The Ken Norton Hypothesis: Product Is Best Taught Through Apprenticeship

Before becoming a full-time executive coach to product leaders, Ken spent more than fourteen years at Google, where he led product initiatives for Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Mobile Maps, and GV (formerly Google Ventures). These products today are used by more than three billion people worldwide.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we cover Ken’s 14 year history and learnings from his time at Google, what it’s like to build products with mass appeal, his approach on how to be an authentic leader, and how product is best learned under an apprenticeship model.

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Resources

Questions We Explore in This Episode

How did Ken start his career in product? What was the dotcom era like in the early to mid 90’s? How was Ken’s early experience as a programmer able to direct him towards being the role of a product manager? How did Ken start officially being called a product manager, and was it a seamless role change? How did Ken’s blog writings as a product manager lead to him gaining recognition in the field? What was building software for web 1.0 companies like? How was Ken able to navigate away from waterfall but still keep standard programming practices? How was the environment and culture at the time conducive to pioneering new strategies to build better products? How did Ken learn to build products at scale at CNET? How risky was it to release a product under waterfall and how were early attempts at agile able to speed up and improve the process?

What is different in modern times with how people approach product as a career option? How did standard product practices evolve over the years? How do you explain to new product managers why standard practices are the way they are today? How young has Ken seen people who are interested in pursuing product management as a career? When Ken started out as a product manager, how valued and respected was the field, and how does that compare to today? What is the best way to learn to be a product manager? How hard can it be to get an entry level position in product? What are some good shortcuts and strategies to quickly learning how to be a product manager? With the growth of content around product management, how can you tell the good advice from the bad? Why is it hard to focus in on only 1 aspect of product management being the most important? How do you best test for skills of product managers?

What is the “art of product management”? How do you lead and inspire teams? How important is communication and story telling in product? How early in the career of a product manager should you start to refine your “soft skills” or “social skills”? How do you lead without authority? What mistakes do product managers make when trying to be assertive? What are the limitations of service leadership? Why is being a product manager trying to balance being assertive & decisive vs being a service leader? How do you learn leadership on the job? How many resources are there to independently learn how to be a product manager?

Why is product best taught through an apprenticeship model? Why is it important to learn product principles from an experienced mentor? How does a mentorship model of learning compare to how Ken learned about product when starting his career? What options are available to you if you can’t find a mentor at your current company? How valuable is coaching early in your career? Why are startups limited in how much you can learn about doing product right? Why can large established brands offer more towards your education in product? How do you hone your decision making skills? Why do titles for product managers vary so much between companies and industries? How long did it take Ken to find a mentor in his career? Who has been a mentor for Ken Norton over the course of his career? Should you lead with your technical skills or your soft skills when applying for a job?

What factor do empathy and curiosity hold when considering job applicants for a product role? Why does empathy and a genuine care to help people crucial to having a lasting career as a product manager? What is the difference between pursuing product management for power vs impact? Why is product management a great choice as a career goal? Why is product management also a great choice as a transitional stage to other roles like CEO, general manager, or product leader? Can you find fulfillment in only being a product manager? Why is there always external pressure to keep advancing your career beyond being a product manager?

What is unique about working on high impact products at Google? How does doing an experiment on only 1% of users at Google differ from other companies in terms of scale? Why is running experiments on only 1% or fewer of users still highly impactful at Google? Why is it difficult to measure the effectiveness of an experiment at Google? How was Google able to discern between adopting more users due to new android users vs product releases and updates? How complicated can business operations get when dealing with a scaled and international products like Google’s products? Why are international restrictions difficult to navigate and how has Google been able to do so? Why are legal departments an important ally for product managers? Why do business operations at the scale of Google’s require the inclusion of non-technical departments in order to operate safely? When Ken was working on Google Docs, how was he able to see the impact of products he worked in his personal life? Why are engineers at Google able to take on every challenge, and why is “we can’t do that” not an option? How does Google promote finding new and creative solutions to problems?

Why did Ken decide to leave Google after 14 years? What is employee churn like at Google and how long do employees stay on average? How did Ken transition into coaching? How has remote coaching changed in 2020 vs previous years? How was Ken able to capitalize on the pandemic and able to create an opportunity through it? How does Ken stay connected to Google? How have the web, industries, and political organizations evolved over time from the early Dot Com era? Why is coaching a great means of being able to gain experience?

What does it mean to be authentic as a product leader? What is the myth of the Steve Jobs style leader and why is that not a sustainable model of leadership? Why is it hard to tell what style of leadership you should model yourself after? Why does choosing a leadership style that reflects your own personal values the best approach? Why is emotional intelligence important for product managers? Why is representation important in business? Why do women and people of color struggle to feel authentic in business and why is it hard for these groups to find their place in businesses? Why do inclusive and creative leaders get better results than command and control style leadership?

