Being a Lifelong Learner

Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia is an entrepreneur, author, and Founder and CEO of Product School. Carlos is committed to pushing the product community forward, with this aim in mind, he published the Amazon bestseller, The Product Book. In this episode, Carlos speaks about his product story, the inspiration behind Product School, and his vision for the product world.

Can you tell us about your personal background and how Product School came to be?

We started Product School seven years ago, believe it or not. And we answered the solution to my own problem because I come from an engineering background. I learned how to code, but I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life coding. Back in the day there weren’t really that many options like, I’m from Spain, and I remember in my classes when someone asked us, “who wants to start a company?” Basically asking who doesn’t want to be an engineer. And nobody raised their hand.

So I was like, Oh my God, I think I’m not in the right spot here. But fortunately I was able to, first of all, leverage my technical background in a different way and ended up going to business school in California. And that was refreshing for me because first of all, I met a lot of other engineers who wanted to leverage a technical background in a different way. And I was like, okay, I’m not the only one, but also I met incredible folks from different backgrounds, like business or design that wanted to be closer to the action.

They wanted to build something and they might feel intimidated because they don’t know how to code. So there were two different groups of people trying to tackle the same problem just from different angles. And well, a few years forward, I continued my career as a builder, as an entrepreneur, I learned product management on the road.

Basically I started two companies before Product School. And in reality, I realized that, Oh my God, I’m literally learning by failing. None of the stuff that I was doing was learned in the traditional education system. So after those two entrepreneurial efforts, I’d realized that I wanted to start a school of my dreams and something I wish I had when I was getting started.

And here we are now in 2021, seven years forward, with a community of over 1 million members, which is absolutely global. And I’m very proud because really, we are all about helping people grow their careers. Of course, there are a lot of people who want to get that first product management job. There are also a lot of experienced product managers who use the community to connect and learn as they advance in their own career.

In the product world, we’re always talking about falling in love with the problem and not with the solution. What are some of the problems that you’re the most obsessed with right now?

For me, it’s always been about scratching my own itch. And that’s why I said at the beginning that I wanted to create a solution to my own problem. This is a school that I wish I had when I was going to start it. And that was the inspiration behind Product School.

Of course, that itch always disappears, and there are many ways we can continue forward. But literally, the fundamental problem that we are trying to solve, that I’m very passionate about is education. I think there’s a huge disconnection between education and employment. I don’t understand why we are supposed to learn full time until our mid-twenties and then work full time until we die. What if you can have it all?

I love this concept of lifelong learning. What if you can keep up with your work, your family, your friends, and also learn on the side? What if you can allocate some time on your own terms to learn what you want from who you want and how you want?. And I fell in love with this idea. We are applying that idea to the product management world, because that’s a skill that is dear to my heart that obviously I’m very passionate about, but I think fundamentally that is the problem that I am trying to solve.

What was the inspiration behind writing The Product Book?

You know, in line with that lifelong learning, there are so many different ways to learn. And I think it’s up to each individual to decide what works for them at different stages in life. And obviously at Product School we do training in product management and it’s all on weeknights or weekends. So that way, people can keep up with their careers and other things.

I also recognize that maybe the classroom is not for everybody or maybe some people can’t can’t afford it, or it doesn’t work for them. And I wanted to build something physical. First of all, this is my first physical thing. It’s funny because we talk about digital products, but this is physical,(although we have an ebook version) and I just wanted to make it absolutely free and available for everyone. So anyone who wants to learn how to build digital products can have a framework.

And this is not my framework or even Product School’s framework. We always do everything in collaboration with product leaders. And those are people who work at the best companies in tech, mostly in Silicon Valley, such as Google, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb. They are the ones who keep their full time jobs and who teach at Product School.

We all created this tactical book, which is about, okay, I have an idea. How can I actually ship it? Because there’s a lot of books out there in the market, focused on hacking the career, hacking the resume and, and don’t get me wrong. I think it’s important if you’re trying to get a job, but I also believe that you can’t just hack, you also need to know what you’re doing. You need to add some value.

