Steve Johnson on Purple Squirrels & Other Lies

Purple Squirrel (n) is used by recruiters to describe a job candidate with precisely the right education, experience, and qualifications to fit a job’s multifaceted requirements. “Your perfect candidate is as rare as a purple squirrel”.

In recent years, title inflation has exploded. We’ve seen new definitions for old titles and many new titles have been created. In product management, we’ve got product managers, product marketing managers, product owners, program managers, product strategists, product line managers, portfolio managers, and more. The more prescriptive your requirements, the less likely you are going to find the perfect person. The same applies across every function in an organization.

Steve explains why you should reconsider the areas of expertise needed to build a successful team. Identify contributors with a more limited skill set, but with specific strengths. Adapting processes to the strengths of your team can be a better approach to scaling a startup or optimizing an existing business. Six types of expertise are necessary for a well-rounded product team. They are rarely found in a single person but that doesn’t matter.

(PS. They are: Business, Market, Technology, Domain, Process, and Operations.)

Find Steve’s talk video, slides, transcript, and more from Steve below.

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Steve Johnson: It was a short walk so I didn’t get much walking music. Thanks though!

One of the jobs I had, I was recruited to run product and my president said to me Steve you have to do something about the development cause they totally suck – they can’t ship. I said yep, I went to development and said hey I hear you guys suck! You know, always building bridges and making friends. And they said that’s one interpretation – and I said but how come we don’t seem to be shipping? They said we’re shipping we’re just not launching. We put up bug-fixes all the time we just don’t tell anybody, we put up new enhancements here all the time, we can’t recreate them in the lab but we’re putting stuff out all the time. I said but what is the problem? How can I help? They said we’re practicing a thing we call requirements aging. We don’t work on anything for a month, to see if it’s still an issue a month from now. And as we’re having this chat. And as we’re having this chat, the president comes in and says guys stop what you’re doing, I’m thinking new stuff, god spoke to me in a dream! New requirements! And he went see what I mean?

So the following Monday we had our senior staff meeting and they say Steve you’ve been here a week, you got things under control? I said yes, I have found the problem and it is in this room. The reason we can’t ship is because you guys can’t shut the hell up! One sentence from you is a few months of work for us so we’re setting up a new rule, don’t ever talk to the product people ever again! If you have something come to me and I will say that’s a lovely idea! And I will probably ignore it but I might write it down but we will do something so damn crazy, we’re gonna prioritise based on business value not hippo. Which is not on the slide. I should have a hippo but I don’t.

So what I’ve encountered in my career, my first job out of college I was a programmer doing custom reporting – hey, that’s some fun! And my boss came to me and said you know you won’t work out here and I went holy moly! I will work harder! And he said no, that’s not it. You’re not really a big company guy. You should work for a small company and I want you to interview with a buddy of mine. Wasn’t that amazing? My boss helped me get another job and then I found out later he followed me 6 months later. So all right, well done.

But anyway, so my first job out of college I was a developer, then I moved into a sales engineering role which I think is super critical and understaffed in most organisations. And are you familiar with this role? Yeah? If you’re not, think of it this way, two people go on a sales call, one knows the product, the other one drives the car [laughing]. Ok, always making new friends! So after a while I went hey I can drive a car! So I moved into sales and I found out you know, there’s more to it – you also have to buy meals. And sometimes strippers but that’s a different story. And when I was in a sales role I started outselling all the other sales guys in my office in Virginia and my boss said I don’t know what you’re doing but can you teach the other guys what it is? So we had a Saturday lunch and learn, and I taught them, and I basically taught them more about the domain than the technology. And suddenly my office is outselling everybody so the VP say you’re a sales guy but can you go train the other offices? So I went to Chicago and Dallas to train them and I went to LA and trained them.

