10 Questions: Greg Hartrell

10 Questions: Greg Hartrell

A few weeks ago, I was perusing Quora as I often do, and came across a really great and insightful answer describing the differences between a “good” and “bad” roadmap by Greg Hartrell.  The answer was so good that I couldn’t help but reach out him, and invite him to share some of his insights here on my blog.  Here’s a bit about Greg in his own words…

Greg Hartrell is a product leader with a 15 year history helping large teams build high performing software products and businesses. At Google, he heads product for Google Play Books and previously led the creation of their mobile game services. Before that, he was VP of Product Development at Capcom/Beeline, and a product leader for 8 years at Microsoft for Xbox Live/360 and Windows. 

What does “Product Management” mean to you?

It’s the interdisciplinary craft of innovating useful things. The analogy I sometimes invoke is product management is the mixed martial arts of business and technology.

Most businesses, be they traditional or forged through technology, have to contend with fusing strategy, business models, experience design and a technology stack to create value. This has made creating successful products and services more complicated over time. So product managers have emerged as a multidisciplinary role that brings together all the functions needed to build and run a successful product line or service.

To me, this means being more than someone who simply guides designers and engineers to great outcomes. That’s still very important. But being a product manager is about having eyes on the success of the whole business. You’re constantly building an understanding of what your market/users need, and how functions like sales, marketing, operations, and others can work in concert to help the product succeed. This is why you sometimes hear that Product Managers are mini-CEOs. What this really means is they hold a strong “ownership mindset” for the whole the business and its functions as they guide the product’s evolution.

How did you wind up becoming a Product Manager?

Very early in my career I found myself in managed services consulting doing “whitehat hacking” and providing security consultancy services to Global 500 companies. I wasn’t satisfied simply advising and helping organizations “get by” on what the technology was capable at the time. It became clear I needed to make things that solved their problems versus integrating technologies that had different levels of effectiveness.

I technically started my path to becoming a product manager joining joining Microsoft as a Program Manager in the early 2000s. The goal then was to help make Windows and their other platform products more resistant to malicious code. At Microsoft, managing programs fused a couple aspects of product management together: solution design with technical project management. Starting with strong empathy for my user’s problems, I could collaborate with engineering teams to create things purposefully built to solve them, then measure the impact. I would later join Xbox to lead the product team that made the core services of Xbox Live on the Xbox 360. As that was a small team early on, it was more of a startup and multidisciplinary in nature. This helped me draw on my business/tech/design skills to not only make a great product, but manage how it would grow and evolve through the other functions of a business: like strategy, sales, marketing and operations.

So it started with a desire to make things to solve real world problems. It was only after getting exposure to the multidisciplinary experiences and growing several products that I felt like I got a handle on the full craft of product management.

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

The one piece of advice is to “be a curious maker” first. That needs unpacking.

Curiosity is an important trait because it’s the core ethos of any product manager. If I think of all the successful entrepreneurs and product leaders I know, they all had strong sense of curiosity. That trait helps you find new market opportunities, build empathy for your customers, and diagnose problems.

On the other hand, being a maker is where you learn to create value. Start a company or an open source / public project that tries to solve a real problem. Then work hard to improve it and get it adopted. You could also collaborate with others in a hackathon, or learn the tools yourself to make something small, and see if you can improve someone’s life.

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

Empathy is a superpower and is undersold.

When we look at amazing products, we often like to point to the key of insights that create new technologies or finding market opportunities that no one else saw. But those often exist already and the products that win are those that solve the unspoken user problem in a sea of status quo alternatives. It’s easy to pick out the outliers in retrospect. These risk having a survivors bias, but they are also instructive:

  • In the 1980s, Bill Gates and the Microsoft founders saw utility in everyone owning a personal computing device in a market where incumbents were pushing expensive centralized computing.
  • Before Google, in the 1990s Larry and Sergey saw that everyone had trouble finding things on the web and that curated search results were limited and didn’t to scale to everyone. This encouraged them to invent a scalable way of indexing the world’s web pages to solve that hidden need.
  • The story of the founders of AirBnB (Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia) was they experimented earning extra cash renting out their place to pay the rent. This helped them build perspective it was hard to book hotel rooms during peak periods of big events, and others might be willing to open up their homes to earn some cash while demand for rooms spiked.

I’ll cheat and offer one more 1% tip: get comfortable embracing and learning from failure. The greatest product managers I know have great failure stories and synthesized those experiences into better insights and became even more effective. The ones who don’t have that generally got lucky, and it’s hard to replicate lucky. This is why some products are successful and they never really understand why. The majority scenario is learning lessons from moments where you “got it wrong”, and using those lessons to have better insights and success in the next go round.

