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Lessons learned from a product manager’s experiences at Google and YouTube
Most of us have become product managers and then moved on (or will move on) to product leadership based on our experiences and knowledge. We encounter tools along the way—some that are helpful and some that are not. I want to explore experiences that help you be a better product professional.
Joining us is a Tom Leung, Director of Product Management at Google Health and previously at YouTube. He also hosts the Fireside Product Management podcast.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[1:59] What was your path to product management?
I started my career in management consulting because I wanted to be a business leader. Later I founded a startup and then worked in business development at Microsoft. I realized I was most excited about the solution and customer experience. I switched to product management and never left. In product management, you can connect the dots and be as close as you can to running things. It gives you control, accountability, and a wide breadth of problems to solve. The PM role gives you the opportunity to have influence in all areas of the company and a lot of flexibility. You can stay in the role for a long time and still have diverse experiences.
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[8:10] What experience provided growth for you early in your career?
The failures are punctuated in my memory. The startup I founded in 1999 with my brother was a good example. I was enrolled at Harvard Business School and I thought I was hot stuff. I learned the hard way how hard businesses are to create. One of the many reasons we failed is our product didn’t really solve a big enough problem for customers, and we weren’t solving it sufficiently well. Many of us constantly relearn that lesson. We get distracted by technology, business opportunity, or the desire to focus entirely on internal execution, and we forget that to stand out we need to solve a big problem for customers in a way that is 10 times better than current solutions.
[11:35] Can you tell us more about the problem you were trying to solve and what mistakes you made?
The idea was to provide a free video streaming service and fund it with video ads inserted in the middle of the videos. The problem we were trying to solve was to provide consumers with a wider range of content choices beyond movie theaters, DVDs, or cable TV. Ironically, I later worked at YouTube, so I think this was a very real problem, but the way we solved it was very transactional. We licensed video content from film makers and rolled it into a single portal. It was decent, but we had poor bandwidth and the content was not great. Some users sent us content they wanted us to put up, but we said no because we thought it was user-generated trash and advertisers wouldn’t want to spend money showing ads next to content that wasn’t professionally developed. In hindsight, they were giving us free content we could just benefit from.
[14:38] What is a more recent experience that helped you become a product leader?
I spent four years at YouTube rebuilding the creator platform. I was a high performer but not one of the top three or four product managers. I wondered what I could learn from that, so I reached out to my peers, manager, and skip level and asked for feedback. People will give great feedback if you ask for it. My skip level was so glad I was asking because many people don’t ask for feedback. It’s great to have these conversations even when you’re no longer in the reporting chain, because your managers can be as unvarnished as possible. The theme I heard from the people I talked with was that people loved working with me, but I could have done a better job forcing them to have harder conversations and make harder choices earlier. I was very agreeable and tried to get everyone together, but when a hard call was made, I could have made it in a third of the time. That’s one of the things that separates amazing product directors from strongly exceeding ones.
[18:19] How did you implement this feedback?
It’s hard to make hard calls because even if you are personally ready often decisions are consensus-driven and cross-functional, and some hard decisions have an impact on different people. The trick is to make sure you’re not the victim of your own blind spots. Bring people along to make the call. Help the organization officially make it together and stick to it. Do it in a way that minimizes disruption. Someone will be impacted in a negative way, and that’s delicate. You can’t just go kick the door and say a project should be killed. On the other hand, you don’t want to be in a situation where two years later the project gets deprecated and everybody knows it should have been deprecated before. There’s always tensions between those two extremes.
[21:17] What are the characteristics of product managers who excel?
- Ability to build trust across the team in your judgement, motivation, and ability to execute.
- Ability to clearly communicate and distill complex things into bite-sized approaches to solving a problem.
- The mini CEO mentality—you have to write the roadmap but you’re also the one turning over rocks, constantly trying to do everything you can to make the product successful.
- Curiosity—great PMs are always interested in learning, asking why, and digging as deep as they can.
Action Guide: Put the information Tom shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Connect with Tom on LinkedIn
- Check out Tom’s Fireside Product Management Podcast
- Learn about Tom’s career coaching
- Check out the Google Careers site
“In the poker game of life, you can’t control the cards you are dealt, but you can control how you play them.” – Unknown
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.