The Allan Neil Hypothesis: Product Managers Need to Invest More in Understanding Problems at a Very Deep Level

Allan Neil has been in the enterprise B2B software product management industry for 22 years, he’s currently the Technical Product Manager at AudienceView and hosts the Problemist Podcast. This week on the Product Science Podcast, we look at how product management shifts based on an organization’s goals and position within the market, and how to help business leaders understand how to think about the product development process.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Allan Neil Hypothesis: Product Managers Need to Invest More in Understanding Problems at a Very Deep LevelWhat were the first things that stood out to Allan about product management coming from other parts of the product development process? What was it like being a product manager when few organizations had them? How do you deal with the realities of fighting to prove your value in an organization? How can you leverage change management ideas to fight to have a stronger voice for product?

How do you stay focused on impact as a product manager in different types of organizations? How do you make an assessment of where you are and use that knowledge to make decisions? What do you do when pressure from sales disrupts product development? Why is getting sales experience so valuable?

How do your priorities shift in an organization that is customer-support driven? What can you learn by shadowing a customer support team member? As a product manager, how do you leverage customer support data to make decisions?

Why is senior leadership representing product especially important when the market is consolidating? Where can product management add the most value when your organization acquires new products? How do you identify and eliminate redundancies in acquisitions and avoid the pitfalls?

How can product managers use storytelling to be more effective? How can you reframe software development to help make decisions? How is product development like a camping trip? What has Allan been doing to give back to the product management community? How has he pivoted with his podcast, the Problemist? What has Allan gotten from mentoring younger product managers?

Quotes From This Episode

Training, for me, was group therapy because you could go and not feel like a weirdo, right? In those early days we’d be the only product manager in our team, sometimes the only product manager in the company. - Allan Neil Click To Tweet I've worked in companies that have been engineering or development driven, or sales driven, or customer support driven. Few are product driven. To be successful you want to be aware of that and invest. - Allan Neil Click To Tweet We as product managers need to spend more time and invest more in understanding problems at a very, very deep level. Because I find a lot of times they only get surface attention. - Allan Neil Click To Tweet


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi and welcome to the Product Science Podcast, where we’re helping start up founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies, through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly: In this week’s episode, I had a conversation with Allan Neil, a technical product manager by day, a podcaster by night, and a combination home IT manager and handyman on the weekends. He’s currently in his 23rd year as an enterprise B2B software product manager in the greater Toronto area. Allan’s podcast can be found on Apple Podcast by searching for Product Centric and on the web at
Holly: Now, here’s our conversation.
Holly: So, today my guest is Allan Neil and I’m very excited to have him on the Product Science Podcast. Allan, why don’t you start us off with a little bit of background about yourself and how you got into product management?
Allan Neil: Sure, thanks Holly. My name is Allan Neil. I have been in enterprise B2B software product management for about 22 years now, mostly in the greater Toronto area. How did I get started in that? I like to say that product management chose me. I didn’t choose product management and what happened was, I was working with a small software company that had just been acquired by IBM and doing small-talk programming, if you can imagine, to date myself a little bit. And what they did is as we started to formalize more around leveraging our products and selling them through the IBM channels, I think they looked around and basically said, “Who do we have on the team that understands the technology really, really well and can talk to developers but can also get in front of a business audience, talk to c level executives and what not?” And I think that’s where they tapped me to become a product manager. That was in January of 1997, And I’ve been doing product enterprise, B2B product management ever since. Love it.
Holly: That is awesome. So many people have the story of some sort where somebody basically told them, “Hey. You seem like you’d be great at product management.” It’s always kind of interesting to hear how that happens. So, tell us a little bit about … You’ve had so many years doing it. I’m sure there’s a lot of different things you’ve learned, but maybe the first five years or so of enterprise, products management. What were some of the first things that really stood out to you and maybe even surprised you about product management as opposed to other parts of developing a product?
Allan: Yeah, for sure. So, the first thing … And again, this has changed … but the first thing for me, was when I started there were very few actual product managers in technology companies. And that was the first challenge. So, I went to my first pragmatic marketing training in San Francisco in 1997. And I kind of joked afterwards, after I’d been in the job for a few years, that pragmatic marketing was brilliant because they’d identified this audience, which basically nobody in the organizations understood these product managers. And while calling it training, for me, it was basically group therapy because you could go to a session for two or three days and not feel like a weirdo, right? Because often times in those early days we would be the only product manager in our team, the only product manager in our department, and sometimes the only product manager in the company.
