Interview with Jacob Bank – Director of PM at Google and Keynote Speaker at PMF Europe 2019

Written by Published in Beyond Product Management, Interviews, Product Management

Jacob Bank is currently Director of Product Management at Google, responsible for Gmail, Hangouts Chat, and Google Groups. Prior to joining Google, he was the co-founder and CEO of Timeful, a startup that Google acquired in May, 2015. Timeful’s mission was to combine insights from behavioral economics and artificial intelligence to help people get the most out of their time, and it grew out of Jacob’s research on time management from his unsuccessful pursuit of a PhD in computer science at Stanford. Jacob will be a Keynote speaker at Product Management Festival Europe on 13-14 November in Zurich.


What’s the story behind Timeful? 

When I finished my undergrad degree in computer science, I was 100% sure that I was going to be a professor. I had always been interested in the social sciences, and it seemed like a perfect time to do research at the intersection of psychology, sociology, and AI with the newly available troves of data on how people interact and make decisions. I had a lot of fun studying how information flows on Twitter, how users find information on Wikipedia, and how one can predict career outcomes on LinkedIn.

And when I started a PhD program at Stanford in 2011, I found the perfect research topic: time management. I had always been an obsessive organizer and planner and I was very lucky to join a collaboration between Yoav Shoham, an AI professor at Stanford, and Dan Ariely, a well-known behavioral economist and professor at Duke. We studied time management from a few different angles: from the philosophical logic of “what does it mean to intend to do something?” to the behavioral psychology of “how do people make mistakes in allocating their time?” to a machine learning approach to automated scheduling. And after a couple of years of running studies on undergraduates, we realized that we may actually be building something useful! So in 2013, we founded a startup called Timeful to try to build a product that would help spend more time on what’s most important to them. 


Can you tell us a bit about how you got started as a PM, and how you you transitioned from being a startup founder to a PM leader at Google?

It certainly wasn’t what I had planned. In the early days of Timeful, I still had no idea what product management was and my role was actually primarily technical, working on the first version of what became the Timeful app. As the spring of 2014 approached, we were about 10 people and ready to launch a beta version of the app, and we still didn’t have a CEO, so my co founders asked me to do it.

At that point, I began to take on a bigger role in strategy, product decision making, marketing, and more. And I haven’t written a real line of code since then!

After launching the app in July of 2014, we were acquired by Google in May of 2015. At that point, I had the choice to join as an engineering manager or product manager, and though I didn’t really know what either did, I was told that it was more common for startup CEO to map to PM at Google, so that’s where I ended up. As tends to be the case with acquisitions, our first year at Google was a bit chaotic as we had to very quickly figure out what to do with our product, technology, and people in the complex and constantly changing Google machine. But after navigating through a few different roles, I eventually landed as the PM for Gmail intelligence, then the overall PM lead for Gmail, and now the PM Director for Gmail, Chat, Groups, and Google+.


Can you share with us and our readers some insights on how you manage your busy work schedule? How do you prioritize your day?

For me, the most important tip is to try to match my most important work to my most productive times of the day.

Most people are most productive in the morning, for the period of one to three hours after waking up. Since I’m an early riser, that means the time from six to eight in the morning is the most valuable for me, so I try to do all of my most cognitively demanding work – like writing documents and strategy presentations – before meetings start at eight and take over the rest of the day.

Another useful trick is to manage your time as carefully for a month from now as you do for today.

We all have a tendency to overestimate how available we’ll be in the future; our calendars look pretty empty a month in advance.

But in reality, those days will become just as busy today. So before agreeing to do something in the future, ask yourself if you’d say yes to doing it today.

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