An Agile Career: Project Manager, Product Owner, and Product Manager with Nicholas Aronne (1/3)

Welcome to episode 257 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 1 of an interview with Nicholas Aronne, detailing his early interest in technology, setting and achieving the goal to work for IBM, adopting agile and scrum methodologies, experience in project management, and thoughts on the product manager and product owner roles.

Original Recording Date: 11-17-2023

Topics – Meet Nicholas Aronne, An Early Aspiration, Job Norms, The Invitational and a New Opportunity, Adopting Agile and Scrum, Project Management Experience, Product Owner vs. Product Manager

2:14 – Meet Nicholas Aronne

  • 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. Aria Automation, an automation and management tool for hybrid and multi-cloud environments, is the focus for Nicholas and his team.

2:59 – An Early Aspiration

  • Nicholas’ first exposure to technology was in the 1980s when his father brought home an old Packard Bell 286. It had an orange monochrome screen at the time.
    • Nicholas remember playing games like Centipede and others.
    • Nicholas remembers thinking he wanted to do something in technology because it was so much fun. His next computer system was either a 286 or 386 from IBM.
    • Around this time Nicholas developed an aspiration to someday work for IBM, feeling it ebbed and flowed as he got older and into high school.
    • Nicholas remained unsure of what he might like to do in tech but still focused in that area.
      • Nicholas would caution listeners about getting to myopically focused in tech and not taking into consideration the company where we work operates as a business and needs to make money.
  • Nicholas started attending community college to be more fiscally responsible (a fraction of the cost of a state university), still unsure of what he might want to do.
    • Nicholas obtained an associates degree in business administration and says be backed into it, transferring to a 4-year university afterward.
  • John mentioned early life exposure to technology brands cementing our view of what technology is (i.e. that brand becomes what “computing” is, for example).
    • Nicholas says much of this exposure to brands could be subconscious. Some people can break it down and give thought to the product itself and what it takes to produce it.
    • The aspiration to work at IBM mentioned previously continued to be an intense aspiration to the point of thinking IBM could be a place to work for Nicholas’ entire career.
    • It used to be get a job and work your way up the ladder / get a job and retire from the same company after 20 years. But as Nicholas got closer to entering the job market many companies were transitioning away from pensions and moving to 401K plans.
    • Many people began to think about working for many companies for a period of a few years in each case as opposed to working for one company for a long period of time.
      • Making the determination for yourself as to which strategy works best for you (i.e. longevity at one company versus the spread across many companies) depends on what you as an individual aspire to and what you feel comfortable with.
      • “I also think you have to live in the world in which we operate. And sometimes those align, and sometimes they don’t….Just realize and be open to what’s going on in the industry, and knowing that there’s always change, but it’s your ability to adapt to that change and to see opportunities…. You have to understand where you’re going, but at the same time you have to be adaptable to the journey that you’re on and the opportunities that are presented along the way.” – Nicholas Aronne, on the topic of longevity at a company or working at many companies for short periods

7:38 – Job Norms

  • John mentions we might grow up during a specific job norm, which may not continue to be the norm forever. In the 80s it was work your way up and stay at a company for a very long time. In the .com era it became change jobs every few years to get a raise. Now we see it being a poor reflection on candidates if they get flagged as job hoppers.
  • Nicholas had a co-worker who used to say “you gotta jump to get the bump.”
    • We need to ensure we know our value in the market. Nicholas uses the illustration of the last 4 years and how the pandemic and remote work emphasis drove company growth. Many companies overhired, and we are seeing this get corrected as of late since the growth was not sustainable.
    • Always chasing something may cause you to miss out on ways to grow and stretch yourself in new areas.
    • “…Also if you’re not in line with what the market is commanding, like anything in a supply and demand economy, you’re going to be in trouble because it puts you off kilter.” – Nicholas Aronne
  • Much in the same way technology influences us so do our families, our backgrounds, and daily interactions.
    • Nicholas’ mother was a stay-at-home mom. As a result of this he had the chance to learn a lot from her, attributing his resilience and optimism to his mother’s influence.
    • Nicholas’ father was an accountant who held many jobs. There were some things modeled as a result.
      • Changing jobs may be necessary to pursue an opportunity you want to take, and that is ok to do.
      • We are not always in control of everything related to our jobs even if we are top performers. There are decisions made at higher levels that impact our employment at a specific company.
      • Nicholas looks at his career as a number of different segments.
      • “You can’t look forward and say ‘well, here’s my career….this is how it’s going to lay out.’ I mean, you can, but you’re kind of setting yourself up for some disappointments because there’s so many other pieces and people involved that you can kind of plot a trajectory and maybe head north. But you may go more like north east or north west and so forth.” – Nicholas Aronne
      • Nicholas tries to take nuggets of gold from each segment of his career and consider how they helped prepare him for his next opportunity.
      • Those gold nuggets tell a story over time that is analogous to the story of a product (which includes the vision and strategy around the product) which can resonate with potential buyers and engage them to commit time or money to the product.

