Product Management Stories: Sam Lessin

Sam Lessin was Facebook’s VP of Product Management and currently writes a weekly blog for The Information. He previously founded and angel-invested in Birchbox, Makerbot, and Venmo. Sam is a founding member of the KPCB Product Council.

BG: Sam, you became a VP of Product before it became trendy. Is Product going to become a new profession, or is it a passing fad?

SL: In the long term, product managers and business leaders might become the same thing. But for now, as design and engineering became more specialized, product management filled the gap. The PM function is sort of a lubricant – to make sure the people who make stuff work well together.

BG: Do product managers “make stuff” too?

SL: In some companies, product managers make analyses and reports. But that should not be the primary job. The product manager is ultimately a lubricant. PM will always be different per company, but PMs should be generalists.

BG: If they are generalists, what is your definition for PM success?

SL: Winning. The product manager just has to win. When the product succeeds, the PM succeeds. Be expansive about the resources you can bring to bear. If you want to be a generalist, ultimately you take general responsibility.

BG: Thinking about what “great” looks like – If there were a PM hall of fame, who would you nominate for it?

SL: I find this really really hard, but here is one contribution that I would propose: Gary Dahl, the creator of the pet rock.

BG: That’s awesome. Talk about making a hit from ordinary stuff! You said you managed a “small army” of PMs. Could a PM get promoted if his or her product did not win?

SL: To get promoted off a failing product was doable, but it was much easier to promote off wins. Optics are hard to overcome when there is failure. In the end, it’s a fail if the product fails.

BG: Let’s go deeper on that. When could a PM succeed despite a failed product?

SL: Sometimes you make bets on externalities and come up wrong.

BG: What about a failure of engineering or design?

SL: There are no truly iron rules on this, but the excuse “my team failed me” is pretty weak. The PM should be held accountable if design or engineering falls short. If there are problems, the PM should flag them in advance.

BG: You grew from individual contributor to manager over a period of years. What made the job fun for you?

SL: You get to work on the most interesting problems. I was always learning new things. I really liked having a broad range of resources and a strong mandate.

BG: Mandate? Where did those come from?

SL: It probably comes top down most of the time. But mandate can also come from your team. If they are motivated and capable, they expect you to help them succeed. It only really works when you are with a highly motivated team. It all comes down to people.

BG: Did you have any bad days? What did those look like?

SL: A bad day is when you see something clearly, but you can’t get others around you to see it. You work through other people, so it takes a lot of convincing. You have to be a great communicator. You have to read your audience. I would always try harder to understand others and find an angle to explain that makes sense to them. I start from a place of believing the people around me are talented.

BG: And if that didn’t work?

SL: I would go for a run. I am a big believer in endorphins. Or else I would just go pound sand. Engineers can always just go build what they want, but PM’s can’t.

BG: Biggest failure?

SL: Not being too specific [smiles] – It was times when I forgot to check off the basics, when I didn’t measure the right things. You don’t want to get fooled by small metrics and miss the big picture. But this is always a hard tradeoff, because it is dangerous to idiot-proof yourself: It will slow you down too much.

BG: Were you ever scared as a PM? What scared you the most?

SL: I was always scared. You have to hit the big red button on launch! But if everyone is working from the right place, the fear is temporary, and you’re not personally afraid for yourself.

BG: Sam, let’s talk about how someone can start building a career in product management. You helped hire over a hundred product managers into Facebook. What did you look for?

SL: I barely read resumes. I don’t find them that interesting. I would skim them, look for a few key words. Is this someone who has something?

BG: Something?

SL: I look for resilience – because if you are doing something hard, there will always be failures – a ton of resilience. People who have overcome adversity in their life. But it is hard to find resilience in a resume. It is usually in between the lines. The perfect A student at the best school who has cruised through has more emotional learning to do, and more to prove about their ability to pick themselves back up after defeat. I like forward trajectory, even in a resume that is spotty. My resume is not like that, so I look for it in others. I had to overcome reading issues when I was a kid, which was pretty informative for me.

