GUIDE 2023

Product Q&A with Ken Norton

Ken Norton

About: Ken is a product partner at GV where he provides product and engineering support to startups. Prior to joining GV, Ken was a group product manager at Google. In his years as a PM at Google, Ken led product initiatives for Docs, Calendar, and Google Mobile Maps. Ken joined Google in 2006 with the acquisition of JotSpot, where he was vice president of products.

Before JotSpot, Ken led product management at Yahoo Search. Back in the day when he was a software engineer, he was one of the first 50 employees of CNET and the founding CTO of Snap (which became NBC Internet). Ken has written extensively about the craft of product management.

His classic essay “How to Hire a Product Manager” became the playbook for a generation of PMs. He’s also the reason donuts and product management have become synonymous. He earned his bachelor’s from Boston University and master’s from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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Select questions and answers from the AMA:

How do you foster a good relationship with an Engineering Manager, who technically manages the engineering team?

A strong relationship between eng manager and PM won’t guarantee success, but a bad relationship can guarantee failure. Like any relationship, you need to work on it.

It’s a beautiful thing when eng and PM are on the same page and have a healthy relationship, which, by the way, includes healthy tension. There is no one size fits all approach.

Be willing to ask questions, don’t be afraid to ask for explanations, or to back up if there’s something you didn’t get.

Earlier in my career I thought saying to an eng mgr “I didn’t understand anything you just said,” was the worst thing you could say, now I know it’s one of the best.

When is the right time to have a more senior role at a growing startup vs. an established tech company? When is the right time to become the “ultimate” PM and move from being a PM at a company to being a founder of your own company?

Early in your career I always recommend you look for a role at an established high-growth company that still has lots of room to grow. Good brands on your resume matter a lot early in your career. You will learn how to build things at scale and you will have others to learn from and be mentored by. (Andy Rachleff does a good job articulating this argument here:

There is always time to be a founder, and having the experience and network will matter. Your network will matter a lot, and a high-growth company with momentum is the best place to get one.

After 20 years in Silicon Valley, if a startup crosses my desk at GV I’m surprised if I don’t know at least someone on the management team. If I don’t, I certainly know people to ask about them.

My tech lead at Yahoo! ended up co-founding WhatsApp. My product marketing manager on Google Docs co-founded Instagram. A co-worker from the CNET days is the US Ambassador to England. That’s worth more than whatever experience I might have gained starting a company earlier in my career.

How do you tell key stakeholders no? “No, you won’t fix some issue. No, you won’t add some enhancement. Etc…”

A quick but firm no is always better than dragging things along. It might not be the answer people want to hear, but they’ll appreciate having certainty. Always explain why you reached the decision you did. They might not agree, but you should be transparent about your thought process.

What do you think are the most important things to have mastered at each level in climbing from PM —> Sr PM —> PM Director?

Varies by company of course, but roughly speaking I see:

Individual contributor PM -> Senior PM: ability to own a whole product. Ability to set direction and strategy, versus implementing it. I would look for someone who can have impact outside of their product area in a larger organization and who can make cross-organizational products happen.

PM Director: being a strong manager is the biggest difference here. Ability to be a mentor, to hire, and to grow PMs. Ability to represent product at the C-level table, strong working relationship with founders, CEO, CTO/VP Eng. etc.

What’s Ken’s favorite interview question to ask a PM?

Can’t answer that unfortunately, or I’d never be able to ask it again 🙂 Have listed a bunch here of course: How to Hire a Product Manager.

How would you define great product culture in a company? What are companies (small, mid, and large-sized) that you think have world-class product organizations & great product culture?

There is no one right product culture. I have huge admiration for Apple and Slack, for example, but they have very different cultures.

Signs of a good product culture: making a great product is considered part of everyone’s job, there’s not “the people who build the product” and “other jobs.” There’s a relentless focus on the problem being solved, the problem is more important than the product.

Talk to people on Google’s search team and you hear more about the problem of not finding answers than you do about the design of the search page itself. At Slack, you’ll hear a lot about the problem of helping teams communicate effectively.

Good product organizations know that the product is a means to an end, the end being solving the problem.

For a growing company, have you seen a “best” org structure for engineering, product, and design? What should we aim for?

Head of Product needs to report to the CEO. Ideally, all three of those leads do: eng, product, and design. It’s a mistake to have product subservient to one of the other functions, especially if the founder isn’t a strong Product CEO.