 

I think the way you learn it is by watching a great product leader. If you have the good fortune to be starting your career as a PM, to be able to watch and learn how someone else more experienced has navigated that…It really is the type of job that's best taught through an apprenticeship model.

 

Quotes from this episode

I think the way you learn it is by watching a great product leader. If you have the good fortune to be starting your career as a PM, to be able to watch and learn how someone else more experienced has navigated that…It really is the… Click To Tweet The Ken Norton Hypothesis: Product Is Best Taught Through Apprenticeship Click To Tweet The evidence shows that over time what creates the most vibrant, creative teams that deliver the best results are the type of leaders that bring out the best in people around them, not the sort of top down command and control. Click To Tweet

Transcription

 

Holly:
So this week on The Product Science Podcast, I’m sharing a conversation with Ken Norton. Before becoming a full-time executive coach to products leaders, Ken spent more than 14 years at Google, where he led product initiatives for Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google mobile maps and GV, formerly Google Ventures. These products today are used by more than three billion people worldwide. Welcome Ken.

Ken Norton:
Hello. Thank you for having me.

Holly:
I’m excited to have you.

Ken Norton:
We’ve been talking about this for a long time. I’m excited. We’re finally together.

Holly:
I know. It’s taken a little while to make it happen, but here we are. So I always like to begin by hearing a bit about people’s journey. So how did you first move your way into product?

Ken Norton:
Well, I guess our journey would have to go back a number of years now. I had the, I guess good fortune of graduating about two months after the Mosaic browser was released to the world from college. And the misfortune of it being a recession. And the combination of those two events, me latching onto the promise of the web, not being able to find a job in my chosen profession, which at the time was politics and pre-law and ultimately a path to law school brought me to San Francisco to work in the sort of burgeoning web 1.0 days. And at the time when I moved out to San Francisco, there was I think really three companies that I thought of as being preeminent web brands, that companies that I would actually want to work for was Wired, CNET and Organic Online, which was a kind of a consultancy shop.
And I ended up working for CNET as a software engineer. I sort of worked my way up the engineering ladder during the sort of .com explosion and eventually collapse. And slowly sort of found myself realizing that I don’t think I was really made out to be a programmer, realizing that although I loved software, I don’t think I was particularly savvy or brilliant programmer and wanting to get a little bit closer to where the decisions were made, the marketing, the business, all the sort of non-technology stuff, yet loving working with engineers.
And eventually sort of found myself in the middle of all those things. Before I maybe even really appreciated that it was called product management or even what product management was, sort of found myself doing this job and then realized it was the perfect fit for what I wanted, what I think my skills were. And before I knew it, I was being called a product manager. Even if I don’t ever remember the point where I sort of affirmatively said, I’m going to be a product manager. It was just sort of one day I woke up and I was like, I guess this is what we call this.

Holly:
Yep.

Ken Norton:
And spent a long career working in product from a bunch of different companies. Probably I would say about 2005 or so realized that there wasn’t a lot out there about what product management even was, or sort of what makes a good product manager. And so was one of the first to sort of blog about it, try to write, sort of capture what my sense of what product management really meant. And then that sort of, being early to sort of writing and publishing about product management naturally led to an audience and sort of that sort of built on itself. And had the good fortune of being able to give back in a lot of ways to the PM community ever since, and be a part of the conversation and sort of watch everything that’s happened with product over the last 15, 20 years and eventually moving into full-time coaching where I work with product leaders.

Holly:
Yeah. So many things have evolved over the past 15 to 20 years in product. What was it like, I guess when you first got started in tech, even if you weren’t yet thinking of yourself as a product manager, what did building software look like then?

Ken Norton:
At CNET, we had a lot of very experienced software developers and software leaders, which was very unusual for web 1.0 companies that were sort of cobbled together by hackers. Our engineering leaders all came from Bell Labs and Bellcore. So we had a good sort of institutional understanding of how to build good software at scale, how to think about software, how to honor the craft of engineering. And so I was lucky to sort of have learned from people that really understood deeply, how to build software at scale, was one of the advantages we had at that time. That said, it was a very sort of waterfall process that came from that world. I mean, that was sort of the way you built software. And so I think we were at the time trying to figure out how do you strike a balance between moving fast and innovating and improvising and recognizing that what we’re trying to do had never been done before, but at the same time honor, sort of sound engineering principles around scalability and maintainability and quality.
And it was a really sort of fun time because I think the team had a sort of a perspective that we were going to figure it out, that we weren’t going to fall on one side or the other. So it wasn’t like I was fighting against people that were saying, this is the only way to build software, nor were we thinking we should just move fast and break things. And so I got to come up sort of learning sound engineering principles and sort of how to build software at scale. I think that sort of served me because I had an opportunity to sort of learn it the right way. But that said, it was very much a writer requirements document, figured out what it’s going to look like, do wire frames, mockups, write a technical design document. So it’s like the iterative loop between what we think we’re going to build and then when we find out whether it’s going to work for users or not was months, sometimes years in some cases.

