Think Divergently: Preparing for Product and People Management with Nicholas Aronne (3/3)

Welcome to episode 259 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 3 of an interview with Nicholas Aronne, detailing the responsibilities of being a manager and progression paths into leading people, experience that prepared Nicholas for product management, and the idea of being a divergent thinker.

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 parts 1 and 2 of our discussion with Nicholas you can check out Episode 257 and Episode 258.

Topics – Validating Assumptions and Becoming a Manager, The Player Coach, Preparing for Product Management, A Divergent Thinker

3:10 – Validating Assumptions and Becoming a Manager

  • We’ve had previous guests whose managers kept validating assumptions that some of their employees wanted to go into management. Other guests who never wanted to go into management had their assumptions challenged and were encouraged to pursue it. How did Nicholas end up managing people in the first place, and were his assumptions about it challenged at some point?
    • Nicholas tells us pursuing a role as a manager was an aspiration early on, but he is thankful for the growth and maturity gained through other roles along the way to management.
    • Over the years people encouraged Nicholas to pursue management due to his communication skills, leadership qualities, and ability to teach and mentor others.
    • If you like being a mentor to others (regardless of your level or role), there are number of programs out there in which one could participate whether inside your company or external to it.
    • There are differences in being a manager compared to being a leader.
      • To Nicholas, being a manager makes him think of performance reviews and other HR / administrative tasks many of us would not consider fun. These types of responsibilities come with the job and cannot be exchanged for parts we like better. It’s more of an all (be a manager and accept what comes with that) or nothing (choose not to do it) kind of role.
      • Nicholas has held a number of roles as an individual contributor as well as a manager. Most recently he decided he would go back into management.
      • “It’s kind of grown into ‘I’m willing to do it and focus on what we need to do….’ I wish someone 15 years ago had sat me down and said a few choice things to me or said ‘you need to be worried about your career and here’s what you need to focus in on.’ So I’m trying to pay it back or pay it forward for the people that over the course of my career have done it in small ways….” – Nicholas Aronne, on being a manager
      • In many ways there is a lack of education on career out there. Nicholas says online forums are helpful for getting advice, but they aren’t personal.
      • “You want to get to know someone. And part of that is ‘well, I think you’d be good at this and here’s why….’ Some of us don’t always see what other people see in us.” – Nicholas Aronne, on the personal aspects of being a manager and developing people
      • Telling someone they are good at something is a form of encouragement. If someone else suggests we would be good at something, Nicholas would encourage us to try it. If we don’t like it, we can move in a different direction.
  • John says maybe we should look for organizations which would allow someone to take on the responsibilities of a manager, for example, but support taking a step back if needed without it being a negative in one’s career. Timing of making a move is also a consideration point.
    • Nicholas would agree timing is key to career moves just as location is key for real estate. There is also a fear of change and fear of the unknown to overcome.
    • Nicholas would encourage us to go back to the priority list discussed earlier (whether the list is mental or a list you wrote down). Consider what you want with a change and what is motivating you.
    • There is another scenario to consider. In your current role, you may have skills gaps preventing you from pursuing that next role you want. Nicholas would encourage the willingness to stretch ourselves to close these kinds of gaps.
    • Skills gaps might mean we need a manager to take a chance on us despite their recognition of our skills gaps. Managers also need to understand they may not find someone with a specific skill and would have no choice but to train their newly hired candidate in specific skills (whether hiring someone inside the company or external to it).
    • “From a product management perspective I’m really kind of bullish on making sure that we are mentoring and leading future product leaders….There’s always this question of academia versus the real world. Academia doesn’t tell you how to handle your career….These are the things you have to learn ‘on the job’ as they say.’” – Nicholas Aronne, on mentoring and learning from experience
      • Nicholas also mentions that academia doesn’t teach you how to navigate politics.
    • John says it might be ideal for someone to be able to work their regular job and take an extra course (perhaps even company paid) while getting a small slice of experience in something they want to pursue next. If the ideal state is not possible, perhaps someone could seek out a product manager and ask to shadow them for a day or two.
    • Nicholas mentions something he calls “fear of the what if” or fear of doing something new and not being successful.
      • This is a legitimate question it’s ok to ask yourself.
      • Honest feedback from a manager or mentor and can really help here because we need to hear it. Do they think you are trying to do more than you’re capable of doing?
      • Some companies have shadowing programs to leverage to better understand what a job role is about. This is one option.
      • Nicholas mentions product management can look different and is done differently by people. He suggests approaching someone we’re comfortable with, stating our interest in better understanding the role of a product manager, and asking to attend calls and meetings with that person. This would allow someone to see what a day in the life of a product manager is like. A shadowing experience may confirm product management is something you want to pursue and are excited about. Or it may highlight aspects of the role you really like and those you do not.
  • In terms of a manager’s willingness to take a risk on someone who may not have all the experience, how can candidates determine what an acceptable ramp time might be once they take a new role?
    • This can be addressed head on by the candidate in a screening call with HR. Share what you read in the job description (which you should always do) and ask about the areas where you have gaps (i.e. an area that needs work for you, an area where you have no knowledge / experience) and allowable tolerances and time frames (i.e. 30 days, etc.).
      • The recruiter or talent acquisition person may encourage you to have a conversation with the hiring manager about these areas or may tell you there is steep competition in the candidate pool and they need to check with the manager. It depends on how well equipped the person who screens you happens to be.
      • Nicholas believes being up front and owning your skills gaps is the best strategy here. Asking the questions mentioned above shows you care about the position and have read the job description. It also shows you have self-awareness about stumbling blocks which need to be overcome.

