If we ever looked into the history of product management, Greg Coticchia would probably be chronicled as one of the first trailblazers in the community.
He’s spent many years all over the United States, consulting for product managers and helping out product teams in any way he could. Most recently, he’s written a book about the startup world, and he’s even found the time to become the executive director of the Master’s Program in Product Management at Carnegie Mellon University.
I interviewed Greg back in February for an episode of Product Love. I am now happy to share a lightly-edited transcript of that conversation. Whether you prefer audio or love reading, I hope you enjoy it!
You can check out the original post here and stream the audio version here or subscribe on iTunes today.
Eric Boduch: Hey, welcome here again on Product Craft, Product Love. Eric Boduch hosting, and today we have Greg Coticchia, author and executive director of the Masters Program of Product Management at Carnegie Mellon University. Welcome, Greg.
Greg Coticchia: It’s great to be here, Eric. Thanks for having me.
EB: Awesome to have you. So now, you’ve recently written a book, but you have a long history of product management. We’ll get to the book a little bit later. Let’s talk a little bit about your background. So if you want to take a few moments just to describe your experience in the industry and a little bit about how the industry has changed since you’ve been involved in it.
GC: Sure. I have been in product management as an executive in small companies. I have played the role of a product manager in about 14 startups over a career of 30+ years, spanning back to when dinosaurs were on earth back to the 1980’s all the way to almost present day. I started my career in academia five or six years ago. I’ve always loved product management. I’ve always thought that it was a terrific place being that bridge between business and technology. More importantly, creating that strategy and tactics to drive successful products for businesses, make customers happy and get customers to uptake your product. Very early in my career, I was very lucky as a product manager to have a winning product or two. I don’t think there’s anything quite like that feeling of being involved with the team as a product leader, as a product champion, as a product manager and having enjoyed that from IPO all the way through to commercialization.
EB: So talk to me a little bit about some of the winning products there. Give us a little overview of those opportunities, those products, what made them different. In particular, I think our listeners would love to hear how you might have managed those products a little bit differently or maybe how they evolved differently.
GC: Yeah, so I think product management has changed a lot, with the advent of agile and SaaS. One thing that I didn’t mention was that my career has been in enterprise software, in the b2b world so my perspective and opinions are molded by that preview. Product management certainly had a different flavor five years ago, ten years ago. Certainly, twenty-five, thirty years ago. I still think that fundamentally, it deals with the challenges of defining the “what” of the product, how you’re going to bring that product to the marketplace and how you work particularly with development or engineering in other places, particularly with the advent of agile and SaaS business models. I think it’s changed rather dramatically. Gone are the days of really sitting around the table, and looking at your feature list for months, planning out something. You put together a plan, you get budgeting, it’s gonna get approved. You know, the waterfall part of modeling the business, the product itself, and getting it out there and hoping that people loved and desired what you put out there 18 months ago.
As well as the ability to rapidly change ideas to work in sprints and themes, stories become much more aware of customer desires and you get feedback from customers in a quick fashion. It makes the pace of the job more challenging, but it also gives you more data than ever before, on what’s working and what’s not and also makes the decision turnaround time as the product manager more challenging as well. So if I were to kind of summarize that transition, while the basic purpose of the job has not changed, how you’re making the sausage in terms of the pace, testing, the feedback, the iteration and all those elements have changed. I think for the good, but it creates a different type of product manager than there were not too long ago.
EB: Let’s talk about a little more about that. You started in a world that had meticulous, detailed business cases, marketing requirements, documents, product requirements, documents, all that were stage-gated so to speak in today’s world. How’s that affected the skills a product manager needs and how they approach their job? Are product managers the same type of people back then as they were today? Do the same type of product managers work in both environments?
