Product Leader Colin Pal: "When I was younger, I was a lot more idealistic."
Product leadership and management is going through certain enlightenment in Southeast Asia at the moment. We can observe an increasing number of people choosing this profession and evolving into product-centric roles. Colin is undoubtedly at the forefront of this shift in the region. We sat down together to discuss leadership, product-driven cultures, agile and how his passion for football provides him with a unique source of inspiration.
By Jan Takacs, 1st July 2020
Guardians of products
Jan: Hello, Colin, welcome. Thank you for taking the time to do this. Your social media shows that you have to constantly explain what product managers and leaders do. What do you think is making this profession so tricky for people to comprehend? Is there a way for you to simplify it? Let's say, like if you talk to your grandparents, for example?
Colin: Hey, Jan, my pleasure. You started with an interesting question. To be honest, if you are not in the tech or startup scene or in any industry that has product management inside, I think it is going to be quite a challenge to explain the nature of this job adequately.
How I usually try to position it, is that we are the guardians, or caretakers, of given products and we're doing our best to solve problems for customers. But I don't stress out too much about the fact that a lot of people still do not understand the nature of the role, because even my parents don't fully understand what I do for a living,..
"I don't stress out too much about the fact that a lot of people still do not understand the nature of my job."
What do you think is the most critical component of a successful product leader?
It's tough to choose one, so I will go with a few. The first one is, you have to be a student. And that's something that I even tell people that I used to manage, you have to be always willing to learn. You're trying to understand new problems. You're constantly trying to discover new things.
The greatest product managers that I've worked with, they always have the element of, "I think this is the way, but I'm not sure." They are never shy about the fact that they don't know everything and that they're always going to be learning.
The second one is that you need to have an initiative and drive. That, in my mind, is the hardest part of a product manager's role. You need to be somebody who takes the vision from top management, translates it into a meaningful outcome and keep everyone on track towards that direction while removing distractions for the team.
The third one is to have a sense of purpose, to have an understanding of why you are in this role, what are you trying to accomplish and what motivates you daily. That is something that the most successful product leaders possess.
Colin regularly participates in various product leadership meet-ups in Malaysia.
You are enthusiastic about product-driven cultures in companies. Is there any advice you would like to give to startups or businesses that struggle with this? What's usually the biggest hurdle that's preventing an organization from having a better product-driven culture?
The biggest problem is, and this seems to be a pattern across startups, scale-ups and enterprises, if you only focus on revenue. One of the most important things you can do if you want to be a product-driven company is that you put the customer at the centre of what you do.
When you obsess about the customer in a product-driven culture, revenue is a very healthy byproduct of that because you're building that stickiness with your customers, you're solving problems for them, you're delighting them.
So in that sense, they have every reason to come back. That's something I enjoy, especially when I am working with startups and SMEs, because most of the time, they haven't lost track of that focus. And sometimes, when you go into an enterprise, you lose a bit of that soul, because it's usually quite detached from the customer.
"One of the most important things you can do if you want to be a product-driven company is that you put the customer at the centre of what you do."
In one of your articles, you mention that ethical decision-making is starting to play a more significant role for product managers. Could you elaborate on that a bit?
Yea, the discussion surrounding ethics is enormous in the product management scene these days, more so in Southeast Asia. Product managers have to wrestle with that. You could implement something that is going to be impactful for the product that you're managing, but it could be detrimental to your customer, so you have to make a choice.
And the choice is not whether or not you can; it is whether or not you should. I borrowed this from one of Marty Cagan's talks. He's one of the most influential gurus in the product management field. That always inspires me.
Marty Cagan who is widely recognized as the primary thought leader for technology product management is one of Colin's heroes
You spent your whole career in Malaysia so far. Is there any specific reason for that? Because you seem to be fascinated and inspired by different cultures a lot. You never wanted to pursue a career, or to live, in another country?
There are two main reasons for this – and I'm not sure everyone will understand. The first one, which has been the driving reason, is connected to my younger self. When I was younger, I was a lot more idealistic; I wanted to be part of the new generation that would help to build this country for the better.
I love Malaysia a lot, and I feel that our multi-racial communities and cultures make this country very, very special, something that I haven't seen anywhere else. So, I've always resisted the urge to go and find work elsewhere just because I felt that I could make a difference here.
Secondly, related to that - when I got involved in product management - it practically didn't exist in Malaysia. I felt that by staying and helping to build a community here, it would benefit everyone - including myself. I had and still have, the urge to contribute to the country somehow. Will this continue forever? I don't know.
"When I was younger, I was a lot more idealistic; I wanted to be part of the new generation that would help to build this country for the better."
The urge to contribute to Malaysia's growth is one of the main motivations behind Colin's side projects like Product Un(censored) (Photo: Courtesy of Moto Moto)
The mystique of agile
Your work requires a productive utilization of data. A majority of people in the tech community understand the potential data have and what it can bring to the business. And yet, we are seeing too many cases where data strategies completely miss the mark. What makes it so difficult for companies and startups alike to use data for the benefit of their products?
