The Ben Foster Hypothesis: High-Growth Product Leaders Set a Clear Vision and Push Authority Down to the Teams

Ben Foster is the Chief of Product at GoCanvas and the founder of Prodify, a product management consultancy. In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about Ben’s journey in product management from the early days of the dotcom bubble to where he thinks the industry is headed today, and what he looks for when he’s interviewing for a new position.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

211: The Ben Foster Hypothesis: High-Growth Product Leaders Set a Clear Vision and Push Authority Down to the TeamsHow did Ben first get involved in product management? What was his experience like breaking into tech during the dotcom bubble? What was it like developing V1 software for problems that had never been solved with technology before? What was it like for Ben to learn principles of Lean and Agile along the way after the first dotcom bubble? What happens when every product manager makes aggressive financial impact projections at the same time in a competition for resources?

What was Ben’s experience with one of the great dotcom disasters of all time? How did Ben move into product management at eBay? How did he intersect from Marty Cagan and what did Ben learn from him? What did he learn working on “the finding problem” at eBay? What made them switch their product strategy and what changes did they make?

Why was executive decision making central to Ben’s decision to move to DC and join Opower? How did they resolve conflicts with sales differently? What questions did Ben ask as an interviewee in order to make his decision? What are some of the differences between a high-growth startup and an enterprise that impact culture? How did Ben transition from being an advisor into becoming the Chief of Product at GoCanvas?

What does Ben look for in a company if he’s thinking about making a career move? What does Ben mean when he says he’s looking for a company that recognizes the role of product management? What questions does Ben ask in an interview to find out where a company’s priorities are with product strategy? What questions does Ben ask of product people he advises, and what are the dangers with A/B market testing?

Quotes From This Episode

Optimization is not a substitute for innovation. To truly innovate, it does require you to have a very good sense as to how your business functions, what makes it successful or not, what makes your customers successful. - Ben Foster Click To Tweet At Opower, a culture of deferring to the expertise of the people on the team permeated through the entirety of the organization, with managers being willing to push decisions and authority down within the company. - Ben Foster Click To Tweet Leadership at OPower wasn't like, 'Here are some values posted on the wall.’ Instead, it was 'here's how we actually live those on a day to day basis with the decision making that we have.' - Ben Foster Click To Tweet

Transcription

Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi, and welcome to the Product Science Podcast, where we’re helping startup founders and products 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 Hester-Reilly: This week on the Product Science Podcast, I’m excited to have a conversation with Ben Foster. Ben was introduced to me by someone at Foster Innovation, which is a company he started. But he’s got a lot more interesting things than just that on his background. So Ben, I’d love if you could tell us a little bit about, sort of, your journey to product management.
Ben Foster: Yeah, sure. Thanks for having me, first of all. Great to be here. The place that I would probably start is, because I’ve been doing product for a long time, a little over 20 years, it’s not a function that existed back in the day. We, kind of, invented product management, I think as part of that generation.
Ben Foster: When I graduated from Berkeley in 1997, it was right in the middle of the dot-com boom. Everything was going up and to the right, and it was, kind of, like a crazy town. And, it was a lot of fun. But the result of that was that there were a lot of companies who were just hiring people who were completely out of school, who were fresh, who didn’t have a lot of prior experience. And for me that was a great benefit because I got really, kind of, thrown straight into the mix.
Ben Foster: And I remember I was working at a technology company where I was just doing some support work, and the tickets that I started filing started turning from bug issues or defects that we were seeing that clients were pointing out to feature enhancement requests.
Ben Foster: And eventually, at one point, somebody who was in the quote unquote Product Management Department came over to me and said, “Hey, would you like a job in product management?” And my natural question was, “Well, what’s product management or what do they do?” He said, “Well, you’ve kind of been doing it to some extent already.”
Ben Foster: I ended up actually not doing the product management role there, but really, kind of, discovered it through that experience. And then took that to a couple of different other companies back in the Bay area, right before the big dot-com bubble burst.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay. I’m fascinated by the part where you said you ended up not doing the role there. Why is that?
Ben Foster: Yeah. I think I was … the role was explained to me, in terms of, what it was and what it meant, and it sounded like it was really inspiring. But the company itself was working on a product that just itself wasn’t really all that appealing to me.
Ben Foster: So we were in the finance space and we were trying to build a software for Wall Street investor types. And we were basically shipping CDs that we were charging $1 million dollars plus for, to two different kinds of portfolio analytics.
Ben Foster: And to me, I just wasn’t really as interested in that particular space. And when there were so many new things that were going on where the internet was revolutionizing the world, and we all sort of knew that that was coming, I was really excited to get into something that was a little bit more internet based.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh, I totally understand that. So what did you first get into then?
Ben Foster: Yeah. So I went from there to a boutique consulting company called ThoughtWorks. They’re still around today. They do a lot of really interesting work with companies. We were working with Fortune 500 companies at the time. And I was helping them and, kind of, doing a halfway between business analyst and product management, kind of, role, helping different Fortune 500 companies to build out really first-time platforms that were cloud-based to go do a whole variety of things.