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

Build relationships.

Whatever product you create, you will need relationships to help you work with and through others. Being able to connect with people in any circumstance, and building a rapport with them will pay off every time. Some people are easier to work with than others too, and you need to be able to adapt your style in those circumstances. Bottom line is you should always be building trust, holding judgement and be helpful to everyone around you.

How does product management in gaming and media differ from other contexts?

Yes, this is interesting. Video games and media are different for product managers in a few ways:

  • As a product, needs around media are centered around emotion instead of utility. Games don’t solve a problem: they give you problems to solve! Books and movies deliver emotional storytelling. Music gives you a soundtrack for your life.
  • In many media ecosystems, the same content is available to all platforms. So you are always searching for ways to differentiate, making it easier to find good content, getting it at a better price or enhancing it in some way.
  • Business model innovation is harder because you need your creators to be successful too. Experimenting to deliver value to content creators goes slower and needs time to prove itself. Freemium games are a good example of this. It took years of experimentation for a set of game developers to master giving away a free game they monetize later instead of asking to be paid up front.

What are the most interesting technological improvements you see on the horizon for online publishing?

For Book publishing, I’m really excited for what machine learning and artificial intelligence will offer. Being able to understand the quality and content of a book unlocks better insights for authors, publishers, retailers and readers. If we can teach machines to understand books at this level, I think the whole ecosystem could produce more great literature worldwide, at better quality and in new forms.

What are the most interesting product challenges you’ve taken on in your career, and what did you learn from them?

The most interesting product challenges have been the ones where you need to rally an ecosystem to do something different than the status quo.

Looking back at when the Xbox 360 was conceived (early to mid-2000s), the average person rarely played video games online. Those who did had to setup dedicated servers, used dial-up and had to deal with people hacking the games. Couch multiplayer was proven with games like 007: Golden Eye, but it didn’t scale. So it was a bold vision to convince people to sign up for a premium, multiplayer game subscription that worked without a lot of technical knowledge at the time. Success was far from assured. We needed game publishers on board to implement our SDK and conform to a set of standards for our service to work. Gamers had to warm up to the value of a paid subscription that promised them a turn key multiplayer experience that was nearly free of cheating. Today, it’s awesome to see online gaming as being commonplace. But the journey to get there was incredibly fascinating and might not have succeeded if we didn’t believe in that vision and get the product right.

What are some of the challenges that Product Managers in large organizations are likely to face, and how can they prepare to take them head on?

The main thing to prepare for in large companies is managing organizational complexity.

It’s intuitive that it’s easier to get things done with smaller teams than larger ones. In startups, you know everyone’s name, it’s faster to communicate and you’re probably all focused on the same goals. In larger companies, you might only know the first names of hundreds of people, it takes time to communicate and get alignment, and different product lines mean you may not be aligned on the same goals. So everything comparatively moves slower, and that can be frustrating coming from smaller environments.

My advice to prepare for this is two fold:

  • First, practice at being a great negotiator. Getting to an agreement with someone in several minutes is definitely possible, whatever your style. Learn to find ways to align incentives between multiple parties, trade items of different value and find opportunities that can be sequenced.
  • Second, identify and embrace necessary complexity. Large flagship products usually are successful because of some complicated set of key factors. To make the product more successful, you have to accept those factors to get impact.

For example, a 1% mistake can be a disaster for product with a billion monthly active users. So you accept moving more slowly through processes to update and experiment methodically to know it’s all going well. Weeks or months of testing, or experiments that take weeks to get to statistical significance might be common. That said, don’t embrace complexity without purpose: always push on removing that form of complexity and making your team successful.

What aspects of Product Management sets Google aside from other large organizations that you’ve worked with?

I think Google inspires and pushes its product managers to make products that work for everyone. This continues to amaze me, and as a result Google tends to make products that scale to the world and cover ambitious scenarios.

  • Search, Chrome and Maps had a world-wide vision from the outset.
  • YouTube’s vision evolved similarly with the desire to make anyone a “creator” of videos and television content.
  • Android is a mobile operating system for almost any phone or mobile device in the world, and Google Play brings apps and content to all of them.
  • We launched audiobooks on Google Play recently, and it was important for us to make it available in 45 countries on the first day.

That’s not to say that products don’t start with a certain persona, type of use case or regional insight in mind. But the expectations are to have the potential to be worldwide and reach the masses. This ends up setting a high bar: your users come to expect all products to be available to them, which isn’t always easy or possible. So product managers have to embrace the complexity needed to realize those ambitious goals. This means navigating all the QA, localization, regionalization and accessibility requirements to make a product available in many geographies.

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