This week, Product School hosted Steven Jacobs, Former Product Leader at Google, for a special #AskMeAnything session. Steven answered questions regarding how to start your own business, what metrics to use on product launch, and why 5C analysis is one of his favorite tools.
Steven is a Fortune 500 Product Leader with more than 10 years of experience managing global teams that create effective and efficient products. He is a Start-up and Venture Advisor at First Round Fast Track, where he mentors CEOs and C-suite operators at early-stage companies.
He previously worked in Product Management or Engineering at several companies such as Facebook, Google, Flex, Apple, and HP. Steven earned his Bachelor in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and his Master of Science from Stanford University. Steve is praised as an amazing mentor that anyone would be lucky to speak with and as an innovative team member that anybody would be lucky to work with.
What was your most difficult challenge when you started your own company?
Establishing focus. There is so much to do and so much to learn. Knowing what to focus on is the hardest part.
When you’re working on products that are big enough to have been their own company i.e. Portal, Pixelbook, how do you go about building something totally new and innovative while retaining that old familiar brand identity?
Joking aside, you do strategize about what features would be accretive to the brand and separately what would be ideal for what the user needs from this product and then find where there is overlap. A good tool for this is the 5C analysis. By looking separately through the lenses of the Customer, Company, Competitors, Collaborators, and the Context you’re operating in, you can pull together lots of good ideas and look for where you get the strongest overlap.
How many ideas generally never get used, and how long does it take to get the “eureka” for the right idea?
99% There are so many good ideas. It’s about timing. The best ideas are rarely a lightbulb and almost always born out of collaboration and external inspiration. Hard to give a precise time as it’s always different. I’d say when starting a new role, 3-6 months is a good soak period before boldly claiming you have the answer.
Could you give an example of a time you failed or succeeded to persuade a stakeholder of something?
Failure — convincing Exec. Leadership at a very data-driven company to invest in sustainability projects that have little ROI. Didn’t get there but I’m convinced in the long run it is the right thing to do and accretive to the brand (even if there isn’t historical data to back it yet).
How difficult is it to switch to PM from a very different industry?
Doable if you commit. There’s a long road of learning the new domain knowledge but there are ample resources available and with commitment, you can totally get there. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Constantly be learning
What are some of the skills that product leaders look for in a product manager?
Product Sense (intuition), affinity for data to back decisions, natural leadership characteristics, ability to work autonomously, strategic thinking ability, clear communication, fun to work with.
When thinking about unique ways to measure a feature launch, what helps you break outside the norm for metrics?
Dogma tends to provide good places to start but you’re right that you always want to think critically about what really matters to you.
DAU matters to FB because they monetize engagement. The more minutes users spend on the product every day, the more ads they can show to generate revenue. DAU is a natural result of their business model. Not every company uses that business model.
AirBnB for example doesn’t care at all about DAU. Think through what you truly care about to prove the product is successful in the way you need it to be and use those metrics.
Is it better to transition to a PM within your own company or in an new one?
In general, starting fresh provides the best career lubricant. If there is a good internal opportunity I would take that option but there isn’t always. Sometimes a start-up is a good training ground because they have less selection and can be more flexible. Then you can take that experience and move to another big cap. Hard to change employers and career tracks at the same time.
When choosing between multiple urgent concerns to prioritize, what tactics have worked well and what haven’t ?
Impact vs. Effort and RICE methods are my two favorites. What doesn’t work well is analysis paralysis so if it’s close make a gut call and keep moving.
How do you see the place of analytics in product?
Depends on company size. In BigCos you typically have a Data Science or Data Analyst team that supports your data-driven decisions. If you’re at a start-up, you typically need to dig into the product analytics yourself. There are lots of good tools out there that make this easier and more approachable for people who aren’t experienced in SQL queries, etc.
Is a PM internship the only path into a PM role?
You can try an Associate Product Manager role or maybe try a role at an early stage start-up first to build some experience.
What would be your top tip for a new Product Manager?
Use a 5C analysis to make sure you deeply understand your customer, the company needs, your competitors, your possible collaborators, and the context you’re operating in. That is the most valuable thing in my opinion to making high confidence, durable, high-quality strategic decisions.
What are the similarities & contrasts you’ve observed in Mechanical Engineering and software Product Management?
For me, most of the products I worked on were a combination of hardware/software/machine learning so I got exposed to those other elements early in my career.
I also took a lot of courses in software and machine learning to build my technical fluency even if I would never be deep enough to function as an engineer in those domains. Being conversational and genuinely understanding how those different engineering disciplines work is really helpful not only in understanding software products but also in building rapport with the team you’re leading.
The need to understand the domain is a big similarity. A big difference (despite the obvious) is the planning and release cycles. Hardware plans years out and has a long waterfall schedule. Software is much shorter term because you can issue over-the-air updates. Building an understanding of these differences will help you apply the right planning approach to the right product.
What’s the most surprising pivot you observed in a company you advised or in a product you worked on?
Probably an off-listing PropTech company pivoting to a home services marketplace. We were pretty convinced there was a market for the former but when we tested the MVP we realized it was much smaller than anticipated.
How can I organize tasks for my engineers and have them be visible for my stakeholders to understand?
I would suggest using a good Project Management tool for that. Common examples are Atlassian products like Jira. Asana is another option although I don’t prefer it. Those tools are designed around software project management and have features designed to handle this type of workflow. Always best to leverage existing tools when possible to save your energy for the hard stuff.