As CPO for Waze, Rapha Cohen oversees the company’s product vision and execution, which is fundamental to Waze reinventing itself as a Mobility company. In today’s episode, he will talk about focusing on creating a global vision for your product, as opposed to just building features.
How did you break into product?
My background is not that different from other PMs. I think all PMs have unusual backgrounds. That’s what’s common to them. So, my background is in electrical engineering, or specifically chip design, digital signal processing, telecommunications, information theory. In short, nothing to do with product management, let alone with product management of mobile apps or transportation which is what I deal with at Waze. My first product gig 10 years ago was the head of product for DesignArt. That was a company that developed chips and embedded software for cellular networks. In this industry, product responsibilities resemble those of CTO to very large extents plus ownership of engineering task prioritization. So, I was given this opportunity because I was a technical expert, but I totally lacked any experience in product management.
To tell you the whole story, when I was invited for the interview, I actually had to look up what product management actually meant. So I said “Yeah, sure. I will interview for the head of product job.” But I had no idea what it meant. So, I had to learn the basic skills of product management. But I earned this opportunity because someone believed I had valuable technical expertise. There’s no product management degree. When you get an engineering degree from top schools, employers will chase you when you graduate. And for PMs, it’s never the case. So we all live somewhere on a business tech design triangle. To get your first job, you have to bring something super compelling to the table on one of those dimensions.
That’s why PMs are mostly either ex engineers or ex designers or MBA graduates. So on my first job, I had an amazing mentor. I was very lucky. We built an incredible product and successful business. That allowed me to grow on a business side. For instance, meeting customers, building a business plan, thinking deeply about the costs, margins and pricing. You need economics, all those things that you don’t care about when you’re an engineer. Then we sold the company to Qualcomm.
I decided to leave a few years later and I really wanted to grow in the third dimension, which is design. Is there a best school on earth for design other than Google? At the time there wasn’t. I didn’t check. But, I applied and got a job at Google. Immediately, I was exposed to UX design and UX research at the highest level. So by the time I joined Waze a year later which is a Google subsidiary and a very product centric company, my basic PM skill set was quite complete. The technical side, business side and the design side. So, I started as a PM lead for a company marketplace. After a few months, I took over the whole product team of Carpool then the whole product team, the company, the UX, the XR came gradually. I was very lucky to have the trust of my CEO and the management team at Waze.
How did you acquire that type of knowledge without a product degree?
I love collaborating and contributing to the community because I really believe that creating a degree in product management is not the right way to go. With the basics that you get whilst you’re an engineer, business person, designer, or even anthropologist or philosopher, or any field you come from, there is still the extra skill set that you need to develop. The insights are pretty simple and pretty limited. So I really think that those kinds of formats, like Product School or just reading books or listening to podcasts, that’s the right way to learn about product management.
But, really most of the product management you learn is by doing. The theory is very limited. And that’s why I think it’s very important to be part of the community, to listen and learn from others, listen to podcasts, and read books. It’s super important. But what you really need to know is rather limited. What you will really need to know in order to be a successful PM is learning about your industry, products, customers, and partners. That’s very difficult, but it depends on the product. The actual core PM skills are straightforward, simple, and limited. The rest you will learn by doing and you will learn by listening to people. I think those communities are super helpful.
Can you give us an idea about the scale of Waze and how you think about your product as a community?
Clearly, our community is building the product. For Waze, this is what really differentiated us. That’s what created the very special brand that comes with Waze. And more importantly, the sentiments that come when you use Waze. It’s not only the product, it’s really the fact that you feel like part of a community that is here to help each other out in getting out of traffic or outsmarting it all together. So that’s something that’s very special and very difficult to recreate. There’s no book for how to do this and how to build a brand. At Waze, we did this even before I was even there. I joined Waze only five years ago, so it’s not my doing, it’s other very talented people who built this community as a means to build a brand that is very community-centric. To give you an idea of the scale, we have close to 150 million active users in the world. They are very concentrated in a few markets. We’re very popular in the US, Brazil, France, the UK, uh, some APAC countries. Latam is huge for ways. But what makes a difference is the hyperlocal feeling that comes from the fact that the system that feeds the data into Waze is actual people who live locally in your community.
I always give this example because I think it’s powerful, but we read some research from Google. They were trying to understand how Waze is so popular in Brazil and why Google maps are not as successful as they wished. So they interviewed users and there was one user at some point who said “Well, you know, we use Waze because it’s a Brazilian app.” And it’s not a Brazilian app. It’s not Brazilian coders who built the app, but it is true. It is a Brazilian app because it’s Brazilian people who feed the app or the platform with data for the Brazilian users. So anywhere you are, the app feels local. It feels like it’s been built by local people. I think this is why your community is so important. I think this is the biggest differentiator of Waze right now that truly builds the brand more than the product, the routing, or the accurate ETA. It’s the sentiments of your community that will help you in going through the day.
As CPO for such an incredible product and community, what does your day-to-day look like?