Ben Foster: And a lot of times it ending up being, like, leasing software to, kind of, manage leases and contracts and things like that for large equipment. So we were working with Caterpillar. We were working with Cisco Systems, and I was just, kind of, building out V-One software for these kinds of companies. It was really exciting and novel at the time.
Ben Foster: And I’m sure if you go back and look at the UX, you’d be really appalled now. But we were pretty excited about it at the time. It was a lot of fun.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I can imagine, that must’ve been really interesting. Because even these days, I go into companies that have been around as long as those companies, and it’s fascinating to see how they think about these things. What was it like working with people there back then and building things that were based on the internet? I mean, that must’ve been very unusual to them.
Ben Foster: Well, everything was new. The technology was completely new. We were doing things that had never been done before. We were solving problems with software that had never been solved before because networking, and the ability for different people to collaborate on things across different laptops was sort of like a new and novel experience. And I say laptops because at the time it was only flip phones in the mobile side, right? So everything was really quite new.
Ben Foster: The other thing that was new, though, was the people, myself included and everybody else who I was working with. I was working with engineers who had one year of experience, and I was working with software executives who had two years of experience. Everybody was doing this for the first time.
Ben Foster: And so you can, kind of, imagine not only are you making your own rookie mistakes, but you don’t actually have that many other people to learn from, in terms of, coming back to you and saying, “Hey, the way you did that was wrong. Here’s a way of doing that, kind of, thing, better. Here’s a thing that I’ve got from my own 10 years of experience.” Because, nobody had 10 years of experience doing this. One of the things that really kind of like stands out to me when I think back to that particular era.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. What are some things that you learned by fire back then, that now you’re like, “Oh, everybody knows how to do that.”
Ben Foster: Yeah. Boy, the list is quite long. Let’s see. I’ll rattle off a few. I think one of them was the whole notion of lean, and the whole notion of agile practices and things like that had really not been born yet. And so at least it hadn’t been applied into the technology industry.
Ben Foster: And so we were building things by writing these massive PRDs and trying to, kind of, come up with all the different edge cases right out of the gate, shipping that to engineers, having these really in-depth, kind of, handoffs and then having the engineering team go work on that.
Ben Foster: Only to realize afterwards that, “Hey, what we thought was going to work isn’t actually going to work for several different reasons, or maybe the market conditions changed between the time that you wrote the requirements and the time that the engineers were actually going to deliver what you had requested.”
Ben Foster: And, so I think there were a number of mistakes that were, kind of, made on that front. And that spans not just my own experience, but just about everybody that I was working with back in the day. I mean, I literally had PRD’s that were 250 pages to go ship things. You can imagine-
Holly Hester-Reilly: You actually wrote some of those?
Ben Foster: I did. I wrote two of them that were that long.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I love talking to people who’ve done that. I read some of other people’s. I never had the … I don’t know whether I-
Ben Foster: The pleasure?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I never had the pleasure, myself.
Ben Foster: Yeah. So I think that’s one. We all, kind of, now know those lessons. I mean, if you’ve gotten the experience with product management now, you, kind of, understand why that’s not necessarily the best plan and the best approach. I think that was one.
Ben Foster: I think the second one that really stands out to me is, in a similar fashion, we were trying to estimate upfront what the financial impact of every change that we were going to make was going to be. And so when you take that waterfall approach, not only are you forced into designing a lot of the aspects that you’d really like to get market feedback on along the way, but you’re also forced into way up front prioritization decisions.
Ben Foster: And you make those based on financial impact analysis rather than just having a dedicated engineering team that you’re going to work with as a product manager. You’ve got to go fight for those resources and say, “Here’s why this mega project that I want to go do, is going to be really valuable.” And that requires you to make a whole lot of assumptions.
Ben Foster: And of course, when you’re competing for resources against other people in the company, whether they’re the product managers or completely different departments, you find yourself in that situation where you’ve got to make a lot of assumptions around what click through rates you’re going to be in, what the adoption rates are going to be for new features, and what, kind of, price people will be willing to pay. Only to find out again that you’ve got to make some major revisions to that.
Ben Foster: But if you’re not making those revisions along the way, you don’t really have the market feedback to then go backwards and say, “Was this project actually worth it? Is it worth continuing to do the development on this?” Because the analysis and the methodology of even deciding what you’re going to work on is something that you, kind of, did way, upfront with way too little information, way, too many assumptions, and honestly a lot of biases where, as a product manager, I’m trying to get my stuff prioritized.
Ben Foster: So of course I’m going to say you, “Hey, yeah, there’s an aggressive and a conservative model.” Well guess, which one I’m going to choose? Right? And everybody does that.
Ben Foster: And then what happens is you get these crazy experiences where you sum up all the things that all the product managers are basically putting forward as these different projects. And you say, “Wait. Those numbers are completely unrealistic if we add them all together.” And I think that happened when I was back at eBay, at a time where we were, kind, of pushing the executive team for resources and saying, “I want engineers for my project.”
