Dear Gib: What Leader(s) Over Your Product Career Truly Changed How You Approach Product Management?

Me at Netflix in 2005 (Photo by Michael Rubin)

Short answer: I learned from bosses & peers, including famous peeps like Reed Hastings, Patty McCord, and Dan Rosensweig. But mainly, I learned by doing, supercharged by feedback from many “Friends of Gib.”

  1. Seek high-growth companies. These companies attract talent from whom you learn, plus provide the opportunity for fast-paced, battlefront promotions.
  2. Build your network of peers and mentors. These individuals provide targeted learning opportunities. You can’t get the same degree of insight via reading or courses.
  3. Be ready to learn and unlearn. One decade, I discovered waterfall development. The next, I embraced agile.
  4. Working with humans is hard! Learning to work effectively with engineers, designers, data scientists, project managers, researchers, marketers, customer success peeps, and CEOs is half the challenge of a product leader career.

1991: Electronic Arts (an entertainment SW company)

  1. How to ship a product on time. Hal’s insight: It’s too hard to predict the balancing act of time, quality, and money, so develop multiple products in parallel so you can swap in one product for another. Hal helped me to move from sequential to parallel development.
  2. How to deal with imposter syndrome. Hal was with me one day when Stewart Bonn, the VP of Product, asked me a question. I got tongue-tied. Hal’s coaching: “Answer the question, Gib. And if you don’t have an answer, ask questions until you can form an opinion.”
  1. Here’s what you did well
  2. Here’s what you could have done better.

1994: Creative Wonders (an educational software startup)

  1. Greg forced me out of the building to connect with peers. He felt this was the fastest way for me to learn. Over the years, I refined this concept to build a “Personal Board of Directors” composed of peers and mentors.
  2. Greg helped me to transition into a formal leader. I shipped lots of successful software and embodied Creative Wonders’ culture, but the exec team didn’t trust me. Why not? I was an iconoclast — I wore shorts and flip-flops to work and had little respect for authority. Greg told me to dress better and to go to lunch with each member of the exec team so they could get to know me as a person. Two months later, I became VP of Product. The lesson: leadership is symbolic and subtle cues like what you wear matter.
  1. How to think about brand and positioning, and how marketing and product organizations can work together effectively. You can read my “Branding for Builders” essay to learn more.
  2. How to form successful work relationships. Louis noticed I became impatient when starting new relationships. I didn’t take the time to build trust. He pointed out that I skipped the first of four steps in building a relationship:
  • Form (get to know each other to build trust)
  • Storm (Begin to challenge each other’s ideas)
  • Norm (develop shared ideas and approaches)
  • Perform (based on shared ideas and process)

The Learning Company 1997 (Reader Rabbit, Oregon Trail)

1999: FamilyWonder, a family-focused e-commerce company

2003: Epoch Innovations, a dyslexia technology startup

2005: Netflix

  1. “Can you delight customers?”
  2. “Can you do consumer science?”
  1. Delight customers in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways. I learned this mantra from Reed, and it forms the basis of my product strategy frameworks. (Here’s my “How to Define Your Product Strategy” series on Medium.)
  2. The power of simplicity. One year, Reed encouraged me to focus on simplifying our product. While most product leaders like to build and add, we focused on streamlining the experience. This focus helped us to create a product that 200 million worldwide members can readily embrace today.
  3. The balancing act of qualitative and quantitative. In my first year at Netflix, Reed and I debated the merit of qualitative (focus groups, usability) v. AB testing. After a year, we reached a truce where I continued to use qualitative as a source for new ideas and understand the “why” of customer behavior. But I relied on AB test results to decide whether to launch a new feature or not.
  4. The downside of management. Reed described me as “the best manager in the building.” But he said it critically—his point: too much management squeezes the life out of innovation. I learned instead to provide discipline through strategy and consumer science.
  5. I learned how culture helps talented individuals make great decisions about people, products, and business. For me, culture became an influential “anti-process.” Talented individuals don’t like rules or processes. The Netflix culture — its articulation of the values, skills, and behaviors desired for all employees — enabled individuals to make significant decisions without even talking to one another.
  1. Get outside Silicon Valley. We moved beyond “Silicon Valley Freaks” to find “normal” customers in Providence, Memphis, and Denver, among other cities.
  2. Get to the “why” through qualitative. Leslie often had a live video feed of focus groups playing in her cube. In a building full of “quant jocks,” it was helpful to get insight into the “why” of customer behavior by listening to our members in focus groups and usability. Leslie was an effective counter-voice to Reed.
  3. Test big changes. We did lots of testing of our non-member site — our site’s front door. One day Leslie looked down at a print-out of six versions going into the next AB test. In looking at the postage-stamp-sized designs, she struggled to see the differences. She remarked, “If we can’t see the deltas in each version, our customers will never notice them. Our members are way too busy to detect nuance.”
  4. The dance between marketing and product. Sometimes we’d test a hypothesis for a new feature on the non-member homepage to see if it improved conversion, and if it did, we’d build the feature. In other cases, the product evolved, and we’d bring attention to a new feature on the non-member homepage later. This “Tango” between product development and marketing continued forever.

2010: Chegg, a textbook rental & homework help company

  1. Fully commit to “What’s Next?” Chegg was a textbook rental company, but Dan wanted us to be much more. We eventually bought six startups to invent a high-margin digital business. The result: Chegg Study, a monthly homework help subscription service. My focus on “What’s Next?” is at the heart of my “GLEE” model for forming a product vision. (Read more here.)
  2. Ignore the purchase price when evaluating acquisitions. In debating investments, my job was to say “Yes” or “No.” Dan trained me not to worry about the price, which doesn’t matter in the long-term. Plus, I had no expertise in startup valuation. (Dan’s insight came from his experience as COO at Yahoo! when the board passed on a potential Facebook acquisition because $1B was “way too expensive.” Ha!)
  3. Use this deceivingly simple model to evaluate projects:
  • Is it big enough to matter? (This question forces you to think big.)
  • What does success look like? (Be clear about your vision.)
  • How do you measure success? (Have clear metrics to establish criteria for ongoing investment.)

Conclusions

  1. Seek high-growth companies that put you in proximity with talented leaders you can learn from, plus set you up for battlefront promotions.
  2. Build your network of mentors and peers.
  3. Be ready to learn and unlearn as both technology and your job evolve.
  • The more readers the newsletter has,
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