What is your biggest piece of advice for people who want to get into PM and have no (official) experience yet?

I always recommend that people looking to move into PM do so at their current company. It’s much easier to move into a product role in your current company, especially a startup than it is to get hired as a first-time PM somewhere else. You’ve already proven yourself and have a strong relationship with the team.

The good news is most companies are excited and accommodating: it’s difficult to fill product roles and to fill it with someone we already know and trust is a win-win.

What do you think about the current obsession on the market towards mobile?

I guess I reject the premise here somewhat: it assumes that you can’t do both and that the people who using desktop computers are different than the people who use mobile. They’re the same people, just in different circumstances.

Mobile is still under-hyped, believe it or not. Consumers are now spending more time on their mobile devices than on desktop. That is rapidly becoming the case in the enterprise. Soon it won’t be a question of how much time they spend on mobile versus desktop, but whether or not they even have a desktop computer.

Mobile isn’t a fad, it’s a sea-change in technology that we’ve only seen a handful of times (personal computers, the internet). In the workplace, desktop is still king but that’s changing fast. Lots of companies will be left behind if they can’t make that leap.

In classic innovator’s dilemma fashion, you might not see it coming: the mobile-only threat will seem amateurish if you compare it on a feature-by-feature basis.

There will also be a massive leapfrog effect globally as countries that never had the entrenched desktop infrastructure will be quick to adopt mobile in the workplace.

What are some org. patterns that work well in a multi-device, multi-platform world?

I’ve seen startups have some success with “mission teams” (have also heard them called “pods” or “swimming lanes”). They may be short-lived or long-lasting. This is where a cross-functional product team is assembled to solve a particular user problem.

For a consumer product, you might have a PM, designer, front-end engineer, iOS engineer, and Android engineer on such a team. It’s ideal if you have a flexible workspace where people can move their desks to also sit near each other. This allows the team to identify with the problem rather than the platform.

Some have an allergic reaction to this because (a) it means there will be some duplication of effort across the teams, and (b) you’ll have multiple teams in the same codebases. That’s true and needs to be carefully managed, but good eng management isn’t about being a gatekeeper, it’s about being an enabler.

It’s a cultural question about which you care most about: solving the user’s problem, or having perfect efficiencies in engineering.

What do you think are the main differences between “good” and “great” Product Managers? What advice would you give a “good” Product Manager who is trying to be “great”?

Hmm, tough question. Many times it comes down to situational awareness.

Great PMs are hyperaware of everything around them, they’re quick to pick up on problems early.  They have deep empathy for everything that’s going on around them with their teams, their users, etc.

I’ve seen good PMs fail because they were slow to detect problems. It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily reckless and not deliberate, just that you’re so acutely aware of the environment you’re operating in that you can steer when necessary.

Kind of like how a brilliant athlete like Wayne Gretzky or Steph Curry always seems to know what’s going on around them.

What is the single biggest mistake you see PMs making?

Related to the last answer, I don’t think there’s any one thing.

Commonly: confusing their own needs with that of their users, acting like they’re the boss, not listening to their team, becoming too married to their own ideas, and not changing their mind based on data.

Most commonly though, I see PMs become too solution-oriented and not problem-oriented enough.

Your job is to own the problem you’re aiming to solve and understand it deeply.

Whatever you’re building is just a means to solving that problem.

If you care too much about the solution, you’ll be blind to shortcuts or won’t have the wherewithal to know when to throw out your current solution and try something better. You’ll also be more likely to build what the customers ask for instead of what might actually solve their problem more effectively.

When you look at how you spent your week, what percentage was spent understanding the problem versus the solution?

How important a factor is the team (engineering especially) in making product decisions? It seems like most of our work is communicating the needs/goals of customers, but how should we factor in our team’s capacity?

Team is everything.

It’s important to think of the customer communication part of your job as a two-way street. Some of the most innovative solutions are going to come from your team.

I like to keep the conversation problem-focused: make sure the team fully internalizes the problem we’re solving, so they can look for ways to solve it that aren’t preordained.

At Google we like to stay objective-focused: here’s where we want to be, and here’s how we’ll measure our progress. Now it’s up to the team to figure out how to get there.

How much value do you place on an MBA for a product manager’s career? Particularly interested in your thoughts on an MBA’s value later on in the career for somebody looking to make the move from Senior PM to VP/ CPO.