12:13 – The Invitational and a New Opportunity

  • After finishing his associates degree, Nicholas says he did go on to a 4-year university, continuing to think of ways to finish his education with minimal debt and landing on information technology as a major.
    • This was the early 2000s, and the program was new for this university. University program leaders were working to select the right set of courses to effectively prepare students for life after graduation.
    • Many companies are removing advanced degree requirement for jobs. To determine if pursuing a degree is the right choice, we need to know ourselves, our capabilities, and our desires. We would then need to determine the amount of work we are willing to get to a specific level of skill and expertise based on these things.
    • Nicholas’ university was very close to IBM’s Poughkeepsie, NY location.
  • After graduating in December, Nicholas began sending his resume out to various companies over fax. He didn’t think competition for jobs would be as fierce due to the time of his graduation not being in spring like many other university students.
    • Nicholas had been able to build knowledge and legitimate experiences he could share on his resume like working on AS 400 mainframes and databases through his father’s company. While he did work some jobs just to pay bills, his eyes remained open for opportunities that supported his goals.
    • “Hey, I’m willing to work, and I have goals.” – Nicholas Aronne
    • Nicholas was still trying to decide what he wanted to do in technology. He had some business acumen and was gaining experience as he could.
  • Nicholas had the opportunity to attend what was formally called an invitational from IBM held in Connecticut. People were flown in from all over the country to participate.
    • It was a chance to meet people who had worked at IBM for many years and hear their career stories (some starting in the mail room, for example).
    • This was also a chance to interview for a number of open roles. Nicholas describes it a bit like speed dating and ended up landing a job as a DB2 UDB DBA (database administrator).
    • Nicholas mentions the interviewers knew he didn’t know anything about DB2 at the time since it was rare for anyone outside IBM to know that technology well, but Nicholas had done some things with Oracle databases in college and knew the constructs around relational databases would be similar.
    • The company was looking for someone in the role who could learn, who could bring new ways of doing things based on educational background, and someone who could communicate well with people at different levels.
    • Over the next several years, Nicholas says he learned a ton about the political landscape within a large organization, technology, and classifies it as a very exciting time.
    • “I felt like I got my ultimate wish as a kid. I got to work at IBM. I got to have in the end I think 4 or 5 different jobs before I ultimately decided I wanted to have another challenge and basically left and went on to other companies….” – Nicholas Aronne
    • Over time, Nicholas learned he needed to continue to build new skills, rely on those he already had, and build his brand as an eventual product manager. Nicholas shares thoughts on the unique view of the business that product managers have.