GC: I think they can. I’m not sure they do. One of my concerns with the newer definitions of product management is that it removes some of the more strategic business elements of what product management was. It’s less of “the CEO of the product” and more of the operational management of the product, more of the programmatic needs of the product. It’s a balance of the tactical than strategic and I’m sure different companies adopt in different ways. But it’s an overall concern. It’s no doubt the cause of the pace and the implementation the data, the feedback, the style of how products are built today, that it’s easy for product managers to get sucked into the forest and not let the trees do the work and not on the business. I think that there are some good things about that. I think you get some things right about the bundle of functionality that you’re bringing out of the product, and more accuracy. I worry that strategy and strategic maneuvering of the product sometimes can get lost. It’s because there’s less time to spend on those things, given the way products are built today.
EB: Let’s talk a little bit about the skillset. In a lot of cases, product managers weren’t the most technical people. You see a lot of product managers, especially in the Google model, where they’re heavily technical, and might have been solid programmers. Important? Not important?
GC: I’m still a believer, only because I have seen it. You don’t have to have a technology background to be a great product manager. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to understand the technology because I think great product managers always understood the challenges that developers and engineers had to face with building their product. They need to have good listening and empathetic skills so that they can understand a lot of what they’re asking for can be achieved. It’s important particularly when it comes to architectural changes and things along that line that have to be modified or changed with the product. There’s no doubt though that, I think, to your point, that there’s more of a sense that product managers should come to an engineering or computer science background. I think that will be helpful. I think these things go in waves. I mean there used to be, still is in some places, a strong desire that the product manager has to be the expert at the domain that they’re being hired for.
EB: I was just about to ask you that. Domain space expertise. Another area, right?
GC: I’m neither a believer in technology will make you successful, nor domain expertise will make you successful. It may sound like heresy to some of your listeners out there but I fundamentally believe that those that have domain expertise from other areas, may actually be beneficial that they don’t come from the domain because of the perspective, of the way they look at things. I think that if you’re a good product manager, you’ll get caught up with what’s 80% to 90% of what you know about the domain on the first 90-120 days of your job. If you can’t do that then, you’re not a good hire. I’ll get the domain expertise as a short-lived benefit to a hiring company. Giving an example from my own career, I worked in industrial automation for a number of years, and then came over and started working for data automation. It turns out those marketplaces were in two different stages of their lives and that industrial automation was probably, when I worked at it, seven to ten years ahead of data center automation. When I came into data center automation, even though I was not an expert at data center automation, I was able to apply a lot of the lessons that were learned in the industrial automation areas from functionality, to usage to even product messaging. I’ve seen the future. I was able to apply that. If I had just worked the data center automation, I would have been stuck at where everyone else was. I think that’s an important lesson for people to learn. Also, as a product manager, you’re gonna be surrounded by a lot of great technologists, developers, and engineers. You have to be able to converse with them, and actually understand what they’re doing and not be at a loss for understanding the challenge they had. You don’t have to be the person programming.
Right, if you’re spending your time thinking about those issues, you’re in the wrong place and you need to rethink that. To the degree to which you need to understand the technology is the degree to which I think a product manager can be successful. So there’s no doubt that both of those are valued by a lot of companies. I tend to go against that in terms of thinking. You know, I’m an engineer myself and I think that provided me credibility with my development counterparts. I’m not sure if it’s ever been extremely useful to me other than that.
EB: Understood. So you know the value in a lot of technology organizations that had a head of product management or a chief product officer has definitely increased a lot over the last few years. Where do you think the product managers in an organization should sit in a company structure? Do they deserve a seat at the executive table? Should it be part of the engineering group? Part of the marketing group? Part of sales? I don’t know. What are your thoughts on that?
GC: Well I think that surveys are put out by a number of different groups, but it sits in a variety of different places. I really hate when it sits in sales or engineering, that’s just terrible.
EB: And why is that?
GC: I think that’s just a terrible, terrible decision. I think you’re basically just swayed by the purposes of those organizations. I’ve always looked at product management as sitting in between those organizations and playing a role that bridges both of those that plays a neutral business and technology role. You know, small companies. Early stage companies as you know, Eric, you participate in so many of them successfully, is that they are really comprised of someone to build it and someone to sell it. Basically, sales and engineering. As you scale that business, you add elements like product management because they add a fiber in between those areas that are really, really important.