13:47 – The Player Coach

  • Is the player coach role that Nicholas holds today (part people manager and part individual contributor) a common stepping stone into full on people management?
    • It depends on company size and many other factors, but the player coach role can be found at many companies.
    • If a manager has 10-15 direct reports, there would not be enough time and bandwidth to own a product and its strategy in addition to managing a team of people, so in this scenario a full-time people manager makes more sense than a player coach.
    • A people manager in product management would own the overall product portfolio at a high level, both providing oversight and coaching to the team they manager.
    • John mentions our friend and former guest John Nicholson. When Nicholson went into Technical Marketing his manager at the time still had individual contributor responsibilities to do technical marketing work and did not cease all of it once he started managing people.
      • There is a difference between filling in for people on the team you manage and still having specific individual contributor responsibilities in addition to managing others. In the case of Nicholson’s boss, he seemed to eventually transition to acting only as a fill in for other team members. Is it possible being a player coach is only a transition point?
      • To hear more of John Nicholson’s story, check out Episode 224, Episode 225, and Episode 226.
    • Whether you are a leader of a team of product managers (i.e. a PM of PMs) or a leader of a team of technical marketers (i.e. a tech marketer of tech marketers), you are tasked with multiple things, such as:
      • Making sure each individual contributor is growing to better the team, to make the company better, and to better serve customers
      • Stepping in when people leave the team to ensure business can continue (i.e. backfilling some of the work on your own or dividing up the work of the person who left, etc.)
      • Seeking to backfill open roles when people leave the team
      • Restructuring the team (for a financial reason, to support the type of work, etc.)

18:10 – Preparing for Product Management

  • Nicholas had brought scrum methodologies and practices into development teams at IBM, and he took much of the transformation aspects with him into later roles such as experience restructuring teams, developing performance and productivity metrics and goals, etc.
  • Some opportunities came to Nicholas over the course of his career which were unexpected.
  • Nicholas has adopted a mantra similar to that of Mary Poppins, showing up when needed and leaving when no longer needed.
    • “At the end of the day I like to solve problems. I like to leave things better than I found them. I take heart and I take a lot of pride in working with others and trying to deliver the outcomes. And it’s not always easy…there’s bureaucracy and politics and the whole nine yards.” – Nicholas Aronne
    • Nicholas has found sometimes he hits a “glass ceiling” where he may no longer be in the right role. This could be a result of a lack the authority to make necessary changes or learning of a new opportunity in line with current career trajectory and aspirations.
      • As we discussed earlier, Nicholas makes decisions based on priorities (i.e. money, flexibility, etc.).
  • At one point Nicholas took a role as a consultant which involved heavy travel to work at customer sites. His wife was very supportive during this time, and it was a role which allowed him to grow.
    • “Even if you’re not the expert, guess what? You are the expert.” – Nicholas Aronne, on being a consultant
    • Nicholas learned many of the skills needed for product management in this role such as:
      • Understanding why the customer thought they had a problem and what the problem was
      • Bringing people together to collectively solve problems
      • Providing insight on a problem or situation based on experience which others may not see
    • Nicholas greatly enjoyed the consulting role but left it partially due to the travel requirements (wanting to spend time with family) and partially because he was contacted by a recruiter about a role on a new team focused on transformation.
      • Nicholas had a very good interview with the recruiter and then the hiring manager. He tells us it was easy to have a conversation with the hiring manager, the objectives and needs of the role were clear, and Nicholas was straightforward about his needs in a new role (i.e. what it would take for him to leave).
      • “It’s always good to be open to a conversation. That would be another piece of career advice I would tell you….Open up the possibility of what if to just having a conversation.” – Nicholas Aronne
      • Though Nicholas was not really looking for a job at the time this new opportunity came to him, and having the conversation helped him understand how much it sounded like something he would greatly enjoy. Nicholas and his wife decided together that he should take the new job.
  • Nicholas worked for a startup for a while and eventually landed at VMware. Though he was not part of SaltStack before it was acquired by VMware, Nicholas was hired by the former SaltStack Senior Vice President of Product Marketing.
    • Nicholas’ desire upon joining the company was to integrate Salt and SaltStack into the greater cloud management portfolio at VMware. He is excited that VMware Cloud Foundation (VCF) will be using Salt for configuration and compliance management.
    • Nicholas’ company was a startup before coming to VMware that did work on top of vRA (vRealize Automation, now Aria Automation). Nicholas was at EMC before this focused on enterprise hybrid cloud.
    • But the story goes all the way back to IBM. Nicholas had a colleague and friend from IBM who left and got a role in PSO (professional services) at VMware. Nicholas and this person are still friends, and that same friend referred Nicholas for the role at VMware when he was looking for a new opportunity.
      • “We live in a much smaller world than anyone gives us credit for…. Making that mark and distinguishing your brand as a person and being someone that gets stuff done but also…because you get it, you’re willing to listen, willing to dig your feet in when you need to and make your point when you need to, you’re willing to bend and flex when that’s needed. That’s what gets you that reputation, that brand…so the next job opportunity potentially is looking for you, not you looking for it.” – Nicholas Aronne, on the importance of professional networking and reputation
      • We might think of a specific person being great for a certain role just like we want others to think of us for new opportunities.
  • Nicholas tells us he loves remote work, but there’s no way to replace the energy of in-person collaboration, especially standing face-to-face at a whiteboard.
    • The benefits of remote work are things like no commute time and not needing to leave an office early to pick up kids, etc.
    • Nicholas believes we should use the technology to help us be more efficient but not in a way that takes advantage of situations.