Ben Foster: At the time we had a couple billion dollars of revenue. And if you summed up all the projects that we were going to do in a quarter, it was going to, like, increase revenue by three or $4 billion dollars. I think you can, kind of, tell if that’s not going to be right. And yet we didn’t have any better mechanism for making prioritization decisions at the time. So, that’s another, kind of, thing, that I would say stands out.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I mean that, I don’t know about you, but there’s places I go where I still see that happening today, where they’re still fighting for resources and putting together business cases that claim they’re going to create value on the order of the entire company’s value.
Ben Foster: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. I see it a lot as well. In a lot of the advisory work that I’ve done, I’ve had the fortune of being able to spend a lot of time with a lot of different companies and get pretty into the weeds on how they make their own priority decisions. And I see that same, kind of, effect happening a lot.
Ben Foster: I think in part because it’s just human tendency that we’re going to make decisions that way or the reason we’re working on the project, is because we’re optimistic about the outcome. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it in the first place. So it’s tendency that we would do that. But I think that there are some new models now that have done a really good job of, kind of, accounting for some of those biases that we open.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So you mentioned that when you were at eBay, so tell me a little bit about that because I know being at eBay is, kind of, a fascinating study. So many of us had eBay as one of our first, I don’t know, internet commerce experiences. And so when were you there, and what did you do there?
Ben Foster: Yeah, great experience there. So I came out of one of the great dot-com disaster stories of all time, which was Web-ban. And if you’re not familiar with Web-ban, go look it up at some time. It’s a great case study. We went from a billion dollar valuation and $300 million dollars in the bank to less than a year later having zero employees, zero revenue and zero dollars.
Ben Foster: So, the cratering of that company is sort of a case study for a lot of MBA courses and things. But as I was leaving there, and I was one of the last employees there, there was somebody who was working with me, alongside me on my team, who had gotten a job at eBay. And they called to do a reference check on her, and at the end of the call they said, “Hey, is there anything that I can help you with?” And I was, “Actually, yeah, are you hiring for product management as well? That would be great.” And they said, “In fact, we are actually just about to open up a position.”
Ben Foster: And so I applied to that position, and it was really, kind of, the one company, this was back in 2001, right in the middle of the dot-com bubble burst, and eBay was the one company hiring. Everybody else was losing their jobs left and right.
Ben Foster: And so I ended up getting that role, and as fortune would have it, I ended up getting a role on Marty Cagan’s team. And so, what a great place to end up, working for him and really getting to learn from somebody who I would sort of consider to be, kind of, like the godfather, grandfather of modern product management, who, kind of, like invented the role in many ways.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yes. I mean, oh my goodness.
Ben Foster: Yeah. He had some great points of view about what product management entails and how you do it properly. And we actually had a process and a practice and things like that, which didn’t even exist at all in other, kinds of, companies.
Ben Foster: And so to get that experience relatively early in my career was fabulous. I was there at eBay for a little over four years and worked on a variety of different projects. But they were all, kind of, centered around this concept of merchandising, which you could interpret from the buyer experience as, “How do I find more things that are kind of either like or upsells or that go along with things that I just bid on or that I just bought?”
Ben Foster: And from the seller perspective, is “How do I showcase the other merchandise that I have in addition to the things that somebody’s maybe looking at right now?” So I tried to solve that problem and increase revenue, working on that challenge for a few years and had really remarkable experience.
Ben Foster: And that was a case where I was finally able to learn from some people who had been there and done that for a decade plus. And that experience really, kind of, took my own career to that next level, as well.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow. Can you share a story from your time there that something that, maybe some work that you did, where you learned something along the way about what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work and how you made decisions?
Ben Foster: Yeah, sure. eBay was definitely the school of hard knocks I’d say, for me, to get back to that, kind of, notion of agile and what you pick up along the way by putting things out there. There are several stories, but the one that I’ll focus on first, would be trying to build a solution for buyers to, kind of, find better what they’re looking for.
Ben Foster: I kind of evolved a little bit over time to, kind of, look at “the finding problem” is what we called it. And that was, kind of, the combination of search and browse. So you might have a category constraint, but you’re searching on specific keywords. And at the end of the day, as a buyer, you’re trying to find something specific that you’re looking for.
Ben Foster: As it turns out, sometimes you’re not trying to find something specific. You’re trying to find something vague and how you go about solving that problem can be a challenge. And so we, kind of, looked at this whole host of different issues that buyers could run into, things that would get in the way of them finding the item that we think that they’d be likely to bid on. And it could be because they misspelled something, or it could be because they search on Lord of the Rings and the seller has … because of character constraints, typed it as LOTR and then it doesn’t show up in search.
Ben Foster: Or it could be a completely different issue where they search on just something really vague like Star Wars, but it turns out that Harry Potter is the, kind of, thing that people are buying as gifts for younger kids at the time. And if we can, kind of, like cross merchandise and recommend those things, they’re much more likely to get bought.
Ben Foster: So, there are all sorts of buying problems that we were trying to solve at the same time. And in order to solve those, like let’s just take the misspelling one, for example. We would need a dictionary of different terms to say, “Okay. Well this is a misspelling of something else that’s in the dictionary.”
Ben Foster: But of course, a lot of the words that people are searching for aren’t just things you’re going to literally find in the dictionary. They’re going to be brands, and new brands are going to emerge all the time, right?
