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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 Diego Schmunis.

Diego Schmunis

Diego is a tech and product industry veteran with 20 years of experience working for a variety of startups and thrives on partnering with executive teams to help create and drive the product vision, strategy, and execution. He is currently a Product Manager for a stealth startup venture backed by Redesign Health.

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?

Ok, this can turn out to be a long story, but I’ll try and summarize.

While going to college to get my Political Science degree I was also working as a DJ at various nightclubs in San Francisco and doing private parties. This was in the mid ’90s when desktop publishing was just starting to emerge. Every night, after getting out of the club, my partner and I would go down to Kinkos to design flyers to promote our next party. That’s when I first started to learn to use a computer and desktop publishing software. Not long after, my mother, wisely recognizing that computer and computer skills would be a key skill to have, bought me my first computer (an Apple Quadra 650). After that, I spent every minute that I had learning how to use it and learning as many programs as possible.

About two years later, my best friend approached me and said: “Diego, I can see how much you love working with computers and learning to use different software. How would you like to work at a software company—take a peek behind the curtain and learn what it takes to create them. I have a friend that runs a QA group and is looking for testers.” He said that they’d feed me three meals a day AND pay me! WOW! Seriously? You are going to feed AND pay me to play video games? Sign me up! (this turned out to be a job at Imagination Networks which spun out of Sierra Online and was probably the first truly online video game company. We ended up getting acquired by AOL)

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?

After working for Imagination Networks and AOL, I went to work for a few other startups during the dot-com boom (before the pop) while rising the QA ranks.

Around 2009, the same friend that had connected me with the job at Imagination Networks was starting a new unit within a well-known and established search engine company and was looking for a few more people for their QA team and offered me a position. By this time—at my previous startup—I had risen to the level of QA Director and was starting to feel that I was getting to a point in my career where I needed to make a move if I wanted to keep learning and evolving.

For me, the options were to get more technical and become a Developer or go into Product Management. I chose Product.

There were two reasons for this. First, a few years back I had done a two-year degree in graphic design and multimedia and although I didn’t want to be a designer, I always considered myself a visual and creative thinker and wanted a role where I could exercise that creativity in conjunction with critical thinking. The second reason was that from a QA perspective I always felt that in that role, we were at the end of the line and that unless we could find and strongly justify a reason why the product wasn’t ready for release, we were heading straight into production. I had strong opinions about usability and design and how products could be better implemented so why not jump from being at the end of the line to the very front?

So, I didn't so much as “fall” into Product. Rather, it was a deliberate, planned, and conscientious decision with a lot of hard work and drive. I’m very thankful for the people that gave me a chance and my first role as a PM.

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?”

Can I use a line from Liam Neeson in the movie Taken? “What I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a PM dream for people like you." Ok, let’s get serious here!

Somehow it never seemed too hard for me to explain what I do for a living (maybe I just have very kind, supportive, and lying friends and family who thought it would hurt my feelings if they didn’t get it?).

The explanations I give have certainly evolved over the years as my job and my career have grown and changed.

In the beginning, I used to say something along the lines of “I tell designers and programmers how the software product needs to look and work.” (Notice how there’s no awareness yet about either the user or the need for collaboration). Then, after a few years and a bit more experience, I started to describe my job as follows: “My job is to understand the business needs and vision and come up with ideas on how to help the business achieve its goals and generate revenue. I write the requirements, and then review them with designers and engineers to make sure that they are clear on what’s expected.”

Ok, my understanding of my role is starting to move in the right direction. I’m mindful and aware that I can’t just build any product. That I need to help build towards some valuable outcome. I also started to understand that product development is a team sport and that I need other teams to help accomplish the objectives. Still, so much room for growth and improvement.

At some point, it clicked in me that it didn’t matter how good my team and I thought the product was, if no one was buying it we were still failing. So, from that point of view, I started saying something along these lines: “My job is to understand the needs (not necessarily the wants) of our users and how we can best address them with our products in a way that by solving a user’s problem we also help move the company closer to its vision and goals. I work with a broad set of teams, from design and engineering to sales and marketing; taking input from various sources, seeking alignment, and then helping the product teams plan our execution to bring these solutions to market.” Now, things are starting to gel better together. There’s awareness and empathy for the user, the understanding that company objectives must be met in the process, and the grasp that product development is a hands-on contact team sport and that I can only accomplish things through and because of all the other teams in the organization.