Holly:
Yeah.

Ken Norton:
And so the sort of tightening of that loop of learning prototyping, customer discovery, try it, see if it works. If it works, invest in it further, if it doesn’t work, change it, iterate is really something that we were only figuring out for the first time. And I look back sometimes at some of the things we built and we’re like, wow, we spent a year building that. Then we put it out to try to find out whether it was going to work or not.

Holly:
Yeah.

Ken Norton:
Imagine how much faster we would’ve learned if we didn’t wait till after we build it to figure out whether it was going to work and whether users resonated with it. What if we had sort of moved that up front? So I think that’s really been the big shift that I’ve seen is just that, the feedback loop between what you’re learning from your users and your customers and how that’s feeding back into what the team chooses to build, very, very different than it was at that time.

Holly:
Yeah. One thing that I’ve found that I’m curious if you’ve seen is as more new product managers or entry level product managers come on the scene, there are more people who haven’t lived through the older ways of doing it. And so sometimes they have questions or challenge why we do things so light on documentation or so iteratively now. And I’m curious if you ever come across that.

Ken Norton:
Oh yeah. Yeah. Probably the biggest change that I’ve seen is people actually want to do this job now. They want to get into it. They aspire to do it even, I’ve had people reach out to me still in high school and they’re like, I read your stuff. I want to be a product manager. What should I be doing? How should I prepare?

Holly:
Wow.

Ken Norton:
And we were at least my generation of PMs we were kind of cast out into the wilderness and found our way into PM. Not because we tended to do there. And in fact, in some cases we were sort of seen as pretty second rate. I mean, I remember in my early days it was sort of, there was engineering and then there was business.

Holly:
Yeah.

Ken Norton:
And if you were in product management, you sort of are in business. Why would you want to work on business? So it wasn’t really something that least, a lot of people aspired to be. So that’s changed. Certainly. So there’s now lots and lots of people that want to be product managers, which is great. The challenge is the only way to really learn how to be a product manager is to do the job.

Holly:
Yeah.

Ken Norton:
And it’s hard to learn to do the job if you can’t get the job in the first place. And so there’s a little bit, I think, focus on the wrong things as sort of a desire for shortcuts, quick entries, tools, tips, techniques, frameworks that are going to help you find shortcuts to the job, but anybody who’s done the job knows that that stuff is sort of secondary to what really matters and what makes the job hard. And so it’s a little bit of maybe I sound a little bit like a curmudgeonly music fan that’s complaining that his favorite band has gotten too popular or something. But I think it’s a little bit of a mixed blessing that there is so much discussion, desire, opportunity, interest in product, because it has created this sort of echo chamber of in my mind, people fundamentally talking about the wrong things and I don’t think it’s necessarily serving us or the community.

Holly:
Yeah. I can agree with that especially over the last 10 years, I feel like there’s been an explosion in the amount of content that’s out there for product people, but it’s so hard for people who are new to product to figure out which of the content is any good. Like how do they figure that out? It’s got to be really hard.

Ken Norton:
Yeah. You don’t know until you’ve done the job again. Right. It’s sort like filmmaking. Right. So it’s like what goes into making like an incredible film? Well, there’s so much, there’s story, there’s casting, there’s set design, there’s the script. Like there’s such a craft to filmmaking. And if you ask any like famous filmmaker, they probably couldn’t even necessarily pin down what really matters and how it all fits together. It is as if you go to like the filmmaking community and you find that all they talk about is like which lens to use and like how to set your aperture when you’re interviewing to get the job, to work on the film. And then you’re like, well wait, but that doesn’t even connect to what all the filmmakers will tell you is important. And it’s like, well, that’s sort of what’s happening in the product community.
I get it. Right. There’s a lot of demand. There’s a lot of people who want to get into it, who want the leg up, who want to learn how to do the job, are clamoring for tricks, tools, techniques, shortcuts in the door. There’s a lot of people who are now interested in selling something to those people naturally because they’re a lot of smart product people following their users, following the market opportunity, selling certifications, tools, frameworks, all this kind of stuff.

