,” she says. “We know that some people just prefer smaller events. I think product people tend to be introverts with an extrovert job – MTP Engage is cosy, so maybe they find it easier to network if the crowd is smaller.”
This networking – the “Engage” part of the conference – is very important to both Petra, and Arne. “There are lots of things we do to encourage engagement and some are really very simple,” she explains. “For starters, we have longer breaks. Some of the talks are in German makes it easier for members of the German community to interact. Plus, our Q&A sessions are so much more lively when they’re in German because people don’t have that fear that their English isn’t good enough and just ask questions. That alone keeps them more engaged.”
They also organise blind-date dinners for attendees on the evening before the conference. If you’re a workshop ticket holder or a conference ticket holder you can attend one of these dinners. Says Petra: “We book 10 tables for 10 people in 10 different Hamburg restaurants. As an attendee you then meet your blind-date friends at the restaurant.
“People love it. Especially those who aren’t from Hamburg because they tend to travel to the conference on Thursday which means that evening can be boring if you don’t have friends around. The blind date dinners help people to get in touch with other attendees and they tell us in the feedback that it then feels so different if you arrive at the conference on Friday having done it – you already know you have nine friends around! People consider this to be super valuable – it’s part of the conference experience and they always ask us when they can apply.”
But these little touches don’t just stop there. “The location is important for us in everything we do. We want to make the people feel as though they are swimming in all of these Hamburg impressions”. To help attendees to really make the most of their time in Hamburg, the team provides a Google map on the Mind the Product website to help attendees to navigate the city. “As well as helping them to find restaurants it helps them to find lovely coffee places and has lots of sightseeing tips on it.”
MTP Engage Hamburg takes place in June (24-26). To find out more, head to the conference page.