Michael Hopkin is an engineer, product manager, and internationally recognized leadership consultant. His blog Lead on Purpose is a favorite of product managers and the C-Suite alike — he posts daily insights from his varied experience in building products, from both developer and product manager perspectives. We spoke with Michael about his “strategic stumble” into product management, highly recommended leadership reads and the most common problem he sees at companies who fail at product.
Hi Michael, thanks for speaking with me today! How did you get into product management?
Michael: So, I got my degree in accounting, but it was accounting with a Master of Information Systems. I realized very quickly that I wanted to be working with computers, in technology. Not auditing or taxes…
Don’t blame you.
Michael: [Laughs] Yeah, so I made the decision to get technical experience in the first few years of my career, and then move back into the business side of things. That’s how I played it, and this was before I had even heard of product management.
I did about 5 years of consulting and software development. In the process, I sort of stumbled into product management.
As many do…
Michael: Exactly. And I think, wow, what better way to get back on the business side than product management?
I started talking to other product managers, and went from being an engineer to a product manager on that same project I’d been developing. You couldn’t ask for a better transition.
Since then, for the last 14 or so years, I’ve been doing some form of product management, including consulting.
I feel there are many product managers who are hired directly out of MBA programs without a technical background.
Michael: Right, and the main reason I felt I needed that engineering background was to be able to speak the language. To be able to recognize and say with confidence “I know we can do this” or “I know we wouldn’t want to build that”, because I can understand the problem with the mindset of a developer.
Good thinking. We’ve spoken to a lot of product leaders who agree, like Keval Desai. He’s a big believer that speaking the language of your developers is a crucial component of being a PM.
What drew you into product management consulting? Were you seeing the same problems over and over and thought, I could help fix this?
Michael: Something I find is consistently missing from a company’s product strategy — and this should come as no surprise — is understanding the customer. What does the customer need? That disconnect in understanding that is the biggest problem.
Also, there seems to be a lack of knowledge in product management when it comes to working with individuals who don’t report to you. How do you effectively lead? I’ve had numerous opportunities to train other PMs and facilitate communication. Communication and trust are key to maintaining a well oiled organization.
Definitely. We’ve spoken with hundreds of PMs over the years, and we make a point to seek out their feedback to inform our own product development. From what we see, communication of feedback within their organizations is a big issue.
Michael: It’s interesting because at so many emerging companies, the teams are small and lean. You’d think communication is super simple, but it’s not! It’s more often that product managers are just listening to the loudest voice in the room, and not everyone is being heard.
It’s kind of funny, there have been times consulting for organizations where I see vocal product leaders, but they don’t necessarily encourage that from their team. When it’s reciprocal, that’s a good sign.
For sure. Do you have any favorite books, blogs, or the like that you recommend to other product managers? Specifically that touch on things like improving team dynamics and communication?
Michael: [Laughs] Too many. Let’s see, there’s Tuned In. Lean Startup by Eric Ries, of course. Start With Why, by Simon Sinek.
There’s a quote I always come back to, since college really. Eric Hoffer said, “In a time of drastic change it is learners who inherit the future. While the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to live in a world that no longer exist”. I try to live that and be a learner, especially in technology product management. You just have to be.
As for blogs, there are so many. I read Steve Johnson’s stuff. I actually have an upcoming project with him that aims to address some of these issues in PM leadership.
I was going to ask about that! I know it’s upcoming so maybe under wraps, but can you speak to it?
Michael: Of course, we just had our kickoff. We are going to be holding a webinar series on developing leadership skills for product management. It’ll be an eight-part series over several weeks, anyone can sign up for this first round that gives a good overview of the entire conference. It’ll mostly be around how to lead your teams when you can’t mandate. This is what I’ve always called leading on purpose.
The blog title, there it is! Thanks for speaking with us.
Michael: My pleasure!