Live Globally; Act Locally – an Interview with Atlassian’s Rutger Coolen

Written by Published in Interviews, Product Management

Rutger Coolen is a Principal Product Manager at Atlassian and a speaker for the upcoming Product Management Festival Singapore 2018. Read on to learn more about Rutger’s journey from entrepreneur to product manager and how he embraces his failures just as much as his successes to continually improve.

How did you come to be a Principal Product Manager at Atlassian? 

After a master in Mathematics, I started my career working for a large R&D company, where I got exposed to a number of different skills: project management, account management, and consultancy. These all turned out to be extremely useful for Product Management.

After about 6 years in R&D, I decided it was time for a change, and I enrolled for an MBA. That turned out to be a great way to learn about the different aspects of business: from marketing, to finance, to people management, to strategy.

By the end of it, I knew that I wanted to be driving strategy and execution, which for me meant either a career as strategy consultant or product manager. I made the right choice!

My first year in product was as a Product Marketing Manager at a telco, running the 4 Ps of a business telephony product. That was when a great opportunity came along: to join a series A startup as their first mobile product manager and that’s how I entered the world of Product Leadership in the tech industry. Now, 10 years later, after many successes and perhaps even more failures, I’m heading up product for Jira’s Cloud Platform and Mobile apps.

You’ve spent a good part of your career as an entrepreneur. What did you learn during those times that has helped you most in your career as a product manager?

What I learned as an entrepreneur was how hard it is to build products with limited resources, and how hard it is to get product-market fit. That’s why every day at Atlassian, I appreciate that I get to work with a super talented team, and with customers that love our products and use them on a daily basis to build amazing things with their teams.

What do you think about the saying, “Product managers are the CEOs of their own products”?

I like that saying, because there’s a lot that great CEOs and Product Managers have in common. Both drive top-level goals with a team, both are most successful when they lead by influence instead of authority, both need to inspire their teams, and both set strategic directions for the company. And, in startups, the founder/CEO is often the first Product Manager. It is also a great way to explain at a birthday party, what it is that you do.

However, there are also plenty of differences between PMs and CEOs, especially in the tech industry.

Product Managers in product companies like Atlassian, Facebook, or Google, are mostly focussed on building impactful products, whereas CEOs also focus on investments, finance, M&A, HR, marketing, and so forth.  In many classical industries, Product Managers are responsible for the profit and loss of a product line, for customer operations, and for marketing, which makes their role a lot more like a CEO of their product.

For many product managers, they have to understand the geographic market that they serve. You have actually led product while living in various countries. How have you quickly learned to adapt to your home country every time you moved?

For the most part, I’ve led global products, but I’ve found on a number of occasions that understanding your users, country, and culture is indeed crucial.

In the early days at Nimbuzz – an instant messaging app competing with WhatsApp and Viber – we had around 1 million users in Indonesia, our biggest market at the time. I consider it one of the biggest failures in my career that we didn’t make enough effort to understand the root cause of our popularity there. While Nimbuzz became hugely popular in many countries and grew to 100 million users worldwide, in Indonesia our market share stagnated. To this day, I don’t know for certain why that was.

When I worked as a lead PM at Tuenti – a Spanish social network that was bigger than Facebook in that market – I saw on the bus ride home how students were using our apps, and we’d have users come in every Friday afternoon for focus groups. That helped me to learn about the users in Spain.

But, to really understand a foreign geographic market is extremely hard and requires years of language training, user interviews, exposure to culture, and more. I can’t claim that I’ve ever succeeded, yet. My recommendation: work with locals in each of your geographic markets.

Anything fun that you’re working on that you can share with us?

We’re close to unveiling Atlassian’s Teamwork Platform: a new and improved way to collaborate with your team-mates inside Jira, Confluence, and other Atlassian products. Soon, your team will be able to 👍or ❤️that specification you shared in Jira!

Want to hear more from Rutger? He’ll be speaking at Product Management Festival Singapore 2018 on “Make your Teams Run Better” based on his experience working with teams across various countries and regions. Check out our programme schedule for more information about the speaker and schedule lineup.

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