Allan: So, the first challenge that we had for many years was, “Who are you? What is product management? And where you fit? And why should I listen to you?” So, the discipline has matured a lot since then and there are a lot more resources. But that was my initial chAllange for the first five years is we kind of felt … We kind of had a chip on our shoulder, to be honest, because most conversations we felt misunderstood and certainly misappreciated as well.
Holly: You know, you might be surprised how much I do empathize with that because working in … You know, for yourself as well, at Toronto. I know it’s a big place for Canadian technology but it’s not Silicon Valley. So, it’s similar to, sort of, the New York experience. I think that even today, 20 plus years in to this discipline’s development, a lot of us find ourselves in companies where we still feel like we’re defending this role, or explaining what it is, or frustrated that the picture that we get when we go to training is different from what we feel like we’re facing day-to-day.
Allan: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. And I would just add to that as well, Holly, that as I moved along in my career and started to understand, “Okay, what are product managers? What should they do?” As your saying, I realize that, “Yeah. This isn’t Silicon Valley whereas you could really specialize and become a kind of specialist, highly focused product manager in Silicon Valley.” And what I mean by that is for example, if you become a product manager at Google you could really hyper-focus on, for example, page rank or search or something. At least in Canada what I found, and I don’t think it’s changed a lot, is because we’re not really a technology region per se, one has to be more of a generalist from two perspectives.
Allan: One, as you move around you’re not always going to be working in pure software companies. But the other one is just from a numbers perspective, it’s not as specialized a role. You know, when I talk to people in the U.S. they’ve got a lot purer implementation, if you will, or job description. Whereas, in Canada, I think we have to be more generalist to find a place for ourselves at the table.
Holly: Yeah. And I think that can be said for different sized companies as well. Certainly the bigger the company the more people on staff and more specialized everybody can get. But what are some of the stories you have from how you tried to deal with that? I mean, I love the idea that training is essentially group therapy. But in addition to that, how do you deal with it within the companies that you are at? Or what worked for you back then, to help people understand?
Allan: Yeah. Good question. So, definitely what I’ve noticed over the years is its kind of like with any change program. So, if you Google change management or selling change, you’ll find that one of the things that often comes up at the very top of the list, or at least definitely the top three, is executive support and sponsorship. Where I’ve had the best product manager experience is, because I’ve stayed at that level of mostly individual contributor, where I’ve had the best experience is where there’s been somebody on the senior leadership team at the executive round table that may or may not have product in their title, but has a real appreciation of the value of product management as a discipline and as a role.
Allan: So, that’s certainly been one of the things that I watch for. Is, yeah, at the senior leadership table, is product represented? It’s becoming more and more common, even here in Canada, to have a chief product officer, especially in some of the smaller companies and start ups. But as you say, Holly, a lot of time in more established companies, there’s still a bit of head scratching in terms of what product management does.
Allan: The other lesson I learned pretty early on, was to recognize what part of the organization was driving the company. And what I mean by that is, pragmatic marketing talks about this a bit as well. And so, I’ve worked in companies that have been engineering or development driven, and I’ve worked in companies that have been sales driven, and I’ve worked in companies that have been kind of customer support driven, if you will. Few are the companies that at least here in Canada, in my experience, that are product driven.
Allan: So, one of the things I learned early on was to understand which of the organizations types I was working in. And basically, what that gives you is, “Okay. To be successful to have the influence that you want to have, you basically want to make sure you’re aware of that and that you’re investing. If it’s engineering driven that you’re investing in the engineering team, that you’re not taking things too personally in terms of if you’re treated sometimes like a note-taker or something like that.” Because my goal as a product manager is to always have the most impact that I can to move the ball forward. And like I say, “In different types of organizations that means partnering more with sales, sometimes partnering more with engineering.” So, basically, reading the tea leaves, I think, is important for product managers.
Holly: Yeah. I like that a lot. In fact, I was recently working with somebody who is looking to better understand their role as they’ve moved into a larger organization. And a lot of the conversation is about understanding these things. How does the product manager who’s moved into … Whether they’ve changed companies or just their company grew a lot. But finds themselves in an organization that’s harder, just more complicated than it was before. How do they figure out what everyone’s impact is and who to build relationships with and what to expect of the people around them and how to use that.
