Exec Spin: Product Management with Conversant's Joel Pulliam
Friday, December 20, 2019
Posted by: Abbey Kwiat
Joel Pulliam, Senior VP Product Manager, Conversant
Lindsey Perez, VP of Operations, ITA
Lindsey Perez here, reporting from the ITA Headquarters. I recently joined the stellar ITA team as VP of Operations and I couldn’t be more thrilled for the opportunity to continue moving our local tech community forward.
Having been fortunate enough to work alongside some talented product people in my nearly 15 years in the software industry, I can attest to the importance of the product management function in growing and scaling a business. Much like my area of expertise, customer success, product management is still evolving as a practice and we get a lot of questions from members on how to get it right. In the spirit of the season for sharing, we sat down with Joel Pulliam, Senior VP Product Manager at Conversant, for a Q&A around Product Management. Joel, thank you for your time and for sharing your experience.
To our readers, we hope you’ll pick up some great insights and we look forward to continuing this conversation and more in 2020. Happy Holidays!
Lindsey: What do most companies need to get right when it comes to product management?
Joel: Companies must do their homework. When you're designing a product, you have to start by identifying the end-user and the business problem you're trying to solve. If you skip that step, you’re inevitably going to arrive at the wrong destination.
Earlier in my career, I worked for a company that built a product that allowed publishers to syndicate their content around the web. We took that data and packaged it for advertisers so they could reach audiences, not just websites. One of the existential questions we had was: who's our customer? Do we prioritize the publisher or the advertiser? We had some important conversations about who was the most important customer and the business problem we were trying to solve. You have to get that right. It’s a constant process because when you want to enter a new or adjacent space, you can’t assume that the end-user and business problem are the same.
Lindsey: Does product management need to be a function inside the tech team or is it separate?
Joel: Product management needs to be a separate discipline from technology and engineering. It’s at the nexus of a lot of different functions—technology, engineering, sales, marketing, customer support, and operations—so it can’t be subservient to technology. I’ve seen too many tech companies build a product and then try to find a market for it. It’s a problem most of us in product management have lived through and an approach that doesn’t work. Product companies, on the other hand, tend to focus on the end-user and problem first and then build a product that solves the problem. Steve Jobs did a great job of this at Apple. Not only that, he focused on making sure Apple’s products were differentiated in every way—hardware, software, and content.
Lindsey: Do companies need to have product marketing managers who are separate from their technical product managers? Or should that be one role?
Joel: It's important to separate the roles, but they need to be in constant communication with each other. Product marketing managers tend to be at the front end of the process, looking at the competitive landscape and providing input into hero features to differentiate the offering from the rest of the market. The technical product manager can go build a product and then the product marketing manager comes in when you want to release it. If you think of the process that way, it can actually work really well, because when you work on the front end as a product marketing manager, you understand why you're building something. Then, when it comes to releasing it, you're already well ahead of the curve. You’ve thought about how you position the product in the marketplace such as who’s it for and what problem does it solve? So, I think they are two critical roles that should be separate. It’s easier said than done; it’s hard to find someone who can do both.
Lindsey: What tips would you give to organizations looking to build, or restructure, a product management team?
Joel: First, it's critical to hire great people who can do their job and more. This is especially true if your company is poised for growth. Product management is one of the most leveraged roles in a company, so hiring a great product manager can have an outsized impact on the organization. However, hiring a poor product manager can be devastating.
I also advise leadership to look at the ratio of product managers to engineers. The sweet spot is one product manager for every five engineers if you’re focused on innovation. You’ll need more product managers who can think about customer problems, expressing requirements and working with engineers. If your organization is in “maintenance mode,” meaning your priority isn’t innovation but responding to customer requests, your ratio might be closer to one product manager per 10 engineers.
Finally, you need smart people who are great at communicating. I know everyone says they look to hire smart people, but it's a must in product management. You need people who can come in and be a quick study. They’ll need to understand the competition and current product marketplace to quickly develop a point of view regarding where your organization needs to go. I always look for people who are have demonstrated that ability. It’s not enough just to be smart. They must have great communication skills and the ability to speak to stakeholders in marketing sales, operations, engineering and more. What’s more, they must be able to tailor their communications based on who's across the table from them. A product manager is going to talk to an engineer very differently than a salesperson, but they’re still able to take all the varying input and provide meaningful next steps. Simply put, they need to be action-oriented.