While I was there, the VP of marketing came in and said who are you? I’m just sales guy from Virginia training on the product. See, that’s the product manager’s job. I said really? Why isn’t he doing it? And the VP agreed so they fired the product manager and made me the product manager, whatever that is. And at the time I was living in Virginia, the development lab was in LA of all places and he said do you want to move to LA? I said no, I don’t use drugs… or tan well. I mean neither of those. So I actually invented scrum, I didn’t write a book. So what I would do is I would fly to LA once a month, I’d get on the morning flight at Dallas, I’d land at LAX and it was 10:30, I’d get to the office by noon and we’d start by doing a stand-up. And I spent a week briefing them on the customer conversations I’d had and the business issues I was facing, what we were doing in marketing and what changes were happening in the domain and they showed me what they were doing, they did demos and I answer their questions and we’d have a really good week. Then on the Thursday I would fly home on the red eye and just be a basket case on Friday because the red eye is bad for everybody. And I would do that once a month and the other three weeks I participated in the dysfunction of the other departments. So one of those weeks I was available for the sales team and one of those weeks for marketing and support and others and one week a month I set aside to do my job. Which was kind of cool. So I did that for a while and I started becoming a process wonk, I saw so much process that it was overwhelming. As soon as someone says 6 sigmas, I get a little itchy and yet, a lot of our organisations have no process and we need something in between those 2 things.

One company, I worked for $1 billion software company and they had so much process you couldn’t get anything done. Then I was recruited in the start-up and they had no process and I was so excited until a week later when I realised that without a process you get nothing done. We need something in the middle. And along the way I spent the last 20 years training and consulting in the area of product management but a lot of what I’ve learned is not really product management as such but organisational issues. A lot of the things we do in development and product management or have – I can’t remember who said this it was probably Druker – he said most of anything. Most of what we call management is preventing people from getting their work done. Does that sound familiar? Management is making difficult for other people to get their work done, I think that’s brilliant. But nevertheless I encounter a lot of organisations where they say we’re looking to hire a new product manager and what we’re looking for is a purple squirrel. They don’t say that, who has learned the term? A few people. I’m guessing it has something to do with Seth Goden originally with purple cow. But nonetheless I have a friend who is a recruiter and she says she is constantly getting requests for that. And here is what that is. Purple squirrels are candidates with the perfect combination of skills, education and experience who will work for peanuts [laughing]. One company is searching for a VP of marketing and the ideal candidate is the CEO of their competitor. How is that working for you?

Purple Squirrel Steve Johnson

I recently talked to a wonderful woman who is the VP of product at a company near where I live and she says all her product managers are required to have computer science masters degrees which disturbs me, and we’ll talk about that in a second.

So when you’re looking for skills, to hire somebody, what are we really looking for? And as I start listening to – I get a lot of – I don’t even know why, people call me and say we’re looking for somebody and other people call me and say I’m looking, can I send you my resume? And I’m like how did I become the broker in this story? So anyway I keep them and someone casually mentions, I think I’m a recruiter in that way, I ignore everyone I talk to except the most recent person. So you call and say do you know anybody? And the last email I got from someone they both said software on it. It’s a fit, there we go. So what are we looking for in a resume and the really bad part if you’re the one writing the resume, you go through all this trouble and HR looks at it this way. Let me drop this into my system and do a keyword search. I wish we could just do our resumes this way. This is actually my resume, I mean I took it and I popped it into wordle and got this and I just think – there I am, apparently I’m a product guy. I’ve done some other things.


One of the things I hear a lot as I said is we’re looking for a product manager, marketing or sales person who has to have deep technology knowledge. Do we? And I think one of the reasons we do and ask for a deep technology foundation is so that you can take on those evil developers. And trust me, you can’t win that. You can’t out-technical a developer, although we have encountered people in sales and marketing and product management asking for the impossible. When you don’t know what you’re talking about, nothing is impossible. But we’d like to ask for a lot of technology.


