Product Management at Freddie Mac: Championing Tech and ‘Good Conflict’

Product Management looks different at every company, and can even vary across teams at the same company. While the craft of Product Management is held together by a set of core principles, each team has to find their own nuance. It could depend on their industry, the size of their company, and the type of tech they’re working with.

So we decided to sit down with three different organizations, to discover what Product Management means to them.

We started off with Freddie Mac and talked with Eric Gerstner, former Chief Product Owner. We chatted about the core principles of Product Management at Freddie Mac and how they impacted his day-to-day as CPO, the importance of having ‘good conflict’, and what happens when organizations champion the tech their teams love to use.

About Eric Gerstner

Eric Gerstner

Eric Gerstner is a detail-oriented, dynamic leader and mentor who always brings a fresh perspective to the table.

Most recently the Chief Product Owner at Freddie Mac, he was also Vice President and Product Owner at JP Morgan Chase & Co, working on managing the information lifecycle needs across the enterprise. He also worked as a Consultant and Product Owner at EY for just over two years.

Eric received his Bachelor’s in Economics from the United States Naval Academy. He furthered his education down the line at Johns Hopkins University, where he earned his MBA in Finance. He also studied Environmental Economics and Sustainable Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In January of 2022 he moved to a new role at Collibra.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get started in Product Management?

Predominantly my background falls into two industries. Number one, the defense industry or military industrial complex, and then financial services. You might ask, how does one get started as a Product Owner or in Product Management. What’s interesting about this career field is that it’s huge, right? It’s very important, and businesses are realizing that. And so a lot of people have a lot of different stories for how they get involved.

My story may be similar to those and it might be different, but I started off as an analyst. Business analyst or Technical Business Analyst, or a Technical Requirements Analyst, these are things that people tend to start with and you might find yourself in an organization that was up and coming in the Agile mindset. They don’t really have Product Managers or Product Owners identified. They just have stakeholders and developers.

And that’s how it was at least when I was starting out with this industry around 2015. I brought to it some experience from another industry and I found that I really had a passion for owning a design. Owning an interaction that best represents the customer, but at the same time, that best communicates to the developer. So this intermediary was just something that I did pretty well at. It is kind of operations-esque in terms of its management. So with that comes all the stressors of, for example, managing a budget, managing personnel, managing deliverables. But I find that through those things you really have an opportunity to excel and grow.

So I did well in my career, and I was very proud of my previous position as Chief Product Officer at Freddie Mac. I’ve just recently moved over to Collibra in a more ambiguous role, supporting the Vice President in charge of data quality.

At what point in your career did you decide that Product Management specifically was the area that you wanted to lean into?

I’m a futurist, I’m a technologist. I have a lot of passion for an industry that is also in some ways figuring itself out. And Product Management is doing it on two fronts.

There are these titans of industry like Google and Meta, which are companies that started off as tech companies. And then there are organizations like JP Morgan Chase and Freddie Mac that are very, very big organizations of extreme importance which are managing technology. So when you think about the tech industry, and you think about where you fall into it and where your skillset is, it’s important to recognize what you have as your assets and where your strengths and weaknesses lie. I think that being a fan of that industry and recognizing the importance of it, this was a role that I felt my skills most aligned with.

I was just technical enough to be dangerous, as they say. I try to be empathetic to the customer experience. And with that UX plus a familiarity with technology comes an opportunity to do something.

I would be the first to say that I’m not a developer, I’m not a tried and true persona in that regard. So I have a lot of respect for my partner who was the Chief Dev Lead. That individual could do a lot of things that I couldn’t, but we would joke because, um, he would look at my position and say, wow, that’s really stressful. You’re always talking to the customer, I don’t know if I’d want to do that, I’d rather just work with developers. So I do think there’s a balance. I think agile is very important to the industry of technology. And I like that role and I like where it fits in.

Let’s talk about Product Management at Freddie Mac. What did the role of Chief Product Owner mean at Freddie Mac?

