Season 6 - Episode 5

Mastering Your Craft

Ken Sandy is the former Vice President of Product at Masterclass and author of “The Influential Product Manager.” Ken is a lecturer, product consultant, and executive coach. In this episode of The Product Podcast, Ken talks us through his career journey, product education, and mastering essential product skills.

“Why don’t you tell us a little more about yourself?” 

So I’ve been working in the Bay area for quite some time originally from Australia. I got my break into product management in Australia and really just fell in love with it and ended up working for a company in Melbourne. 

PMs weren’t really even a thing back then. So I joined this company and eventually did all the things that a product manager would do. As I said, I loved it, then I came to San Francisco and been there ever since. Since then, I’ve worked in a variety of different, um, companies. And joined UC Berkeley to teach about eight years ago and found the first product management in-person class, now virtual class at UC Berkeley to teach product management. I’ve also been pretty big into online education, as you can say, and was ahead of product at, which got acquired by LinkedIn. And more recently at MasterClass. 

“So you’ve been in the online education space for a while, and obviously now we are all being forced to do a lot of that online. So what do you think are some of the main trends that you’ve seen?” 

Well, I think consumer comfort and behavior and technology are really caught up. We’ve learned to adapt and reproduce the things that we’re really lacking back in online education back in the day. Even like five, seven years ago, where it was largely kind of MOOCs and video learning this kind of passive experience. Very high quality and really great, but very alone, you tended to be by yourself or asynchronous and didn’t really feel necessarily a connection to others. I think now we’ve really seen the evolution of more interactive learning being a good example is Product School. Really some level you’re already going online, but also you’re forced to sort of accelerate that, and I think everyone’s kind of going through the same thing and just because our entire lives are virtual now.

Even the classes at UC Berkeley, which were formally in-person project-based classes that required us working very intimately in small teams in sort of a group and having a lot of dialogue and a lot of that free-flowing kind of bouncing off each other’s ideas and letting that work. We’ve had to figure that out online, and people are incredibly adaptable. So that’s why I think what the big trends are and the technology have obviously caught up as well. Some of my favorite new tools that I now use every day and in product management, I used to do on the whiteboard, or we used to have meetings for now, like that those tools are actually out there and they’re getting pretty sophisticated. 

“Tell us about your work as a Product consultant?”

It’s something that actually requires the education of any potential client that I talked to. One of my passions is that I really want to scale my impact. My personal mission is to make product management everywhere, as great as it can be. When you talk about product management consultants, people are like what? What does that mean that you sort of does product management for a while? And like you just manage a piece of a life cycle or do you just, come on in and do something and then leave. And then where’s that kind of cycle of accountability and things. It takes a lot of education to really break down the services that a product consultant can offer.  

Secondly would be sort of processes. So what are the missing things like discoveries often just a missing thing? In a lot of these companies, they just don’t talk to customers. Don’t figure out what problems to solve. They jumped straight into these solutions and therefore they have, these downstream problems as a result. And it looks like, oh, we can’t build the right products, but it’s really abstract.

Finally, people. And so I do a lot of coaching and development, particularly a very senior like directors who might be groomed to move into roles or maybe a newly promoted head of products. Sometimes I’ll even help with hiring. And that’s sort of where I complete the cycle of sort of replacing myself as almost like this interim head of product to be able to then move on. And so my roles, my engagements tend to be quite long, quite immersed, but still very much a third party, very much about enabling that organization to, to continue to scale. And I do that rinse and repeat, and it’s a lot of fun.

And I guess now you have access to so many different companies and industries that it’s also a good learning experience for yourself.

Well, this is it, I’m a lifelong learner. And for me, it’s really about constantly learning which is also why I teach really keeps me on my toes. I have to be ahead of the curve. I have to be like what I did even like five years ago, I’ve got to be evolving that. I’ve often heard like, Oh, product consultants, they’re not going to be able to be good people in the company full time, or they don’t know the latest whatever, but it’s actually quite the opposite. I’m exposed to so many different company cultures or team cultures, so many different issues that one company will be having no problem with one thing. And then there is another company, that’s having a devil of a time with that same thing. And so just seeing these things emerge means that I’m always learning how to, how to adapt to the new situation and also developing my people and adaptability skills as well. And so yeah, I love learning. 

Back to this evolution of online learning, just passively consuming things. You only really deeply understand only so much, but as you move up and actually attempting to do it and do exercise and actually doing a project or actually implementing it, and then kind of moving into that realm where now I’m actually mentoring and teaching others, you have to really not only done it well, but you need to have been able to distill it down to like the essence and being able to like show people how to do it. That is the ultimate of really mastering your craft. If you want to truly know whether or not you’ve mastered something, try to teach it. And then you really, not only learn whether you have or not but you’ll start to really be able to crystallize the essence of what you do and be able to do it better yourself. 

