Gibson Biddle is a former VP/CPO at Netflix/Chegg. Now an advisor, teacher, speaker & workshop host. In this podcast, Gibson talks us through all things related to product, product strategy, culture, and how to hack your product career.
Watch the episode here: Product Management Hacks
Question [00:04:16] How did you get into Product Management?
Gibson [04:18] It’s like a wild and winding path. It’s never straightforward. I was an English major and then I started a sailing school and then I wanted to be involved in a creative industry.
So I started in the mailroom and an ad agency, and when I was a marketing person. And then I went to business school and then I joined Electronic Arts in 1991 as a marketing person. And then I was really interested in building stuff. So within Electronic Arts, I switched from marketing into product there. I became an associate producer and then I just loved it. And so I’ve been engaged in building products ever since.
Question [00:04:59] You said that you an associate producer, were you aware of the term Product Manager at that time?
Gibson [00:05:05] Back then, Product Management was kind of a term from like consumer packaged goods, like Keebler or General Mills. I think that Intuit borrowed that phrase and, and started experimenting with sort of the way we think about modern Product Management today.
At Electronic Arts, they use the term producer because they were borrowing Hollywood industry terms. So this is the early nineties. Now I have a strong notion of what Product Management means and it’s usually within the context of technology products, which is really what I’ve been focused on the last couple of decades.
Question [00:05:56] How has your philosophy evolved during this time based on the different experiences that you’ve had as a product leader in different industries and companies?
Gibson [00:06:06] I’ve learned a lot and that’s key. I mean, think about how quickly technology changes, and the types of products that you’re building on big shifts. In the beginning, I was just trying to learn how to build stuff. Get engineers and designers and data science-type peeps working together.
I did some spectacularly and wrong things. So then I began to learn about how important it was to carefully sort of market and package and position your ideas, so they would be relevant to your customers or folks that use your stuff. I built lots of kids software and built a successful startup and sold it and it was called Creative Wonders. So a learning company, and then we sold the learning company Mattel.
The big learning for me was it’s not enough just to build products that delight, but also products that are hard to copy because, in the kids’ industry, I created essentially a fad.
At some point, you couldn’t get on a computer early enough. I built Sesame Street, Elmo’s preschool, or Sesame seed tree toddler. What happened was we sold the learning company Mattel and that was a disaster because we had failed to create hard to copy advantage. So then when I joined Netflix, I learned that your job is to delight customers and hard to copy margin enhancing ways.
And then I started to learn a lot about what I call consumer science. So it’s the idea that you can AB test anything. Before, in the nineties, the best you could do was talk to customers and qualitative or focus groups or do surveys. And then I was able to bring those same ideas to Chegg, which was my last startup, which is a textbook rental and homework help company that I noticed is doing well because there was online learning.
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Question [00:08:24] How can you grow at the same pace as your company so you can continue being the best for your team?
Gibson [00:08:40] The first thing is just to recognize that growth comes from companies that are healthy and growing. I had that experience at Electronic Arts. I had that experience at Creative Wonders startup. I had that experience of the learning company and I had that experience at Netflix. To answer your question, opportunities are created when companies grow. I generally would get promoted because I was really good at hiring and developing teams. So when someone is looking around, who are we going to put them on the new thing. If they see that you have people who are ready to essentially take over your job, that’s a good thing. So that was very effective at hiring, developing, and building teams.
And then on the learning, I was usually passionate. I was intellectually curious about stuff. I had one hack. I didn’t realize until I stopped working the last five years, I did something called topic de Semaine – which is my bad French for the topic of the week. And every Friday morning at nine, I would consciously teach something to my team. It turned out that that act of hustling on a Thursday night to figure out what the hell I would say about designing, executing and analyzing AB tests, for instance, forced me to learn.
Another hack is you have to stay close to the work. I was expected to think at a high level, strategy, et cetera, but also to be able to do and execute at any moment in time, I often had to do the job of one of the swim lanes. I call them or pods or squats because it was a new one and I hadn’t hired someone yet or somebody had left, but that kept me closer to the work.
Early in my career, somebody gave me bad advice. As you grow up, the details are less and less important. In the modern era, you’re expected to be able to both think and do, to understand the execution.
Question [00:11:08] What are some of those things that you intentionally decided not to delegate and continue doing even though they didn’t scale?
Gibson [00:11:16] I’m into consumer science. In consumer science, you’re trying to develop consumer insight and there are four sources for that, which are qualitative, usability, focus groups, surveys, asking people what they think, looking at the existing data, I’m trying to get patterns and trends and the big dog is AB testing.
But to answer your question, we all have different sorts of superpowers. I relied heavily on qualitative, trying to get the voice of the customer and the head spending time with customers and focus and usability. They gave me lots of great ideas and that’s not scalable. But I kept doing it persistently and consistently. I would even live stream videos of consumer research folks talking to Netflix customers in Providence, Rhode Island. For instance, I just found it was super important to me to have that constant touchpoint of the voice of the customer.
Those other sources of consumer insight are much more scalable. The survey, which is you have to be careful because that’s what people say as opposed to how they behave. Those are much more scalable, but I found it super helpful too, to keep in touch via qualitative. I think the one I already mentioned, which was, I kept doing the teaching, right. I kept doing my Friday morning topic de Semaine. Mainly because I didn’t realize it, but I just loved doing that. And it was one of the tactics that I use to keep building a team where they could scale.
