Adapt to Change: A Product Manager’s Job Pursuits with Nicholas Aronne (2/3)

Welcome to episode 258 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_) – two technology professionals with backgrounds in IT Operations and Sales Engineering on a mission to help others accelerate career progression and increase job satisfaction by bringing listeners the advice we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 2 of an interview with Nicholas Aronne, discussing the required technical depth of product managers, hiring strategies in product management, reasons for leaving a company after many years of service, and applying adaptability throughout our careers.

Original Recording Date: 11-17-2023

Nicholas Aronne is a senior manager in product management for VMware with a focus in cloud management / cloud automation with VMware’s Aria Automation platform. If you missed part 1 of our discussion with Nicholas you can check it out in Episode 257.

Topics – Product Managers and Technical Product Managers, Hiring Styles and Proper Expectations, Moving away from IBM, Process and Outcomes, Collaboration and Politics

2:49 – Product Managers and Technical Product Managers

  • Is a product manager usually an individual contributor?
    • Nicholas tells us individual contributors who are product managers are quite prevalent, even up to senior level product managers.
    • Nicholas manages a team of 4 individual contributors who are product managers today, works with other product managers (outside his team) in addition to this, and he has individual responsibilities for certain services and products. He is a player coach.
    • Nicholas believes strongly that we should be developing and giving back to others, especially since many believe the path to being a product manager is somewhat unclear.
      • There are many stories of people progressing into product management. Perhaps it is through certification, experience in development, coming into it from a field facing role as a sales / solution engineer, etc.
      • “So there’s all these different walks, but you absolutely will have your individual contributor roles. But then you’ll have your product leaders at various levels that are setting strategy and trajectory.” – Nicholas Arrone
  • How technical should a product manager for a software product be? We’ve heard about product managers and technical product managers.
    • Nicholas jokingly says someone just has to be “technical enough.”
    • Nicholas has worked with product managers who claimed to not be technical, but they knew how to communicate requirements, work with engineering teams, and talk to stakeholders (even if they didn’t fully understand the words they might have said).
      • Depending on the complexity of the technology involved, one must be technical to understand it well. The real answer of how technical is probably “it depends.”
      • There is an ongoing education element needed to learn technology.
      • Cell phones have changed from the early days of their use to present day, and people have adapted to that.
      • “And a job is the same way. You need to adapt, and you need to grow. If you’re in a certain role, I am sure hopeful that you are picking up some things because if you’re not, then that just means you’re not absorbing stuff.” – Nicholas Aronne, an illustration base don the above comment about cell phones
    • Nicholas has worked with very technical product managers (PMs) as well. Sometimes these folks have a tendency to start solutioning when in fact that should be left up to the developers (often called engineers, programmers, coders, etc.).
      • “The engineers are there to build the solution….From the technical implementation perspective, I wholeheartedly believe that the ownership is the engineers’ responsibility for delivering that, and it’s the PM’s responsibility for getting the information there and then validating it. And there may be some iteration there. They may be miscommunication. You gotta work through that as you do in any relationship internally or externally.” – Nicholas Aronne, on the relationship of engineers and product managers
    • John mentions that when we speak of a PM being technical we often think of how much they know about building software and writing code. But there are other elements to being technical like being an expert in the product, being customer facing in conversations around the product and larger solutions that contain it, or have technical expertise in all the different skills needed to be a PM (i.e. success with a different product or at a different company).
      • “We say technical, and we need to define technical.” – John White
      • Nicholas agrees with the above sentiment and mentions when we say technical product manager we need to define what we mean in the context of the conversation we’re having. Is the role technical because someone needs to write technical documentation or develop technical architectures? It can vary depending on the company, the expectation, and the people involved.
      • “What I’ve always found in my career is you do and you gravitate towards what you need to do.” – Nicholas Aronne, on being a product manager
      • Nicholas likes to find gaps and look for solutions (which could be automation, processes, unhealthy communication, etc.) because if the team is not healthy they cannot deliver on results to customers and to the business.