18:31 – Adopting Agile and Scrum

  • In the last 5 years or so of his career at IBM, Nicholas was part of a development team inside the company acting as a software developer focused on Java programming (something he didn’t get the chance to learn while he was in school).
    • This role was part of a small team that was inundated with requests. There were many times where someone would provide requirements and then give the feedback that the team Nicholas was on had not provided what they actually needed.
    • Nicholas sought to figure out why this kept happening. Was it because his team was not asking the right questions, that the person did not know what they needed, or something else entirely?
    • Around this time (early 2000s), there were new concepts of agile and scrum introduced. The team wanted more agility and to show their value to the business more clearly. Nicholas and team started reading blogs and other material on topics of agile and scrum.
    • Agile wasn’t really a thing back then. The manifesto was written in 1994, but it had not caught on widely. It seemed more niche and something boutique software development shops were doing. But it worked for those companies. Nicholas and team went to management and made a case to introduce agile.
    • After gaining approval to use agile / scrum, Nicholas says management saw the return on investment quickly.
    • But Nicholas also admits that in many ways the team didn’t really know what they were doing. Some people refer to the capital A “Agile” as the process and lowercase a “agile” as being able to pivot quickly (which can cause chaos).
    • The process of adopting these new ideas was iterative. They did retrospectives to understand what was working and what was not working, adapting as needed from there. The team size was between 5 and 12 people during this time.
    • “We’re just not sure how you’re doing this this efficiently, but can you help us?” – Nicholas Aronne, recounting the reaction from other business groups inside IBM who wanted help (a sign the team might be onto something that could really make positive change)
    • Other members of Nicholas’ team didn’t really want to talk to others outside their small team, but Nicholas thought it was a fun opportunity to share what the team were doing.
    • “I can go talk to anyone, and this is fun. And I understand our products and I understand our platform. And I can talk the tech to the point where I understand it, and I can also convey it to our engineers and put in requirements.” – Nicholas Aronne, on becoming a product owner
    • Nicholas likes the term product owner because it communicates a sense of ownership or ultimate responsibility. Sometimes product managers do not always feel like they manage the product and don’t have that level of ownership.
    • “Really at the end of the day your goal is to make sure that you take ownership of that product, and you do the best you can for the product and for your customers and your stakeholders.” – Nicholas Aronne, on the job of a product manager, whether it is called product manager, product owner, or something else

22:51 – Project Management Experience

  • Just before coming to the development team mentioned above, Nicholas had worked on a major project on Keep in mind this was around the time companies were changing their websites to support online sales.
    • More specifically, Nicholas gained project management skills from work he and others did to provide IBM website users a way to customize the configuration of machines they wanted to buy (storage, memory, etc.). This was a direct revenue stream for the company and required a lot of heavy lifting.
    • Nicholas says his personality was well suited to assign tasks to other members of this team and keep them on track.
    • “There is a form or a skillset of being a product manager….You kind of have to project manage yourself and the moving pieces, but they are two distinct roles.” – Nicholas Aronne
    • A project manager may be constantly checking to verify things are on track, but a product manager consistently analyzes things like…
      • Am I returning the value the customer expects?
      • Am I growing?
      • Is the product seen as valuable?
      • Will the customer renew their subscription to / license of the product? This is extremely important in the age of SaaS (software-as-a-service). If a customer cannot justify to their internal stakeholders that a product is driving value, they may choose not to use it any longer.
      • Product managers want their products to be “sticky” with customers. They want customers to see their product as better and something customers can leverage to achieve their desired outcomes even if there are alternative options in the marketplace.
      • “It may not have a thousand features, but it has the features I need and provides the value I need.” – Nicholas Aronne, on customer choice of a product
      • It isn’t always about adding more features so customers will buy a product. This can create what Nicholas refers to as feature fatigue.
      • “If I don’t see value in Netflix because they’re not producing enough content, I just cut it off next week.” – Nicholas Aronne
  • Part of the exercise of product teams going to speak with customers that Nicholas discussed earlier is formally referred to as product discovery and is a validation mechanism to determine if customers are gaining value from using a product.
    • “Customers are really good at identifying when they have a problem. They’re just really not good at identifying what that problem is.” – Nicholas Aronne
    • If a customer shares that a button within a software product does not work some of the time, for example, Nicholas wants to know what they are trying to achieve by using the button. As a product manager he has a team of engineers behind him but wants to understand how to use those resources to deliver more value to a customer.
    • “I want to know the problem and let us work on a solution. And then ultimately, that is why people pay for products.” – Nicholas Aronne
    • Engineers like to build things, but before doing so they should consider the type of industry they are in and why their job exists. Writing products just because we want to is not servicing the larger goal. This is quite prevalent in the tech industry with IT teams not realizing they are charged with servicing the business and its end users and providing value.