And nowadays we’re encountering more and more need for people who understand operations. This new emerging thing of dev-ops. My company in addition to the consulting work that I do, I have created a software tool for product managers called under 10 playbook. And for the first time in my career – first of all it’s weird to go back and be a product manager instead of talking about it. It was so much easier to talk about it, here are all the things you ought to do, I’m outta here! But doing it, I’m like you’re saying this requirement is not well written, Tom? I said it should be better. Oh wait, it shall be better! It needs to be well-written – [laughter]. I’m now having to think about operations issues, how much devs do we need and users are we gonna have at one time and what is our capacity and what happens when we? There’s a lot of operational elements now to product management and to development and I don’t know we really have an understanding of that outside the product department.


Then, there’s a lot of people who have business skill. And what’s interesting though, and I think David said it earlier today, developers are quite interested in the business. One of the lies we tell is that developers are factory workers. The lie that executives tell each other and sales people is that developers are just factory workers, we just wait for user stories to come by and we put it on the assembly line and on it goes. Like Lucy and Ethel and the chocolate machine. If you don’t know what that is, search for it on YouTube and you will laugh! Anyway, I was led to believe that developers don’t care about the business, they are just developers and I haven’t found that to be the case, have you? So in this job I was telling you about earlier, in the product management role, I sat down with my team and I said I wanna do well here, I’m excited about what we’re doing. How can I help? I don’t wanna be the development nanny – I wanna be a part of this team tell me what you need. Tell us what’s going on in the business. And I was so surprised after all the things I’ve heard from my boss and my sales friends and from others that developers really cared. There is an expertise that we expect in product management often about the business, but if you’ve adopted or read anything about safe, scaled Agile framework, one of the first things we do in a release train is to have someone brief us in on the business issues.


There’s another thing that we need to know and that’s about markets. And we talked earlier today about customer driven. When I talked to companies they say we got that covered, we got sales people in the market all the time. Do your sales people have expertise in markets or in individual customers? Peter Drucker said every role in the organisation must have only one orientation, they either support customers one at a time or they support markets full of customers. One of the things I see a lot of as I work with product development teams is sales people are barriers to the customer and we’re not allowed to talk to the customer without going with the sales guy. And I don’t know about you, I’ve never learned anything on a sales call, I’m too busy talking. God gave us two ears and one mouth hoping we would listen more and yet on a sales call we’re listening for clues on how to sell, we’re not listening to learn but to sell. And so a lot of the times companies say we have our market expertise in sales, my guess is you don’t and you need to build up that market skills in product management, marketing and engineering.


But the big bugaboo is we look at these perfect resumes, the purple squirrels we seek is someone who has decade of experience in our domain.

I saw one the other day that was fun, they were looking for somebody with 15 years’ experience in social media. I love that, and I qualified, I’ve been blogging since 1999 and we didn’t call it a blog then and I was doing it by hand, there was no WordPress. I looked early on at citydesk in fact but there is a handful of people who are qualified for this $35,000 a year job. So I got that going for me, so there’s that.

One of the companies I know about in Virginia, has a huge reliance on domain expertise and they hire almost exclusively in their product management role they hire teachers. They are in Ed tech and hire teachers – and at first that sounds like it makes sense but does it? What do teachers know about the business of school or buying technology or systems? I mean as far as I can tell my children’s teachers didn’t understand you could copy and paste across an app. Wait! You can take it off the web and put it in PowerPoint? OMG! [laughing]. My sister is a school teacher, our holidays are terrible as you can imagine. Just to make it worse, my daughter is a specialist in a form of schooling known as home school. And she often works with teachers and I guess the challenge is teachers hate home schoolers cause home schoolers are not taught by teachers. I mean teaching is a profession, right? I went to college and got a degree and joined a union and am qualified. Parents aren’t qualified to raise their children, right? So you can see how these conversations at holidays go [laughing].