Now, with a few more notches on my belt, a bit wiser, and with quite a bit more gray hair I synthesized what I do to: “I’m a problem manager and a problem solver. I help solve problems for our users and our business. I accomplish this through collaboration and working with and for various teams and stakeholders in my organization. I’m the facilitator and enabler that allows the teams that really build the product to work effectively and with total focus so that we can achieve our collective outcomes and goals.”

Thankfully, I’ve never had to use my other “set of skills”.

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?

Real estate agents have a saying that goes something like this: “Location, location, LOCATION!”

For me, it goes: “team, Team, TEAM!”

I don’t believe that products succeed or fail. I believe that teams do. And something that contributes towards enabling teams to succeed is the culture and leadership of the entire organization.

Another saying from VCs when evaluating investment opportunities: “We’d rather invest in an A team with a B idea than invest in an A idea with a B team.” 

The failure of a product is usually a manifestation of how well a group of individuals comes together to collaborate, disagree, commit, align, and push together in one direction.

To use a phrase from one of my favorite movies: “The real magic is taking four strong solo acts and making them all work together.” (I’ll give you a hint to figure out the movie: I study close-up magic).

Having strong individual contributors is a core ingredient for sure, but all the strongest and smartest individuals in the world will be of no use to you, your users, or your company if they cannot work well together.

So, for me, it all starts and ends with strong teams that are truly enabled and empowered by a strong culture and a nurturing, caring, supportive leadership team.

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?

Wait! This isn’t one of those hidden camera moments where you get me to cry in public, is it?

I don’t really have one experience that jumps to mind as a defining moment when I knew I was in the right career. But I have to say, when I get the opportunity to spend time with my customers and see their faces light up when we show them our product—and you can see something click with how it’s going to improve their lives or solve a particular problem that they been having—it gives me that warm and fuzzy feeling that I’m adding value to the world and helping some one’s life to be a little bit better!

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?

Following from the previous question and answer, I feel the need to again restate that there’s no one-size fits all set of qualities that makes one a great fit to be a Product Manager or not. It’s dependent on the level of experience of the candidate and what and how a company intends to deploy the role. 

That said, here are a few common qualities that may indicate where a person would be well suited for a general role as a PM or not.

Let’s start with a few descriptions:

  • The typical Venn diagram used to represent Product Managers puts us at the intersection of User Experience, Technology and Business, but I really think that this is an oversimplification. 
  • Product Management, at its core, is the art and science of managing and solving problems.
  • A common saying is “We have all the responsibility but none of the power.”
  • Here’s my description of what it feels like to be a Product Manager: “It’s like standing in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane while paddling like the dickens.”

So, you basically have one thousand things flying all around you all the time, with enough speed and force to rip your head right off. How do you survive?

First, you need to be OK with chaos and ambiguity. Especially in very early-stage startups. There’s no way around this one. But while you need to be OK with chaos and ambiguity you need to be able to implement product best practices and processes to try and put some method to the madness. Also, as you need to be comfortable with ambiguity, you should always be striving to resolve and answer the ambiguity. Ambiguity leads to building bad products. Period. You need to spend a lot of time understanding problems, seeking clarity, and finding ways to communicate learnings, needs and requirements to other teams in the organization directly and clearly. And this is challenging because as the saying goes, a Product Manager “has all of the responsibility and none of the power.” So, you must be able to gain others’ people's trust in you and your decisions, so they want to come with you on a journey and work hard to make the whole team successful.

