Chief Product Officer interview with Neil Roberts
We caught up with Neil Roberts, a highly experienced Chief Product Officer to get his perspective on product management and best practice;
How did you get into product management?
I started my career as a developer and moved to ecommerce industry from there. At that time, in Europe, product management wasn’t an established function. I had chances to talk to customers as a developer and get feedback from them, and that eventually led to product roles. I ended up building a product team in Eurostar and have held product leadership roles since then.
What is the essence of product management?
I think it is about understanding what is valuable to customers and making sure that is part of your product or proposition. The more value you can add to a product, the more you can charge for it. Not many companies understand this principle. The core of product management is to understand what customers want to do and deliver a product that fulfils those needs.
In terms of understanding customers’ needs, I guess customers don’t necessarily know what they want in the future. When deciding the right product strategy – how much of it is based on intuition and how much is it based on analysing data?
It is a combination of both. It also depends on the stage of the business. If it is an early-stage product, there is no data – often founders’ intuition or problems they personally experienced drive the product development. Product management heavily relies on the founders vision and qualitative research – knowing problems other people are facing and how to solve them.
Then as you move on to the next phase you start to get product market fit; where you have some customers who like your product and you are trying to acquire more. You also want to improve your products in this phase. I think qualitative research is very helpful here –talk to your customers and understand what their experience is, why they use the product and what is the job to be done. You can then expand your product to fit more of their needs and broaden your appeal.
Once you have a good number of customers, data becomes more important in informing the product strategy.
What advice would you give to an individual contributor – perhaps a product manager – who is keen to move into management roles?
There are a lot of skills within product management that are directly transferable into management, in the sense that it requires listening and developing empathy, which serves you well when you become a manager. As a manager, you need to create an environment for your teams to be successful – listening to their pains and struggles, coaching them by using your experience, and helping them develop.
I think communication is a very important trait of a leader – being able to clearly communicate your vision and bring people on board. On top of that, listening is important because you have to understand what other business areas want to achieve and how you can align with their goals. As a leader, you have to focus on company-wide strategy rather than just on product management in isolation.
I’d recommend to those looking to progress into management to build their transferable skills and perhaps also to talk to senior stakeholders, to help get a deeper understanding of what they are looking for in a product leader. Then you can do a gap analysis of your own skills and how they need to develop to get that role.
One aspect of product leadership roles is stakeholder management. As product management is usually something very close to a founders’ heart, sometimes it can be difficult to create the right product strategy when you have a founder with strong opinions on the subject. Do you have any advice on how to manage founders and other senior stakeholders?
I think this is a very common discussion topic among product leaders. It is often the case that most founder-led companies have product-oriented founders and they don’t necessarily have any product management experience. When you are the first product leader in the company and the founder is heavily involved in product management, you have to try to influence their thinking and turn their vision into a reality.
You also have to ask yourself if that is the type of role you are happy to do, because it might be very different from the product management roles you have held in the past. You also have to understand what founders are thinking about. What is the reason they bring in product leaders in the first place?
They may want to focus on the broader strategy and not only developing the product. Making clear what they are accountable for and what you are responsible for is also very important. You also have to decide who is taking responsibility when things don’t go well as you expected.
I think it is very important for founders to be able to delegate and push the decision making down the organisation. Having decision making lower in the organisation means you can move faster. You have to help founders understand the trade-offs and benefits of delegation.
If you’re in an interview process for a Chief Product Officer role in a founder-led business, is there a way you can qualify the reality of the role before joining the company?
If you are interviewed by a founder, you can get a sense of what the founder is thinking about and how easy it is for them to let go. Before the interview, you should prepare yourself and make clear what is important for you to be successful and what you need to be able to succeed in the role. Sometimes written job descriptions are sugar-coated so you should qualify things as much as possible during the interview process. Think about why they are hiring for this role and what they are trying to achieve by that. You can also check how much understanding of product management they have.
It is often the case that a founder and other senior members are told to hire a Chief Product Officer by their investors, and they may not really feel they need the role. In this case, it is very difficult to have ownership within the organisation. Make sure that during the interview process you understand their pain and find out if you are the right tool to fix that problem. Even if they don’t need you now, they may need you in a few years as the business grows, so it is better to preserve the relationship and be honest and transparent when you talk to them.
Do you think design should report to product as a function?
I am not sure if there is any other function they can report to other than product. There is lots of crossover between product management and product design. For me it doesn’t make sense to separate those two functions as they work together so closely.
I think it comes down to the difference between UX and UI. UI is a specialist skill set that doesn’t really overlap with a product management skillset. On the other hand, you have many other aspects like user research, customer journey mapping, facilitation and even dare I say wireframing which I regularly see product managers doing. These are the things normally associated with UX design but learnable for product managers. I think it depends on the roles and responsibilities within the organisation. The more interesting question is why don’t we see more design leaders taking on the leadership role for both Product and design?
Do you think that having a distinction between “more technical” product managers and “more commercial” product managers is helpful?
I think it comes down to picking the right person for the job. I’m not sure that these labels are tremendously helpful, it can lead to people being pigeon holed. In my experience, people who move into technical product management roles are people who have technical backgrounds and good communication skills. They understand technical complexity and how to explain them to non-technical audiences. Most technical product managers I have known have progressed into wider product management roles at some point.
If you were to give some advice to a new graduate who wants to pursue a career in product management, what would you say?
If it’s possible, try to find an entry level role in an entrepreneurial, growing business, as that should give you opportunities to grow. It can be challenging particularly in this market to get a job in product management. Sometimes you have to transition into the role from another function. I’ve seen some very good product managers transition from other functions like customer support or engineering. If you’re in a different function and want to transition into product management, I’d talk to people in the function to both build relationships and get a deeper understanding of the requirements of the role. I’ve personally employed lots of people out of customer support into product management and they have all gone onto great things. I look for those people who show they are keen to progress, that take on projects beyond their current role and take the initiative to improve the business. Go to Meetups, listen to podcasts, read books and speak to your product management colleagues and demonstrate a willingness to learn.