10:02 – Hiring Styles and Proper Expectations

  • Maybe it’s a good idea to ask what people mean when they say technical product manager.
    • A recruiter may or may not know the answer to the question about what a technical product manager is like.
    • A product manager might need to be extremely technical in the protocols a product uses (i.e. deep in networking protocols as an example) as opposed to being technically deep in the programming language used to build the product.
  • We also need to take hiring styles into consideration here. Let’s assume we’re talking about a product / technology that is new but is a known quantity in the industry (also assume not a startup or anything). Hiring managers might think about it like this:
    • Because the technology we’re focused on here is well known in the industry, there is a sizable talent pool from which to choose, and one can be more selective with candidates. Nicholas refers to this as skill-for-skill hiring.
    • If one finds the right person, that person can come up to speed to the level needed. The focus here would be on personality, skillsets, and previous experience.
    • A third category would be when building something new that depends on an emerging technology.
      • Nicholas gives the example of job descriptions he saw in the past that asked for 20 years experience in a technology which hasn’t existed that long.
      • It’s important for hiring managers and recruiters to be realistic in their expectations for incoming candidates.
      • “…I had to be reminded about this. Just as much as you’re interviewing for a job and they’re interviewing you, you should be interviewing them. And if something doesn’t make sense to you…you may have dodged a bullet….” – Nicholas Arrone, on expectations in interviews
      • We want to go into a new role with the expectations of what we are being hired to do so we can determine if we can / are willing to do the job, if the compensation presented is in line with the industry and other similar roles, and how we will be measured for success in a role. The measurement of performance piece is especially important so that we do not get surprised or have unmet expectations in annual performance reviews.
  • We should also think about whether taking a job is going to be a career opening opportunity for us and be thinking about what we want from our career.
    • “They don’t teach you this in university or anywhere. How am I caring for my career? Because I’ll tell you right now, you will meet some good people along the way. And there’s people that I’ve met along my 20+ years. I’m still friends with them. I’ve worked at multiple companies with them. They’ve been a referral for me. I’ve been a referral. So that’s that whole concept of networking. And good people want to work with other good people that want to keep working with those people even if you’re doing something different. So there’s also that extended work family that you’re building. So I think it’s really important that it’s good to know that there’s people you can count on to help you with your career, but if you find yourself…in a situation where…you don’t know anyone in the company but you took the opportunity or some life event happened and you had to take the job that you know how to market yourself, you know the value you bring to the company, and making sure they also know that you know.” – Nicholas Aronne

16:12 – Moving away from IBM

  • Nicholas left IBM largely because the business evolved over time in ways he didn’t like. To use his words it became “not my grandfather’s IBM.”
  • Nicholas tells us he was at a crossroad for him. He had been out of university and at IBM for 11 years. Nicholas could see where things were going inside the company and what his future might look like there, and the alternative was to step out and take a risk.
    • Trying to step out was hard after being at IBM for so long, but Nicholas sent out some resumes to positive feedback.
    • “Even up until I turned in my resignation there was a sense of apprehension… Here is a company that I have known, I have been with. They have been kind of an extension of my family. I moved for IBM.” – Nicholas Aronne, on leaving a company after a long time there
    • Nicholas’ wife was extremely supportive, and he had 2 kids already at the time.
    • “It comes again to that change. And you should never look at it and say ‘well I knew I shouldn’t have done that because I wound up, you know, 3 years later getting laid off or it’s not the experience I’d hoped for.’ My hope for people is that you look for the value that that next opportunity brought you….There’s no such thing as a perfect company. And a saying I adopted is ‘the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. It’s just a different shade….’ Just know why you’re leaving and what you’re leaving for .” – Nicholas Aronne, reflecting on leaving IBM and advice for choosing to leave a company
      • People leave companies for opportunities, pay bumps, titles, an experience to go do something new, etc. Some people don’t care for management or their direct manager. We need to understand our reasons for making a change.
      • If you continue to turn over jobs frequently, it may actually be you and not your company that is the main issue.
    • Nicholas likes to reflect on achievements he obtained at a specific company, people he met, etc. These things are best seen looking back on them.
    • “You can have a trajectory and a plan, but you better be ok with change and you better be ok with adaptability. Or else, you’re going to be really frustrated. And that’s probably more of a general statement about life, but in a career…you’re trying to hit targets.” – Nicholas Aronne
      • A target for people might be work/life balance, pay, a title, etc. The priority ranking of each of these will be different across different people.
      • Nicholas would encourage each of us to write down these priorities / targets. It is extremely helpful when weighing multiple jobs and not always obvious on the surface until we make the list.