And this book is absolutely focused on just helping people build something. We got over 200,000 copies sold at this point. It’s been translated into four different languages, it’s English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic. We also have an audio book version. So there’s no excuse these days for anyone who wants to learn more about how to build that digital product.

Aside from the number of copies sold, what has the reaction to the book been like? What have people said to you about it?

Well, first of what I said about it was, Oh my God, I’m not doing this again. It took me almost two years to ship it once to build it. And another one just to figure it out, how to ship it. I mean, we’ve published seven or eight more books, so clearly I wasn’t right.

But the reaction was very positive. I try to kind of share that with people who contributed to the book. And of course with the team, I’m all for always taking screenshots of nice notes and sharing them with all of us to recognize that this is what they’re doing for people. We’re teaching how to build products. But at the end of the day, it’s all about people. And the impact that a book or a course or an event can have on someone that can be much more than maybe we can even imagine. So I recognized that obviously one single book might not solve all the problems, but I think it’s also about helping people realize, Hey, this is not rocket science. You don’t need to be a PhD or a software engineer. You don’t need to have an MBA. You can do it.

What would you say are the skills that have helped you the most in your career?

I think there’s this misconception that product managers are born, and you have to be a visionary person who tells people what to do. But you don’t actually do it. Well that’s just not true. I mean, yes, it’s good to have a vision and it’s good to have ideas, but the reality is that nobody’s going to hire you just because you have great ideas. They will hire you because you can really execute and help people execute ideas. Some of them may be yours, some of them not. And that’s okay, too. So it’s more about identifying the best ideas and deciding what’s next.

So tactically speaking, there’s three core skills that we identified that are really relevant for successful product managers. And again, this is not just an opinion. This is data from thousands of students, who’ve graduated through our programs.

The first is technical acumen. I don’t mean that you have to be a software engineer or anything like that. Obviously, if you come from a technical background, that’s a bonus point, but it’s more about feeling comfortable, interacting with and understanding engineers. You’re going to spend a lot of time with them and you need to understand some of the trade-offs that you need to make sometimes, and how to better collaborate with them.

The second piece to it is business acumen. At the end of the day I see product managers as translators that act as diplomats in between different worlds, usually technology, business, and design. So it’s important to understand all of those words, not to be an expert. You don’t need to be trilingual in all of those languages, but you need to be curious enough to ask the right questions, to help people decide how, but also give them some guidance on what we’re doing and why. I think that ‘why’ piece is really critical.

And then the third component is the communication skills. Communication is something that we all use, whether we like it or not. And this is especially relevant as we grow in our careers, because becoming a product manager at the very beginning requires some hard skills. You need to know certain things. You need to know how to build a roadmap. You need to know how to analyze data. You need to know how to collaborate with engineers, how to create some wireframes and collaborate with designers. All of that is something you can learn. And at the same time, there’s the soft skills, like the piece of the puzzle that is going to help you earn the respect from your people and also be a good asset for them. It’s something that you also need to acquire. And it’s also something that you can only acquire with certain experience. So as you move up in your career ladder, you’ll realize that it’s less about the hard skills that made you successful as a PM, and more about the soft skills that make you successful as a leader.

Is there anything that you’re excited to be learning about at the moment and how do you make time for learning?

I think we need to drink our own champagne as an education company. So there are multiple ways we go about this. Personally, I like to learn things related to work and things unrelated to work, and they magically end up connecting. And I think they also make one happier, which I think is also very important.

So I’m personally very curious about everything related to culture. Reading a lot of books on how to create a successful culture, not just remote culture, but in general, like how groups of people organize around their same mission and get excited, and then be successful in it. And there are some examples about tech companies specifically, but there are so many incredible examples about this from history that have nothing to do with tech.