Holly:
Yes.

Ken Norton:
But it just feels like we lost the plot a little bit. For those of us who’d been doing the job for a long time, when we think about what makes the job hard, where you struggled, where you failed, where you fell short, what could have been different? It’s not because you had the wrong framework for prioritizing a backlog. Like it’s just, it was all the other stuff.

Holly:
Right.

Ken Norton:
Again, this sort of comes across as a little bit curmudgeonly. I don’t mean that, but you zoom back and it just feels like we’re just talking about all the wrong things.

Holly:
So what should we be talking about?

Ken Norton:
I mean, I argue that the hard parts of product that really matter are what I call the art, which is more about the people side of things.

Holly:
Yeah.

Ken Norton:
As I reflect and I work with product leaders in my coaching practice. So I get to see this firsthand, how to lead and inspire teams, how to set a vision, how to tell a story, how to evangelize, how to hire, how to deal with difficult people, how to inspire, how to lead without authority, how to be creative, how to sort of connect with how your values fit into it. Like that’s the stuff where, when I look at where I struggled and where I grew as a product manager, where ultimately sort of the rubber hits the road. Now it’s squishy. It’s hard to turn any into that into a five step tool that you can take with you.

Holly:
Right.

Ken Norton:
And it’s not unique to product. I mean, it’s sort of anybody would tell you that, all that stuff, communication skills, storytelling, well, that matters in sort of any part of life, any part of business. And that’s true, but I’d love to see more conversation about that. Particularly for people that are coming into product who are getting started for them to both sort of honor and understand the importance of that. But then to start to build some of those skills, sort of lean into some of that stuff that we’ve often called soft skills earlier in their career, not once they’ve sort of advanced to a place where they’re finding out that it’s holding them back.

Holly:
Yeah. Do you have any stories from your time at Google or anywhere else where you feel like you really sort of overcame some of those challenges to inspire a team and lead without authority?

Ken Norton:
Yeah. I mean, a big challenge for me was trying to figure out…
PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:12:04]

Ken Norton:
A big challenge for me was trying to figure out how to balance my, what I think I have a natural interest in connecting with other people and being able to work with other people and understand them, and to be able to be decisive, to make decisions, to just fundamentally drive momentum and lead. To me there was a tension there. Because if you walk in and you try to exert authority as a product manager, you’re probably not going to get very far, because you’re not the boss. So no one’s going to listen to you because you’re the boss and they are forced to. They’re going to be like, “Who are you to tell me what to do?”
By the same token, if you lean into the servant leadership type mentality, putting other people first, being collaborative, you will probably connect with other people, create a lot of sense of trust and safety and people will want to work with you, but it’ll be very hard to drive decisions, to be decisive, to make the call when you need to make the call.

Holly:
Yep.

Ken Norton:
A lot, I struggled with a lot of trying to strike that balance. And I’ve watched product managers fail and fall out of the profession for going too hard on one side or the other. The number of product people I saw walk into Google and come in on day one, think they’re going to order engineers around. And a year later, they’re out in the pavement with their thumb out looking for a new job.

Holly:
Yep.

Ken Norton:
And then a lot of people who were great to work, with very collaborative, teams loved them, but then felt like they couldn’t execute, make decisions, make the tough calls, manage up, push for decisions. So that’s one example, is I’ve had to find that balance between creative sense of leadership, inspiring others, bringing out the best in them, recognizing you’re not leading from authority, but also being able to put the hammer down and be decisive and make the tough call, or pound the table if you need to drive results.
Most jobs, you’re learning that by nature of a formal line manager type role.

Holly:
Right.

Ken Norton:
You learn how to do that because now everyone’s looking at you and going, “You’re my boss. So you find the right balance.” And you’re either too harsh of a boss and they think you’re a jerk, or you’re too weak of a boss and they ask you to push harder. But for PMs, we’re stepping into this environment where we’re being asked to do this without really much formal authority to draw upon. And I think a lot of people struggle with that.
That’s been a theme for my career, and obviously with a lot of folks I work with in my coaching practice. I don’t see a lot of stuff written about that.

Holly:
Yeah.

Ken Norton:
There’s not a lot of tools and frameworks for figuring that out, and it’s because it’s hard.

Holly:
Yeah. It’s a little squishy. It could be hard to write useful content around that and make sure that it’s actually helping people.

Ken Norton:
Yeah. I think the way you learn it is by watching a great product leader. If you have the good fortune to be starting your career as a PM, to be able to watch and learn how someone else more experienced has navigated that. Either because they’re your manager, or your mentor, or even just a fellow PM that you get to see in action who’s navigated that path. It really is the type of job that’s best taught through an apprenticeship model.