Ben Foster: And so, you think of the sophistication and complexity of solving each of these problems. Even solving the misspelling problem requires category managers to manage a dictionary to be on top of all the brands that exist before the buyers and the sellers are aware of them. And that’s a really hard, kind of, problem. It’s a really hard business challenge.
Ben Foster: And so, when we took that direct approach of, “Hey, here are these problems that we want to go solve, one at a time, for each of these customers and for each of these unique situations,” we realized that the product strategy that we were coming up with was way too aggressive. We were going to need a thousand engineers working for years on this to be able to solve these problems.
Ben Foster: And in conversations that I had about that challenge that we were facing, I had that with somebody who was in engineering, who was, kind of, like at the time an architect, even though we didn’t have the title, architect. He responded to what I was saying, and I was explaining this over lunch and he said, “Hey, wait, we actually have all the click stream of all the queries that people are doing along the way. And I can tell you at the end of each of those sessions whether they ultimately found what they were looking for because they added it to my eBay, because they bid on it, they bought it, et cetera, basically, an indication that they found what they were looking for. And I can also see all the ones where somebody didn’t end up doing one of those success events. And if I take all the queries that are being run on eBay, and I look at all the people who have run this same search that you’re running right now before, I can point you in the direction of the ones that was like, ‘This is the next search that the people who ended up being successful ran and point you and direct you in those, kind of, like paths. I wonder if something like that would help.'”
Ben Foster: And so, I thought, “Hey, that’s a really interesting and compelling idea. Let’s see what that yields.” And so, we built like a little prototype of that, and that prototype ended up solving all the problems simultaneously, and problems we didn’t even know that we needed to fix.”
Ben Foster: And so, we solved the misspelling problem, because if somebody typed in Harry Potter with one T, we could then say, “Well people who ran that search before, they ended up being successful by next searching on Harry Potter with two T’s.” We didn’t know why. But we just knew that that was a good recommended related search.
Ben Foster: And it solved the misspelling issue. It solved the merchandising issue. It solved the upsell issue. And across the board we were getting people directly to the, kind of, products that they were looking for. But had I not had that conversation about the problem that we were solving, rather than just, “Hey guys, engineering, here’s a solution that we have in mind that we want to go take to you.” We would have still been working on that problem today, 15 years later.
Ben Foster: The takeaway that I’ve gotten from that, and that I try to impart onto other product managers that I work with as an advisor, is to explain the value of having conversations, not just within the solution space, but those conversations about the problem space, kind of, what it is that you’re trying to achieve and why you’re trying to achieve it, et cetera. Because, you never know where those really elegant solutions going to come from.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I think that’s a really great story about that, and certainly, as you were telling it, I was thinking about, “How many versions of that still exist at companies today, and the ways that they solve it today?” I mean, certainly some of what you were describing, I think, is any, kind of, discovery or finding problem in any kind of shopping site or any kind of search site, those things still exist.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Of course, at this point in time, certainly the places I’ve been, there’s a lot of sort of out of the box search and AI solutions that people assume they’re going to start with, right?
Ben Foster: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Holly Hester-Reilly: And I guess one of the things that went through my mind as you were telling that story, is I’m just kind of curious, where the industry was at 15 years ago, like when you were doing that, there probably wasn’t elastic search, right?
Ben Foster: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I mean we had to, kind of, build it from scratch. I mean, Google had just been founded, right? So, you think about all the technology that we take for granted today, that didn’t exist at the time. The reality is you had to, kind of, invent that from scratch.
Ben Foster: And I assume that we’re in the same, kind of, situation now. I mean, if we fast forward to 15 years from now, I think that there’s going to be solutions out there like a Google of AI that’s just, you can, kind of, plug it in and just like elastic search or anything else, it just sort of works on whatever training data set you have. And it’s a thing that you can, kind of, turn on, if you will.
Ben Foster: But, today you don’t have that. And so, if you wanted to be at the forefront and you needed to be at the forefront, depending on the, kind of, company that you’re working at, you may need to go build those kinds of things from scratch. And that can be taxing, but it can also be that differentiator for you that nobody else can actually replicate.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. And those are, kind of, the fun, I think as a product manager, some of the most fun places to be, right? Where, you’re really doing that new stuff.
Ben Foster: Oh, yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So tell me more about your journey then. So, sounds like a really incredible experience you got to have with Marty Cagan at eBay in those years. What happened after that?
Ben Foster: Yeah. So, I left eBay after several years there. I was, kind of, interested in moving on to, kind of, run product and lead product somewhere else. I ended up going to an ad tech company, where I was for about three and a half years and joined as the sole product person, built up an organization there of product and user experience, that was about 13 people.
Ben Foster: When I joined, the company was worth about $25 million. When I left three and a half years later, it was worth about $400 million. I then proceeded to exercise all my options, and three years later the company was worth $25 million again. So, that didn’t work out as well.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh, ad tech.
Ben Foster: Yeah, exactly. I would love to say it was because I had left that, that had happened. But I think it was more, there were some real indicators that there were some problems that needed to be solved there. And when I left, I left and actually moved from Silicon Valley to the East coast. And so, I’m still based in the D.C. area.