28:34 – Product Owner vs. Product Manager

  • The product owner role Nicholas described is not the same as a formal product manager title, which John mentioned came from consumer packaged goods and was later applied to software.
  • Though it might be hotly contested by people as to what product managers do, some of the “big rocks” from Nicholas’ perspective are product strategy, market analysis (part of the product strategy), and developing roadmaps.
  • Nicholas thinks the product owner came naturally to him partially due to his engineering background.
  • In a product owner world, you’re usually (according to agile) embedded with a team and very close to them.
    • People can get quite creative with organizational structures (no one right way to do it), and there could be both a product manager (PM) and a product owner (PO), for example. It’s possible to have a strategic PM and a functional PM as well.
    • The product owner role in an agile world acts as eyes and ears of the product to ensure as things move forward the product stays in alignment with the strategy set forth by the business and the product managers.
    • The product owner may seek to determine why the requirements were missed or why they were not uncovered earlier in the process (seeking to improve upon this and shorten development cycles).
    • Sometimes you have to pay more attention to what the customer doesn’t say rather than what the customer is actually saying. We need to make sure we go back and validate assumptions we are making.
    • In startups, someone may need to wear many hats or do both the product owner and product manager role. In a large enterprise, things get more focused (i.e. doing roadmaps, just gathering requirements, facing the customer, or even internal product managers and product owners who stay close to the development lifecycle.
  • During Nicholas’ time at IBM, the company did have a formal product manager role, but that role did not formally exist on his team.
    His understanding from those he knows currently at IBM is HR has now changed the titles for these to offering manager. But what we’re talking about is overall responsibilities similar to that of a RACI matrix
    • Nicholas says the team he worked on ran very similar to the way a startup does and ran lean, sharing the construct of the iron triangle – time, money, and priorities.
    • Budgets may be fixed, for example, so Nicholas and team would be very intentional about priorities and time and what they chose to deliver.
    • “That is just a natural progression of understanding the ecosystem that you’re working in and understanding the goals and what you own.” – Nicholas Aronne
  • John can see how it might be tough to embed a product manager with a development team working on a number of different projects for many different teams. Usually a product manager is aligned with the team that owns the long term roadmap for something and not just a short project. But maybe a product owner makes sense here.
    • Nicholas doesn’t think there is necessarily a right way or a wrong way to go about this, but it’s important to look at the overall goal and the metrics used to evaluate against it.
    • The challenge that still invigorates and excites Nicholas is the limitation of resources. It’s like a puzzle to solve.
    • “The idea is though…can you do it on time? Can you do it on budget? And does the customer see the value? I’m boiling it down to it being that simple, but in reality, we know it’s not. If we do our job well, it looks easy.” – Nicholas Aronne
    • There are many types of products out there (retail products, software products, etc.). For those who want to get into product, much of it is about working well with a diverse group of people like…
      • Marketers – is the product something they can market?
      • Salespeople – is the product something that can easily be sold?
      • Engineers – do they have interesting problems to solve and cool technology that makes their work exciting?
      • “Product wants to be solving problems. We are to some extent people pleasers. Yes, we want to make money. We’re all there to make money….but at the end of the day it’s got to be sustaining, and hopefully it’s growing.” – Nicholas Aronne
    • Nicholas highlights both the passion and the personality elements that product managers possess and how these present differently depending on the individual.
      • “We bring our experiences to it, and we have different ways of looking at it….Not all customers are the same, but we do have to produce one product that does cater to a mass audience….No one builds one product and says ‘I’ve made success because I have a customer.’” – Nicholas Aronne, on the product manager’s lens and definitions of success
      • Product managers need to be thinking about the next customer and the one after that. It gets easier to justify your existence as a product manager as relationships with customers are developed, especially since product teams want customers to have a long term relationship with a product.

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