A product manager’s specific role will vary from one company to the next. Still, all product managers must balance many aspects of their job, including customers’ needs, a vision for new products, and the project team. So what tools and strategies are needed to create a successful career as a product manager? What are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Product Manager”? In this interview series, we are talking to Product Managers, founders, and authors who can answer these questions with stories and insights from their experiences. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Gillett.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers find it fascinating to trace the evolution of a person’s career trajectory. Can you give me a brief rundown of your career history, from your very first job to the position you hold now?
I took somewhat of a scenic route to my ultimate product management career. While I went to school to be a software developer, later undergrad Computer Science classes convinced me that the life of a pure programmer might not be for me. So, I pivoted to gain an understanding of the people side of the business in addition to technology, adding business and other sciences to my course load.
I began my career at a cybersecurity startup as a technical trainer for its Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) product. But in a startup environment, everyone wears many hats, and for me, that included field implementations and technical support, and in retrospect, maybe a little rudimentary product management. During my time on the road and on the phone with customers helping them use our tools to solve problems, I realized a role in product management might be a good fit for me. I began working closely with our product management teams wherever possible. I didn’t entirely know it at the time, but the head of that product management team was my mentor despite my not being a product manager (yet).
I made a quick, eight-year detour through engineering in various leadership positions. My last engineering role was as a quality assurance manager, where my team was the last stop before the software landed in the hands of the user. This user-focused experience is what helped me to officially make the jump over to product management.
My first formal product management job was as a technical product manager, but I quickly pivoted into the overall product manager for the SIEM (Security Information and Event) product line. I have never left the cybersecurity world. I am now VP of Product for eSentire, a global Managed Detection and Response (MDR) firm—a managed services extension of the industry I started my career in over 20 years ago.
Most of the product leaders I’ve talked to sort of “fell into” product management and have become passionate about the job. What was the main event in your life that led you to this path?
From early in my career, I had the opportunity to engage with customers where they worked, helping them use our software and services. Since we were delivering cybersecurity services, we solved very complex and mission-critical problems. So it became very important to me to do my best to ensure we were building the right solutions to the most pressing problems—and in cybersecurity, there is no lack of issues impacting people at both the business and also a very personal level—as anyone who has been victimized by ransomware can attest.
It was when online cyber attacks and threat actors began being reported on in mainstream news cycles—not just on niche sites my industry referenced—that I knew I had solidified my career path. It was then that I really started to understand how important the job was and that it was more than an obscure technical issue.
I’ve often heard from people who work in the product manager capacity that it’s hard to explain what they do to family and friends. What do you say when someone asks, “so, what do you do for a living?”
I am a problem solver. I’d like to say that I build stuff, but that’s mostly left to other teams. My job is to solve the problems preventing those very smart people from building cool and useful stuff.
Put another way, the product manager’s job is to define what needs to be done and who it is for, clearly articulating that to all teams involved. The better we define the goals, the more focused and efficient the operational teams can be.
Let’s pretend money and social status don’t exist—what is most important to you about your work? What is the North Star in your career?
Getting things done and seeing products I had a hand in excelling in the market and solving real-world problems.
Can you tell me a story from your professional experience that makes you a little emotional—a moment when you knew you were in the right line of work?
I know I’m in the right line of work whenever I see our Security Operations Center (SOC) and incident response investigators detect and stop an active intrusion where there is an actual hands-on keyboard attacker. Of course, you hate to see anyone get victimized by cybercrime, but unfortunately, it happens all the time, so to be involved in detecting and preventing an attack is reassuring. In addition, nearly every day the products, tools and services I’ve had a small hand in developing and delivering to clients are helping to prevent the disruption—and potentially crippling—of their business. For example, one time our SOC discovered a business email compromise against a high-level executive. Since the client has comprehensive services with us enabled, we were able to:
- Track the actions of the threat actor as they established persistence
- Block the threat actor from executing their attack
- Verify that no other accounts had been compromised
- Evict the attacker from the environment and remove their tools and other persistence mechanisms
- Confirm that the attacker used the compromised account of someone known to the victim to initiate the attack and create a full root cause analysis
- Help train and educate the client’s staff on the nature of the compromise and what they could do to prevent it in the future
What are the qualities that you think make someone a great fit for product management? And conversely, what are some traits that would make you hesitate to recommend this profession?