BG: Some companies say they hire for IQ. What do you think of that?

SL: EQ [emotional intelligence] is more important. People don’t talk enough about it. PMs get huge value from being highly empathetic with team, not just with users. There are plenty of smart people, but not enough with EQ. I have never successfully trained empathy, so you have to hire for it. All the tools like 360-degree employee reviews are only helpful at the margin.

BG: How do you spot communication skills in an interview?

SL: I think this is easy to find in the first few minutes an interview, less so in a resume. It is always good when people are unafraid to ask for clarification in an interview. On the resume, lots of public speaking is helpful, in something like debate, but I trust the interview process on communication skills.

BG: Did you prefer one major over another?

SL: CS, economics, MBA, design, I don’t care. I majored in social studies. Any background can work. But it is always interesting to ask why they chose their major though. They have to have a good reason. I did hire a lot of people from Bain, though, because they recruit well and their pre-screening is pretty good.

BG: You once told me that first-year PMs are not very useful and that you have to invest in them before they can create value. What would an exception to that look like?

SL: There are some top one-percenters who have the EQ to read the team and come in with a previous skill that is super useful. But most entry level PMs lack the context to make the right decisions.

BG: Can you accelerate context?

SL: We would try. We worked out an onboarding process that worked pretty well. We would hire generalists, onboard them through a series of bootcamps about company wisdom built up over time, and then figure out what they were most passionate about in the company. Then we would assign a mentor. I would always try to figure out how they could ship something small fast. You learn more from shipping than just from building.

BG: How did you start, before this process existed?

SL: Well, I came to Facebook as an entrepreneur, and that was a challenge. It was emotionally different to be a PM than a CEO, where I was “chief bottle washer” and had all the tools to get the people I wanted. It is hard to learn how to build teams in an existing company.

BG: Is it a plus for a PM to have entrepreneurial experience though?

SL: We would hire for big thinking, not necessarily entrepreneurship. It is hard to develop big thinking, especially once you get into an established company. It was always easier to teach a big thinker to be productive than to teach a productive person to think big.

BG: When is it time to give up on a project? That is one thing entrepreneurs usually have to learn the hard way.

SL: It’s a super hard question. I learned that it is always best to set up KPIs at the outset. Because in the fog of war, you can often rationalize making marginal decisions to keep going. It might be different in traditional packaged goods, but in online products, the bulk of the cost is always in the future, so you have to think longer term.

BG: So when you started at Facebook, you were thrown right in?

SL: The first thing I worked on was a profile re-write [this was before Timeline]. I learned on the fly from shadowing an existing leader who was my mentor, which was priceless for me. Then I started running scrums, worked on internal presentation decks, stuff like that.

BG: Best advice you got from your first PM mentor?

SL: You have to learn how and when to ask for help. Then there is lots of pattern recognition, which comes with experience in the company and with each new product you ship.

BG: How important is it for a new PM to have agile skills?

SL: I don’t believe in strict agile. It’s too dogmatic, because every team and every project is unique. But you have to command the attention of the team. It’s mostly about understanding the individuals and what they need.

BG: When do you know a PM has arrived? When would you promote someone?

SL: Good to go is always degrees, never absolute. Can they recruit and build a new team? Can they keep a team on track? Can they think about strategy? We would talk to their team, look at the work product.

BG: On the KPCB Product Council, you’ve had a chance to meet the first group of KPCB Product Fellows (entry-level PMs at KPCB portfolio companies). What do you think of them so far?

SL: They are smart! They have a lot of spark.

BG: Obviously, I’m biased. But do you think the program is a good thing for talent like this?

SL: It’s a very cool program. Peer groups are really important and are also one of the best ways to accelerate building your own context. Synthetically building one is a good idea, especially if the fellows can solve problems together.

BG: And one bit of advice you’d give to new KPCB Product Fellows?

SL: Life is pretty great and exciting. Embrace it.