Keith Cowing

Keith Cowing

Product guy. Entrepreneur.
Career advisor. Read bio

August 29, 2017

juggling

People frequently ask what it takes to become a successful product manager. I tell them all the same thing. To start with, you need a basic level of skill across a wide range of topics.

  • Engineering
  • Design
  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Data and analytics
  • Strategy and prioritization
  • Communications and leadership

Then, to become world-class you need to build superstar skills in one or two areas. These one or two areas will be highly dependent on your personal interests, your natural-born skills, and your experience.

As you invest in your superstar skills, it becomes increasingly important to find a product, a market, and a company where flexing those specific muscles pays outsized dividends. Each company is politically driven by a different function and it’s important to keep that in mind. At Apple, for example, design and marketing run the show. At Facebook and Google, engineering drives everything. At Salesforce, it’s all about talking to customers. As you grow in seniority, it becomes more and more critical to be the right PM for the job. The top PM at Instagram might completely fail at Amazon Web Services and vice versa.

So build the base skills then carefully select areas where you want to develop your personal edge. For more on this topic check out A product manager’s list of things to read, watch, and listen to.

 

February 16, 2017

chalkboard-career

Building a happy and successful career takes time and energy. Try focusing on these four words to guide you in the right direction.

Honest

First, be honest with yourself. It’s amazing how easy it is to lie to ourselves. When you’re excited or upset, think carefully about your motivations, your loves, your fears, and your biases. We all have them. The more you understand them, the more effective you will be.

Second, be proactively transparent. Being honest is more than telling the truth when somebody directly asks you. If you go out of your way to educate people about what’s going well, what’s not, and what is at risk, you can proactively avoid a lot of problems.

Third, be open about your concerns and provide constructive criticism. Look at people who are extremely successful and you will frequently find this behavior. They give honest feedback, but do it in a constructive way so people can improve. If the train is about to go off the rails, you want somebody on your team who will raise their hand and tell you. Be that person, it pays off.

Kind

Kindness matters. The trick here is to carefully weave it with honesty. It’s easy to be honest and abrasive. It’s also easy to be kind and avoid criticism. It’s extraordinarily difficult to be kind and constructive at the same time. But if you can perfect this art, it will pay dividends throughout your career. If people know they can come to you for the brutal truth, but get it in a way that doesn’t attack them – you will become a trusted adviser.

The flip side is that you have to let go of the idea that you will make everybody happy. It is not possible. It is possible, however, to be honest and have the best intentions. If you are open, honest, and constructive then you can sleep well at night and accept the consequences. You will always miss something. You will always make somebody upset. That’s OK. It really is. It has to be or you will never make meaningful progress in this world. But have the best intentions.

Disciplined

The devil is in the details. Get your shit done. Send out status updates. Read the document before the meeting. Go the extra mile to close a deal. In the short-term, 9 out of 10 actions will go unnoticed. But people catch on and you will earn a reputation for being gritty and reliable. In the long-term, your results will speak for themselves. Success is 99% perspiration. Strategy doesn’t separate companies and careers. Execution does.

Clutch

There is something magical about having somebody you can count on in the most critical situations. Pick your favorite sports analogy, whether it’s Tom Brady, Derek Jeter, Simone Biles, or somebody else. If you aspire to 10x your market value, you should aspire to be disciplined, prepared, and reliable. Poise under pressure is a result of consistent grit over an extended period of time. When you become the clutch player, you become a true leader.

November 2, 2016

phone screen materials

The interview process frequently starts with a phone screen. Follow these tips to make sure you’re ready.

Prep your physical space

If you might invest years of your life at this job, take the extra 15 minutes to make sure you’re ready for the interview. Plan exactly where you are going to take the call. That means privacy, little background noise, and either a landline or good cell phone reception. Also, have your resume handy along with a pen or laptop to take notes.

Rehearse your intro

Research shows that most interviewers make their decision within the first five minutes of an interview. This means you need to rehearse your opening. Again. And again. And again. Trust me. It’s work, but it is critical. The phone screen is similar to your resume, think of it like a movie trailer. Your goal is not to tell your whole story on the phone, but to entice them so they want to bring you on-site to see the rest. I recommend describing yourself in two to three unique sentences. Then use the rest of your conversation to prove those sentences true. Also be clear about what you’re skilled at, what you’re excited about, and how this role fits into your career goals.

Review your resume and ask yourself questions

Pretend you are the interviewer. Now read your resume and for every project and every bullet, see what questions come to mind:

  • What happened after you launched Project X?
  • What made this project a success?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • What does this mean?
  • What role did you play on that team?

For each story, decide how strong your answer is and how relevant it is to your two to three sentences. If it’s a strong project, rehearse your response and discuss it proactively during interviews. If your answer is weak or not relevant, consider deleting the bullet.

Research your interviewer

Knowing your audience gives you a leg up. So ask politely when you’re scheduling the interview if you can have the name and role of the person interviewing you. If they decline, leave it there. But asking once is fine. If they give it you, use your research skills across the web to learn everything you can. You might pick up tidbits about what they look for, what they’ve done, what they’re working on, what hobbies they have, or where they went to school. You will not change any fundamentals, but you can tune your answers and conversation points so that you’re more likely to connect with the person.

Write down questions for them

The interview process is as much for you as it is for them. Picture yourself in this role. Would you be happy? Would you be successful? What factors about the company or the role would change the answers to those two questions? Turn those thoughts into detailed questions for the interviewer and write them down. It’s your life and your career, make sure you know what you’re getting into.