CPO means you have two hats: you’re VP product and you’re company executive. So in terms of skill, if you’re already running a large team of PMs, there’s not that much of a difference between a CPO and VP. Your day to day look pretty similar but there are significant gaps in mindsets. You’re not owning only the product related objectives. But, together with the other members of the management team, you own all the company objectives, key results, and you’re ultimately accountable for the success of the business. Not only the success of the product. You can build a great product, but if the community is not doing their part, or the marketing, or engineering then nothing works out.
So everything has to work together. And that’s a big difference in mindset. Like the fact that you own all of the business related objectives of the company. I read something funny on Twitter which I think is very true when you only want to be a GPM. When you’re a GPM, you want to be a VP product and when you’re a VP product, you want to be CPO. When you’re CPO, you want to be a CEO and when you’re CEO, you want to be a PM. I think that’s very true. And that’s the thing that might sound depressing. You asked about my day to day but very little of it actually involves building product anymore. So that sucks, right? Because I think all of the audience probably loves building products.
That’s why in this business and when you’re a CPO, you do very little of this anymore. But it does involve things that I think are even more interesting like building teams of strong leaders or individual contributors including coaching or helping them achieve their user and business goals. You have to understand that they understand those goals because they’re closer to the user, the business code, and to the technical side. They understand them more than you do. So you’re just here to help them. You become kind of a servant of your own org. And that’s great if you have a great team of very strong people, that’s really a great job. But you need to understand that it doesn’t involve much product anymore. All you have to do is get out of the way, lay down and to make sure that all the goals that those people have set are connected. That they are pushing the same direction, which is the direction that the management or company set.
I hear you. As a former PM becoming the CEO, I definitely miss building. And my solution is to treat my company as a product by thinking about how I can apply the same mindset to what I am building. I’ve seen something similar happening with other executives that come from a product background.
Yeah. Many people stopped being involved in the details of the day to day and don’t talk to users as much as they used to do. You don’t talk to engineers as you used to. But it’s still very interesting in a very different manner I think.
Based on your experience, what are some hard problems that you had to solve and how did you go about it?
Yeah. So I agree that falling in love with the solution to the problem is probably like the anti-test of the PM job. If I had to summarize the PM job or the product leader in one sentence, it would be ensuring focus on outcomes, not on features. That’s very simple as a statement but it’s very difficult to achieve in reality. In the day to day, it’s very easy to get stuck on how to get the feature out instead of how to achieve the actual outcome. But maybe instead of falling in love with the problem, I would say falling in love with the vision maybe. Often, you don’t necessarily solve a problem. You address an opportunity or you even create a new space altogether that can create tremendous value. And you don’t always start with a problem. You can start from opportunity or even from a dream. From a vision of creating something that is completely new. And people don’t know that it’s a problem that they have, but it’s still creating tremendous value for them.
So in my case, it’s not directly related to product management, but I think that that’s come on to most PMs; what I passionately hate is the problem our society has with traffic in general. That’s why I love my job because the fact that we built our cities and our communities around cost is just a blunder that we did as human beings. And the cost in real estate, in quality of life, in environment, in health, in pollution are astronomical. Being able to contribute to solving this problem is something I’m truly passionate about. So the vision of the cities of tomorrow that are built around humans and not around cost. Hopefully when the pandemic ends, we still want to connect to each other physically and be together in the same room and talk together. It’s great that we can do those things online, but people will still hopefully need and want to move. So creating the vision of this moving society that is built around safety, quality of life, health, scalability and sustainability rather than around costs is something I’m absolutely passionate about.
Are there any specific frameworks that you use to break down a big problem into more actionable items?
Yeah. I will recommend the framework that I introduced in the previous lecture at Product School; HOSKR. This is the framework for product development that we use at Waze. It stands for hypothesis, subjective, signal and key results. It’s what I call as the framework for philosophers, meaning that you start from a worldview or from a vision that is adaptive to reality through constant interaction and experimentation. I recommend going to the previous lecture I got on your platform and to listen to it. I think you’ll find that it is valuable.
So in your own experience, what are some key moments that helped you jump from being a midlevel PM to truly owning a product and becoming an executive?
That’s a very good question. I think it depends on the organization. Not every organization needs to be a product driven organization. You have other organizations that need to focus more on operations or on legal, because your IP is so important. Or technology and engineering. It depends. I would say that for most consumer brands, it does need to be product driven. And I think your question is very interesting because product is a discipline in which the leap between being a product manager and a product leader is not a gradual one. It’s not doing more of the same. Like a technical expert is being more of an expert than just being a technical beginner. You learn more and know more. You think about things more in depth, etc until you become an expert.
For product, the product leader and product manager are fundamentally different disciplines. What’s common to all of them is the absolute need for the person to be accountable for outcomes rather than for features or outputs in general. That’s come on to PMs and to product leaders. But PMs and product leaders have fundamentally different jobs. Product leaders, in my opinion, are here to build teams, coach them and empower them to make the right decisions for the user and the business. For the PMs, this is your job to do this. I don’t like the definition of being CEO of the product, but there is a grain of truth in it which is that you are accountable for the product and its success.
