Paul Chen is the Senior Director of Product Management at Komprise. He has extensive experience in product management and technical marketing roles. We asked him about his career journey in product management and the skills necessary to succeed.
How and why did you get into software product management?
I loved to build things as a kid–even when I was a teen. Then I studied engineering and was a TA in graduate school and I found that I really enjoyed teaching. Through this process I realized that I didn’t want to be coding by myself all day, but I wanted a more people-oriented technical position. I started my career in customer support and then moved to product marketing where I was explaining and evangelizing the products and vision. Then I moved to product management and realized this was where I should have started. I love helping people and working at companies where products really help customers do what they need to do and be more efficient or build things or be more secure.
How has the job changed over the years?
Product management hasn’t changed that much over the years. It’s about listening to customers and prospects, hearing their challenges, crafting the requirements to meet those needs and working with engineering to translate those requirements into new features and hopefully delighting customers with the new release. In the end it’s all about communications with customers.
How do you work with customers as a product manager?
When working with a prospect, sales is doing their due diligence, but the prospect may have deeper questions. We start by asking simple questions about their goals and often end up getting surprising answers. They may have legacy tech issues that they have struggled with for decades or have gone through a series of acquisitions and are sorting through a technology mess. Rule number-one with a prospect is to never contradict sales. The goal is to back up sales while also trying to help prospects get perspective on their needs and what the product can offer. If there is a box the product doesn’t check, how important is that right now? If there is a show-stopping feature that a prospect really wants, we will work behind the scenes to get it done within a few months after they sign. The ultimate goal is to sell what’s on the truck. With existing customers, communications may be related to a renewal or to help them with any issues and discuss new use cases. We are small and agile, and we do listen and try to give customers solutions to their most pressing problems in data management.
How can product managers get closer to the customer and help the development team at the same time? Is this a conflict?
Yes, product managers must listen to both. You need to listen to customers and their issues and what they think is a solution. But it’s important to discern what the actual problem is and brainstorm with engineering on a solution. It’s critical to get engineering involved early in the process because they know the technology and what they can deliver.
If you leave engineering in a vacuum and just say ‘the customer wants this feature,’ they may end up delivering something that doesn’t address the problem at all.
What do you need to consider if you are looking into a product management career at a small company/startup?
Any startup or smaller company will have fewer resources, so your job will probably be wider than the job description. You end up doing a lot of related tasks–such as presales engineering to help a young or inexperienced sales team. Later after a customer signs, you may end up acting as a deployment engineer. And then there is the documentation–and product management is well situated to write about the features and how they work and the benefits. In some cases, you may even be pulled into other areas like product marketing, website design or messaging. What’s powerful is that a startup environment gives a product manager the opportunity to see the whole spectrum of product and operations from lead generation to presales to sales and then deployment, customer success and ongoing maintenance.
How often do your engineering skills come into play?
Most product managers in software have an engineering background. The better ones can leave that behind so they can focus more on the “what”—what the product delivers and customer benefits—and leave the “how” to the engineering team. But it does help to be able to understand the “how” when you meet with engineers. The rubber always hits the road with the code. Sometimes engineers will show you the code and your ability to sift through the information quickly helps engineering too.
How do you progress as a product manager—what is the career journey?
Product managers are kind of like the quarterback of the software company. They can play a very central role and you get to work with and see every aspect of the business. Product managers are very fit to move up to a VP of Product role. Then you could go on to be the CEO of your own company. The career path could be as high as you want it to be.
What have you enjoyed about your career at Komprise so far and what goals do you have in the coming months/year?
I love helping build products that help customers do really great things. We are helping our customers not only reduce their storage costs but understand their unstructured data while improving outcomes for data tiering and data migration. Our users can evolve from being a traditional storage hardware manager to a business-centric data manager. And this allows them to make better decisions and gives an understanding of who needs to use the data and how to optimize it. It empowers our customers to move beyond being a cost center with an opportunity to add value to the entire business. Here at Komprise we have a fantastic group of smart, motivated people. We are continuing to innovate the product and are growing fast. It’s an exciting time in our company journey.