Sadly it's mostly the fact that a lot of organizations don't collect the data in the first place, so there's not enough data to work with. That makes decision making difficult because every conversation around a roadmap or a feature, or strategic direction becomes a contest of either who is better at talking or who shouts louder. Which always leads to a failure.
The other extreme is where organizations become data-driven and ignore everything else. And I want to highlight that because, for some people, data is everything and nothing else matters, which can be devastating.
I prefer being data-informed, rather than data-driven, which means that you look at data, you make sense out of it, but it's only one part of your decision-making process.
"Product management and agile, especially in the context of modern product management, are almost synonymous with each other."
You say about yourself that you are an agile liberalist. There are so many misconceptions about agile, especially in the corporate world. We can see a use of agile on projects where it doesn't even make sense because it's a buzz word. Can you demystify this a bit? Why do you think that it's such a big difference to use agile in the first place?
Fantastic question. Product management and agile, especially in the context of modern product management, are almost synonymous with each other. It's tough to find any product manager role that isn't tied to agile in some form.
At my first "real" role (a junior product manager) - I was introduced to agile. But before that, I was working in a bank, where all projects were using the waterfall approach.
If I compare these two experiences – the most significant issue I see with the waterfall method is that it doesn't involve customers or stakeholders at every step of the way. You start with requirements gathering, and then you barely have any feedback until the project is done, which is a major problem. The validation comes way too late. And there is no amount of precise specifications that can mitigate this.
Agile is terrific when you need to work with stakeholders and customers regularly to understand what works and what doesn't.
Modern product management and agile are currently almost synonymous (Photo: Courtesy of UX Indonesia)
When a use of agile makes sense and when it doesn't? Can you give some examples?
An excellent example of a proper use of agile could be as following - let's assume that you're trying to start a subscription service for your company, you're trying to shift your business model from transactional to subscription, for example.
The way you could do it is that you could build the entire subscription model, the sexiest landing pages and all the features that go with it, three different options that you can pay for three different tiers and everything like that.
But what happens if you just do that and then you launch it, and then you wait? You're likely going to find that the customers would only use a subsection of the features and that you wasted a lot of time and money. That's where agile shines - prevention of waste, the aspect of time, the element of speed, it all comes together.
Where agile doesn't work is when there are few or no variables. If you're trying to set up a data centre, for example, there is a minimal amount of variables, because you know what's the square feet of the space, you know the servers that you need to buy, you know what's the bandwidth that you need to have. And so why don't you do it the waterfall way? There's nothing wrong with that. When you have very few variables, then the waterfall approach isn't a bad idea.
"I'm not the biggest rock star out there, but I know that I can make things work, I can make everything click together."
Colin's passion for football provides him with a unique source of inspiration (Photo: Courtesy of Alyssa Ledesma)
You have your show, Product Un(censored), where you interview product leaders and talk about all things product management and leadership. What is the main motivation behind the project?
I would say that it's primarily about community building and knowledge sharing. It originates from the fact that around 90% of the product management content comes from either North America or Europe, highly mature markets. In Southeast Asia, it is very, very little and far between. Many people would struggle to name 10 product leaders in the region.
I am trying to change that. I am creating a channel that will highlight regional product leaders and tell their stories. That way, it can provide the right inspiration for the upcoming generation. Improving product culture and product practices in Southeast Asia is also something I am aiming for.
Additionally, it solves a problem for a lot of younger product managers who are always trying to figure out, how do I make that jump from being a great product manager to being a product leader. It provides them with the content and information to do so.
I also observed that you are a huge football fan. Do you get some inspiration from it? From a team management perspective perhaps? Or is it just for the pure enjoyment of the game?
Of course, when I started, it was definitely for the pure enjoyment of the game, I just loved the sport. But you're right. In more recent times, after finding myself in a management role, I see a lot of similarities. I even have a draft of an article sitting in my Medium somewhere actually, which talks about the comparisons between the product management role and football.
The football manager.
Yeah, the football manager, exactly. What I like about football is that the overall team performance is less individual-centric in comparison to, for example, basketball, where you of course play as a team, but the individuality stands out a lot more.
But in football, it's widespread to see stories of teams, which don't necessarily have stars but have an outstanding work ethic. And they win, they make it, and that for me is a huge, huge inspiration. I'm not the smartest guy out there, I'm not the biggest rock star out there, but I know that I can make things work, I can make everything click together.
I think that's the perfect way how to wrap this up. Thank you for taking the time and take care!
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it!
Colin has over 15 years of working experience in the sectors of banking, entrepreneurship, data analytics, and tech. He is passionate about all things product management and is self-declared Agile liberalist. He is also an organizing committee member for Agile Malaysia and PM Huddle meetup groups. Drop him a note via LinkedIn here
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