I’ve worked in organizations where sales on every Monday morning would say, “Here’s what we need,” to product managers, and you get wish fraud, you’re not really building a product. You’re building lots of one-offs for various sale situations. I’ve also seen product manager organizations where they become the gopher for engineers in the project managers versus being the product managers. There’s been a lot of non-customer listings goes on, because the engineers know better what the customers want so I think you can suffer terribly you know, whether, it’s politically or inadvertently by being placed in those organizations. I think in today’s world, the more mature company does have a VP of product management or a chief product officer in a product organization and they do have a seat of the table. It’s kind of broken out the way, believe it or not, customer service, and customer support, and those areas used to be under engineering or related to those. So I think that more mature, more established organizations understand that it is a separate organization.
You know you and I grew up when marketing held both product management, marketing and communications together as one. I believe that there are some benefits to having those two areas work closely together under the same umbrella for correct messaging, promotion, and certainly, in theory, make it easier for go-to-market activities. I see a lot of benefits in that. I’m not certain that though that model is workable in today’s world or is necessary as it once was. I’d be the first person to tell you that you don’t want to have somebody that is a chief revenue officer, a VP of sales and marketing, that has those skills. You need to have that divide. So similarly, there are some good reasons to divide marketing and communications and product management. So now I guess, one of those two would be good. A separate seat at the table where the product gets its’ voice is probably always the best.
EB: So let’s change the direction of thought or conversation here a little bit. You live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You’ve more or less lived in Pittsburgh for a while now, right?
GC: I have. I’ve lived in a number of places. But yeah, I’ve anchored here for many years.
EB: You’ve seen a lot of changes I’ve supposed, in Pittsburgh over the years, now it seems like Pittsburgh is one of the up and coming tech darlings, right? Talk about how Pittsburgh has changed for technology as a whole and for product managers.
GC: Well I think Pittsburgh has been lucky to have more product management people than a lot of other areas. The times that I was actually hired in Northern Virginia, Boston, or Cupertino or other places or I did consult in those areas for product management roles was, because I couldn’t find enough people in those communities and strangely enough, I was here. But I was not the only one. There’s a lot of folks like yourself and some other people that you and I know, that are very talented product management folks. While we probably think of ourselves in Pittsburgh as still not having enough product management, we’re actually lucky to have more than a lot than other communities. I think we have a lot more of those people for a number of years. I would say it spanned back to five years ago.
Product management remains a very, very difficult job. People in product management cannot last in their job because it’s a grinder and I think it’s hard to find the right person because some of the things we talked about early in our conversation. Some people are good at the technology part, the strategy part, the go-to-market part. Some people are good at interacting with customers, some of them are really great at engineering, sales. Find that person that can manage all the boxes, from strategic to tactical, from inside to outside; the full range of all the functions and do a good job at all of them. That’s a wondrously big job. I think in some parts that’s why the job is kind of now orienting itself slightly different. It’s a big job. It’s hard to find somebody who can actually step in that job and be in that product manager role. It’s aspirational. It’s a great thing to try to manufacture as we are at CMU, as the first only Product Manager Master’s Degree.
I know there’s a lot of great other certificates that people can earn that’s been out there for a long time. Of course, there’s the standard on-the-job training. All of those are great methods to becoming a terrific product manager.
EB: Do you have any specific words of wisdom for young or aspiring product managers?
