In this video, Zoopla’s CPTO Dave Wascha shares his take on the reality of the CPO role, where Product fits within the organisation, what skills product managers need to be successful, and more. Watch the session in full or read on for the top 5 highlights.
About Dave Wascha
Dave Wascha started as a product manager 20 years ago working on Internet Explorer 4.0. Since then he’s had his share of successes and failures in a storied career spanning the US and Europe. Recently he’s served as Chief Product Officer for moo.com and Photobox and has graced the #mtpcon stage multiple times. Last year he joined Zoopla as their Chief Product and Technology Officer.
- What’s being a CPO really like?
- Where does Product fit in the organisation?
- What key skills make a good product manager?
- Why is being a product manager often so frustrating?
- What’s the key to solving customer problems?
- How have product managers changed over the years?
1. What’s being a CPO really like?
If you think being a CPO is like being Steve Jobs, think again. Dave explains that, in his experience, being a CPO is largely about managing senior stakeholders, the board, and the senior exec team.
“I really do believe that a lot of people think that somehow all they need to do is become the CPO and suddenly, it’ll be like Steve Jobs laying out vision, approving visions and sitting down with Johnny Ive.” However, having been CPO for a number of different companies, Dave says that 98% of the time, the reality of the job is very different. Instead, the CPO role largely depends on where the company is in its lifecycle. “It depends how mature the company is and whether it’s more product-led or sales-led. The CPO role can change wildly, but it’s really about managing stakeholders broadly in the company. It’s about staffing products, with the right kind of talent, the right standards.”
2. Where does Product fit in the organisation?
There are companies that are tech-led, companies that are sales-led, and companies that are product-led and Dave believes that no one is better than the other. “It just depends on what the product is that the company is selling, and some products are incredibly technical by their very nature,” Ultimately, he says, what role product plays in a company is very contextual. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 20 years it’s that there’s no standard template for Product. Product needs to serve the needs of the company at any given point in its lifecycle and its journey.”
3. What key skills make a good product manager?
While there are many skills a product manager needs to be successful Dave highlights two in particular – storytelling and understanding. As a product manager, he says, storytelling is a vital, core skill. “You need to be able to create a narrative that clearly illustrates, internally, the journey the company is on. Something that ties together everything from the daily stand up and the different ceremonies and the JIRA tickets, and the whirlwind of work that teams are doing across the organisation.”
Understanding, he explains, is another skill product managers need in order to be able to effectively repeat those stories, again and again, and again. “The more I […] had bigger roles in larger organisations, the more I realised that the key to stakeholder management is repetition.” In fact, Dave suggests, a good product manager shouldn’t feel convinced that people are on the same page until they start finishing your sentences for you. “It feels to you like you’ve said it so many times that it should be obvious but it never really is,” he says. “One of the few things that never ceases to surprise me is how often you can repeat something – you feel like you’ve said 100 times and you suddenly see the penny drop.”
4. Why is being a product manager often so frustrating?
It’s not uncommon for product managers to feel frustrated because their ideals don’t align with the reality of the business they work at but, as Dave explains, saying in a role that makes you feel this way can do more harm than good. “I think a lot of product managers probably spend too much time being frustrated, or too much time trying to change something that isn’t going to change at that company,” he says “and so – please take this with a grain of salt, but I think a lot of product managers would be better served by finding a job that’s more aligned with what they want to do, as opposed to trying to change big organisations to fit with how they see the world working. Given how much in demand product managers are today, you should be able to find something that’s a better fit for you.”
5. What’s the key to solving customer problems?
“I am endlessly curious about customers’ problems. I love interviewing customers. I love interviewing customers about how they solve a problem and what they care about when they solve a problem,” says Dave, “I find it intellectually, very satisfying to go through that process. I probably like that even more than coming up with innovative solutions.”
For him, the discovery process and asking ‘what do customers really care about?’ is what he believes will help you to make your product truly successful. “Focusing on making your product more successful won’t necessarily make the product better at solving your customer’s problem,” he says. “There’s so much inertia in the industry that you get stuck on your product as the solution to the customer’s problem, as opposed to what the best solution to that customer’s problem should be.”
4. How have product managers changed over the years?
As the practice of product management has developed, product managers have moved with it. Dave describes what he considers to be the characteristics of a top product manager today, in 2020, including the characteristics that have stood the test of time.
“I’ve probably interviewed over 1000 product managers and there are a couple of things that are universal and enduring.” Curiosity, he explains, is about wanting to understand the customer and the customer’s problems. Keeping a keen eye on what’s happening in the industry and what’s happening to the competition. “I’ve found that the best product managers have that level of insatiable curiosity. They physically cannot restrain themselves when trying to go and understand and solve those problems. Secondly, we’re definitely looking for people who are highly analytical, highly numerate, and well versed.”
There are a few things Dave believes have grown in importance over the last few years too, one being a willingness to collaborate. “You want product managers to facilitate teams to get to the best answer, not necessarily to dictate what the best answer is.” As a result, he believes that a skill set around collaboration is becoming increasingly important.
More recently, not purely because of COVID 19, he says, resilience feels crucial. “Product managers have to deal with a lot of disappointment, a lot of suspicion, and a lot of friction. They have to hold all of the cognitive dissonance in their head of a company saying something and also asking them to do 16 other things and product managers for whom this is overly frustrating or overwhelming, are going to walk around frustrated and angry all the time and just aren’t going to be successful.” In response to this, Dave has spent the last couple of years focusing more on how people deal with adversity and conflict. “I want to know how have they dealt with conflict in the past and how they’ve dealt with the very real conflict that sometimes you can’t really resolve in larger positions.”
He concludes that good product managers today should also enjoy the job. “I just believe that you have to see it as an opportunity and not something that makes you go home and kick the dog or shout at your spouse,” he says. “I tell my team all the time, it’s only work. It’s not something that should make you frustrated all the time.”