Ben Foster: And I went over here really strictly for a job. And there was a position as the head of product and user experience at a company called Opower, which was really exciting to me, because we were trying to use behavioral science to drive people in their homes to just be more energy efficient.
Ben Foster: And, it was a really exciting opportunity for me. I was really excited about actually having an impact, some sort of like social influence, which was really good. I was excited about moving to a new place and checking that out. And mostly, I was really amazed by the quality of the rest of the executive staff that I’d be able to surround myself with. And I thought that I can learn a lot from them. I thought that I could contribute a lot to them. And there were just a lot of characteristics of that company that I didn’t see in Silicon Valley.
Ben Foster: And so, when I said I was going to go move over to the East coast, all my friends and colleagues, back at eBay and things like that said, “Why would you leave Silicon Valley for a tech startup job in the technology wasteland, that’s D.C.? Why would you do that?” And I just really tried to explain to them all the things that I saw at Opower, as all the potential that I was really excited about.
Ben Foster: And it turned out to be true. So, I was there for about four and a half years. We took that company from what was 40 employees, I would say, when I joined, to an IPO about four and a half years later for a billion dollars. So, really good success story. I learned a lot from that.
Ben Foster: We talk about the things you learn from your failures, and I think you also learn a lot from your successes. And I’ve been able to try to help apply that, either to other companies as an advisor since, and then now in my new role as the Chief Product Officer at a company called GoCanvas that’s also based in the D.C. region.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I’m super curious to hear more about what you saw at Opower that you didn’t see at the Silicon Valley companies. Definitely for me, listeners of the podcast will know that I care a lot about social impact. And so, that side is super easy to understand, the idea that going and helping with energy efficiency and whatnot would be a good thing to do. But were there other things as well, like things about the executive team, or what did you mean when you said that?
Ben Foster: Yeah. To dig deeper into that, I would say that the executive team, when I interviewed with them, I started to ask questions like, “If I had a conflict with somebody in sales, where we needed to, the sales person wanted to say yes to some sort of a client request and the product team needed to say no, how would we go about deciding what the next step was on that front?” And as an interviewee myself, I was sort of also interviewing the company, and that was a question that I had asked to the head of sales. And I loved his answer on that.
Ben Foster: And I really thought that there was a really strong sense of collaboration around it. It wasn’t like, “Hey look, money talks and we’re just going to have to find a way to do it,” which I think is the attitude that a lot of other folks within sales organizations and things have, because they don’t truly understand the nature of product or they don’t truly understand that as a SAAS company, you are a product first company, and what it means on a day to day basis when it comes to decision making that you’ll do that.
Ben Foster: And time and time again, with the conversations that I had, whether it was with founders or whether it was with other people that I’d be working with in engineering, et cetera, I continued to get that same sense that everybody was on the same page, about not just where the company was headed from a vision standpoint, which is itself very important, but how we would go about getting there. It wasn’t sort of like, “Hey, let me point to some values that have been posted on the board or that are shown on the wall. But instead, let me show you about how we actually live those on a day to day basis with the decision making that we have.”
Ben Foster: And that’s the, kind of, thing, that I just hadn’t really seen at a lot of other companies. And as many success stories as there are coming from Silicon Valley, for every one of those, there’s still nine or 99 other stories out there about failed companies, as well. And I think that in many ways, at least based on the experience that I had at that time, I really felt like those failures in many ways are a function of not being on the same page with how decisions are supposed to be made. So that, was one of the things that really stood out to me.
Ben Foster: And then the last thing was, when I spoke to the CEO, I asked, “How would you expect me to do this in product? How would you expect me to do that?” And his answer was, “Well, that’s what we’re hiring you for, right?” Like, there’s a sense of trust, there’s a sense of willingness to say, “I want to hire somebody who’s going to tell me the right ways of doing this and that I’m going to lean on those people to be able to do the job and to do it right. And when we run into issues, we’ll go address those, but that’s … I’m deferring to the expertise of the people on the team.”
Ben Foster: And that was something that culturally, I think, permeated through the entirety of the organization at every level, which was managers being willing to push decisions down and authority down within the company. And again, it’s not something that, shouldn’t be as rare as it is, I think within companies, but it’s something that honestly actually is.
Ben Foster: And so, to find a combination of all those things, where there was a social impact, the upside potential, a product that I was really passionate about, the opportunity to do things the way that I wanted to within my own organization and the trust that was required for that, and then finally, the collaboration across the team members, those were the things that really stood out to me. And I hadn’t seen that same, kind of, combination of things, even looking across the thousands of companies that exists in Silicon Valley.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow, that sounds amazing. It really does. I can see why you would have taken that job.
Ben Foster: Yeah. It was great.
Holly Hester-Reilly: One thing I’ve noticed in my years, being in some glory high growth periods and some crappy post high growth periods, let’s call it, is that nothing lasts forever. Well, not very often unless you’ve really carefully designed and tuned that machine.
Holly Hester-Reilly: And so, I’m curious to hear what’s going on at Opower these days? Do you think it’s still a great place like that? I mean, it sounds like a strong culture probably permeates for a long time, but I’m just curious if you know anything about the journey after you left.