Anyway, some of the lies that we tell ourselves when we are looking for people is we need deep domain experience and market knowledge and business knowledge and, and, and. And before you know it, we have this need to leverage all types of expertise but we don’t need it in a single person. As you – the next slide is not the one I thought it was gonna be so pretend I will do a good transition here. So I hear this, the big purple squirrel is the ideal candidate has extensive experience in our technology, markets, business and domain. Really? How many candidates does that give you? I mean you’re basically saying I want to hire the equivalent in my competitor. And awhile back it used to be that you could get a promotion internally and go one step but if you left the company and went to another you could go two steps and now it seems you go horizontally or even down a step. We want to hire you to come in and do what you’re already doing now but just for less money. And actually I council people is, you go down company size to get title and up company size to get money. You just do that.

But a lot of people define product management as this, technology intersecting with markets and business and then somebody says come on let’s purple squirrel this! What they also need extensive knowledge in our domain and experience with SAAS and we can add more circles to this but every time – you notice my diagram doesn’t work anymore. Suddenly we’re down to there’s one person qualified who has the job at that company and making more money than we can afford to pay. So the solution is not to find one superstar and this I find a lot in the world of product management, is we’re looking for the superstar candidate with decades of experience in all areas.

Some of the big lies we tell ourselves is that sales people don’t have to understand technology. They just have to drive the car and what happens is they have to take a sales engineer with them and if you have a staffed it adequately which you have not, you have to take a product manager with you. My favourite was one of my developers was so good on sales calls and liked it and the sales team would take him on sales calls and everyone was happy except me. So I would start putting out companywide notices that development is on hold while Dennis is off selling. Right? And the funny part was everyone was so mad at me – why are you not developing? Well we haven’t perfected the auto-coder yet – you just hit auto code and it types words with semicolons at the end, drags some stuff in from get hub.

The big lies we tell ourselves is that our marketing people need to know campaigns but they don’t need to know technology. One of the tools that I use in working with titles for instance is I don’t like the word manager but expert. If you look a lot of titles and change the title manager to expert it becomes very meaningful or nonsensical [laughing]. So some of your organisations have product managers, let’s play with that. If you change product manager to product expert what are you left with? An expert in product, well that makes sense. Some of the companies I work with we’re seeing product management as more of a business role rather than a technical role. Maybe it needs to be expert in business, a business manager. If you take product marketing manager and turn it into expert, you go well now they’re an expert in marketing products which means two things, they need to be an expert in marketing and also product. And here’s the problem. A lot of product marketing managers don’t know product, they know marketing.

My daughter broke up with a guy over this. She was dating this product marketing manager and she was saying you know the product where you scroll and click here – he was like I got nothing, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And she was like you know, in the new release and he was like I don’t use our product. And she said our product is designed for public school children. Can’t you use it? I mean a lot is going on there. Either the product is too difficult to use or this guy should die. Wait, some of that was in my head, sorry! [laughing]. How can you market a product when you don’t know the product? You say well hey, product manager, could you give me some words? I will fix the grammar. It’s not really product marketing, I find in a lot of cases we rely on – I’m getting ahead of myself. Finding a person who has all of this is difficult. You know what’s easy? Finding a team that has all of this.

Anyone who acquires deep expertise does it at the expense of breadth. And perhaps that’s the big challenge. Developers have deep expertise in one product – sales people often carry very many products so we can’t really expect them to go very deep on any of them, can we? Which is why this role of sales engineer is so important.

In terms of ratios for what it’s worth, the industry average for sales engineering is that 4 sales people share 1 sales engineer. Best practice is 2:1. Unless your product is complex which most of ours are, when it should be 1:1. And you have to ask yourself every time a sales guy goes on a call, do we get into technical issues? If so, they need a technical person with them. It was funny, I was a sales engineer and moved into sales I trained my replacement and we would go on sales calls – it was depressing – and the customer would ask us a question and I would promptly answer it and then he would turn to the sales engineer and say what’s the real answer? Apparently when I moved into sales, I got a brainectomy or something. But the belief is – and the reality is so often we encounter sales people who carry so many products in their bag they barely know anything about them. On the other hand I’ve worked with brilliant sales people and typically they know a lot about their products and domain.