“What would you say are the biggest myths and misconceptions around product managers or product management teams?” 

We like to think we no longer are still kind of obsessed with the delivery. I still see far too many teams spending all of their time on delivery and driving forward project management tasks. And it’s just this breakable thing between balancing the urgent and the important. I think the myth that product managers are like when there’s a lot of literature, a lot of learning about moving upstream and being micro-focused on the upstream components. I still see a lot of teams sort of working downstream. That’s one misconception that is kind of a solved problem, it takes a lot to get people out of that because we’re still holding – which rightly we’re holding product managers to shipping and shipping quality, but we’ve also got to find a better balance, I think with being able to depend on our engineering teams, particularly that help us craft solutions. So getting clear about the role of product management around the problem space and the solution space. That’s one. 

The second is this tendency to think that we’re in the job of building websites or technology solutions, or that we’re even in the job of building digital products. Well, that’s not true. We’re actually in the job of solving customer’s problems. And I think we get this again, we get so obsessed with the technology solutions or our part of the customer journey without actually thinking about the full customer journey and to basically think about all of the different human real-world touchpoints, to really stop ignoring that entire customer service customer experience. That’s another thing that is sort of a misconception that where we’re only in the business of building a product, but actually there’s, there’s so much more to that entire experience that we need to be paying attention to. 

And just by pointing that out and mapping out the entire customer experience that can often lead to these aha moments of like, Oh, we thought the problem was here, but actually it’s downstream when they contact customer service and there’s all this confusion. And so we’ve got to fix that. So there’s, there’s those sorts of those sorts of things. So really, we’re not in the job of building a technology and product in search of a problem. It’s basically where we’ve got to take the problem first and actually say, what is the best way to actually solve that for the customer?  

Our job is to build the right product, not to build the product, right. That’s kind of actually other’s job. The more we spend thinking about, is this the right thing to be building and writing to be prioritizing our scarce resources on? Is this really going to solve a customer need that’s important and prioritized, and then saying no to other things. That’s where we add frankly, the most value. It’s also the hardest. And it’s also the hardest to re-educate your organization around. And I’ve got no silver bullet answer there, except start doing it. Start showing value, even if it’s on a smaller scale. And you can really actually earn trust to go from there. It will take time, that’s the crux of where you can be the most valuable for your organization. 

“Where do you learn these soft skills that help you go from PM all the way up to VP of product?” 

What really propelled me forward was sort of mastering my technical or tactical skills. When I say technical, I mean the things we would think about like product requirements, product delivery, working with user experience design and shipping and KPIs, and things like that. Taking a greater ownership mindset, my analysis skills were all like really, really important skills to master. You can learn those online if you will, or through great mentors, or just by figuring out what the frameworks are and then going from there. So there’s this whole group of technical skills. I think I’ve even tried to count them up, it was like 20 different key things that you can do that you can actually just learn by going online and sort of like, Oh, here’s a really interesting framework that I can use and try or take a workshop. 

You move into this sort of conscious incompetence South, it’s where you’re no longer unconscious incompetence, that you’re bad at it, and you don’t know you’re bad at it. You’re now acknowledging that you’re probably not good at it, which is your first step to actually getting really good at it. Because what happens is that you seek feedback, you start practicing those skills, just like you would, other things. You identify which ones to focus on, you identify those with your manager, and you kind of talk those through. And if you’ve got high trust, which I hope you do, that you’re managing will definitely help you find mentors in the organization that can help you. You find mentors in the industry that can help you, and then you practice them. 

The reality is while you might be able to go online and learn a feedback model, it’s not until you practice giving feedback 15 times that you actually realize, Oh, what’s working, what’s not working. And then you got to do another 50 before you put it, and then so on. And because where we find ourselves in such different environments, because people are complex and organizations have different cultures, these are not easily taught. And so my ethos and how I actually help students along the way, for example, put them into where they have to actually apply these skills. And if I just get them to acknowledge, maybe I’m not that great at this, and I need to actually improve it. That’s a big win because that’s the first step to moving forward. 

And don’t overwhelm yourself. You don’t have to be good at everything. Pick one thing that you want to really practice like public speaking, or building that relationship with that really difficult stakeholder, or try to not blame your engineering team every time something goes wrong. Like just pick one thing that you want to really improve that and apply yourself. It’s so rewarding when you actually make progress there and that’s where your confidence will build, and that growth mindset really kicks in. 