Ben Foster: No, I don’t know, post IPO. I literally left the day after the IPO. And so, I went off to do my own advisory work and worked with a bunch of companies over several years. And then the last year and a half or so, I’ve been at a company called GoCanvas, again, wearing the Chief Product Officer there and leading a team of product UX, M&A content and a few other components, as well.
Ben Foster: And Opower, post IPO, was actually acquired by Oracle. And so Oracle utilities now is where you’ll go if you type in Opower.com into your browser. It’ll just redirect you there. And so, I think culturally, probably a lot of things did change as part of that. I’m sure some of them were for the better and some of them were probably not.
Ben Foster: A lot of the original people who joined the company, I think, were excited about the notion that it was a startup. And in reality, being in a startup can be a very exciting experience. I’ve had that experience myself several times. I worked with a lot of people who really seek that experience, and they really enjoy that a lot.
Ben Foster: But the thing to keep in mind is that when you’re at a startup, your goal is to make the company a larger company, right? You want to make it a success story, and the more successful it becomes, the less like a startup it becomes as well.
Ben Foster: So you have to be up for that evolution. You have to be along for that ride, and willing to, kind of, take the things that you embrace when it was a startup and to recognize the moments when those things no longer apply.
Ben Foster: Like, it was great when I could just turn my chair around and explain what I was working on to somebody else verbally and I didn’t have to document anything. Okay, that’s nice. But when you get to 600 people in the company, that doesn’t scale anymore and you have to embrace documentation. And if you’re not willing to embrace documentation, then maybe the place that was the right company for you at one stage, no longer is.
Ben Foster: So, I think that, that probably continued post Oracle acquisition of Opower. And a lot of the people who were excited about being at a privately held company, that was no longer the right place for them. And so, there was a pretty large departure at that time.
Ben Foster: But there’s also a lot of additional people that they pulled in, who I think, especially, in the D.C. area, where it’s a little bit different than Silicon Valley, where there isn’t as much excitement or at least a lot of consternation about working for a startup where you don’t necessarily have the same, kind of, job security, it actually attracted a lot of people who really liked the idea that there was financial stability and security behind the company, as well.
Ben Foster: So, you just have a different group of people who were there. And, I think that in many ways that was positive for some people, and some people have really lasted through that, and they’ve accelerated their careers since they’ve been there and other people, maybe they haven’t.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That is a very wise approach. I think those things are definitely true. So, how did you end up at GoCanvas?
Ben Foster: So, I was an advisor to the company for several years. And I really enjoyed the interactions that I had with our CTO. I really enjoyed the interactions that I had with the CEO of the company. And, I remember a moment very early on in my advising days where the CEO is like, “One day you’re going to come work for me as a Chief Product Officer here.” And I was like, “No, no, never going to happen. Never going to happen.” And so I have to admit, I guess, in a public forum here that he was right, and I was wrong.
Ben Foster: I did eventually decide to join there, full-time. There were a couple of reasons that, that happened. I think one of them was, I was really, really excited about the vision and strategy work that we had been working on together, where I was coming from outside the company and I was working with some folks that were on the inside. And we had a really interesting, kind of, compelling direction we wanted to take the company. And I was really excited about trying to take that on. It still excites me today.
Ben Foster: Secondarily, though, the advisory practice that I had created had continued to grow, and it grew and grew and grew to the point that I was going to need to bring other people into that practice to continue to allow it to grow. And so, I was interested in pulling someone else into that. And at the same time my now business partner, Rajesh, who was actually a product manager on my team, back at Opower, back in the day, had reached out to me and said, “Hey, look, I was interested in doing a lot of advisory work as well. I’ve been starting this off, and I was, kind of, wanted to create my own practice. Do you have any advice or just, kind of, tips for me?”
Ben Foster: And I thought, “Well, that’s kind of like setting up shop next to somebody else who’s got like a café, and saying, “Hey, where do you source your beans from?” Like, “I don’t want to help you with that. Give me a break.” But no, we had a really good relationship, and very swiftly we, kind of, realized, “Hey, wait, this actually could work really well, where you could take on a lot of the client work that I’ve been doing. We can work together and collaborate on best practices around product management and develop some of the frameworks that I had been really excited about trying to produce, but I didn’t have the time to do because of some of the advisory work and the client facing work that I was doing.”
Ben Foster: So, he inherited that practice from me and now he runs what’s now called Prodify Group. And he runs that practice and works with a lot of the companies that I had previously worked with, as well. And I still, kind of, like dabble in it to some extent, and I kind of find that there’s a lot of value in me spending time looking a little bit outside of just my own view of the world within GoCanvas, and looking at how some of the concepts that I’m trying to apply there might apply to other companies, or how some of the ideas that they have might apply back to my company at GoCanvas as well.
Ben Foster: So, I ended up spending just a couple of hours a month, kind of, working on some of the advisory practice. But I spent a lot of that time now working with Rajesh, on formulating new best practices or taking some of the things that I’ve picked up along the way and converting them into methodologies and frameworks that other companies can apply.