I have a friend who is a sales guy in Virginia DC and he frequently gets inbound calls from generals at the Pentagon for his advice. And sometimes he can help them, sometimes he’s like dude I got a product but most of the time is here’s the products you need from that other vendor. He’s a trusted advisor. And I know a lot of our marketing teams or executive teams say our sales teams are trusted advisors but they have to be trustworthy and be able to advise. On the one hand our developers say our sales people should be able to implement my product and the sales guys say I support 300 products. What’s the name of our product? There’s a huge disconnect here.

Johnson’s rule of management

And I think this sums it up, this is my rule of management. Nothing seems difficult to people who don’t have to do it. Sales people say I know what this product needs, just add this feature, it’s just software! It’s just a button I mean how hard could it be? While we’re at it, sales people often say how come we can’t ship without d-scoping? And I say I don’t know how come you can’t sell without discounts? [laughing] Doesn’t look that hard to me. Almost anything snotty somebody says you can find a way to reverse it. Make a sales or development thing and vice versa it’s kind of funny.

And we saw David speak earlier today and he said recently; “we value people who are learning machines and are highly adaptable over people who only bring experience”. The stuff I learned as a programmer 20 years ago is irrelevant, but I’m able to learn and I think we do ourselves a disservice when we search for people who have proven experience in some arcane aspect of our business. Instead we should say who can we hire that has the ability and track record of learning? Let’s build teams that can learn and give them the various types of skills they need to be successful.

So one of the questions I get a lot when I work with executive teams is how big should my product management department be and my answer is how many people are hiding their head count in product management? It’s always funny to get other department heads define roles, right? What if the VP of development define the role of sales? Would that be weird? What if the VP of sales define the role of product manager? What would it be? VP of sales would say I want my product manager to go on all my sales calls. What’s interesting is what sales people really want from product management or support is domain knowledge about the underpinnings of our technology, right? The stuff that should be in eBooks and white papers, not about sales stuff, they can do that. They want to understand domain stuff. When I asked marketing what do you need from product management? Well it’s where I get my screenshots and copy – not copy, words that I turn into copy. If I asked development, what do you need from product management? I’m always surprised when they say I need to know about the market. I’m delighted in some of the conversations we’ve had these two days at the number of us who are saying we want developers having direct contact with customers. Otherwise you play the telephone game, if the sales guy talks to the sales engineer who talks to the senior and junior guy, before you know it who knows what that feature will look like. How big my product management department needsto be? It depends on how many products rely on product management for expertise in product, in domain, in market. I would argue that marketing people should know our technology and domain and you would think at least if they got the word market in their name, they should know the market. But sadly marketing organisations aren’t really marketing but promotions, they are campaign departments.

I like the idea of taking the word manager and turning it into expert. I’d like my marketing team to have market experts. People who are experts on the market. I don’t know anything about Brazil. I know they speak Portuguese, I don’t know if that’s different than the one in Portugal, but I’m not the person to do marketing in Brazil. We ought to have someone on staff if we’re gonna market down there, either here or there who is an expert in Brazil and the way business is done there.

I had a funny one recently, a VP of sales with the best of intentions decided to go into 12 new geographic markets this year, before the year is out. And I thought hmmm, good thing that doesn’t impact any other departments in the company. They caught me off-guard, they told me this and said what do you think? I think he should be fired and then I went oh shit! Did I say that out loud? How can you be so insular? Isn’t the product gonna be impacted by new geographic markets? Those Brits spell all their words wrong, right? He’s just not even gonna engage, good! So going to the – he’s Tweeting it now, ok [laughing]. Anyway, it’s one thing to take our product to the UK, it’s another to take it to France or Germany. I mean I know they read English but if you really want to play, shouldn’t you play in their language? Gee, does that impact the way we market our product or we just gonna hire a sales guy in Germany and say you’re on your own, dude! We will send you this US product, best of luck to you. Doesn’t seem like a very coherent strategy.