So I’m always reading and talking about this and listening to other leaders. I belong to a couple of peer groups that are really helpful for me because those are like safe spaces where we can share stuff. And nobody claims to have everything figured out. We can be vulnerable, talk about feelings and simply just be there for each other and realize that  I’m not the only one that is going through stuff. Sometimes you are in listener mode, but also sometimes you can share your own experiences. So I see a lot of value in those types of peer groups.

And then ultimately coaching, I think, is something that I love. And it took me time. I did at the very early stage in my career, but now I also see that the positive effect of really trying to be the best version of myself for others. Because I think this can amplify or diminish the effects of the entire group. So I am very aware of the fact that I don’t want to be a bottleneck. I want to be an amplifier. And in order to do that, I want to be the best person on my side. And I also want to empower others to continue learning, by themselves but also together.

What advice would you give to people looking to break into product management for the first time, particularly in 2021? Given all of the things that have changed, like remote working for example.

See, that’s an opportunity. If there’s one thing I would like someone to remember from this interview, I would say, this is the best time in history to build digital products. This has been accelerated during the last 15, 16 months. We’ve seen how something that used to be maybe just for tech companies in Silicon Valley become more than that. Product management is here to stay, product management applies to any industry, any company that has more than one employee. We realized that you need to use some sort of software to collaborate internally or to offer your products externally. So it’s a website or a mobile app. So everything is a product these days.

And that means that product managers have a bigger responsibility to accelerate the transformation of those businesses and to make them accessible for everyone. So now we’re seeing our business being accelerated as well, because more and more companies are hiring product managers, even some companies that had to downsize or adjust, they still wanted to hire product managers because that is a core component of their future.

And how do you see product management as an industry growing?

That’s a very big question for me to answer. So we decided to create a report and ask the same question to over 1500 product leaders. This year we had our second edition of The Future of Product Management Report. And that’s another free report that is available to anyone, where we wanted to understand what are some of the trends and opportunities for people in the industry. So I can give you a very, very high level highlight of what we found. 

One is obviously that this type of transformation and everyone working remotely and more companies offering their services online is accelerating the need for product managers. We are seeing how product management is becoming less technical. There are a lot of tools out there that are no code. That means that a product manager can focus on adding value and simply connecting the tools that they need in order to build something.

Today, building a website or building an analytics dashboard, it’s just faster and easier than ever. And that is really empowering PM’s and other non-technical people to really do more by themselves. Another huge trend that we are seeing in the market is called product led growth. It’s how more and more organizations are leading with products. Let’s say Slack as an example. Slack is great at growth because you can use the product for free. You can invite your coworkers, you can do a lot of things without putting your credit card down, and then obviously more and more people use it and you recommend special features. Then it gets to a point where you need to talk to sales.

So I think that approach of leading with product and allowing users to see the product before scheduling a demo, it’s really here to stay.

Are there any cool projects that you’re working on that you can share with us?

I can share a few things that make me personally very, very excited. I’m a builder, first of all. And when I decided to start Product School, I knew that I wanted to spend time building. And one of those products that we’re building is actually a Product Manifesto, which is going to be a set of principles for anyone out there that wants to build digital products. And this is going to be an extension of the agile manifesto, which was created 20 years ago. And as a non fun fact, that was created by a group of 14 white male engineers in the same room. And this was created before social media or smartphones existed. So I think it’s time for a refresher and involve the industry and very different diverse product leaders across the world to really put together a manifesto that would be a good starting point for the next generation.

I know there are initiatives that I’m personally very proud of. One of which is happening this month, where we’re celebrating Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. So we are launching an initiative to highlight 20 incredible product leaders that are giving back to the community that are great contributors. It’s important to raise their voices as well. We’re using our platform for causes that we care about. And I think it’s our responsibility to do it as well, and stand our ground and hopefully inspire more people to not only just build for the sake of building, but building responsibly.

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