Holly: So, you mentioned some tips on sort of the engineering side. I think one thing that, and especially in B2B we come across a lot, is sales driven. Can you speak a little bit more to that? What is that look like and how have you learned to work with it?
Allan: Sure. Yeah. That’s a good point. I’ll give you a very specific example. When I was at a company here in Toronto called Chameleon Solutions, it was a insurance technology provider that had been convinced by their VP of product management that it was time to kind of do the bowling alley thing that Jeff Moore talks about Crossing the Chasm, and identify adjacent markets. And banking was selected as a good adjacent market to insurance.
Allan: Now, in terms of the type of flexibility that I was talking about that you need to have when you’re being a product manager here in Canada, what I eventually ended up doing, I started as a product manager. I developed out value propositions and did some analysis on the market. And basically, came up with a set of pain points and some messaging around that. And then we literally rebranded my role to director of business development because that was the face of the activity and that was to say, “Okay. We’ve got a proof of concept, a demo that we put together based on these three key messages in terms of pain points for banking. Now let’s go out and see if we can prove that.”
Allan: So, we weren’t using the methodology but somebody like Bob Dorf, for example, might call that customer development, right? Based on the four-
Holly: Absolutely.
Allan: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. … the four steps to the epiphany. So, basically, that’s one way that I played into the sales driven culture. Because their basic point, which I agree with, is, “Until you have a paying customer, at least one, you don’t really have a product, right?” So, I spent a lot of time reaching out cold to people on LinkedIn, setting up cold calls, going to conferences, and trying to grab people and pitch them on our solutions. So, that’s a piece that I think helps with sales.
Allan: The other thing that I’ll share, and I did a blog post on this once, is if you can get some direct sales experience, I highly, highly recommend that. So that if you look at my LinkedIn profile, you’ll see a post called something like How Door-to-Door Sales Made Me a Better Product Manager. And I basically did do for about a year, door-to-door sales. And I was basically selling a product in the green energy field that was invisible. And what I mean by that is, the customer literally got nothing tangible in return for the monthly payment for that product. What they basically got was a good feeling that they’re contributing towards green energy. But that was really hard because it’s hard enough to sell a product that has tangible value. But when the customer starts asking, “Well, do I get a tax receipt?” I say, “No.” “Well, do I get this? Do I get that?” “No.” You know, it was really difficult.
Allan: But, I mention that because then when you have that direct sales experience, A, It give you empathy and insight into the sales function. But B, you can then talk about that with your sales colleagues and get some legitimate street cred with them. And I find that goes a long way. So, there’s a couple techniques I’ve used over the years.
Holly: Yeah. I really like that. I think I know, I for one, didn’t have much direct sales and sales conversation experience in my years as a front-line product manager. And I feel like I developed an understanding of what behaviors people would have with their technology, but not as deep of an understanding of how they would make decisions within the enterprise. Which is for the B2B product manager, is super critical, right?
Allan: Definitely.
Holly: So, I think that’s a really cool example. Also, I love that you were selling something that had no [crosstalk] and all of that. Like, that must have been really hard. You weren’t just selling something easy.
Allan: Exactly, yeah.
Holly: Yeah. And I think a lot people … I know certainly in the American start-up culture, there’s a lot of reverence for engineering. And so, a lot of us are already aware of how to get cred with engineers or the companies we try to work at are already screening on whether you’ve ever been an engineer. And so, that’s sort of covered. But there’s, I think, less … I feel like in my circles anyways … there’s less awareness of the role of understanding and having tried sales on a good product manager.
Holly: One other thing you mentioned was being at a company that you would call customer support driven. Tell us a little bit more about that. What does that look like?
Allan: Yeah. Good question. What I’m referring to there is, I’ve been in organizations where there two … That can split out into two subcategories, right? One is customer driven from the sense of when the customer, from a product perspective, whatever you’ve got on your roadmap when the key customer says, “Jump, jump.” That’s kind of part of the whole sales thing.