Patrick Lencioni The Advantage Steve Johnson Business of Software

Someone else quoted this book yesterday I loved it, the advantage by Patrick Lencioni. And my paraphrase of his book is; it really helps if we all work for the same company [laughing]. And I think a lot of times we don’t. The VP of development worked for a technology company and the VP of sales works for his own sales channel company and the VP of marketing has no idea of what’s going on and just says well I’m about the brand, and finance doesn’t think anyone should work here. We can outsource everybody, except me!


So there’s another kind of expertise which is in some ways – every company I’ve worked with is different, they all have some form of process and all of their processes are linear in a non-linear world. Development today is continuously iterating, the idea of a release is funny to me. Tom and I put out new software when it works, I mean why do we have to wait until 1.1.1 is launched? We make it available when it works and periodically we may have a launch and which is a marketing event not a development event but do we need formal releases and roadmaps as David was saying earlier today? As I look at peoples processes, what I find is – and I mean this in a loving way – anarchy.

I ask people how do you go from idea to market? And no two people in an organisation can tell me the same thing. They even argue about what’s in them so you guys have an MRD and a PRD? Really? Yeah, we have both. What goes in an MRD? And they start ticking stuff and argue about it. Oh wait is that in the MRD or the PRD? The PRD has this stuff and ticking off stuff and someone says it’s in the BRD. How many documents do you have? The answer is every time one of our executives reads a book, we get a new process and artefact. You can almost tell what books they’ve read based on the initials they used.

And it all came along so easily – I mean it was – we started with a cocktail napkin and we built it and started shipping it and growing and we hired some more people and the next time through we said we finished the product and launched it and the VP of sales says wait a minute without talking to anybody I promised a lot of functionality to this big customer. Where is it? And somebody says you know what? In my old company we used to do a PRD so we could write all the stuff down, the requirement for the product and everyone thinks it’s a great idea. So the next release come along we have a PRD. Here’s all the things we will do in the product and it comes out and the head of marketing says I see it in there but I don’t really see a theme exactly or understand what market you’re targeting and somebody says in my old company we had an MRD. A marketing requirements document – that seemed a good idea. The next time we write an MRD and PRD and we ship that and the VP of something else says I’m not happy and someone else says we need a BRD. Then we need an SRS and FSD. And every time we go through somebody advocates another artefact and they don’t mean to be evil, but it soon becomes products get released through the individual heroics of the product team despite the company’s best efforts to prevent it.

I used to refer to my QA group as the release prevention department. But the reason was we had a bad developer, he was an evil seed and the president thought he was a great guy but just not in the right role so let’s make him the head of QA [laughing]. And now QA is run by Satan! So the team and I came together on a weekend and we did a full systems test, we tested everything and we released it and Satan went crazy! And he went to the president and complained and the president came to me to complain. He said I can’t believe you launched a product without QA. I said we did QA, we just didn’t involve QA. They are the release prevention department.

Sales people will say the – a lot of us are the revenue prevention department. We’ve got all these rules. I think you find there’s two kinds of sales people and what I find surprising is the number of people I hear say we don’t have sales people but order tankers. And if you’ve built your product right, that’s exactly what you need. Instead we have to hire elephant hunters to make a lot of promises that the product may or may not keep cause we haven’t finished the product.

Playbook Canvas

I was going on a rant there that ended up in a different place. We need different skills at various steps of the life cycle and the cycle needs to be thought of as a continuous circle. There is no end, software is never done it’s only abandoned. We’re tired of working, let’s release this and we’ll start working on something else. And I’ve colourised these to represent the different phases – this is the define and deliver phase but what I’ve created is a planning canvas or playbook canvas and each of those steps requires a different set of artefacts and expertise. Here I’m showing the green boxes require more of a business expertise like defining what business are we actually in, what product we’re going to build. Turning that cocktail napkin into something that I can take to a leadership team or investor and say here are my 10 slides that say I want a lot of money from you. And I think – the evaluate phase says what is the opportunity score for this? Because if someone mentions today, there’s always more that can be done and when we look at our resources and opportunities we say couldn’t we do all 10 or 20 of these? The answer is no, the example of the sales guy who wants to open 12 new geographic markets. I said knowing your company like I do, you’ve got bandwidth to do maybe 3 and honestly I would have said 2 and if pressed I would have said 1. What of these 12, which one is the most important? Let’s do 100% of that instead of doing 10% of ten. And we looked at it from an evaluation stand point. Which one of these has the best business value to us? I have some very simple methods that I used along the way in each of these steps and I won’t get into it, but if you’d like a copy of this, feel free to reach out to me.

