Many of today’s top tech companies are led by executives who started their careers as product people. Why do product managers (PMs) make for great potential tech executives? For those that are interested in that path, what can they do to get there?
Logi Analytics CEO Steven Schneider recently answered these questions and shared insights gleaned from his own career with INDUSTRY Product Interviews.
INDUSTRY: Tell us about your career path. How did you go from product manager to executive?
Steven Schneider: I actually set a goal for myself when I graduated college that I wanted to be a CEO by the time I was 40. So, in my 20s I focused on getting as much breadth of experience as possible. I worked in a casino, I worked in women’s healthcare, I worked in New York City, I worked in Europe, I went and got my MBA. Every job was 180 degrees different from the job before. I then took on some sales roles, which turned out to be the most helpful experience for my product role and my role today as CEO.
In my 30s, I wanted to understand how to run a business, so I went to work for a small $5 million business to gain that experience. I ran product for three years and eventually moved to Chief Operating Officer. I became Chief Executive Officer just 23 days before my 40thbirthday.
What characteristics of a product manager might make for a great future executive?
When I was in sales, it was very clear what was success and what was failure. Product is different; it’s a job where the right answer is very amorphous sometimes. You have to balance value, feasibility, and usability. You have to deliver something that solves a problem and that, in theory, people will pay for. You have to listen, understand multiple points of view, and come up with a solution that addresses all the different constraints. It’s a big multi-faceted problem and you need to have really broad contextual thinking.
As an executive, you also need to have that broad context. What’s helped me most in my career is understanding just enough of each of the different functional areas to incorporate that knowledge into my decision making.
What was the biggest skill change when you went from product management to being an executive?
It’s really about understanding the finance, accounting, and operations aspects of the business. In product management, I had a sense of what my sales and win rate needed to be. But as an executive, you need to understand things like how expenses are allocated, term contract metrics, retention rates – those are critically important, and those metrics are different depending on what your strategy is. Understanding the overall business objectives of a product line and the metrics you need to measure are going to impact how you price, how you package, and how you’re performing.
When I talk to PMs, they think about how the product is selling, but they don’t necessarily understand the bigger picture – how it fits into the overall health of the business. I spend a third of my time now thinking about and tracking those top-level company metrics that all flow down to the product level. That’s a skill set that is critically important in my role as an executive.
What do you recommend product people do to get on track to be a product executive (or an executive at a product-oriented company)?
First, understand the why. For instance, why do we price in a certain way or use language in a certain way? Why is a particular feature special? To marketing, that may be because it’s a differentiating characteristic that drives demand.
Second, always think about the company’s interests first when it comes to day-to-day decision making. Focus on the right thing to do from a company perspective. If you do that, your paycheck will grow, your workload will stay interesting, and your career will keep developing.
Third, learn finance 101 – which I talked about earlier.
And lastly, get out of the office. Go talk to customers and prospects. The market changes all the time, and if you’re not out there having those conversations, you’re going to miss information and be caught unaware.
Are there any common mistakes that may be holding product managers back?
Yes, I sometimes see people saying, “That’s not my job.” And people say it in different ways, but that’s how it exhibits. Maybe they see a problem that’s not going to go well for the company, but they don’t step in and get involved. People that move up in the organization are people that start doing that job before they’re there.
In product, at the end of the day you’re responsible for the success or failure of the product and you rely on the entire organization to help you get there. You need to get really comfortable identifying what is and isn’t working and articulating that in a clear and concise way. There’s no putting your head in the sand on this – it doesn’t work.