Saeed Khan is the founder of Transformation Labs. Transformation Labs is an advisory and consulting firm that helps enterprise and technology companies accelerate their path to product success. In this Path to PM post, Saeed shares his advice if he were applying for product management careers all over again, and why great product leadership is about influence, service, and patience.
How did you break into product management?
I graduated university in the 1980s. Yes, a LONG time ago. I started my career as a software developer, working on database applications. After a number of years, I became a technical writer working with companies such as Alias Research and Delrina here in Toronto. I also ran my own consulting business for a few years. I then worked at a startup as Manager of Customer Education, which oversaw Customer Training, Documentation and Support. I had exposure to Product Management previously, but it was in that final role that I decided I wanted to move into Product Management.
I applied to one company and got the job. This was in Toronto in 1997 and there were not really many PM jobs at the time. Toronto had a small software community back then. I saw a PM job in the newspaper (it was that long ago!), read it, and said to myself, “That’s my job.” I had the domain knowledge that company needed and I did everything possible to get it. Looking back, I think I was quite lucky. I’m not sure how many other people have had that same experience.
What was your most successful interview question, and how did you approach it?
It’s been a while since I’ve had a job interview, but if I look back, it was back at that first PM job because that’s what got me into the field. One of the company founders asked me, “You’ve never been a Product Manager before, so why do you think you’re qualified for this job?”
I wanted to say, “Well you’re interviewing me, so that must mean something.” But I didn’t.
I had thought about this question previously because I expected them to ask it. I said that while I’d not had the role, I’d definitely done pretty much everything that a PM needs to do. I then went through what I’d done at each of my previous jobs that applied to Product Management. This covered technical background, business skills, customer engagement, understanding marketing, etc. And they hired me.
One other question from that same interview: the founder asked me what my approach was to getting agreement on issues when there were many participants who had different agendas. I told him that in my view the best approach was to try to drive to consensus whenever possible, but there will be times that a decision is made that doesn’t please everyone, but it’s the right decision regardless.
I found out later that he was a big proponent of consensus building and that my answer was exactly what he wanted to hear. Apparently some other candidates had talked about “being the boss” and exerting their “authority.” Those didn’t go over so well.
How do you answer the “what’s your favorite product” question?
This changes over time, but I still talk about my Dyson vacuum a lot. I bought it over 12 years ago and it still works beautifully. There’s so much thought put into the design—lots of attention to little details that you never think about consciously unless you’re a product geek like me.
If you were applying for product management careers all over again, what advice would you give yourself?
Great question. So many:
- Leadership is about service, not authority. The only way to bring people along for the journey together is to help them see the benefits from their perspectives. That takes work on your part. It’s not about telling people where the ship is going and that they should get on before it leaves. It's about telling them about the destination and helping them understand why they want to go there.
- Play the long game. Although we seem to be more obsessed with speed and short term objectives now than ever before, it’s critical to have a long term view and do what is needed to head in that direction. Netflix was founded in August 1997. That was the same month I started my first PM job. Look at how far they’ve come in 21 years. Amazon likewise was founded in the mid 90s and look where they are today. Both companies had a strong long term vision of where they wanted to go and stayed obsessively focused on it. Bill Gates has a great quote: “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” I think this is absolutely true and critical for product managers to understand.
- You’re a salesperson even if you think you’re not. A huge part of product management is leading by influence. That means being able to rally people around your vision of the future. That takes immense sales skills. Think of the vision as the product you need everyone to buy (into). You need to understand everyone’s needs, their goals, their fears, their constraints etc. and then apply (subtle) sales techniques to align them and show them how your vision helps them achieve their goals, alleviate their fears etc.
- The technology matters a lot less than you think. We work in the “technology industry,” and many of us obsess over the latest technology and trends, be they blockchain, AI, AR/VR, cybersecurity, IoT, etc. But all of that technology has one thing in common: people. We have always leveraged technology to serve us, to make our lives better in some meaningful way. As such, I suggest product managers spend as much time as possible understanding people - markets, customers, users, buyers, influencers - and their real needs and goals. This knowledge will pay back in droves over time and is critical for virtually any type of innovation and successful product development.
“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” — Bill Gates
What's your take on ways we can help grow the product management career in the right way?
Product management is maturing, but slower than needed. There’s still far too much work done that is ad-hoc or without clear repeatable and measurable processes. We need to put a lot more focus on process improvement in the Product Management space. There’s far too much focus on “being Agile” and Agile processes (which were driven by Engineering) and not enough of creating effective processes for new product research, product strategy and roadmapping, product launch and post-launch optimization.
Roles are still poorly defined in many companies, and there is a lot of role confusion between titles like Product Manager, Product Owner, and Product Designer. I don’t think we do a good job at defining and hiring for the right skill sets for these teams. Product Management is a cross-functional, cross-disciplinary role and yet there’s an over-emphasis on technical skills and technical processes. Additionally, how do you create high-functioning teams when the roles themselves are far from optimal. Given the lack of formal education programs for Product Management, we need to find better ways to mentor and train both junior and intermediate level PMs and turn them into skilled product leaders.
Learn more about Saeed at Transformation Labs.
Visit Exponent's PM Interview Course for more great product management interview prep.