“When I do my job right, there’s no sign of it; disasters just fail to occur” – Herman Wouk

Here’s the bottom line for product management, when I do my job right, there’s no sign of it. Disasters just fail to occur. A team I worked with recently laid off all the product managers and 3 months later they went; oh is that what they do? And then they had the audacity to call the product managers and say can you come back? And they are like dude, you think I’ve been unemployed for 3 months? I was working in weeks. And why would I come back to a company that dissed on me so bad? So for me, many of you are business owners or leaders, sometimes we’re looking for superman and if you’ve seen the new superman movie you would agree it’s terrible. So you don’t wanna be looking for a superman. What you want to look is people who can learn, because today’s technology is so different than 5 years ago. Social media today is so much different when I was hand rolling a blog using front page. Oh yeah! We’re looking for somebody who can learn and get stuff done.

So as we reflect on the hiring decisions we need to make, let’s not be looking for these purple squirrels, instead we want expertise in all teams. The thing I told you about at the beginning, me going to LA and sit down with the dev team, they didn’t want me to talk technical with them, they could blow me away technically. They needed me to understand the technology well enough to use my judgment. Steve, we could do it this or this way. And I think a lot of people without some technology background don’t understand the question, and yet choose to answer it. Right? It’s always funny when somebody without a technology background is involved with playing poker because our answer is always this. 3,2,1, how big you think this story is? Completely rewrite the story from the ground up? Integrate with Facebook? Add a widget? Product teams don’t need product managers who are technologists – what they are wanting from product management is domain and market knowledge, recent, learned.

I neglected to mention on my little diagram the cornerstone of it which is listening. So often we hear people say marketers, you ought to be out there talking to customers. No, that’s what sales people do, they talk all the time. We need product managers and engineers listening – I know it’s crazy – listening to customers, because you don’t learn much when your mouth is open. Don’t look for purple squirrels, let’s teach!

In fact, one more quick one. I did this presentation for my development team on our vision and the word got out and the VP of sales came over and says so we got a vision? I think he said vision presentation. Anyway, he asked me if I would go present that and before I knew it, I was presenting this vision presentation to every department in the company and I was shocked that their leadership hadn’t already done so. But I wasn’t surprised that everybody was interested. I mean we’ve made a life choice here, I think all of you like going to work. It’s so weird to me when I hear people – here’s another one real quick. When my kids were little around this time of year, like last month maybe, older people would come up to my kids when they were little and say; aren’t you sorry summer is almost over? Time to go back to school? That sucks! No, kids love school until teachers ruin it! Kids love school! That’s where their friends are, and some of the stuff they’re learning is interesting. And any of you who have children who are into sports know they love math until they take it and then the teacher ruins math for us unfortunately. Ok, I’m picking on my sister, but anyway.

Developers want to know about the business in the market, sales people need to understand the domain and the more we can teach them, the more they can pick up stuff about the domain, the more they can rely on their own selves. In many organisations we say I want I shaped people. They know only one thing and can go really deep – we probably need more like pi shaped, I mean this one – that pi not pie shaped. But people who have some skills across the board but can go deep in a couple of areas. If we have expertise in all teams, then disasters will fail to occur. I think we often look for purple squirrels and we really shouldn’t be.

