GUIDE 2023

Product Q&A with Marty Cagan

Before founding the Silicon Valley Product Group to pursue his interests in helping others create successful products through his writing, speaking, advising and coaching, Marty Cagan served as an executive responsible for defining and building products for some of the most successful companies in the world, including Hewlett-Packard, Netscape Communications, and eBay.

Marty began his career with a decade as a software developer at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories conducting research on software technology and building several software products for other software developers.

After HP, Marty joined a then young Netscape Communications Corporation where he had the opportunity to participate in the birth of the Internet industry. Martin worked directly for co-founder Marc Andreessen, where he was vice-president for Netscape’s platform and tools, and later e-commerce applications, and worked to help Internet startups and Fortune 500 companies alike to understand and utilize the newly emerging technology.

Marty was most recently senior vice-president of product and design for eBay, where he was responsible for defining products and services for the company’s global e-commerce trading site.

During his career, Marty has personally performed and managed most of the roles of a modern software product organization, including product management, software development, product marketing, user experience design, software testing, engineering management, and general management.

As part of his work with SVPG, Marty is an invited speaker at major conferences and top companies across the globe.

Marty is a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz with B.A. degrees in Computer Science and Applied Economics, and of the Stanford University Executive Institute.

He is also the author of the book INSPIRED: How to Create Products Customers Love.

On the web:
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How would you balance product decisions in marketplaces taking into account the horizontal nature of the marketplaces and how much should one focus on the user journey and decision-making inside a specific category?

So in terms of prioritizing, the key is:

  1. a) To have a clear vision and especially
  2. b) A reasoned, intentional product strategy (to deliver on that vision), and then that strategy is what drives the objectives for each product team.  

You can use OKR’s or some other outcome-based system but the key is that each team has a small of important problems to solve.

If a product idea holds promise to achieve one of your objectives, then we pursue it in product discovery; otherwise maybe later.

Do you see a closer convergence between marketing & product happening in the next 5-8 years? In your opinion, should PMs be looking to actively invest and bring up their skills in growth & marketing?

Another good question about whether or not product and marketing will be converging – my view on this is that both product and product marketing are changing pretty substantially, and to do either well there’s a high bar in terms of appreciation and knowledge of the other.

However, I am not expecting the roles to converge as they are each only getting bigger and more important and more difficult.

Are there any templates or resources that you use/developed to outline what you want to do next?

As for templates, I am generally allergic to them and consider them more problematic than beneficial. Modern product is not a recipe or playbook.

You need to create the right environment for success – especially culture, people, and team, and then employ the right techniques at the right time.

How do you most effectively make the switch from being a product manager to being a manager of product managers? What are some considerations to keep in mind when positioning yourself for that transition, and during the transition itself?

In terms of progressing from managing products to managing product managers, my partner Chris Jones wrote about that recently:  

I would love thoughts on how to help my org transition from teams of shared resources to more of a cross-functional squad set up. Are there ways for me to get started in that direction with just my own product managers to pave the way in hopes that I will be able to get the rest of the org to follow?

In terms of moving to modern product teams/squads, if you’re looking for help, my favorite suggestion is to use a discovery coach ( for this – there are several really good ones out there now.

Our company does not have much experience in the area of user research/usability testing. When I bring it up to the CTO, he pushes back on it and sees it as a waste of time. What advice would you have to help to show/communicate the value of user interviews and usability testing to bring the CTO on board?

Stephen asks a good question about what to do when the product org reports to the CTO and the CTO doesn’t know or about UX (either user research and/or product design). This is why it’s pretty rare that product managers report to the CTO.

Usually, the VP Product and the CTO are peers, and that’s by design and importance. The VP Product normally has responsibility for PM and UX, and they are there to represent these needs with the senior leadership team.

Just as it is also generally bad when engineers are asked to report to the head of product and that head of product doesn’t understand the risks and seriousness of not addressing tech debt.

Do you think there are any product/business types/models that are “best” to be in as a PM with a long-term career focus (meaning, enterprise/B2B; b2c, free to use vs annual contract style), or are they just all different and equally potentially educational?

Another good career question about whether it’s best to work in B2C or some other area like enterprise B2B… In general, it’s more common to find best practices applied in consumer companies. However, there are great B2B companies now, and there have always been and always will be some terrible consumer companies.

My best advice for new product managers is to worry less about the type of product service and worry more about the specific manager you would be reporting to – if it’s someone coming from a company with a proven record of winning products and the hiring manager is committed to personal coaching and developing you for at least a year, then take that job.

Thanks for sharing your 2016 blog post on Discovery Coaches. I’m glad to hear that you think there are several really good ones out there now! Could you suggest a few, or point us towards a place where we can find your suggestions? Was just talking w/ my team about hiring a consultant for this type of work.