Ben Foster: And so, it, kind of, keeps me in the theoretical a little bit, and it, kind of, keeps me thinking about things from an academic perspective, as to how they can be applied more broadly across other companies. But then I also have, through my experience at GoCanvas, the ability to put those in practice firsthand, and to experiment with new ideas there and to see what’s working and what’s not and to get real firsthand experience, that then feeds back into some of those methodologies and some of those best practices.
Ben Foster: So, that’s been a really good interaction, I think, in terms of both of those things. So, there was a little bit of a reason to go into GoCanvas because of the excitement that I had around the strategy that we were going to embark on. But secondarily, there was a reason to pull other people into the practice. And I think to make it exciting and compelling enough for him, I wanted to also remove myself from it so that he had enough room to, kind of, grow and really mature to take on the entire practice itself.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. Yes. Rajesh is the person who introduced us. So, yeah, it was good to meet him. I think I’m curious to hear, I guess, one of the thoughts that I have is, you sound like you have a very evolved perspective on which companies are worth working for. And I know that a lot of people that I talked to struggle with that a lot.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Certainly, I counsel people through job searches and decisions about whether they should stay or go, and I’d love if you have any sort of, go to ways that you approach thinking about that. If someone comes to you today and says, “I’m trying to decide if I should take a job at a new company.” What do you tell them to look for?
Ben Foster: Sure. So, I would say the first thing that I look for in terms of the company itself would be, I think as a product manager it’s really important to be passionate about the product. And maybe you don’t have to be passionate about the solution, but you have to be passionate about the problem that you’re trying to go solve in the market, for whom you’re trying to solve that.
Ben Foster: So, because you’re going to have those days where you worked 80 hours this week already, and it’s been a big spike and you, kind, of need to put more into it. The reality is working at a startup or a technology company, it has a lot of personal demands on it. And you don’t want it to be the thing that makes you jump ship at some later date. You want it to be the thing that’s going to make you want to double down and invest more time and energy into it. So, I think number one is making sure that it’s a product that you actually are passionate about.
Ben Foster: Number two, would be that the product itself is what I would call, or the company itself, recognizes the role of product management. And I’ve seen this work really badly in companies where they truly don’t understand the purpose of R&D. It’s like, “Hey, what we do is we sell stuff and then you go build it, right?” That’s sales lead. Or “Hey, we’re a marketing led company. We want to make a certain statement about who we are, and we need to go support that, I guess, behind the scenes by checking the box with different technology solutions.”
Ben Foster: If that’s the orientation that the company has, you’re going to be put as a product person into a bit of a box, and you’re not going to be the sort of strategic asset of the company that you really should be. And so, I always encourage people to look for a role at a company, where the company respects and understands what product management is about.
Ben Foster: Now, there are those gross misunderstandings, like the ones that I talked about already, but I think there are also some nuisance ones. And one that I think, comes to mind a lot, is one where the perception is that the role of R&D, the role of product and product development in its entirety, is to help sales hit it’s numbers this quarter. Or to help sales hit it’s numbers even maybe next quarter. And that’s not the role of product management.
Ben Foster: The role of product management is to help sales sign up for targets, a year from now, that they would have thought were impossible today. Right? That’s why we do what we do. And during the interview process, hopefully you can ask the right set of questions or read the tea leaves based on the questions that are being asked of you, to get a sense as to how they understand and appreciate the role of product management.
Ben Foster: And if they look at it that same way, that, “No, we want product to lead. We want product to set a vision, and a course for this company, then the other departments can, kind of, like, follow. We want you to go figure out the right things to build. And then that way we can go sell those things to that market.” That’s a twist on it. It’s a nuance, but it’s such an important nuance. I really encourage people to ask the right, kinds of, questions that are going to get them to be able to draw that conclusion one way or another.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Any tips on what those questions are?
Ben Foster: Yeah. I think that there’s probably a few of them. I always like to ask for real examples of things, right? So, show me, I think it’s always interesting that when people go in for interviews that they usually feel like if you’re in UX, for example, you got to bring a portfolio. And if you’re in product, you might want to have a few examples of stories of products that you delivered in situations, you ran into.
Ben Foster: And yet, when interviewees ask questions, they ask these really vague general questions to companies. And I think the reality is, that you have to really ask poignant questions, as well. Show me the documentation about the product strategy. Show me the deliverables that went into the decision to go after the product area that I am going to be asked to work on.
Ben Foster: Because what happens when you look at that, and then you realize that there’s some bogus analysis that went into that, and there’s a lot of assumptions that are behind the scenes that the executive team had to decide to invest in your area that they’re hiring you for. Well, your job is going to be the one that’s like sort of on the line if some of those assumptions are wrong.
Ben Foster: And so, to me the thing that probably stands out the most is really asking companies to show you very specific things that are indicative of the way that decisions get made at the company. And I think just reading through some of those materials or seeing some of the emails, whatever it is, I think can actually be quite helpful.
Ben Foster: And if you’re the, kind of, candidate that I think a company is really excited about such that you should join, then I think they should be willing to share some of those, kinds of, things with you, as well, to really get you over the hump of making the decision to come on full-time.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I love that you just said that, because that was going to be my next question. Well, I can see at the executive level how they’d be trying to woo you and they’d be willing to share that, but I wonder for people I know who are in the middle still, if companies will share that before they come in.