I usually use three analogies to describe the core functions of a PM:

  • You are an architect: you need to be able to visualize what the result should look and work like and very clearly articulate the vision (the WHAT and the WHY) to your construction crew (Design and Engineering) who are the ones who get to build the product that you can only envision.
  • You are an air traffic controller: part of your job is to manage always competing priorities, changing requirements, lack of resources and all other challenges that tend to occur while building products and make sure that everyone has a clear path ahead of them so they can come in for a safe landing.
  • You are an orchestra director: PMs don’t really build any products. Design and Engineering do. But our job is to make sure that each part of the orchestra (i.e.: each team) sounds and performs to the best of their abilities and then that they sound and work great as a unit. If you’ve done your job right, should you get ran over by the proverbial bus on opening night, your team shouldn’t miss a beat. The show must go on!

To summarize: a PM should love problems, and be comfortable with ambiguity. Be able to bring methods to the madness. Be a great communicator and enabler. Be humble and have empathy for your users and your teams. Be a great servant leader. Do everything that you can to make those around you successful. We succeed because of our teams, not because of ONE person.

On the flip side, the few things that I find that are not conducive to being a strong Product Manager are lack of humility and empathy (e.g., arrogance and the need to always be right). Being more interested in building solutions than in understanding the problem first (this is something that I see fairly common: teams that discuss the problem for five minutes and then immediately jump into solutioning—to quote Einstein: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”). Believing that you must always have all the answers and be always right. You won’t. And successful product building is a contact team sport—think rugby, not golf!

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?

This is like asking a father with multiple children which one is his favorite one! Thankfully I only have one kid.

I’ve worked with many teams, and I truly have enjoyed each one of them. The reason why I can pick one over all the other ones is that each one has been a unique team under a unique set of circumstances and provided me with a unique set of experiences, learnings, and growth opportunities. I’ve learned so much from each one of them that it would be completely unfair to compare them and say that one was better than the other one.

Sure, some teams had a few more ups and downs, twists, and turns than others. Some required a firmer approach to leading and somewhere a bit more mature and jived better together.

There are a lot of things that make, or not, teams successful and that, in and of itself, could be a book or a whole other interview. Speaking of books, if I had to synthesize what I feel makes the best teams then I’ll go with what author, Patrick Lencioni, wrote about in his book: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (I can’t recommend this book enough. My mother bought me a copy back in 2013 and I’ve been reading this book every year since):

·   Absence of trust

·   Fear of conflict

·   Lack of commitment

·   Avoidance of accountability

·   Inattention to results

The best teams that I’ve worked with have been the ones that were composed of individuals with high levels of emotional intelligence and where we all, collectively, practice psychological safety and strived to be cognizant of these dysfunctions and the commitment to the team and to each other to working hard to improving them.

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?

At every single company that I worked for as a Product Manager! Although it may seem that two companies working in the same space, targeting the same customer with very similar solutions are the same, upon closer inspection you realize that they are not. They could be slightly different points in their growth and maturity trajectory. They could have different business models and certainly, they have very different teams, cultures, and leadership. What may work for one company, most likely won’t work for the other one. When it comes to frameworks and methodologies one size does not fit all. Just look at all the companies that tried to implement Spotify’s guilds and squads’ model and failed completely. Why did they fail? Because they were not Spotify.

I’m a huge believer in processes. I believe that processes help get a group of individuals working effectively together (Teams! Remember?) to achieve a common objective. Process is how we get things done. Bureaucracy is process that get in the way of getting things done.

But you need to adapt the processes, frameworks, and methodologies to the team. Not the other way around. If you try to force a team to adopt a methodology, you may have some short-term gains but then you’ll end up like those companies that tried copying Spotify’s model.

Your company, your products, and your people are unique, and they deserve to partake in ideating, defining, and implementing the processes under which they need to work. And they should be given the freedom and flexibility to keep adapting, modifying, and improving these processes when they stop working. Or throw them all away and start over.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Product Manager” and why?

1 . Humility: The best products are not built by a single individual. No matter how much of a visionary, or genius entrepreneur you may be (most likely think that you are), great products are built by great teams. Even in the most solo of all sports (like ultramarathon running or golf), there’s always a team of talented and supporting individuals that contribute their love, sweat, and tears to bring about a successful outcome. The best Product Managers know and understand that product building is a hands-on contact team sport, and they know that the best way to build the best products is working with a team that brings a variety of ideas and points of view to the table as not to introduce group bias and that at the end of the day should be the best idea that gets implemented, not the one that the Product Manager thought off. The best and most impactful Product Managers leave their egos at the door and require the same from everyone in their teams.

