Michael Smith is Chief Product Officer of Prodigy Finance and a speaker for Product Management Festival 2018. With a background in engineering, product management, and acting and directing, Michael shares his lessons learned, both the good and the bad, from his career transitions and time on and off the stage.
Our readers like to see how senior product leaders get to where they are. Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey?
My path was hardly linear. You’ll see some zig-zagging as well as some bumps! But if you aren’t pushing yourself, you can’t learn as quickly…
I started as a software engineer at Qualcomm, and I enjoyed the role a lot and changed domains fairly frequently. I think my exposure to systems designs, starting by making test tools, helped me understand systems as a whole. After 8 years at Qualcomm, I left to pursue an MBA degree at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and interned at Amazon.com, where I helped get their first 3rd party Marketplace sellers online – very manually. I learned there just how scrappy even large companies can be. After graduating, I worked for 9 months at Yahoo, where
I learned that you should absolutely leave a job quickly when it doesn’t feel right for whatever reason.
I went back to Qualcomm, and back to engineering, for another 4 years. This took me out of the PM track, but firmly rooted my confidence in engineering. I then moved to Europe and headed to London to join startup, INQ Mobile, who was building their own Android phones, to head up their internal software development teams. As that company started to shrink, I went to Google and switched back into product management, which was admittedly a bit rusty for me. Luckily, through working with such a great company that really “gets” product management, I formalized my PM training.
However, my prior experience leading teams and actual hands-on practical engineering wasn’t utilised as much as I’d have liked at Google. It’s very possible that elsewhere in Google it would have succeeded, but an opportunity to lead SwiftKey’s Product Management came up, and I would be able to work with a former Google team member who had become their VP Engineering. So I jumped at the opportunity to lead again and helped reshape the delivery within a small company.
SwiftKey eventually sold to Microsoft, but as there wasn’t a great fit due to the differences in their Program Management role, I moved to Fubo.tv in New York. Unfortunately, the CEO’s and my vision for the product didn’t align (an important learning – and one that’s too easy to make, no matter how much homework and goodwill on all sides there might be), and before long, I headed back to London and joined Prodigy Finance.
The good thing is that almost any challenging experience can be turned into a good one, since I couldn’t do what I’ve been able to at Prodigy Finance without nearly all my prior experience.
You’ll be presenting at PMF 2018 about how Product Management is and is not like directing a musical. I imagine one of the areas in which both managing a product and directing a musical overlap is being able to lead a team (over whom you don’t necessarily have authority) and dealing with a variety of “characters.” How different, or not, is working on teams on stage versus in the office?
You nailed it – it’s about influencing, not strict direction. This is one area where my personal experience is very different than to that of a professional director: I have to influence, I can’t fire amateurs (as I am one too!) who do this for love, not money. Therefore, bringing people along for the journey is very important. After all, they’re putting up with me perhaps more than I am with them!
Having a strong vision then allowing others to bring their best to back that vision is both the relationship between director and cast as well as PM and tech team. But there’s an important difference in approaching to art that most don’t usually apply to product, and one that I hope to share with those at PMF: a creative director position starts with creating a safe space to be creative.
As PMs, we rarely think about this, but it’s where product management really gets exciting. If you’re directing a show, you have to give actors a place where they can try things with their character, allow them to fail and work the scene to bring something more than you originally thought, yet stay true to your vision of the show.
Similarly, as a PM, you should set out the vision and clearly lay out the problem and perhaps hint at a schedule, but allow engineers and designers to be creative in their problem-solving. The odds are that they’ll come up with something super interesting, if not super innovative or breakthrough, if you give them just a bit of space. Sure, you’ll not deliver quite as quickly, but who cares if you have something that’s a huge step change.
So put some play in your schedule and allow for innovation and creativity within the team, and do this from the very start, by setting that tone and being permissive for people to play and create. This takes a strong team, and a strong product foundation, but this is the ultimate goal.
That said, I love the practicality of solving real world issues. And of course, I love the world of art and its expressiveness. But it’s amazingly powerful to bring the two together, whether it is doing deep analysis of the musical or highly technical staging within an artistic realm, or whether it’s allowing your engineers the right time and space and environment to create something that is more than themselves.
As an amateur theater actor in London, public speaking clearly doesn’t scare you. Short of product managers enrolling in theatre class, any tips or resources you’ve found for how to be an effective and dynamic public speaker?
It’s so so easy to say what you want to say, but we all know better – tune to your audience. Just the other day, a PM wanted to present information chronologically and give equal weight to each time period.
I had to remind them that no one cared about their effort, they cared about the narrative. Shakespeare told the story with flashbacks and skipping large amounts of boring time – do the same while crafting your presentations.
Also, know what you want to say at its heart, but learn to improvise the actual wording of the day. Then feel the room and try to still get the spirit of your talk through and accomplish your objectives, but “riff” on the words themselves, improvising to the mood of the room.
Finally, it’s actually very important to get good at using your voice as the instrument it is. Vary the tempo and tone, learn to tell jokes and stories well, pause for effect, and gesticulate to keep people interested. Practice in your day-to-day life while socialising then use this professionally. You can’t over-practice this.
Want to hear more from Michael? He will be speaking at PMF on “How Product is and is Not Like Directing a Musical.” See our speakers page for more information on Michael and our other speakers who will be presenting at this year’s conference.