Ben Foster: Well, doesn’t that tell you something as well though, if they don’t?
Holly Hester-Reilly: It sure does. Yeah.
Ben Foster: I mean, I think that it, kind of, does. It’s like, “No, I want to hire you for this and I expect you to drop everything else that you’re doing in your life to spend four plus years with us, to go do this. But I refuse to share with you the explanation or to share with you any sort of documentation that actually leads to our decision to open up this position.”
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah.
Ben Foster: Is that the, kind of, company that has the transparency that maybe you’re looking for as an employee once you’re actually on board?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Oh, this has been really fascinating. I hope our listeners get some inspiration from it and it helps them find their way to the stronger places.
Ben Foster: Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I guess, are there any other things that, kind of, like the itch that you see everywhere that you’re just like, “Gosh, I just want to end that confusion once and for all?” What are those?
Ben Foster: The big one for me probably is the point that I already made about the role of product management and really what it’s function and the purpose that it serves at, a technology company is. That’s probably number one.
Ben Foster: I think that if there’s a second one, I would say that, when I look at the way that product management has changed in the last few years, the thing that stands out to me as both a good and a bad, it’s, kind of, a double-edged sword, has been this much more scientific approach towards product management, where you do a ton of AB testing and you validate things in market and you put a small scale change out there, and see how customers react before you decide to invest in the larger version of that.
Ben Foster: And that’s all very good because it forces you to make data driven decisions. And I’ve certainly been guilty myself, certainly earlier in my career, of making decisions that were based on a whole bunch of assumptions that probably could have been validated and work. And it led us astray in a few places.
Ben Foster: That said, I think that by moving in that direction, there has been this sense that you don’t need to actually understand what makes your customers tick. You can just throw stuff out there and see what works. You don’t need to understand what the key components are of the customer journey and the buyer journey, or what motivates users at the end of the day to change their behaviors, et cetera. So, the reality is you do need to have a sense of that.
Ben Foster: I always ask people that I advise, “It’s great that you do a lot of A/B testing. How do you decide what you’re going to A/B test next?” And a lot of times they don’t have a great answer to that because they just like, “Well, we just throw things out there and we just, kind of, see what sticks and then we just do more of that.” That is not a recipe for innovation.
Ben Foster: It’s a recipe for optimization, and that’s fine. A lot of times there’s a need to do optimization, but optimization is not a substitute for innovation. And I think that to truly innovate, it does require you to have a very good sense as to how your business functions, what makes it successful or not, what makes your customers successful in interacting with your business?
Ben Foster: And the more that you can articulate that in depth and get the whole team to understand it and rally behind it, the more you’re in a position to establish a vision and thus a strategy that’s going to take you down a really interesting path.
Ben Foster: You know what I mean? Imagine if Netflix has just optimized the hell out of their DVD delivery surface, right? And they are like the very best DVD delivery service you could ever possibly imagine today. Are they a bigger business than they would be if they had sort of said, “No. We envision a better solution for this with streaming.” Right? And they had to go in that direction. If they hadn’t then they’d have their lunch completely eaten and they wouldn’t even have a seat at the table, when it comes to Amazon and Apple and everybody else.
Ben Foster: So, it does require you to think ahead about how you’re going to better serve your customer’s needs, but it requires you to have a really good appreciation of who your customer is, and to really get to the why of why you’re building the next product that’s out there.
Ben Foster: And I think we’ve, kind of, shifted. The pendulum has swung a bit too far in the direction of science, and some of the art of product management needs to be brought back.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow. So, I think everything you said was amazing, except that I would call it the direction of data instead of science, because I think science does include the psychology and the understanding of humans. I mean the social sciences are science too. You know?
Ben Foster: Yeah. No. I stand corrected. I would say you’re totally right. Yeah. A better way of phrasing it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I couldn’t let that go since this is the Product Science Podcast.
Ben Foster: Always learning, I appreciate that.
Holly Hester-Reilly: But I totally agree. To be honest, I’ve been in companies where they have optimized everything and have no understanding of the why and the human, and like that got them somewhere for a couple of years. And then the market gets commoditized and they’re not making their play for the next thing, and their 10-year vision isn’t looking so good.
Ben Foster: Right. Right.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I’m right there with you. Well, this has been a fantastic conversation. I’m so excited that we’ve had this. Where can people find you if they want to get more wonderful insights?
Ben Foster: Yeah. Well, likewise, I’ve really appreciated the conversations. It’s great to have a real, like, true authentic conversation about product stuff with somebody who really gets it. So thank you. In terms of finding me, probably email is the best thing, I’m pretty responsive. A lot of people reach out to me and I try to respond to everybody who does.
Ben Foster: So, my email at GoCanvas is ben.foster@gocanvas.com. And then for the advisory work that I still sort of, like, dabble in and the advisory practice, you can go to the website at protifi.group or you can find me via email at ben@protifi.group.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. All right. Well thank you so much and keep doing that awesome stuff and telling us all about it.
Ben Foster: Awesome. Sounds great. Thanks a lot.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Thank you, Ben.
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