Product Leadership: interview with Scott Eblen, Director of Product Management at Twitter
After Microsoft and Google, Scott joined Nutmeg as a Chief Product Officer, and now he is a Product Director at Twitter. We discussed if the technical background is required for Product Managers, what is the difference between Google and small startups, and how to create a good vision and strategy.
About skills for Product Managers
- When you were in the university, were you focused on your studies or also trying to find entrepreneurship opportunities?
I played in a jazz ensemble and in a marching band; I conducted a pit orchestra for a musical comedy that was written by the students. Those were all great experiences and opportunities that are hard to pursue post-university. I see a ton of new-grad candidates who already have a startup under their belt but I’d really encourage people to experiment with what would be hard to do later in life: play sports, do theater. You’re going to have a chance to work later, starting two years earlier with a company isn’t something you necessarily should be doing.
- What were your favorite subjects in the university?
I studied Computer Science at Princeton but what I really liked is that it was a liberal arts curriculum, not just engineering, math, and science courses. I was required to take a diverse set of classes. The one I really loved was Art 101. I distinctly remember the exam question where we were asked to compare a modern painting by Piet Mondrian to a Bernini sculpture in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. It was all about finding analogies and connections, and in some way product managers are doing the same by saying “we are the Uber of x” or “the eBay of y”.
- Which part of your education you think was the most beneficial for you, creative one or the technical one?
I really value the creative part, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Technology has changed so much since I graduated and it will continue to evolve, but creative & soft skills are enduring. At that time computer science was required for a lot of the roles so I’m glad I did that because it got me into product management. Thankfully, now a lot of companies don’t make it a hard requirement which is a good expansion of the pool of applicants that we can appeal to.
- Do you think product managers not having a technical background is a good trend?
I would say having a technical background is a good thing; but not having a computer science degree isn’t a bad thing. With a product manager, I want to find someone who can debate in a healthy fashion with engineers, and I think they can acquire those skills by doing some development themselves, by having worked with engineers in different capacities. Having done specific coursework doesn’t always qualify them to do that.
- Makes sense. I hear more and more from senior people that technical education is not a requirement anymore.
One of the reasons is that you realize that product isn’t the hard part; people are the hard part. With the diversity of backgrounds, you’re more likely to find people who can bring unique and creative solutions to those problems.
Finding ways to motivate and inspire people or align groups of people to solve problems has nothing to do with computer science. One of the most important things for aligning people is a narrative: having a clear and compelling story that people can rally around. If you can tell a story that people can then tell to their friends, family, coworkers, then it makes them excited, they feel like they can convey why they are doing what they are doing.
- How do you develop such a skill as storytelling?
I think it’s really important to read fiction and non-fiction on a regular basis because it’s a good opportunity to understand new mindsets and spend some time on thinking how to tell a story.
Empathy is another essential skill for a product manager. You can only do so much user research or data analysis, but you simply can’t understand what that person was thinking when they were using your product. Reading fiction can give you a glimpse into other perspectives and doing things in a different way that you haven’t considered.
One more thing to say here. I often hear product managers asking “what book should I read”. There are a couple of really standard books like Ben Horowitz’s “Hard things about hard things”, which give you a very narrow perspective on what you should do. Reading non standard books is the only way to get ahead. It allows you to find other solutions that your peers don’t see. To find your next book to read you should talk to people, especially outside of technology, ask what they found interesting or thought-provoking. And then just get recommendations and look for new things to try.
- What was the most inspiring book that you read last year?
One really interesting one from the product perspective was Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton where Lin-Manuel Miranda got his inspiration for the famous musical. It was a really interesting insight into first principles thinking as the founding fathers were trying to craft the government, and there were few resources to suggest how it should be structured. If you don’t have Wikipedia to consult with or two dozen peers you can call on the phone, what are the approaches to build something that will last?
I also enjoyed the book called “How to do nothing” by Jenny Odell, a Stanford professor and an artist; she talks a lot about some negative aspects of the attention economy.
About the difference between being a PM at a large company vs startup
The full version of this article is now available on my personal website https://nfng.pro/2020/05/08/scott/