2 . Empathy: Customers don’t necessarily want to pay us to build solutions that we like or think are best (there’s an old saying that says: “fall in love with the problem, not with the solution”). Customers pay us to solve their problems. Try asking a potential customer to give you money for “your” ideas or solutions and see how quickly they depart with their cash. Now, tell a customer, or even better, show him or her how your solution directly, simply, effectively, and at a bargain of a cost solves his or her problem and probably, if you can find other customers like this one, you’ll struggle to keep up with the orders coming in. Similarly, to the point above about the need to be humble around your team, you also must have a strong sense of empathy for your future users. Truly and deeply care about them and the challenges and struggles that they encounter in their everyday life. Like the best actors becoming their characters to portray them accurately, you must strive to see and feel things from your customer's perspective.

3 . Open-Minded: One of the most common mistakes that I see the Product Manager making, as well as other teams collaborating in product development, is jumping too quickly and too early into solutioning, coming across a promising idea, and then going full force in defining its requirements and all its details without giving enough time, effort and consideration to other alternatives and their respective tradeoffs. As the saying goes: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” but if you already made up your mind, put up the blinds, so to speak, you’ll miss all the other ways in which you could approach the problem. Also, being open-minded is closely related to the first value of humility and realizing that just because you are the Product Manager doesn’t mean that all the ideas (good ones and/or bad ones) must originate from you. Great ideas, like leadership, can come from anywhere and from anyone. Only an open and humble mind can allow this to happen.

4 . Love for Problems: Say it out loud: I LOVE PROBLEMS, I LOVE PROBLEMS, I LOVE PROBLEMS! Our title may be that of Product Manager but at its core, Product Management is the art and science of problem managing and problem-solving. If you don’t care about diving deep into the problems that your customers face, then don’t expect your customers to love—let alone pay—for your products and solutions. The other day, on a TED talk, I heard the following quote “Magic is just a problem that you cannot solve” by keynote speaker and magician Vinh Giang. I think it’s totally applicable to Product Management. One of our objectives should be to create magical experiences for the people using our products and solutions and to do that we must start by fully embracing and rejoicing in the problem space.

5 . Ask Great Questions: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” This quote by the famous Stoic philosopher Epictetus points us to the importance of listening to others speak about their problems and struggles so that we can build empathy for them, which will lead us, through our collective team humility, open-minded and love for customers’ problems to craft magical solutions. The challenge is that, sometimes, customers don’t exactly know what they need (a key skill for a Product Manager is to be able to discern and separate, sometimes educate, customers’ wants from needs and focus on satisfying the needs first).

As Steve Jobs famously said: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” So, the path that we must take to get to what customers need is through knowing how to ask great questions. What’s a great question? Well, that’s a great question in and of itself. But I’ll say this: in general, a great question is one that, first, is open-ended. A question that allows two or more people to have an open, honest, and open-minded conversation. Also, it’s a question that for each answer it provides, it prompts 3–5 follow-up questions and a few rabbit holes to explore. Great questions not only help us better understand our customers’ problems in deep detail but are also the seed that starts to generate great understanding which leads to better ideas and solutions.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’ll quote one of my favorite Stoic figures, Marcus Aurelius: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one." Be a good human being. Be humble and empathetic. Care for others, your users, and your team.

Remember those who came before you, those who believed in you and who gave you opportunities to learn and to grow, and who forgave you when you made mistakes, so that when you come across someone who’s just getting started in life or in a career and you are able to help. Pay it forward.

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By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The Product Manager. Following six years of experience in the tech industry, she pivoted into the content space where she's had the pleasure of working with some of the most brilliant voices in the product world. Driven by insatiable curiosity and a love of bringing people together, her mission is to foster a fun, vibrant, and inspiring community of product people.