10 Questions: Suzanne Abate

10 Questions: Suzanne Abate

One of the benefits of teaching with General Assembly has been to build my network of talented, knowledgeable, and experienced Product Managers, not just in the Seattle area, but around the country and the world.  One of my more recent connections was with Suzanne Abate, an LA-based product management coach who caught my eye with her latest project, 100 Product Managers — wherein she’s collecting the stories, advice, and experience of 100 product managers of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.  Here’s what she says about herself:

Suzanne Abate is a seasoned product coach who has developed hundreds of digital products for clients like Jaguar Land Rover, Best Buy, and Warner Brothers, and helped dozens of startups go from idea to execution. She is the Co-Founder of The Development Factory, an LA-based product consultancy, and Chief Product Officer of 100 Product Managers, a free online resource and weekly podcast for new and aspiring product managers.  Suzanne has been teaching part-time with General Assembly since 2015, bringing product management training and classroom fun to new students and enterprise teams alike.

And, without further ado…Suzanne’s responses to my 10 questions!

What does “Product Management” mean to you?

To understand “What is Product Management?” you first have to be in agreement that product is business, and good business is an orchestra.

Through this frame we see that every specialist is playing her part. Designers and engineers, they’re builders. They solve problems creatively. They bring products to life. Marketers are magnetic, they draw people in. They help products find a home. Executives ensure there’s money to fund the operation and inspiration enough to see it through.

Every day, all these departments, all these individuals, are contributing meaningfully.

Product Management is simply the term for all these efforts as a whole.

What Product Managers do is steer the vision and oversee the execution. We keep the activities in alignment.

How did you wind up becoming a Product Manager?

A little over ten years ago another business venture led to me to meet my longtime friend and business partner. He’s an engineer and I was operationally efficient and we thought those two skill sets would make for a modest web development business. I started out mostly managing our projects and quickly discovered I knew absolutely nothing about how to deliver software. I had to learn to love it or leave it and I was very much leaning toward the latter. For some reason I decided to stay and from that moment on I committed to learning as much as I could across business, technology and design.

Our web development shop evolved into a full-service product consultancy. Over the years we’ve launched hundreds of client products and put four of our own into market, the latest being 100 Product Managers.

Today I coach and consult about half a dozen product companies a year – mostly startups – as well as teach product management to individuals and teams.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to be a Product Manager?

Get clear about the type of environment that motivates you. Not all Product Management jobs are equal. If you’re joining an established company with a mature product, chances are your days will be structured and stable. By contrast, starting up is the wild west. There’s usually few rules, even fewer established processes and lots of opportunity to take up if you want it. But the ride is bumpier and most new ventures fail. What temperature is your risk thermostat set to?

What is the most commonly overlooked ability that separates the “1%” Product Manager from the rest?

I prefer to talk about what unites the 99%. We’re all secretly terrified that we have no idea what we’re doing. A lot of the time we don’t.

To succeed, I believe in embracing a mindset of “maybe” over a mindset of “I know.” Curiosity leads to experimentation which leads to learning. There is no failure if we learn, and the faster we learn, the less costly the misstep.

What’s the best advice you’ve personally received or read that positively affected your approach to Product Management?

It’s much harder to simplify things than it is to complicate them.

What’s the most interesting thing that you have learned through your efforts on the “100 Product Managers” project?

The more practiced we become as product managers, the more likely we are to make mistakes by skipping ahead. 100 Product Managers has been a constant exercise in remembering to focus on the right thing for right now.

What role does diversity play in the job of a Product Manager?

If you’re asking about the importance of building a diverse and inclusive team, I would say it’s essential. If you need evidence, look to the one-dimensional products that homogenous Hollywood releases every year.

Great products account for the different needs and wants of different users. Empathy helps, but having balanced teams creates a richer pool of perspective to draw from.

What advice would you give to other CEOs who might be considering expanding their companies to include a Product Management team for the first time?

You have to understand what a Product Manager will and won’t be responsible for at your organization. Much of that will be informed by what other resources you already have in place. Get clear about where the gaps are and then hire the right person with the right blend of skills to fill them. There’s no universal PM job description.  

What do you think is the most critical thing missing from the overall product management community?

  • Women.
  • POC.
  • Trans people.
  • Collaboration.
  • Mentorship.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet and participate in many emerging PM communities across the country. A lot of people I talk to are trying to get that first break or take that next career step. Or see a place for themselves in the tech scene – which is currently not a beacon of representation.

Much of the mission at 100 PM is to be a resource and a guide to folks at those stages of the journey. I call it compassionate coaching and I think there’s more need for that kind of support from established leaders in the space. And there are a lot of people who do want to give back but haven’t found the right vehicle – so it’s a matter of making more and stronger connections.

How do you feel about the focus on “technical” skills being so important to companies looking for new Product Managers?

This is a question we tackle a lot on the 100 PM podcast.

If you’re managing digital products, you have to know how digital products get built (well).

You should at least know your own tech stack and why the choices that were made, were made.

Definitely PMs need the ability to assess the impact of change.

And keep good developer relations.

Beyond that, it’s one of those “it depends” situations. It depends on what specific responsibilities the PM is going to have. Which relates to what I spoke about earlier. Don’t cut and paste job descriptions! Don’t require your PMs to be developers, just hire developers if that’s what you need.

In many ways, Product Managers are generalists. I happen to see value in folks who can assimilate lots of different types of knowledge. But being a generalist usually comes at the expense of domain expertise. To that I say, you have to be ok with the fact that you’ll rarely be the smartest person in the room. Seize the opportunity to ask as many questions as you can and learn as much as you can from the bright people who surround you. And just always do your best, knowing that your best will change from circumstance to circumstance.

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