Allan: What I’m referring to more, Holly, is mature situations. And actually it’s a good discussion point because that’s where I am right now, and I have been in the past. So, when you’re in an environment where let’s say the product is anywhere from 8 to 20 years old, the customers are all big long standing customers, not necessarily big, but long-standing customers, and they pay a lot in one fashion or another annually in terms of revenue. The focus really becomes on customer satisfaction, net promoter score, and basically kind of a defensive posture, if you will. Because there’s no additional market share, perhaps, to get. And the idea is, “Let’s just keep the gravy train rolling as long as we can.”
Allan: And in those environments, just like in high growth, sales would be the lead. Maybe in a start-up stage engineering would be the lead. In those mature environments, a lot of times customer support is in the lead. And what a product manager can do to really partner effectively with those folks is a couple of things.
Allan: One of the things that I’ve done that works quite well is you get on … They call it different things at different places … but you get on and basically shadow a customer support person. So, if you’re product manager for product a, b, c you basically schedule some time whereby they get a second headset for you. And you actually sit-in listening only, but you actually sit in on some of the customer support calls. And the idea is the same as sales, is to get that, “Well, how can you appreciate somebody’s role unless you’ve kind of walked a mile in their shoes?”
Allan: So, that’s a very good technique. Another technique is customer support organizations typically have a ton of data, right? They capture tons and tons of data in the work that they do. So, as a product manager you can really start to make some data based product decisions in that environment by taking that data from the customer support organizations and using that to help you prioritize where your product investments go. So, yeah, that’s a category of organization and it’s usually around more mature organizations where it’s about, “Hey, we’ve got a good thing going here. Let’s not mess it up.”
Holly: Mm-hmm (affirmative) yeah. That makes sense. And I also highly recommend the customer support sit-in. That’s a really valuable thing to do and to make friends with them and get access to what they’re seeing. One other thing that you mentioned so far, is that when you’ve been somewhere with good experiences, there’s usually been someone on the senior leadership team that has a real appreciation for what product management is. And I’m curious to expound on that a little bit because –
Allan: Sure.
Holly: … I know especially when I talk to people who are maybe say five years in, they think they know what good product management looks like, but they’ve only seen it at two places, or three places, or maybe one place. And they’re starting to wonder if it’s the same everywhere or not. And if they’re in a place where what they’re seeing is different from what they read about, then they really start to wonder. And I know that. I mean, I certainly believe that we lose some people who would be great product managers in the profession to just having a poor first set of experiences. So, I’m curious if you can tell us a little more. Maybe even go on the negative side, like what was a bad experience and how did you realize it and how did you get out of it? And then how did you find something good too?
Allan: Yeah, yeah. Good question. I don’t like to dwell on the negative but I’ll definitely see if I can dig something up there. So, yeah, starting on the negative side and then I want to finish on the positive just to give some hope. But, starting on the negative side, where I’ve seen really tough challenges is especially when a market is consolidating and like not having somebody at the senior leadership table that represents product management is a bad thing, period in my perspective.
Allan: But I think a business situation that can amplify that is when an industry is going through a lot of consolidation. So, I worked, for example, at a … And you might chuckle at this … at a semi-conductor manufacturing automation technology company. Why that’s funny is, when you think about Toronto, you certainly don’t think about semi-conductor manufacturing, right? We tend to think about that as more like Austin and Asia Pacific region and whatnot.
Allan: But, there was a technology company that was successful from the late ’70s to the late ’90s here in Toronto that was focused on semi-conductor manufacturing automation. Now what happened was that company was bought by a U.S. company, and that company that bought them was then bought by another U.S. company. So basically, we ended up with a situation where we had a company … It was called Brooks Automation. I don’t think it exists anymore … that had three different products all solving the same problem, which is how do you automate semi-conductor manufacturing facilities. And each of these products was on a different technology base. Each of the products had a slightly different sweet spot in terms of the size of the customer and that type of thing. And that really …
Allan: When you don’t have a strong product leadership, and we didn’t there, that makes it really difficult. Because one of the values that product management can add a lot of value is … As I’m sure you’ve seen with your own experience … is in positioning those acquired products so that you decide, “Yeah. Do we keep them on? Target them at different markets? Do we retire some of them?”
Allan: Well, at this particular organization, they had a strong marketing department but through all these acquisitions we ended up with three different product management groups and really no leadership. And definitely no leadership at the senior levels. And it was very painful because sales, for example, would go out and they would be like. “You know, do I position this product? Do I position that product?” And as you know, often sales, if they’re not given any guidance, they’ll just sell the product that easier for them to sell, right? So, that was really a mess for quite a number of months until they brought somebody in to provide some senior leadership. That was certainly a mess and very painful.
