Could knowing user research be your product management superpower? We asked Slack’s very first product manager, Kenneth Berger, to have a chat with our Slack Community about what it’s like transitioning from user research to product. He also gave some awesome tips for aspiring product managers.
Kenneth was Slack‘s first product manager. He’s been in tech product management for 10+ years, currently working as an executive coach. He is the co-founder of YesGraph and was PM & M&A lead at Adobe for a long time. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Human-Computer Interaction, Computer Science, and Cognitive Science and a Master’s in Human-Computer Interaction.
Can you tell us more about your background and how you got into product?
I got into product management from user research. I was working with the Dreamweaver team back in 2006 at Macromedia. The PM left, and the team was left with two options: recruit an experienced PM from elsewhere, or give me a shot at my first PM role. They already knew me, knew I knew the customers and products inside out, so they gave me a shot. It taught me from the beginning that Product Management is all about earning your team’s trust.
Can you talk about how you got the opportunity to become the first PM of Slack?
I had a friend who had talked to Slack about the role but didn’t end up being interested. Stewart the CEO had had bad experiences working with PM’s at Yahoo and was understandably nervous about hiring the right person. I got introduced through that friend (and another who was already working at Slack) and I was on my way.
How do you feel about roles with the mix of PM/UX, and what do you think is a good balance between the two?
I’m biased since I come from the UX world, but I love the overlap between PM and UX! To me, many of the skills are the same, the most important difference is the attitude. PM’s are ultimately responsible for the success of the product, so their loyalty is ultimately to the business.
UX is responsible for the user experience, so their loyalty is ultimately to the user. Often you can satisfy both of course, but I think it’s useful to have that tension – UX pulling for the user, PM pulling for the business.
What do you wish you knew/did/learned as Slack scaled from going from just one PM to a large scale organization?
I wish we’d talked about our feelings more! Being at a high growth startup is incredibly stressful, and while we talked all day long about the right thing to do for the users, the product, and the business, we didn’t talk that much about the impacts on each individual of all that stress.
That in part is why I moved into executive coaching: people deserve to have their own personal needs addressed too.
Product Manager/Product Owner/Technical Product Manager/Product Designer – are there more titles that we need to describe a PM?
Honestly, I think job descriptions and good communication between roles are more important than titles. Even just within each organization, the PM role can be very different. So it’s part of our responsibility as PM’s to figure out what the right scope for our role is and communicate it clearly to the rest of the organization, so they know.
As an early career PM, do you think it makes sense to look for product roles at companies with a well-established product team or to be an early PM at a startup?
I think they can both be valuable. The important thing to realize is that you’ll learn different things: at a big company you’ll probably learn more about creating consensus and influence given all the people involved, but you might learn less about other functions since there are so many people to help.
At an early stage startup, you might learn a lot about finding product market fit or driving growth, but not as much about product line optimization or effective communication. There’s a lot to learn in the PM world! You should also consider your own needs: do you prefer learning on your own? Or do you want more formal mentorship and training?
What makes a PM stand out in interviews and what are some obvious and not-so-obvious red flags?
Red flags are not respecting other teams or blaming them for failures. Part of the attitude of an effective PM is that EVERYTHING is their responsibility. Even if it might seem to be out of their hands. In PM interviews I tend to focus less on are they “good” or “bad” PM’s (except for a few red flags), and more on what KIND of PM are they. There are so many skills to learn no one is good at all of them.
So what are these individual Product Manager’s strengths, and do they match our culture and what we need right now as a team? Some teams love technical PM’s and don’t mind if they don’t have much design sense, but some are the opposite. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer, it’s just a matter of fit.
What are the misconceptions of a PM?
I think the worst misconception is that the PM is the CEO of the product. Many people seem to think this means they’re in charge when nothing could be further from the truth. The real CEO is in charge! Your manager is in charge! The PM is a facilitator, a helper. The truth of the PM job is responsibility without authority. Which makes it a tough job, but a fulfilling one too for the right person.
Is an MBA or some kind of management education a must for PM role?
An MBA’s definitely not necessary, PM’s come from all kinds of backgrounds. As I alluded to in my last answer, it’s more about figuring out what kind of PM you want to be, finding the team that needs that, and building enough trust for them to take a bet on you.
How long did it take Slack to attract a significant number of users? What did you find most beneficial for user growth?
At Slack, we were very lucky because we had strong viral growth even during our beta period from friends and family. We had 15k DAU after only a few months, and it scaled quickly from there.
But that’s not so much a growth mechanism as strong evidence of product market fit. Once we knew we had that, we started experimenting with plenty of different growth channels. I wrote a Medium piece about how valuable PR was for us, for example.
How was your role as a Product Manager in Slack different as compared to others in this space?
One of my biggest surprises at Slack was walking in my first week, asking for a login to the analytics dashboard, and finding out that they’d turned it off to save money! Coming from a very growth-oriented product management approach at my previous startup this seemed crazy.
But Slack was ultimately much more focused on qualitative customer happiness than on quantitative measurement of every little thing. As long as our revenue, active users, and NPS were still moving up, there was less pressure to measure every little release quantitatively. That’s quite different than the trend these days, and certainly not right for every company, but it was a refreshing change at Slack.
I’m trying to make a career shift from front-end development to PM, but I’m having a hard time getting any traction. Any suggestions?
One of the most common ways people enter product management is by changing roles within their company – that’s how I got started too! So the first thing to try would be gaining the trust of your team. Once they have a sense you could do the job, there’s a better chance they might take a bet on you.
If that doesn’t work, you can also simply start doing as much PM type work as you can. Even if you can’t make the transition as your current company, that’s valuable experience that might help you get your first PM job elsewhere.
How did your training as an executive coach help you as a PM?
Training as an executive coach has definitely given me a different perspective to what “job fit” means. Many people work very hard to fit into a particular definition of PM at their company, even if it doesn’t fit their skills, interests, or personality. They often even try to hide their personality because a previous boss gave them negative feedback on it.
But there are many ways to be successful. Just because one boss didn’t like it doesn’t mean you have to change who you are. You might need to change jobs, sure, but I encourage my clients to embrace who they are, and lean in to their uniqueness, instead of trying to be someone else’s definition of a PM.
What advice would you offer to aspiring product managers?
Find your superpower! Even if you’re right out of school, there’s probably already something you’re great at that can help bolster your value as a PM and give you your first foothold. Beyond that, all I can say is work hard and seek out coaching and mentorship wherever you can. It’s a long road to becoming a great PM but it’s very rewarding too.
The concept of Slack wasn’t new. What helped Slack grow so quickly?
I don’t think there’s any one thing. Part of it was timing: the rise of messaging apps on the consumer side meant the business side was primed to adopt them as well. We had excellent early customers many of whom were influencers in their companies and the industry.
We told great stories in the press that got people’s attention early. And we focused on creating a joyful product that went above and beyond for people, even while it was also missing plenty of things. I wrote a series of Medium articles about many of these topics.
First, congrats on having a small fan base of happy users! That’s an important first step. I wouldn’t think of the spending as a ratio, but as a set of experiments. It sounds like you think you might have product-market fit but you’re not sure.
So, try spending a little bit of money on a variety of growth channels. If the ROI is high on one or more of the channels, maybe you’re already at product-market fit, pump more money in to keep the engine turning! But often at this stage the growth efforts don’t yield much, at which point it’s probably good to look more deeply at understanding what your existing users value so highly and how you can extend that value to more people.