20:19 – Process and Outcomes

  • John shares we’ve spoken about process over outcomes before on the show. There are certain things related to the interview process and taking a new job that we can control and others we cannot.
    • We can control the process we used to interview and search for jobs but not what happens after we take a job (i.e. if our responsibilities change or someone was dishonest during the hiring process).
      • Check out Episode 19 to hear more on process over outcomes and the idea behind it.
    • Nicholas shares an analogy of when we were asked to show our work in school so the teacher could see how we arrived at an answer. Someone may say we got a wrong answer, but they can at least understand our thought process.
      • Showing one’s work is especially important in product management as much of it is based on assumptions (target market and whether it currently exists, target demographic, the problem to solve with a product, etc.).
      • “It’s really helpful if you can think through it and not just say ‘we’re going there because I want to’ or ‘because I was told to….’ I’ve never inspired anyone by saying that we’re going to do this ‘because that person said so.’ Even if that person told me we’re doing it because of that, I’ve asked enough questions that I put together a story because people are compelled by stories. They like missions.” – Nicholas Aronne, on showing your work to create and provide purpose for others
      • We talk about how video games are so popular in that they provide us with a mission, a focus, and a purpose for playing.
      • In this same light, Nicholas had a manager tell him once to make sure he was not just living to work but more working to live and letting his work provide for him to live.
      • “At the end of the day, we are here for a purpose. Everyone has to understand what their purpose and their value is that they are bringing.” – Nicholas Aronne
    • Nicholas says it is also very much about mindset.
      • Many these days can work remotely, but when Nicholas worked at IBM he had the realization that he was spending more time with his work family (i.e. at the office) than with his actual family.
      • “Why are you doing what you’re doing? At the end of the day I’m here to take care of my family….I have been very blessed to be on a journey where sometimes I’ve loved things in my jobs and there’s other points where there’s been low points. But I tend to remember more of the high moments.” – Nicholas Aronne
      • Nicholas believes reflecting on the high moments has helped him grow his career and sell him for the next opportunity. Reflecting on these can breed confidence as well.
      • “It’s this evolution of adaptability. No one gets in a works a 30-year career and does the same thing, especially in our space, because the technology and the world around us is just changing so much faster.” – Nicholas Aronne

25:03 – Collaboration and Politics

  • Nick K mentions sharing (or showing) your thought process / how you think through problems with others is what we might call showing your work and would be extremely helpful during job interviews, even if you’re sharing how you would think through a problem or situation you have not encountered previously.

  • Sharing our thought processes can be helpful when we try to figure out what the value of that next job is to us and why we left a company.

    • The thought processes represent the reasoning which led to decisions.
    • This could be written down or shared verbally with someone else and can help us make these decisions better and easier, making it easier to adapt.
    • Nicholas mentions part of making decisions in our careers should be considering our priorities /a what we’re trying to balance (perhaps a top 10 list).
    • When we show people our work / thought processes, using visual aids can help get people on the same page / promote agreement. This is especially useful when speaking of complex concepts or when you’re trying to push the boundaries of what is possible (with things like products).
    • “It really helps work through complex conversations and gets people in the same boat together because 9 times out of 10, even if it’s technical…the engineers will figure it out. It’s the people aspect of our job that’s always the challenge. It’s communicating information. It’s getting alignment. It’s what people refer to as politics.” – Nicholas Aronne, on the use of visual aids to enable conversations
    • Nicholas has heard people say they wanted to stay away from politics, and these people remained individual contributors. We should be aware politics affect us all.
    • “As you further go up the ladder you definitely see and feel it more, and my goal as a manager is always to insulate…so that my people, engineers and so forth, can do their job because their time is most valuable because fingers on keyboard, designing architectural diagrams, stuff like that is what ends with us getting a product out the door. So if I can keep them focused the value of them is that much greater because they are purely engineers. Let me deal with a little bit of the politicking and so forth so that they don’t have to. And that’s another aspect to consider.” – Nicholas Aronne, on politics and management
  • Mentioned in the outro

    • We likely do not need to have experience in using a software product to be a product manager for it because being technical can present in different ways. We can leverage our own relatable experience which aligns to the skills and experience needed to be a product manager.
      • Product managers don’t solve the problem of writing code for a new feature. Engineers do that. It’s a different type of problem the product manager is solving by being an expert in the problem statement and communicating it very clearly to everyone involved.
      • If we’re looking for a role as a product manager maybe we should build a story of how we’ve helped other people solve problems.
    • Incorporating your wins (or what Nicholas describes as reflecting on his career high points) can help us build confidence needed to take a chance on a new job, even if it is at a new company.
    • We should be mindful of times where the responsibilities, focus, or success metrics for our job role changed and how well we did as a result. That is evidence of adaptability.
    • To have a mindset of adaptability, we need to expect that change will happen in every area of our jobs and lives. Perhaps the proper expectation will make it easier to adjust.

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