So when you think about other roles that exist, that are technology based at an organization that by its nature was financial services (and this may be the same healthcare or other industries, so I hope this resonates) you see like a title, like Chief Data Officer, right? Well, there were four of them at Freddy. I think there were five or six at JP Morgan Chase. So as the technology roles are growing at these organizations, what you’re seeing is these roles tend to be segmented based off of a business line, oftentimes answering to a second level or a third level reporting officer, to the board or to the CEO themself.

So at Freddie Mac, they operate in a scaled agile framework, right? They have their portfolio Product Owner who is in charge of a portfolio level of product. You have a program level and then you have a product level. So the Chief Product Officer in theory would answer to a portfolio level persona, or in my case, we didn’t have a portfolio level. We answered directly to the CTO or the equivalent of the CTO for the business unit. So I was the Chief Technology Officer for the business unit that I worked for at Freddie.

And then as Chief Product Owner, I was in charge of you know about 10 software development teams. Roughly the size of about 60 people. So I found myself answering to a lot of folks. When you touch that much technology, not just the customer’s going to come to you, but senior leaders. So it was a great experience and I really enjoyed it.

For the teams that you were working with, what kind of problems were they trying to solve?

Continuous integration, and continuous delivery is the problem set. I think it will resonate with a lot of product folks when I say that the Atlasian suite was one of the technologies that fell into my purview.

So when you think about requirements and planning the idea that this software collects, right? It manages, it helps developers understand what’s going on. It helps Product understand what’s going on. It helps leaders track progress. But there’s a lot of technologies out there, whether you’re using Atlasian or not, there’s a lot of good stuff out there. But I was working on those types of technologies and then how they integrate in the code. And you think about the next steps, right? Are you using bitbucket, how does the code integrate? How does the code get tested? How does the code move from a lower environment into a higher environment? So you could argue that what we were building in fact touched all the technology at Freddie Mac, because it was the foundation for which technology itself was getting built.

So suffice to say, I definitely picked up a lot of calls from other Product Owners, other Chief Product Owners, as well as developers.

One thing we talk about a lot in the Product School community is how to build a culture of Product. How did you go about that at Freddie Mac? Was there a set of core principles that you followed?

It’s interesting right there, there’s two fronts to that. I think for anyone who gets to a certain level, they end up answering to people who were not from Product, or they were familiar with technology but they’re not approaching it from a Product or an Agile mindset. Their business is banking, for example, or financial services. Or maybe they’re a hospital administrator in healthcare. They are the people that are in charge of major decisions on behalf of the organization, they’re experts at what they do. And oftentimes you’re trying to communicate problem sets to them that are novel to their experience.

What I would do there, I’m a big fan of analogies. That’s how I’d work it. But I would say you have that aspect, at your level. And then in addition to that, you have all your peers. I worked with the Head of the Agile Center of Excellence and she was fantastic. Just a rockstar. But you find that she might have an initiative she needs support with, and again, that’s where you support. In that case at the organization, they wanted a champion for Product Management. I was Freddie Mac’s champion. So once every quarter I would bring all the product managers in a room and we would have a conversation about key product items, key agile items. So you have above you, you have around you, and then ultimately you do have the people below you, the people working for you.

One thing I always did was champion Product concepts. I think one of the most difficult ones for anyone to swallow is saying what I call the not yet. Some people might say it’s the same as saying no. But for me it’s more like, let’s think about the customer and say not yet. One’s ability to say not yet, and one’s ability to push back, even on this perceived role of being a manager is very difficult. Something I always tried to champion within the teams was that ability and that confidence to say not yet.

Whenever I walked in if there was ever a dialogue, I was always very guarded about making something a priority because I understood the impact of that. You go in, you ask a question and then suddenly someone has a PowerPoint deck built for you. Someone’s hired a management consultant to figure out your problem, when really it was just an innocent question. So I think that’s something to be aware of, that as you get higher and higher, what you say has a much larger impact. It’s what I call scaled leadership, managing managers. It’s very tricky, but I think that’s important in Product Management, to appreciate your impact as a Chief Product Owner.