Holly: Yeah. I’ll definitely let you get to something good to get pull. But before I do, I just kind of want to share, that is a really great story. And I think that its … What you’re describing that you experienced there … it’s something that I see in companies whether they’ve been through consolidation or acquisition or just grown and tried to spin off new units, but basically, it’s, “What is the pain like when you’ve got a lack of leadership bringing a strategy together.” When you’ve got sort of these factions that develop and the company, the different roles, the sales, the marketing, the product they’re not all sure which of the problems in the market they’re solving with which of their products. And that’s definitely can create a lot of friction for people on the ground because usually what happens then is some combination of everyone fighting for their local optimum, right?
Allan: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Holly: Like, what is easiest for sales? They sell the thing that is easiest to sell. What is easiest for marketing? They push the thing that easiest to market and those things don’t always add up to the greater whole. And I definitely have heard about that and seen it myself, as well, that that can be a pretty painful experience to live through.
Allan: Yeah. Definitely, definitely.
Holly: So, in this case, they did end up bringing somebody in and addressing the issue and it got better, or?
Allan: Well, it eventually got better. The other thing with acquisitions is, as you know, is you end up with a lot of redundancy. So, it eventually got better, but also, there’s the pain with acquisitions of redundant shopping and let go and whatnot as well. But on the strategy side and the product side, that definitely got better for sure. But it’s all about having, like you said, that strong leadership in place, right?
Holly: Yeah. Tell us on the flip side.
Allan: Sure.
Holly: What has been your favorite experience that you’ve had? And what did that one look like?
Allan: Yeah. Yeah. Good question. The point that I wanted to make here, my favorite experience was actually when I was a company called Davis + Henderson here in Toronto, which is in the financial services space, surprise, surprise. That’s one of Canada’s biggest markets. But, I had joined a company called [Phi-logics] that was then acquired by Davis + Henderson and one of the VPs on the technology side, a guy by the name of Paul Lewis, was on the technology side when I joined. And then at some point, he was put in charge of product management. And a brilliant guy, really easy to get along with.
Allan: So, at that point in time I moved over from more of a professional services role into that product management team. But the point that I wanted to make is it wasn’t so much that Paul was a dyed-in-the-wool product guy, but really the key point is he was just one of those people that senior leaders listened to. He could have been put in charge of any department in that company and it would have succeeded.
Allan: So, my point is that you have strong leadership at the table. They don’t necessarily even have to have the title of VP of product or chief product officer. But if they get it, if they’re a friend of product and they have that influence that’s the key things. So, it was kind of interesting that evolution … We went from probably having a product organization, I’m going to guess of around six people within that company, to under his leadership I think it grew out at it’s max to be about 20 people. And that wasn’t necessarily 20 net new people, but what is testament to his … He was able to lay out a vision and a path for the company at a very key point in their history that basically was able to say, “Listen. Put all of these resources under the charge of product management.” I think it was about that 20 or so people would be about 20% of the staff at that point in time. “Put them under the leadership of product management and let product management lead the charge.”
Allan: And I mentioned it was an inception point. Because again, company had gone through acquisition, had three products at various stages of maturity, and basically wanted to replace them with a single product. The company had roughly 99.6% of the Canadian mortgage market. So, we stayed away from the word monopoly. But we didn’t have to get any more customers, it was more about getting new technology launched out in place.
Allan: So, you know, brilliant guy. You can certainly look him up LinkedIn, Paul Lewis. And I’ve been a fan of his ever since and had him on my podcast. And yeah, just a wonderful experience. Just a great leader and a great guy. So, look for those people.
Holly: Yeah. One thing that I love that you said in there was that he was able to lay out a vision and a path that helped them understand why they would want to put these resources under product management and have a path forward. And I think that’s … When I’ve been in places where I’ve felt that there was strong product leadership that was the thing that they brought. The understanding and the clear understanding of picture of the vision and idea of how we’d get there.
Allan: Yeah. And one of the things I’ll just add, Holly, because I think it’s a good point as well. One of Paul’s great strengths is obviously he’s a great communicator, but he’s really a great story teller. That really helped with his effectiveness. For example, when we were in meetings with a bunch of different cross-functional folks, he would explain highly technical or business strategy situations using very folksy kind of examples.
