Charles Du is a product manager, UX designer, lecturer and keynote speaker. The multi hyphenates aren’t just for show—his accomplishments include designing the first NASA iPhone app, co-founding Getaround, teaching courses in product management at Stanford and mentoring teams at Live Nation and Apple. Charles shares product lessons and PM interview tips on his blog, ProductCharles.com.
Thanks for joining, Charles! How did you get into product?
My career path has been pretty colorful. When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to build things for NASA, which led me to study Aerospace engineering and to my first job at NASA JPL. I started as a systems engineer designing orbits. In other words, I was helping plan the best courses to get to Mars. It was a cool job on paper, but difficult for me to connect with the work emotionally.
So, I eventually transitioned to work on NASA’s education programs, which made work meaningful and relatable. Things got even more exciting when the iPhone first came out—I convinced our CIO that we should build an iPhone app for NASA! The idea was to build an iPhone app that would deliver NASA’s content to the public in a fun mobile experience. Our CIO liked the vision, gave me a developer to work with and this became my first opportunity to become a product manager. I had no idea what I was doing! I still remember making wireframes with Microsoft Powerpoint and sharing product requirements using email. It was a mess.
Flash forward 3 months and we launched the app—it was a huge success! The app now has over 10 million downloads and gets about 2 million hits per day. This little app started my path down product management. 8 years later, I’ve shipped over a dozen apps for a bunch of different companies—nimble little small startups like Getaround to large companies like Live Nation.
2 years ago, I decided to take a break from designing products and focus on growing other people to become rockstar product managers. I now grow people that through in-person workshops, 1-on-1 career coaching, and my online courses. My students range from people who are brand new to product management to mid-level product managers who want to land a PM position in a top-tier company. I’m proud to say I now have over 5,000 students all over the world, some of which have landed product manager positions at Google, Yelp, and LinkedIn.
That’s an amazing story! What are some of the most common challenges you encountered when building product?
Good question. One of the biggest challenges I face when building product is having to lead without authority.One of the biggest challenges I face when building product is having to lead without authority. Click To Tweet The PM’s role is pretty similar to the role of the CEO. You have to have a vision, you have to execute, and you have to lead. Unlike a CEO, you don’t have any authority. Things can get real messy really fast if you don’t communicate your vision clearly and get consensus on your vision. I still remember my first product vision kickoff meeting with a room full of engineers. Prior to the meeting, I worked diligently in my own little bubble and came up with the product requirements in isolation. During the meeting, they saw the requirements and bombarded me with questions I didn’t have answers to. Needless to say, we didn’t reach consensus and wasted an hour of everyone’s time. That meeting was brutal and ultimately humbling. I learned the hard way how to communicate is just as important as what to communicate.
Does that overlap with the challenges you see when coaching others in product management?
The most common challenge that I help my clients with is their ability to communicate effectively. They frequently come armed with a lot of knowledge but struggle to impart it in a relevant way. As a leader, you have to know who you’re communicating with and speak their language.As a leader, you have to know who you're communicating with and speak their language. Click To Tweet I once had a client who was prepping for a Product Management interview with Uber. When faced with the question: “tell me about yourself” he would rephrase parts of his resume in chronological order. This is what most people do. A more effective way to answer this question to first find out what qualities the interviewer looks for in the candidate and present specific examples from his background. He used this strategy and ended making it to the final round. Communicating in a relevant way is also important when you’re on the job as a Product Manager. You don’t want to talk in technical jargon when you’re communicating with a designer and you don’t want to talk in design terms when you’re communicating with an engineering. Be relevant.
That’s great advice. Charles, earlier you mentioned you’re in Europe helping build the tech startup scene. What’s that been like?
Yes, I’m currently traveling the world for a year and get a chance to see what the tech scene is like on each continent! Europe is an interesting scene for startups right now. There’s a lot of activity in London and Berlin. Those 2 cities are looked at as the shiny “Silicon Valleys” of Europe. I also see a lot of potential coming out of central and eastern Europe. Countries like the Czech Republic, for example, are normally known for having to pump out a lot of world-class engineering talent, are now also focused on developing their talents in design. Beauty permeates their culture. Some of the most beautiful and thoughtful coworking spaces that I’ve seen are in the Czech Republic and Serbia. It’ll be interesting to see the products that comes out in the next few years.
One last question. Do you see the technology trends in Europe mirroring those of Silicon Valley? For example, artificial intelligence and machine learning are all everyone is talking about over here.
You know, many tech trends in Europe don’t mirror Silicon Valley. The reason is because the starting resources are different. You know, many tech trends in Europe don’t mirror Silicon Valley. The reason is because the starting resources are different. Click To Tweet For example, AI and machine learning are both technologies that you can apply to large amounts of data. In the US there’s a lot of homogenous data such as mapping data and driver data, available for companies to throw AI + Machine learning at. In Europe, there are barriers that block transportation (Uber is blocked in many countries) and mapping data (Google Maps is unreliable in many countries) from being accessible to small startups. So again, it will be incredibly interesting to see how things play out in the near future here. I’ll let you know!