GC: Yeah. I would say most of all, a lot of people think about this job, like a sales job, is about talking or thinking that engineering is about creating great products. Most of this job is about listening. Making sure you have really good deep listening skills and that you have a well-developed sense of empathy because you’re gonna need it. You really have great communication skills that are not just standing up to an audience or just writing skills. Those are excellent and important ones but persuasiveness and internal selling skills are what you need. You’re not ever gonna have the resources you want. You’re gonna have demands put on by yourself, your team, your exec management, your company, whatever. You’re going to have to figure out how to thread that needle and make it work. It is an extremely high pressure and challenging role where you have to be a leader to other people. And so your leadership, your communications, your empathy, your listening skills, those soft skills tend to be the ones that people tend to forget about. You may be the smartest person in the room but it doesn’t make any difference if you can’t convince anybody else. So I would really highly encourage you to think about those communication skills and other skills, that I just talked about, those soft skills and how important they are. Get good at them early on.
EB: So you wrote a book. Talk to me about that process. What inspired you to write it?
GC: I wrote a book and I will tell you, for your listeners, it’s called Start Your Start-Up Right and you can order it on Amazon whether on a paperback or a kindle version, whatever your preferences. You can also go to the website, which I was shocked to see, was actually available as a domain name. But it’s out there. You know, even though it’s about startups, there are a lot of things in it about product management and new product development so I think you would find it interesting if you were a product manager. I started the process and journey…
Actually, it’s kind of funny, it’s like agile development and work that we see so much today. It’s a rather daunting task to sit down and write a book, and we’re going to have an outline and we’re going to write this, you know, kind of the waterfall management of writing a book. That’s why most people never got to it.
So I decided to write it in chunks and I did it on LinkedIn. What I did were LinkedIn postings. The ones that got very good feedback or lots of comments or things, I promised myself one year that I would do one a week for the year. I ended up doing 90 that year. I did a lot the year before and after but not as many as that year. I just went through and curated them, organized them with Q&A sections together. I rewrote sections to make them more current or updated and compile them together and published it. What I like to think of it, is that it’s more than a vanity project, I think it has a lot of meaning and usefulness. I wanted to also get it accomplished and get the process of publishing. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s got a lot more sales than I thought it ever would and I’m very proud of it.
EB: Awesome! Is there going to be a second?
GC: There is! I have two or three ideas that I’m doodling on, but I’m gonna do my customer discovery first. There’s been a lot of things that came out of the first book that I find people that people like, and they like the style of the writing. A lot of people say, “I feel like I’m in a conversation with you or listening to you,” and I’m like, “Wow, that’s nice!”
I think that they mean that in a positive light. Then there’s been some terms used in the book and some ideas in the book that, I think, could be more fully developed. The whole idea of customer discovery which I labeled very early in the book and I refer to the book, getting out there and getting bloody for instance. The process of getting bloodied came from that Mike Tyson idea, that everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. I like that idea because you learn so much. The minimum viable product idea, the cheaper you can get something out there, get it tested, get feedback on it. I know some developers that I worked with over the years, when the term MVP wasn’t coined or created yet, had that style of, “Let’s put together a lightweight version of the feature and see if people used it, how they used it, and what they used it for. “
Some of the best developers from way back in the late ‘80’s and ‘90’s that I worked with were using those styles of ideas. I love that stuff, so it’s great feedback. So hopefully those type of things will help me create a second book.
EB: Speaking of writing, how about reading? Are you more likely to read the Kim Kardashian world or are you reading about Apple in the TechCrunch?
GC: First of all, I’m a total non-fiction person. There are little fiction mixes. It’s kind of sad, but true. It’s one of those things, I have been reading a lot about stoicism. I’m into The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday, who also wrote some great marketing books, by the way. And I’m also reading another one called Beyond the Sales Process which is a really good read. It’s only a couple of years old so that’s one of my favorites. I also enjoy biographies so I’m reading the Ulysses S. Grant book that was recently published, which is extremely well done. The author also wrote Hamilton. It’s a good read. You learn a lot about people under duress and about leading different things. It’s not always as clean and simple as our history books tell us or what we remember.
EB: And finally, most importantly, Greg. Three words to describe yourself.
GC: Three words: passionate, intense, fun. I’ll say that with some laughter.
EB: Well, thank you. I appreciate your time today and look forward to chatting again in the future.