Allan: One of his favorites was talking about, “Okay. We’re going on a camping trip, right? What are we going to take, yada, yada, yada?” And he’s not talking about camping. We might be talking about rolling out a piece of software. But he was able to explain it in a way that everybody would get it. And a great story teller at that executive level is really, really, really, really beneficial. So, that’s, I guess, a specific attribute that I would look for in senior leadership. The better of a story that you can tell, then the better of a communicator you’re going to be.
Holly: Yeah. Definitely. Do you recall? I don’t think I’ve heard people use we’re going on a camping trip in a business sense. I’m curious what that’s all about.
Allan: That’s what that’s all about.
Holly: Yeah. What is it about?
Allan: You know what? I, before raising that example, I should have checked with myself to see if I had all the details. I’ll tell you what. I’ll dig it up and I’ll see if I can find it. But I think it was basically, about understanding the constraints. So, for example, I think it was about. “You’re going to be walking for three days, so you’re constrained in terms of what you can put in your pack. You’re going to be going over difficult territory.” So, I think it was basically a lesson in managing with constraints. I think that was the main theme. But yeah, I apologize.
Holly: No, that’s okay.
Allan: I’ll have to dig that up. Maybe I’ll send him a message and ask him to explain it to me.
Holly: Yeah. But I like that. Because even just that level of understanding of it. I think product managers, we’re always having to explain why we have to be so ruthless. And I like the idea of visualizing a hike, you know?
Allan: Yeah.
Holly: Not a camping trip, but like a real trip that you have to be careful with what you can bring because it’s going need your energy to carry it. It’s a pretty good metaphor.
Allan: Yeah. Cool.
Holly: You and I actually initially met over a podcast that you were running. And I understand that you are/have a new one. What are you up to now? And tell us how that came about?
Allan: Sure. Yeah. I have been trying to give back, let’s put it that way, to the product management community for about the last 15 years or so in various ways. So, what I did for about 10 or 11 years was I was part of the internal product management association, part of some of the Toronto product camps, and I basically figured that at one point that I’d kind of done all the roles in those organizations and made all the contributions I could make. So, I’d been a podcast addict for years and years. So, I thought, “Well, why don’t I try doing a podcast targeted at product people? And I can continue to give back, hopefully, at an equal or larger scale. And also do something that I’m passionate about.”
Allan: So, I actually, am on my third pivot right now. My second pivot, if you will … I first called my podcast Ready Product Radio. I did a weekly podcast for close to a year. And that was really interesting. It was an interview podcast very much like this one. But very challenging, as you know. So, I wanted to commend you. Very challenging to do a weekly podcast because there is really a lot of work that goes into that.
Allan: So, I did that. And then I thought, “Well, there’s a growing number of product management podcasts and interviews.” So, I said, “Well, let me experiment with a different style.” So, I pivoted and called my second show The Product Management Show. And we tried this format called a humorous debate. So, there’s a radio program here in Canada on the CBC called The Debaters, where for example, if you are debating, Holly, the topic might be which is better? Peanut butter or jelly, for example. Right? And you might be … You might have to argue for peanut butter and I might have to argue for jelly. I tried that format a couple of times with things like, what’s better? Agile or waterfall, and things like that. And that didn’t really … I didn’t really get too far with that one.
Allan: So, my latest, and my current pivot, is I took a look at people like Allan Armstrong, and people like Chad McAllister, and Mark Stiving. And these are people that have chosen very specific elements of product management to do a deep dive into. So, for example, Chad McAllister focuses on innovation in his podcasts. Allan Armstrong doesn’t have a podcast, but in his business he focuses on win-loss analysis. And Mark Stiving focuses on pricing.
Allan: An area that’s been bugging me ever since I have been working in product management is, I always feel like the problem definition aspect of product management … And now with the design thinking, it’s step number two, which is to find the problem … But, I’ve always found that this is underserved. And it’s really unfortunate because, as some people have said, when you’re product manager, you don’t have to worry so much about being an expert at the product. You’ve got a whole company to do that. What you really need to be is an expert on the customer. Right? And more specifically, the customer’s problem.