Product managers must be incredibly effective communicators and understand many different types of people. A product manager will be working with engineers, marketers, salespeople, and customers of many stripes—all different personalities with different motivations—and they must be able to communicate with all of them simultaneously. This includes pitching ideas, but also listening and gathering information.
Individuals who are a little shy, and prefer to work quietly alone may not be a good fit for product management. You will be required to participate in conversations—a lot. Product managers also need to have thick skin. The goals, needs, and drivers across all of these different stakeholders rarely align, and it’s up to the product manager to bridge these gaps and differences and have difficult conversations when necessary.
When you think of the strongest team you’ve ever worked with, why do you think the team worked so well together, and can you recall an anecdote that illustrates the dynamic?
The core SIEM team back at the original small startup where I began was probably my favorite. We were a very small team, competing against juggernauts with orders of magnitude more resources. We were nimble and very customer-focused, almost to a fault. I don’t think that was the strongest team, though, as we were young and underfunded.
The strongest team is the current group I am working with at eSentire. Our SOC is filled with elite security experts doing hero work 24x7, while sales and marketing have a long streak of success, and our engineering department is composed of many industry veterans. Our product management team is small and nimble, and we are all ex-operators and engineers. The multi-signal nature of eSentire’s industry-leading MDR means our areas of expertise overlap and intertwine, so we must work very well together at all times.
A lot of theory around project management focuses on frameworks and methodologies. Can you recall a situation you’ve dealt with where you’ve had to toss these things by the wayside and come up with a unique solution to a problem?
There is a delicate balance between rigor and the Wild West. Frameworks, methodologies, and tooling exist for a reason—usually resulting from mistakes and pain. But there are always exceptions, and you don’t want “process for process' sake.” In one case, I had exceptions brought on by budget constraints. We wanted a fancy requirement gathering, tracking, and communication platform for the team, but we didn’t have the budget. However, we had many other tools that solved parts of the problem—from wikis and ticket tracking to document collaboration and others. So we stitched together the parts of many existing tools to create a homegrown solution to help the team manage projects and releases, with the end result being just as good as the packaged options.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Product Manager” and why?
1. Effective communication. Many product managers have great ideas or have heard very salient customer feedback. But great product managers can distill these ideas and communicate them effectively to a broad audience in various departments throughout the organization.
2. Write sh*t down. Related to the point above and something I am still working on every day. Research, feedback, and ideas must be documented so they can be shared and referred to later.
3. “Math? No one told me there would be math!” Product managers have to bring the data. While it’s fun to come up with new ideas and exciting to work with smart people to make them real, product managers need to show their work and prove that it’s a solid business idea. All quantitative data must be developed and shared alongside those cool ideas.
4. Play nice. Product managers don’t really build the thing. They also don’t sell and support it. Product managers must work with every department and business unit to bring a product to market and make it successful.
5. Stick time and reps. Nothing beats experience. Underneath all of that research, documentation, and data, it’s nice to have a little intuition brought on from thousands of hours of thinking and talking about the problem.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would it be?
Collaboration becomes a central tenet of business success. As you build your knowledge and career, it’s important to understand that information is infinite and that there are domains you have never even heard of that you will never fully understand. As you educate yourself and become an expert in your chosen field, learn to lean on others who have educated themselves and become experts in their own right. You will never know it all, and that’s ok. Trying to know it all, and faking it until you make it doesn’t work—collaboration is what delivers. This is especially true for product managers. We are expected to be knowledgeable across extremely wide spectrums. This can be very stressful, and it’s ultimately impossible to be the expert in everything we cover. Product managers work with others in their specialty areas, bringing their own deep expertise, sharing the effort, and building a superset of knowledge.
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