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product man

productman: origin story

Not seeing any questions tonight that I can answer cleanly, so I'll tell a story people ask for frequently: how did you get into PM?

Well, I'll tell me, it was a weird trip.

Walking out of graduation into the bright Blacksburg sunshine, one of my classmates commented, "Fantastic, I just went from 'occupation: student' to 'occupation: none!'"

That's the way it was as a CS major on the east coast in the early 2000s. We were lured by the 90s internet boom, but didn't get to participate. We graduated during the bust and couldn't find work.

So I did what I vowed never to do and moved back in with Mom and Dad. I ended up back at SAIC, where I interned after high school, doing FEDSIM projects. FEDSIM is the government's equivalent of busy work. This was torture for someone who never did homework.

I wrote a daily report, which compiled into a weekly report, rolling into monthly and annual reports. Often my reports would include: "wrote this report."

It's okay, I'm sure the military put them to good use somewhere.

I grew my hair and beard long, stopped caring about the dress code, basically begging for someone to fire me. But no one ever did. I finally quit to join another integrator across the street: iGov.

I actually really liked iGov. I was actually doing things. I was learning Navision, an obscure specialty that probably would've kept me an employed wage slave until retirement. But the week after the company co-founder told me he had never been prouder of a new hire, they laid me off.

They'd over-extended bidding on some contract and were in the red. They didn't think they'd get the contract, so they needed to start cutting. Last in, first out. They later got the contract and hired hundreds more people.

Still waiting for that call to come back...

Okay, so not the worst thing that could happen. The worst thing that could happen would be getting an apendicitis that weekend as my health insurance was running out and being incapacitated for weeks without a job and rent due.

So that happened.

Recuperating back at my parents' house, I had no idea how to find a new job. I posted my resume on Craigslist and heard back the next day. Some weirdo wanted to interview me at a bar the following week.

Drinking heavily at noon on a Tuesday, superglue holding my gut together; this was my intro to Sales.

Tom was a Sales Engineer for Ingrian Networks covering the east coast. He had accepted an offer to join the Product Management team in Redwood City, but Tom had to hire his replacement.

I was a Sales Engineer for two years at Ingrian. A number of my college friends ended up becoming Sales Engineers about that time, leading us to the conclusion that Sales Engineers were just geeks who could party.

Sales is a great experience. I highly recommend everyone spend some time carrying a bag. You learn a lot about how the software sausage is made in front of the customer and that close to the money. Presentation, deal navigation, and persuasion are also great assets.

I made noise, helped close big accounts. Drove the Product team crazy with requests. Enough so that when Tom left Ingrian, I was offered his PM spot.

My wife and I moved to San Francisco, CA in 2008. Less than three months later, Ingrian was bought by SafeNet, a hardware security company located about an hour away from where we had moved from.

I spent the next two years as a PM over Ingrian's DataSecure product line at SafeNet. I loved my team, but came to realize that I wasn't a lifer in the security industry and needed to make a change.

My boss, who was also on the way out, asked me what I wanted to do.

"I want to work on a consumer site." I told him.
"Okay, how would you get there?" He asked.
"I don't have a resume where a company like Facebook would give me the time of day as a PM. I'll have to take a step back, find a SaaS company that builds products for users and needs Sales Engineers with security experience. I'll join as an SE, find an opportunity in Product and build a resume that would work either B2B or consumer."

I think I did a Google search for "cool b2b startups" and came away thinking Yammer and Asana (product) sounded interesting. I applied to for a Sales Engineer job at Yammer and to be a Product Manager at Asana.

Yammer's sales engineers are basically therapists for companies grappling with cloud security concerns. So my background fit the profile perfectly and I was working here within the month. I never got a call back from Asana, but I knew I was reaching with my resume as it was.

I expected my trip to PM to take years, but within a few months I was assisting Adam Zadikoff. Turns out I had learned a bit about Microsoft SharePoint (product) during my time at SAIC and Adam was over-extended PMing all of our mobile clients and integrations.

By six months, on Adam's recommendation, I was interviewing to move over to Product. By the 8th, I was on the team full time. By eight and a half, Jim Patterson had handed over the reigns to basically the entire platform, a team he used to run.

Pretty much everything I've now come to believe about Product, I've learned at Yammer. Learning from great product thinkers like David Sacks, Jim Patterson, and countless others. I still learn more in a day at Yammer than I did the previous five years of my career.

But of all the things I believe, none are more important than these:
  • Build your career like a product - never settle, take small measured steps, and make big informed bets.
  • "Get on a rocket ship. When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves." - Sheryl Sandberg. Without knowing it, I took her advice. The results have been amazing.
  • Figure out what you want and go get it - you'll actually be amazed how often you just need to ask.

PS - a few weeks after Microsoft's Acquisition of Yammer, I started getting inbounds from Facebook recruiting.

But of course, that rocket ship is already in orbit.