26:43 – A Divergent Thinker

  • John mentions the phrase divergent thinker is listed on Nicholas’ LinkedIn profile, and we’re told this is in a way part of a branding.

    • While we could certainly look up a definition for the phrase, Nicholas has prided himself on his ability to break down problems and think through them differently.
    • Nicholas sometimes sees others struggle with problem solving. Being a divergent thinker is highly associated with a willingness to take risks and relates to having a comfort level with change.
    • It’s about thinking through and solving hard problems and working with / collaborating with others who may have skills we lack.
    • Technology breakthroughs can happen because someone had an idea and took a risk, from thinking about a problem from a different angle (and perhaps having others invest in an idea), or from someone getting the opportunity to do something they were not previously able to do.
    • Nicholas would classify Steve Jobs as a divergent thinker.
      • Before the iPhone, we had the Blackberry. Nicholas references a recent documentary film on Blackberry.
      • At first people couldn’t imagine the usefulness of a phone without a keyboard (in the time before the iPhone). Steve Jobs helped reimagine the user experience with the iPhone and didn’t like anything he saw in the market before that.
    • “Getting back to the divergent thinker, it is about being able to just maybe take something and twist it 90 degrees or 22 degrees or whatever it is to figure out if there’s something more there. And from a product perspective we are always asked to be stretching the boundaries…. Some of these things on the surface don’t look connected, but maybe they are. Let’s explore that.” – Nicholas Aronne, on being a divergent thinker
      • Stretching boundaries with a product could mean gaining more market share, penetrating new markets, or developing a new product for a new segment of the market.
      • Mind mapping exercises are helpful to determine any connections between ideas / concepts which on the surface don’t seem connected.
      • “It goes back to what I said earlier…being able to see things that either other people don’t see and connect the dots or being able to recognize other people’s skills and apply them there. Because I don’t have to be good at everything, but I do know people that have passion and are good at other things…. Hey, let’s work together, and I learn something from you and you’ll learn from me. But ultimately we’re going to do it together. We’re just going to be the best of ourselves.” – Nicholas Aronne, on divergent thinking and collaboration with others
    • Though we should not completely ignore our weaknesses, Nicholas would recommend we embrace and know our strengths and work toward them.
      • This is the strategy Nicholas has used in his career, and he has grown and learned along the way.
      • A specific weakness may actually be a strength depending on how you use it. Nicholas mentions asking a lot of questions versus not asking a lot of questions. He likes to ask questions that challenge people to explain and validate their assumptions to move forward together with others in a common direction.
      • John mentions this goes back to the idea of writing down our assumptions from previous parts of the interview, and we revisit the idea of creating a visual representation of the idea in our head for others to see and help iterate upon.
      • “No one’s sitting there manufacturing ideas that turn into gold because…for every one great success story I’m sure those people and I know from my experience will tell you about 10 or 12 or more failures but again how we adapted that or used that to catapult us forward into the next endeavor.” – Nicholas Aronne, on successful ideas and concepts coming from collaboration and iteration
  • To follow up on this conversation, you can reach out to Nicholas

    • On LinkedIn virtualnick
    • By e-mail
    • Nicholas is happy to have a conversation or to provide mentorship / direction.
  • Mentioned in the outro

    • Remember you can follow up with guests directly in addition to listening to their story.
    • Some of the aspects of being a divergent thinker sound a lot like aspects of a really good manager. For those wanting to go into people management, don’t overlook the relatable experience points.
      • Knowing our strengths and weaknesses takes self-awareness and humility. Recognizing how other people can help us and that we need help in the first place requires humility.
      • There is a people development aspect to collaborating with others and pulling them in to help us with a task or project.
      • Collaborating with others is also a form of networking (which can lead people to recommend us for jobs).
    • Job interviews and addressing skills gaps are an opportunity to show your work and how you are being proactive about filling those gaps.
    • A consultant role sounds like relatable experience for product management such as:
      • Working intimately with customers and collaborating with multiple people in a customer environment
      • Understanding what a customer is trying to do
      • Exposure to many different customers potentially
    • For more discussions focused on product management, check out our series of discussions with David Babbitt.

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