In terms of discovery coaches, some terrific ones are Jeff Patton, Teresa Torres, Holly Hester-Reilly, Jim Morris, Petra Wille, Ha Nguyen (note that SVPG has no financial ties to anyone we recommend).

Other than your own book, what book you have recommended the most to other product managers?
Several questions about recommended books: The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Principles, and Sprint are a few exceptionally good ones.

Do you have any advice on how to get designers more technically-integrated into the production process? E.g. On a very tactical level, what’s the best way to get designers to understand the tools (APIs in this instance) they have at their disposal for solving user problems?

In terms of more deeply integrating your work with your product designer, the simplest and probably most-effective thing to do is simply ensure that you sit literally side-by-side with your designer, and you’re there solving problems (and visiting users and customers) together.

Be sure to also include the engineers, at least the tech lead, every day.

What would you say the role of PM is changing into?

As for the evolution of the PM role, I am seeing the role becoming more difficult and more essential, especially for growth stage and enterprise companies (for early-stage startups it’s usually one of the co-founders and I think that’s a good thing).

This article talks about one dimension of this:

Our company has a pretty small product team – just myself and an Associate PM. Are there specific online courses or training opportunities that you would recommend as I plan out how to learn myself and how to train the other person on our team?

As far as where to get training on how to be a great PM, my first choice is always your own company’s VP Product, assuming you have an experienced head of product, but if for any reason that’s not an option, that’s why I’m still doing the occasional public workshops.

I am a Business Analyst responsible for our Corporate Systems. We are part of the Ops Division, however, we rely heavily on working with Engineering/Product (e.g. on topics of data flow and system architecture). What do you recommend to foster collaboration between Eng/Product and Ops? Is there maybe even a way to convince that Corporate Systems should be part of Product?

There are two kinds of “corporate systems” out there – those that are truly enabling the customer’s experience (referred to as “customer enabling product”) and those that are truly internal (if it goes down your customers won’t notice or care).

Customer-enabling systems need to be treated as first-class products. As a side note, if this is the case for you, you’ll need to up-level yourself as part of that from the BA role to the true PM role.

How would you recommend shifting a company to be product-driven (i.e. instead of Sales selling features/products and then throwing it over the wall to product, Sales should be selling what’s coming up in the product roadmap)?

Whenever I find “sales driven” product companies, it’s always been the case that the product team was not doing what it needs to do, and so being sales-driven is the consequence of the issue, not the cause of the issue.

In these companies, I push the product teams hard to orient everything around reference customers. Provide the sales organization reference customers and this changes the dynamics. The customer discovery techniques are designed around facilitating this.

Marty, if any, what is the one thing you wish all PMs should know but don’t?

That the Product Owner responsibilities (as defined in a typical CSPO class) are not even 10% of the job of a true product manager.

However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t know everything there is to know about product owners.
Great Product Owner
What advice would you give PMs advocating for agile best practices in a high-growth company where elements of upper management are starting to lean away from agile?

In terms of the questions around frustration/disappointment with Agile, it’s important to understand that Agile really doesn’t tackle the hard problems.

Don’t get me wrong; you should be running some form of Agile, but it’s just a delivery process.  This article says more on this:

I just read your book and loved it, I was worried I was approaching OKR’s too granularly than you recommend.

The single most important thing with OKR’s, and the thing that so many get wrong, is that each cross-functional product team/squad needs a set of objectives specific to their team.  Don’t get confused with functional team objectives, or with individual objectives.

I’ve used a variety of software platforms for PM but find that all of them have fallen short in certain areas.  What are your thoughts as to how to find/choose a platform and make it work for all stakeholders, managing individual use cases/requirements all the way up to integrating them with a high-level roadmap?

As to the question about “platforms” for product managers – I assume you’re referring to tools for product managers, mostly for creating and tracking roadmaps and requirements (let me know if I’ve misunderstood).  But assuming this is what you mean, then the truth is that I don’t like any of these tools that I’ve seen – to me they institutionalize bad behaviors.

What’s the most important failure you made in your journey/career & what did you learn from it?

As to learning from failure, lots of mistakes but I do think I learned from all of them – learned about the importance of true collaboration with engineering and design; learned about managing large and vocal communities of users; learned about dealing with all types of senior executives and board members; learned about the importance of culture; learned about the importance of both strong leadership and strong management… the list goes on.

Do you have any advice for non-technical founders?

When you say non-technical founders, not sure if you mean a founder who has little background in technology or little in the product. IMHO both are very important for startup founders.  Both can and should be developed.