“What’s next for you? What are you passionate about learning these days?” 

I’m at a really interesting point. I love product management and one of my problems is I love problems. So you can give me a problem. I’ve worked in search e-commerce enterprise, consumer products, startups, large companies. I actually find myself, just loving problems to solve. I’m very passionate about learning more and applying myself, to solve bigger problems in education, obviously. I’ve recently started to dabble in healthcare and I do think that there are really meaningful needs. I’ve always been interested in development throughout the world and how the internet can actually solve inequality and poverty and things like that. So these are big, massive problems, right? So we haven’t even started to scratch the surface. I get very excited about ideas. 

So basically, what I’m learning now is how to scale myself and I have a lot of experience, and I feel like I have a lot to give and I want to be thoughtful and humble about that. I do think that, right now I’m trying to learn how to help others be successful. Very specifically right now, I’m learning how to market a book and that’s way outside of my wheelhouse. I’m terrible at marketing, I realized, and I just have to apply myself and learn how to do those two things. But when you see others work more effectively because of a little bit about what you were able to sort of help them do or unlock, it was in them all the time, it’s very rewarding. And so that’s kind of what I’m trying to learn how to do more of that. 

“You also wrote a book, tell us more about it.”

Yes, that’s right. I wrote a book called The Influential Product Manager: Lead and Launch Successful Technology Products. As with everything I’ve just been talking about, it’s really about influence and about applying these adaptive skills into your environment. So I don’t drone on about agile or like how to run this or run this process. I basically break down the tools, the frameworks, and I want this to be an extremely practical book that you could apply with actual tips and ideas that you could really apply to situations to help you influence a path forward and collaborate well throughout every single stage of the life cycle. So if you’re trying to prioritize your backlog for example, or there are tools that I layout about how to actually do that from a more influencing perspective. Or how to, for example, set goals, align on criteria, and actually look at features and then get everyone aligned around at least the process that you’re using because you never going to get consensus. 

So just acknowledging, I’m never going to consensus on my priorities. They’re always going to change. No, one’s going to agree with them, but if I just apply these frameworks, at least I can influence and get stability and get everyone on board about how we’re actually going about it. That’s just an example. And then we’ll imagine that every part of the life cycle, I’ve got stuff about, delivery and working with engineering about how to approach customer discovery and how to even write your KPIs from an empathetic point of view, for really trying to measure the value that your products delivered to your customers. So I try to really break that down. It was a labor of love. I’m really thrilled at its response. To be honest I wasn’t expecting it, but I got a lot of really good feedback, which tells me that there was a gap in the market in terms of really being able to break down what influence even is. Because we talk about that a lot, but we don’t necessarily know what it is and being able to break it down and say, okay, here’s how to go about it. In these situations, I think has really hit home with a lot of

Don’t just focus on the tactics of getting that interview or getting and pass that interview, or being able to kind of run textbook level scrum, which I rarely see actually truly implemented in a theoretical form. Now that’s not a criticism to start with that, you should absolutely do well in your interviews. You should absolutely structure your scrum well. But if you want to be that really well-rounded product manager, reach outside those boundaries to learn about these areas that are maybe outside of what you would imagine being essential, a prevention rating. 

I remember last year in Los Angeles, you gave a keynote speech at the ProductCon when in-person gatherings were a thing and it was about empathy.

That was a really fun presentation. And one of the things I was really touching on is being aware of your own cognitive biases and the cognitive biases that you might be subject to in your organization. Then some of the things that might be impacting you, in terms of setting up psychological safety in your team. These sort of the things that really unlock a lot of value that once you get those relationships going and can empathize with your team, or if you just empathize with yourself in the situation sometimes- in the ideal situation, you can have a much better time than that. You’re more resilient, you can approach difficult conversations a lot more easily as well..

Those are the things that I found were more essential once I kind of got a certain level, capability in my product management to really make me more successful, or occasionally when I failed to do that well, was what caused me to struggle. 

“Is there anything else you would like to add?” 

For aspiring and even early all product managers out there, I think you can’t pay enough attention to understand what you can do to be more influential in your organization. And that’s going to have a lot to do with these more adaptive, what we might even call soft or people’s skills, but it’s not only about that. It’s about how you apply them during your typical product management process. I can’t emphasize enough, don’t be afraid to ask for guidance and learn from your peers, go and build your network early, go get coffee tea virtually right now more often. Actually do that now because people want and more than happy to jump on a zoom call for a couple of 30 minutes. Just don’t be afraid to always be learning. 

Make sure to come back next week with more of the latest insights from the Product Management world!

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