Allan: So, a long winded answer to your question, Holly, my latest podcast is called The Problemist. And I got that title … There was a British journal … I wasn’t even aware of this, but it’s actually a hobby or a discipline to study chess problems. And we call these people problemists. And there’s a publication in the UK called The Problemist. So, I basically, am hijacking that term and saying, “Yeah. We as product managers need to spend more time and invest more in understanding problems at a very, very deep level. Because I find a lot of times they only get surface attention.
Holly: I whole heartedly agree. I think that’s a great place that you’ve landed there.
Allan: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Thank you.
Holly: And I’m fascinated. I’m not a chess person, myself but certainly have tried my hand at it over the years. And one of the reasons that I get frustrated is that the people who really play invest so much into understanding all the different ways that it can goa and mapping out, and understanding and just being extremely strategic. So, I like that idea of using that for building successful products.
Allan: Yeah. And where I’m hoping to take this, Holly, is I’m starting out with a very, very basic, so, in the early episodes. But my hypothesis, if you will, right, for this is just like in chess, there are some patterns, right, that come up over and over again and again. So, my hope is that I can evolve this to the point where lets say 10 years from now, a new product manager could basically look up in an index of how to say, “Okay. I’m in a mature industry but I’m launching a new product; this type of customer situation.” So, just like chess students can study a very common move, that we have some way of taxonomy. Right? Some way of codifying product problems that recur in the wild, so to speak. So, that’s my long term vision for it.
Holly: Yeah. That’s awesome. I bet you can. That’ll be really great to watch evolve.
Allan: Cool.
Holly: Well, it’s been really interesting to talk with you about all of these different perspectives that you have. As a final question, do you have any over-arching message that you’d like to share with products leaders or products minded start-up founders?
Allan: Yeah. Good question. So, basically, the message I would leave with you is, probably for … I’m going to leave it for up and coming product people. My message would be, one of the areas that I’ve gotten a lot of value from over the last, say five or six years in terms of my career, has been mentoring up and coming product people that might be a junior product manager or in their first product management role. And it’s something that I would strongly recommend.
Allan: So, for the folks out there that are already successful in product, look at giving that back. Send the elevator back down, whatever analogy you want to use and maybe open yourself up to be a mentor for some up and coming product people. And then on the other side, if you’re just learning product management, reach out. Find somebody who seems to be successful at it and doing it well, and try to become their mentee.
Allan: Holly, I was really impressed with your discussion with Marty Cagan, as I knew I would be. But I really liked when you guys were getting into it talking about how many people have actually seen product management done well. Right? Because we’re all like children. If mommy and daddy argue a lot, then we’re going to grow up and figure it’s normal for mommies and daddies to argue because we pattern. So, I really liked your discussion there. And I think Marty’s point was it’s just unfortunate that everybody, every aspiring product person doesn’t get a chance to see it done well.
Allan: So, I would say for those aspiring folks, try to find somebody who does it well and see if they can be your mentor. And mentors, give back. And I’ve found it’s super rewarding, and it helps you learn from the next wave of product people, as well. So, yeah, a huge passion point for me is mentoring right now.
Holly: That’s wonderful. Thanks, Allan.
Allan: Yep.
Holly: I completely agree. I think it’s got value for everybody involved. Awesome. Well, if people would like to find you, Allan, what is the best way for them to find what you’re up to?
Allan: Sure. LinkedIn is always good. Sometimes I worry about the amount of time I spend on LinkedIn. But LinkedIn is always good. It’s Allan Neil, N-E-I-L. Twitter it’s @Allanneil. A-L-L-A-N-N-E-I-L. And if you want to check out my main podcast feed in Apple and other major pod feeds, its Product-Centric and if you look that up in your Apple pod player, I’m going to be doing multiple podcasts. But every episode of every podcast will go into that main feed, so you can find me there.
Holly: Wonderful. And we will put all of those things in the show notes as well, so that people can find them easily on their reading, listening devices. Awesome. Well, thank you again, Allan. It’s been fantastic and I can’t wait to share your insights with our listeners.
Allan: Yeah. Thanks, Holly, and congratulations. You know I know how hard this is. So, you’re off to a great start and keep it up. Good job.
Holly: Thank you. Yeah. It is definitely work but I’m appreciative to have the support of people like you.
Holly: Product Science Podcast is brought to you by H2R Product Science. We teach start-up founders and products leaders how to use the product science method to discover the strongest products opportunities and lay the foundations for high growth products, teams and businesses. Learn more at
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