Empathy, that’s part of the job. One thing I’ll say about the senior leadership I worked for, it always felt like that whatever dialogue we had, internally, whatever disagreements, whatever good conflict, what I call good conflict, there was always a united front externally. And that’s good in Product. Because you’re gonna have a lot of discussions, a lot of debates, and what should go where. I noticed that the more I set up my senior leaders for success in managing their own peer level conflict, the better.

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And how did the events of 2020 and beyond impact the way Freddie Mac approached its mission?

I’m sure it’s the same thing for everyone else, but this idea of remote work. I’d be lying if I said I’m not a little flustered that my pillows aren’t perfectly straight in the guest bedroom that I’m having this conversation from.

I always make sure my head is *just* hiding my pillows from view

Right! So to your point, right I do wanna call out just what I would consider to be a major success. It brings to mind that old YouTube video about Microsoft and the Mac. And they had the two actors and he’s like, trust me, you’re gonna love this, you’re gonna like Windows 95. I gotta tell you, I was, I was thoroughly impressed with Microsoft Teams.

Zoom is great, don’t get me wrong. But as an organization that knew its users used Microsoft tools, that recognized its internal office championed those tools, that they liked Outlook and they didn’t want to use Gmail, Freddie Mac brought in Teams. And that was tremendous because the reality is it’s completely integrated.

Sometimes with software you have to make tough decisions. Do I use the feature of the software that everyone else is familiar with or do I go source out a different software? I think one of the things Freddie did is recognize where their internal customer base was working and champion the technologies that would work for them. And I think that’s where a lot of our success came from in 2020, because business didn’t stop. We didn’t stop processing for the secondary mortgage market.

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Speaking of reacting to change, how can Product Leaders strengthen their teams and diversify the type of people they have on their teams?

You brought up diversity and I love that. Diversity is a fantastic thing. I like to focus on what I call two aspects of diversity, and these are the core ones that are not necessarily reminiscent of the person’s ethnicity, et cetera, which is also very important because it actually stems from these two diversities.

First is what I call diversity of education. How do you learn, how have you learned in the past and what does that teach you? Some people like formal education, but maybe it’s not formal education. If I saw someone who had a laundry list of LinkedIn certifications I joke I call it Google U. If someone has that, it shows that they have the ability to learn on their own.

In the financial services industry, a great example of that is oftentimes the debate of an MBA versus a CFA in investment banking. And while yes, an MBA is fantastic, I gotta tell you, every CFA I ever met was just top-notch people, right? Because they studied for something that was difficult to get, while working a regular job. It shows all the aspects of time management. But it also shows that they are going to process things logically and appreciate that logic is looking at the problem set from different ways. Maybe turning the cube over and realizing the answers written underneath.

So that’s what I call diversity of education, and I think it is a fantastic thing. But then you also need a diversity of experiences, which is something I try to be a champion of. I think the way that we’re trying to champion it as a society is through some of the things that we’re realizing about various ethnicities, bringing people in and recognizing that different people have cultures. And we encourage what we call ‘bringing your authentic self’. But the reality is I’d want that authentic self to be coming from a diverse set of experiences.

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I think that’s also very important. The more things that you experience, the more you get out of your shell, the more you’re able to empathize. I’m from Kenner, Louisiana, it’s the suburb of New Orleans, right? If you ever land in New Orleans at the airport, that’s Kenner. Growing up there is a unique experience. My experience growing up there and what I know people think and how they react and the way that they perceive things, the way that they solve problems, the way that they have their collective group consensus is very different from where I live now in Washington, DC. It’s also very different from where I’ve traveled to. I’ve spent years in other countries and I can tell you people solve problems differently.

They think about things differently, and that emotion that drives their decision, making that sense of comfort, that sense of safety…Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is reflected in different ways across different cultures. So diversity of experience is important for me as well. And I think with those two things, if a person shows and can speak to a diversity of education and a diversity of experience, I know that they’re going to have some of the strong values of dealing with what is ultimately a diverse backlog.

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