The next time I got promoted, somebody would be there to fill my spot. I wasn’t conscious that I just did it because I really liked it. But after the fact, I realized it was a good hack. A good way to just make sure you’re always learning by going through the conscious act of trying to teach something.
Question [00:14:28] Was there anything else other than teaching your team that you were doing that was very healthy for you to be productive and happier at work as an executive?
Gibson [00:14:41] I’m thinking about COVID-19 today in my patterns have changed. In my old life when, when our kids were two and four, my wife is a physician-scientist, whoever woke up first would sprint to work, because you got a little extra time for work and then you had to be home at 10 of six.
I always made an exercise part of my routine that just makes me feel good. I always had side projects, hobbies, things that I love to do. So that’s happened for decades for me.
In the last, maybe five years of a new reality, I wake up early and I do Bikram yoga. And I do that because I’m trying my best to age gracefully and I was tweaking my back like three or four times per ski season. That’s a routine that I love and it’s a routine that I missed during the COVID-19 era.
I have various sources of data, from the work that I do. Then I just quickly sketch on Evernote, essentially a to-do list of my priorities for the day. I try to stay focused on the more important things at the top of the list. And each day it’s a little like Product Management.
Michael sippy has got a nice definition of a very simple one for Product Management. He says, create the list, prioritize the list and then execute the list in prioritized order.
Self-managing yourself is really hard. And self-discipline is hard, especially during anxious anxiety written times like today. But if you’re clever and you’re a highly effective self-manager, you can self-manage yourself. You just have to be conscious. If I stare at the true priorities for what’s best, for me, the company, and my team, and you actually are disciplined at doing them in the right order.
Question [00:18:38] How do you think about the future? What does the future of Product Management look like?
Gibson [00:18:45] If I think about the trends in the last 10 or 20 years, I mentioned one of those, which is how important and how amazing this notion of consumer sciences. Where you can form a hypothesis and figure out ways to experiment with those ideas in an AB test, and then you can analyze the results. My guess is, it will continue to get much more disciplined from a data point of view.
This consumer science notion will get harder. The good news in all of this is you still require human judgment. I’ve looked at lots of AB test results and, and there are a number of instances where all of the data says you should choose a, but then there are some higher-order things, key strategic insights that actually caused you to, to do B and you’re doing the right thing.
That always makes me hopeful that we’re not going to be replaced by robots. Human judgment about making great decisions about people, product and the business, will continue to be radically important. To take a lot of state statistics, stay in math and science, as long as you possibly can. But I say this as an English major. The work that we do is both art and science and combining those two notions are important. It’s hard and, that’s why, being a product leader, being a Product Manager is such a fun and exciting job.
Question [00:20:43] In your experience, what are the softest skills that a product person can learn to grow in their career?
Gibson [00:20:57] When I’m looking at Product Managers, I’ll put a list of skills on the whiteboard are technical. There is management, and probably the soft skill is communication. Then there’s creativity. It’s born of the passion of intellectual curiosity, of really digging deep and focusing on a problem. I also look for design skills.
My short answer would be management skills, especially communication, the creative work, that’s really the centre of our work. We get paid to create and execute on ideas that matter.
And then third, that combination of art and science that has to do with design, and really the focus here is how do you keep things simple? How do you reduce complexity? How do you have the discipline? Lots of good judgment is required to do those things effectively.
Question [00:23:28] How important is having a technical degree to become a good Product Manager?
Gibson [00:23:34] The reason I went to business school a zillion years ago I was a marketer and I realized I could learn so much about all the functions I had no experience with my two years in business school. And as much as I like teaching, I love being a student. And then I love the social experience of being together with my peers for two years.
And I loved having the time to ski because I was at tuck, which is at Dartmouth up in New Hampshire. So it worked out great for me. And I came out with a ton of confidence. Every company I sent an email to was willing to interview me. So it just opened up lots of possibilities today. I think if you aspire to build a startup from scratch, I think you’re better off just going out and learning about building a startup from scratch, the hard way just by doing it. That’s just one way of thinking about it. I guess at the end of the day, it’s a very personal decision.
Would you like to spend two years going to school with your peers? You’re going to be paying money as opposed to making it. Or do you want to engage in all the amazing educational opportunities that you can take on? You can take online courses, you can do online workshops and like everything is virtual at this point.
A lot of my pals went on to grad school in engineering and they loved it. I think they loved it because of the same reasons I did the social experience and having time to do other stuff. I can’t AB test this. I certainly felt good from an income point of view within two or three years, landing at Electronic Arts was the right place at right time. That was great for me. But my guess is I might have a very similar career if I had chosen not to go to business school.
When I’m interviewing folks, I am looking for passion. Are they passionate enough about the company to really have spent a ton of time with the product? Do they know the space because they care about it? Because that turns into intellectual curiosity, that they just want to learn more and more and more. If you’re intellectually curious, then you become persistent, very persistent. Then you develop that grit. If I find a person that is passionate, whose intellectual curiosity has developed that grit for an idea, like a dog with a bone – I’m like, Ooh, this person could pull it off. And even if they’ve got weak skills, then I just test on their rate of learning.
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We’ll be back next week with even more of the latest insights from the Product Management world. Stay tuned for more!