An MBA can be useful, but generally speaking, I don’t think it’s usually more valuable than two years of real experience building products. MBAs aren’t an advantage, nor do I consider them a liability.

Good reason to get an MBA: you want to “round out” your skillset and learn more about how the business is run and you want to build your network. Bad reason to get an MBA: you want to accelerate your PM career.

What are your thoughts on freemium, freemium+PQLs, and/or free trial windows for B2B products? What’s the best way to discover which business model works best for your product, in your experience, especially if you’re thinking about changing models?

Freemium models can be amazing, especially in the enterprise. They shift purchasing decisions from IT to the actual users of the product. It separates “should I use this?” from “should I buy this?”

Then you can take advantage of this contagion that happens when a product explodes inside of a company. We saw that with Google, you can see it with Slack.

It’s not perfect for every product though, and I’ve seen cases where it can hurt because it lowers the perceived value of the product in the minds of the purchasers. With pricing and selling models you need to constantly be experimenting.

Recognize that whatever you do will probably need to change based on what you learned. Also keep in mind some counterintuitive advice I got from a CEO I admire: you can always raise prices.

I resigned from my first job as a PM because the company refused to understand users’ problems and wanted me to drive my own ideas/solutions instead.  How would you have dealt with my experience?

I wrote about this exact topic in my newsletter this morning: When Product Culture Is Rotten.

What’s the best way to showcase PM skills (on paper and on interview) when your PM experience came from starting your own startup?

PM skills should first and foremost be evaluated based on the product. So I’d shine the spotlight on what you’ve built.

How many donuts do you eat a day?

I hardly ever have donuts, believe it or not. Maybe a handful of times a year? But people bring me lots of donuts, and my team always appreciates that.

Do you think we’re moving closer to an “industry-standard” understanding and definition of the Product Manager role across companies and the industry?

More so than a decade ago, for sure. I don’t think there will ever be an industry-standard definition, because inevitably industries and companies differ. But we have a standard vocabulary as a starting point, and that’s a good thing. We’ve seen that happen in UX, now in Dev Ops, etc.

I’ve often found while looking for a new PM job, that a lot of “Product Manager” positions seem to be really Product Owner positions, i.e. writing user stories, working with dev, technical, technical, technical, and yet ZERO requirements or description about Users, solutions, market, vision, etc… Do you think companies understand yet what a PM does, or do you think a lot of companies still see the PM as an internal-facing only role? And what do you do about this?

Do you see this inside or outside of Silicon Valley? I know things are different outside, I rarely see product owners in SV. Good idea to focus on the role itself and not so much on the title. I’ve seen PM as I defined it called lots of different things.

What daily habits should existing and aspiring PMs implement to become better? What are some of yours?

Reading. I set out in 2016 to read more. And I don’t mean tech news, I mean books. I’m off to a good start and every day I realize how much I’ve gained from reading regularly, especially when it comes to topics not (supposedly) relevant to my day job.

For companies that haven’t had formalized product roles before, what is the most important thing for the product team to do in the first 90 days?

There’s a little bit about that in this piece I wrote: What to Do In Your First 30 Days

If the role is new to the company, I’d treat the first few months as being about establishing the role versus establishing yourself. If the role is new to others, they’ll quickly decide whether or not they think it makes their lives easier or harder.

It’s a good opportunity to show them how much the org will gain from having good product leadership.

Top book recommendation at the moment?

Favorite non-fiction books I’ve read this year are Yes to the Mess and Smarter Faster Better. Favorite fiction book is Hyperion.

How do you ensure that you don’t get bogged down in the day-to-day of Product Management and take time out to come up with a compelling, innovative product vision and strategy?

This is one of the hardest challenges as a PM, especially for someone who is more engineering and execution-oriented like me. I like the Now/Next/Later way of dividing up my time.

I look back on every week and make sure I have spent the right balance on Now, Next (what’s coming next) and Later (the future).

If I feel like I haven’t spent enough time thinking farther out, I’ll usually block off time in my calendar to make sure it really happens.

If you were going to go back to being a Product Manager today, what company, product, and/or role would be your dream?

Slack. Huge admiration for Stewart who I’ve known from my Yahoo days. They have a wonderful, inclusive, product-oriented culture. They are growing like gangbusters, yet there’s still so much to be done. Reminds me of Google in 2002 when I first interviewed.

What’s the best way to convey a roadmap or vision to a VC and/or Board? What works best for you?

