Why Product Managers Must Trust the Engineers by Reddit VP of Engineering

What is the ideal Product Manager? Obsessed with the customer, a convincing communicator and capable of making decisions based on data. These are all crucial qualities, but on top of them, a Product Manager has to trust their engineering team 100%.

Former VP of Engineering at Reddit and now CPO at Looker, shared key qualities and major responsibilities you’ll need in a product position.

Meet Nick Caldwell

Before joining Reddit as a VP of Engineering, Nick Caldwell held various positions in engineering leadership at Microsoft across a 15-year career, culminating in a role as General Manager for the Power BI product suite. Nick holds a degree in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from MIT and an MBA from UC Berkeley. He’s a native of P.G. County Maryland but is happy to call San Francisco home.

Does Reddit have any unpaid Product Manager internships to gain experience in product management?

Reddit is still in its growing phase and only recently announced an internship program. The first batch of interns will arrive in May/June of 2018 and are all software developers. We will likely move into Product Managers and other disciplines in the next round of interns. 

When hiring, do you look more for generalists or specialists?

Generalists. The ability to drop into an area, understand and synthesize insights from customers, develop a strategy, and create a roadmap are general-purpose skills no matter what the underlying product is. With 15 years of experience, you are probably looking at overseeing multiple projects as well. To scale up that way you’ve got to be general and learn to hire people that can specialize in particular areas.

How does Reddit prioritize competing features being requested by different business partners?

Reddit is fortunate to have a very vocal community when it comes to providing feedback about the service. We tap into that energy primarily by using subreddits dedicated to interacting with our users. In the largest subreddit, we can get feedback from more than 250k people!

We also do surveys and do studies in our UX lab to help understand the most urgent needs. The biggest challenge in all this is that Reddit has been around for a long time, so we have to be extra careful to balance the needs of our dedicated hardcore users with the needs of newbies to the platform.

What are the key qualities of a great Product Manager for team success?

The best Product Managers I’ve worked with/managed have been ones who

  1. We’re absolutely obsessed with the needs of our users AND the competitive landscape.
  2. Were able to craft a clear and fast roadmap that went straight a delivering value to users without distraction.
  3. Knew how to trust the engineering team and get out of the kitchen.

Is MBA necessary or is it a great advantage if one wants to transition from engineering to Product Management?

Although I have an MBA and it triggered my transition from pure engineering to general management, it isn’t necessary. I view MBA’s as more of a forcing function to accelerate change. And MBA will get you out of your comfort zone fast and demand you learn new skills. But I have seen plenty of folks transition to Product Management simply by investing their time in the most important thing: understanding customers.

What are the biggest stumbling blocks for someone transitioning from software engineering to product?

The biggest stumbling block by far is over-emphasis on software architecture. Which is understandable. As engineers, we start our careers thinking about building fast and performant systems. But most users don’t care about how things are built; they only care about whether their problems are getting solved.

The toughest thing for me to learn was how to empathize with users and understand that they probably don’t care so much about how great our architecture is.

Do you use sprints or Kanban on Reddit? Do you optimize your current products or look to build new verticals?

At the line-level, there isn’t a standard/proscribed development methodology although most teams are using kanban boards with two-week sprint check-ins. In my experience, the right methodology to use is highly dependent on the makeup of the team, the product you are trying to build, expected quality levels, deployment infrastructure, and other factors.

My general advice is to grow the right methodology to suit your team’s needs and not get bogged down in dogma.

How important is computer science/technical degree?

Having a CS degree will help you to improve your understanding of what’s possible out of the engineering team. Your estimates will get better, and your relationship with the team will be better. Most of the Product Managers I’ve worked with have had CS degrees and done some coding and various points in their lives. That said, it isn’t a requirement.

I have also seen Product Managers who build great relationships with their engineering team simply by being able to communicate the value of their work, the value of the mission, etc. Ultimately, representing the customer is everything.

Have you seen people with sales/BD experience successfully transition into product management roles?

I have seen several BD people transition to product and it’s a great entry point because it forces you to understand relationships, give/gets, and timelines. The challenge I see most people from BD face is that customers are not the same as partners, and the reality of a marketplace is often very different from models that BD produces.

The BD folks I’ve seen come into Product Management usually find success when they can initially take on more strategic roles and get support with the tactics producing specs/working with EM’s etc. But eventually, they come around.

You indicate that product needs to stay out of the engineering kitchen. Have you encountered the opposite issue?

Yeah, all the time. I generally approach this by making sure everyone understands roles and responsibilities clearly. Engineers often aren’t exposed to all the stakeholders that Product Managers need to touch on a daily basis so they won’t grasp the nuances of communication. But you can prep your engineer by telling them why you are bringing them into the conversation and when to defer to you in advance.

Is the Product Manager responsible for just the customer experience or also the financial performance of the product?

This depends on what level you are at in the organization your overall company structure. Product Managers are always responsible for customer experience, but some Product Managers aren’t asked to take on revenue responsibility at all. They can get measured on some other metric.

But generally speaking, if there’s any revenue associated with your product, then you should try to understand it. Willingness to pay is a great proxy for “is my product good.”

How do teams at Reddit encourage their communities, and what do you think will happen to the online mass conversation in the future?

Super complex question. Reddit works because of great communities, and we often talk about ourselves as a platform for community. From a product perspective, most of our teams have OKR’s associated with some form of community growth. Creating new communities,  growing existing ones, getting people to spend more time in them, etc. would summarize 70% of what our product team is doing.

WRT to the mass conversation, I think the future is in authenticity and real conversation. I think people are looking for a place where they can have a real conversation without feeling like they are being shouted soundbites at. We’re trying to make Reddit that place of course.

Any final advice you can share with aspiring product managers?

The best advice I can give a Product Manager is to obsess over the problems that your users/customers face. Every decision you make ultimately should be answerable to delivering value to some set of users.

The other thing I’d say is that your customer insights should come from both quantitative and qualitative sources. You need both to get a deep insight into users: what they say they want vs. what the data says they want. Finally, get on Reddit

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