There is a line that says “If the product succeeds, it’s thanks to everyone. But if the product fails, it’s because of the PM.” That’s very true. It’s clearly on the PM if the product fails. So that’s a lot of responsibility and that’s the job of the PM. The product leader is here to empower all the other PMs to make the right decisions and to help them in making the right decision through org leadership. Like managing resources, hiring, managing processes, and coaching them.
In your own product team, how do you like to structure the team and create career paths for people to either become better individual contributors or even people managers?
Oh, it’s a very large and complex question. And I agree it’s an important one. I think what I learned not a very long time ago is that it’s very important to align expectations very early. As opposed to other disciplines like engineering, you might not want to become a product leader. If you like actually building products, just so you know, it’s not the right path for you because you will do less and less product as you go up in the ladder. And maybe that’s not what you want. And I think for most PMs, that should be the norm. Not wanting to go up the ladder. But still becoming a PM that is more of an expert in their own area.
So aligning expectations or asking the person what they want and where they see themselves in five years is key because they might have an objective to become a product leader or product manager of product managers, although this is not what they want and what they would be successful in. It’s also good for the organization because not everybody can become a product leader of course. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the PMs are people who didn’t get to be product leaders.
So in your case, obviously learning is an important piece in your life. How do you learn these days? What’s on your bookshelf?
I hope you won’t find the answer disappointing, but I came back to learning guitar after a 15 year break. So that’s, by the way, yet another proof that user resurrection is much easier than user activation. You can go back to something more easily than you can start it up. I’m also reading a lot about history, archeology, philology. This is actually what’s on my bookshelf. All those areas I find fascinating and in the last couple of years, I developed very broad interests around them. I think everyone needs to allocate serious time and effort for things that enrich their lives as individuals, if they want to be successful in their careers. Making time for them is pretty easy once you’re committed, but you have to really deeply realize and understand that this is something you need to take seriously.
If you want to be a great PM, you have to allocate time to something that interests you, and that’s not related to work. Theology is a great field I think. But , music, sports as well. It could be anything that just enriches you as a human being as a person. And I think you’ll become a better PM. I’ve been there. I’ve had my periods in which I work until 10:00 PM and then I just go straight to bed and I open my book about product management or about strategy. And at some point you become a smaller person. You’re more limited. You are only into your world and you are incapable of having broader perspectives on the things you’re building due to society for instance. Or are you really solving problems, or addressing opportunities that are worth solving. So if I had one recommendation for what should be on your bookshelf, it’s books that are not about products. About anything else that enriches you as a person.
I ask this question to other product leaders and the common theme here is that they’re curious people. It doesn’t really matter what you want to learn as long as you want to learn something. Ultimately, it will have a positive impact at work, but having that constant curiosity of learning more is so powerful.
Yeah, I agree. I think curiosity is definitely one of the traits that I’ve been trying to cultivate. I’m not saying I’m a champion in any of those traits, but I think that there are a few traits that are positively correlated with career growth. Curiosity, critical thinking, and empathy. I think those things are important to cultivate. If you cultivate them outside of work, you’ll see that your career will grow. Even though that was not the goal at the beginning, I think you’ll grow as a person and as a consequence, you will also grow as a product person.
In product, we are constantly facing this decision between building something versus buying something. It’s important to outsource and piggyback on other people’s tools so we can focus on core experience. However, Google has been very famous for building a lot of internal products in-house. So I want to get your take on that particularly for Waze.
I think I would follow Marty Cagan’s recommendation here around missionaries versus mercenaries. When you buy something from a third party, it might help you in the short term to bootstrap more easily. But in the long run, you want a team of missionaries. People who are passionate about what they do and can take the extra mile to make it successful. I wouldn’t give one answer that fits all. I think it depends on the discipline. But the core competencies that you have in your organization including product, engineering, design, UX research, the management, the community, they need to be an in-house part of people who are full-time and committed and who share cultural traits, a vision and a sense of purpose with you. That’s mission critical. That’s not optional, in my opinion, to build great things. Of course, we have things that are not in the critical part of the business where you might want to buy or outsource, that’s totally fine.
Yeah. I agree. Like even the term of product management is very broad. It encompasses very different disciplines. In fact, it hides all the variants that you have in the role. If you’re the PM for infra-product in the cloud, SAAS, B2B, B2C. I started my career in hardware B2B. We had five users. That was the whole total available market. And now I have 150 million users. The thing that always remains, I will go back to these points again and again, it’s being focused on outcomes rather than features. What you want to achieve instead of what you want to build. That’s the key.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would say it’s not about the destination. It’s not about the journey either. It’s about the company. The company you work in and the people we work with. I think that’s the thing that is most undervalued, but to me it’s more important than anything else. Right. So people talk about either the journey or the destination. I would say it’s the company that’s even more important and who you are working with. As long as you enjoy the company, and as long as you trust the people you work with, you will have an unbelievable time building great products.