I’ve been working with teams on implementing methodology and it’s so funny! People’s hearts are absolutely in the right place, but invariably they introduce way too much complexity. They often introduce steps in a process that are wonderfully theoretical. Step 1 everyone in the company comes together to decide what we’re gonna do. That’s not gonna work. What we want is the skinniest amount of process and the teams that have to make decisions should have 5 kinds of expertise. Not each individual, but collectively they understand our domain, markets and technology and the business that we’re in, making business decisions and the 5th one I can’t think of right now. Operations!

When I started my company, I was looking for a clever name and there’s two approaches to naming. One is you come up with something nonsensical because then you can get the URL – the other approach is to come up with something meaningful; which means you have a super long name and then you refer to yourself as an acronym. But I started thinking about things I would say to people all the time. After my training people would come up and say I thought I was busy before and now you’ve given me all these things to do. What do I do? And the answer is pick under 10. Pick only a few things to focus on, how do you eat the elephant? One bite at a time. Pick one thing you will work on, deal in the dysfunction in the others but pick one thing you will perfect each month and over time we get better and better at doing this. Don’t let process replace conversations. We need some process, something more than a cocktail napkin but a lot less than some of the nonsense that I run into in many organisations.

So I am either on schedule or something, I don’t know. Don’t look for purple squirrels and you will find so many more better candidates! [clapping].

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Audience Question: Steve, you’re right! Sales people do talk to customers too much, they don’t listen but I think one thing that’s missing is the understanding of what often is unsaid. But tell me, what is your suggestion? You get a bunch of people that need to learn stuff and get stuff done, how do you get them to learn the right stuff and get the right stuff done in the timeframe? You can ignore that question if you want.

Steve Johnson: Sales people are great and they are constantly encountering our customers. The real challenge is whether they’re hearing enough to see the pattern. A customer request is not necessarily a market request, right? Support people talk to customers a lot too and get a lot of insight, we need someone to filter that down, but the amazing thing to me is that product managers or product marketing people are being asked to be expert on the market and often not being allowed to visit the market. There’s nothing better than first-hand experience with the market, even if it’s only one non-sales call a month, go visit somebody without a sales or support objective. You will learn so much more than you would have ever picked up from a research study or survey. One way I like to think of learning, first-hand experience in understanding markets is a lot like sex. You can read about it all you want, but experiencing it is something very different [laughing]. So we will have to edit that out later on. Questions?

Audience Question: So these particular individuals that aren’t necessarily customer facing – how do you have those particular individuals come up with the idea to talk to the clients as opposed to needing to have the suggestion made to them?

Steve Johnson: Spending time with customers is a lot like having sex [laughing]. You know, interesting question. How do you get teams to want this first-hand experience? And I think we’ve trained them out of it. You know? It’s like creativity in schools, right? Kids are creative until they go to school and then every year after they are less creative. We say to development go into your hole! Do that, and put on headphones! Don’t talk to customers! I mean you’ve all seen office space right? We can’t let developers talk to customers, they don’t have people skills, I have people skills. The one trick I will say though if you’re taking developers on customer calls, be sure to take them to two, otherwise that one customer will become the universe. I’ve had a lot of luck working with personas to say here’s a biography of the kind of person we’re programming to. In the absence of personas the developers are lovely people and will program to themselves and their parents and if that’s your target that’s great but otherwise we need to get them to understand the needs of our markets which we do through personas and first-hand experiences. You will find that once they have some they will want some more.

Thank you all! Have a great conference! [clapping]

Mark Littlewood: Thank you, Steve!

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Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson is a story-telling, product management expert, author and advisor. His approach is based on the belief that minimal process and simple templates result in a nimble product marketing and management team.

Steve has been working within the high-technology arena since 1981 with experience in technical, sales, and marketing management positions at companies specialising in enterprise and desktop hardware and software. Before founding Under 10 Consulting, Steve was a Pragmatic Marketing instructor for over 15 years and personally trained thousands of product managers and hundreds of company senior executive teams. In his various technical marketing roles, he has launched dozens of product offerings. Steve draws heavily on his marketing and sales experience in both direct and multi-tier distribution, while his quick wit adds an element of fun to his workshops and speeches.

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