For the board, I like the Now/Next/Later way of framing the discussion. The definition of Later might vary (could be six months or six years).

Most of the PM roles in the industry are software-focused.  What skill sets do you think are important for Hardware PMs to have, especially since development cycles are much longer and it may not be so easy to test out ideas?

For hardware PMs, I like to see the ability to prototype. Hardware PMs need to look for ways to shorten the time between a hypothesis and data. I always know a good hardware PM when they walk in with a block of wood or 3D printed something-or-other

For people interviewing at places like Google, there is a lot of emphasis on preparation for PM Interview. Are you starting to find false-positives, of people who studied how to answer questions for interviews rather than making good product managers? I’ve been studying those question formats for a month now and feel like I’m studying to pass the test rather than learning to be a better PM.

Yes, for sure. It’s definitely a concern. Kind of like people who are good at taking the SAT, but not necessarily good at the topics covered. We do a pretty good job filtering that out. The truth eventually comes out. Our philosophy has always been to avoid false positives. We’d rather pass on some excellent people than hire someone who isn’t fit for the job.

I’ve recently found myself in a situation where the CEO was interfering “too much” imho. of course, as a CEO and founder (investing a lot of money) he just simply couldn’t stay focused on bizdev, sales etc. without interfering with sprints, backlog, updating feature descriptions, and so on. It is frustrating 😉 How do you think, who should own the product? To what extent? do you think the situation above is a common one?

I believe the Product CEO should always own the product. But day-to-day stewardship eventually needs to be taken by others. It’s hard to find the right balance, for both. I’ve written about it a bit here:

Product Manager Zero
The PM Mind Meld

I know there is a lot of stuff on how to hire a PM, but how should a PM choose his next project/team? How would you choose? What would you look for or at?

Spend time with the team. Spend time with the CEO (or GM or whomever) to make sure you understand what they expect from the role, and how they see it fitting into the org. Spend time with the product, understanding the problem, and making sure you’re passionate about it.

When I see a mismatch, often it’s because the incoming PM didn’t fully vet the team and org, and had the wrong expectations about what their role would be.

PMs are quick to fall in love with the product and that can cloud our vision.

What’s your definition of what makes a good product strategy?

A good product strategy is more focused on the problem than the product. In the early days at Google Mobile Maps I remember our vision being “imagine a day when you never get lost.”

It sounded kind of ridiculous at the time (not so ridiculous now) but it was very focusing on the team. It was easy to explain, easy for people to understand the problem we wanted to solve, and helped us, most importantly, decide what not to do.

Ok, so if you don’t live in SV, how do you get a PM job in SV? How do you network before you get there (yes I know that’s what I’m doing now). But any tips/secrets? magic potion?

PMs are in huge demand here, so it’s probably easier than it ever has been to get in the door. I find that people outside SV are too quick to discount the connections they might already have, They assume “well, I don’t know that person well enough.”

But you have to realize a huge percentage of what people like me do all day is play matchmaker. We’re always happy to make an introduction if (1) you can give me a clear, compelling reason why it’s good for both sides, (2) you make it easy on me by giving me something I can forward without having to do a ton of work.

I also insist on two-sided intros: meaning I’ll ask the person on the other side first before I make an intro.

What’s the best way to measure new features in B2B? Percent of users that engage with the feature?  Time to complete a task?

Keep it focused on the problem. Time to engage might not be so great if your goal is to help the user spend less time on the problem.

There are different metrics across product areas and industries. Be wary of vanity metrics, and be extra wary of having too many metrics. Finding the right metric that directionally connects to the job to be done is hard.

Also, don’t be quick to dismiss a feature because only a small percentage of users interact with it. I like to build products for power users because I want everyone to become a power user.

In 2006, I remember lots of Googlers asking us to add search to Google Docs. We looked at the numbers and discovered that users had something like an average of 1.2 docs. You could say “well, only the top 1% will ever need search” or you could say “we want everyone to need search, these Googlers are leading indicators of a problem we want everyone to have.”

Followup on strategy: can you talk a bit more about the content of that artifact?

For me, it was usually a doc or maybe a short video. I’ve had success creating a narrated, short, video with mockups or animations that describes the world we want to build.

It’s something that helps people visualize what you’re after, and it’s also something you can point more and more people to. It’s fun when they take on a life of their own. Also, fun (but scary) to go back and look at years later.