Holly:
Yes.

Ken Norton:
Hey look, there’s a lot of professions out there where the only way to learn the job is to do the job. Journeyman, electrician, you have to learn… But they’re set up to support that through apprenticeships, and you get hired as an apprentice, you’re taught by somebody on the job, you learn. There’s very few of those opportunities out there for product managers. There’s the Google APM program, Facebook RPM, there’s a handful of them, but a very, very tiny sliver of them actually exist. Most people are thrown into the deep end, in a startup, and expected to learn the job. Or they find their way in through an adjacent role in a bigger company. But I think this is really the bottom line here is it’s a job you can only learn the nuances of by doing it, but yet how do you get the job if you haven’t done it?

Holly:
Yeah. No, it’s the age old question, I think, people ask about all the time. And there aren’t enough programs out there. What do you tell people? Do you have people come to you who don’t have a mentor that they can work with in their company?

Ken Norton:
Yeah. Well, that’s very common. This is part of why coaching can be powerful. I think mentorship’s really important as well. Because I think a lot of people just don’t know what they don’t know. I don’t even know what questions to ask. I don’t know what I don’t know. It’s very common people say to me, “I don’t even know where my blind spots are yet, because I don’t even know what the spots are.”
And so my suggestion, particularly earlier in your career, is prioritize finding an environment where you will get that learning, that mentorship, by being able to see a great leader in action. So if you are looking for that first PM job, and you have an offer to go join your buddy’s Y Combinator startup as employee number five, the first product leader, or if you have a choice to go to a bigger, more experienced tech company, who has a great brand, where you can learn from other product managers, I would absolutely prefer that… Recommend that you go the big company route. Even if you’re convinced that this company is going to be the next Facebook, or whatever, you’re just not going to learn. There’s not going to be anyone from you to learn from, because you’re not even going to know what good looks like.

Holly:
Yeah.

Ken Norton:
Yes, of course you could absolutely stumble into it. Silicon Valley’s littered with people who stumbled into figuring out what great looked like through force of will and just hard work and luck. But if you really want to learn in the craft of product manager, you got to be able to see it in action. You got to be able to see great strong product leaders show you what the job entails. Watch them navigate some of these difficult problems, hear from them how they make tough decisions, how they inspire others, how they tell stories, how they drive outcomes, all that kind of stuff. And so I think people often try to push for ownership and title and seniority without recognizing that the best way to learn a job is to apprentice.

Holly:
This makes me wonder, did you have a leader like that that you learned from?

Ken Norton:
I did eventually. This may be part of what makes me so opinionated about this. There were strong product founders that I worked for, founder-CEOs, who I had the great opportunity to learn from and to be led by. Everyone from Halsey Minor, who is the founder and CEO of CNET. Back in the day, Joe Kraus, who as our founder at JotSpot, one of the founders of excite. Jeff Wiener, who I worked for at Yahoo, who eventually became the CEO, now executive chairman, of LinkedIn. Larry, and Sergey, David Filo, I had the opportunity to learn from a lot of really strong product CEOs, product-oriented CEOs. But I didn’t have a really good product leader as a manager until later in my career. And that’s part of why I learned the power of that, because I saw just how many mistakes I’d made and how many things that I clumsed my way through that this person was able to bring out the best in me and inspire me.
And I think, importantly, helped me figure out what my authentic style was going to be. Because you oftentimes find yourself ping-ponging between the way other people are telling you to lead, which may be right for them or right for that environment, but isn’t right for you. And so, yeah, I wish that day one when I sort of, “Hey, I guess you’re a product manager now. Oh. And by the way, here’s this amazing person that you going to learn from. Who’s going to mentor you. He’s going to challenge you. He’s going to coach you.” I didn’t have that. And I certainly wish I had.

Holly:
Yeah, that’s interesting. It makes me think back, too. I think I first got that about five years in. The first five years were all trial-and-error, and then got a job where I actually had a VP above me that had things to teach me.

Ken Norton:
Yeah.

Holly:
And that is when things started to really take off. That’s when the career started to really change.

Ken Norton:
Yeah. Because then you’re like, “Oh wait, this is a force multiplier for me now.”

Holly:
Yeah, exactly. It really made a big impact.
So I’ve read a good deal of your writing, and you touched on what you call the art of product management. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Ken Norton:
This was my attempt to try to frame some of the more people-side of the job that I find is underappreciated, under discussed, but ultimately matters more. These are things like collaboration, communication, creativity. Understanding who you are in this equation, how to endure and survive this job by connecting to what matters to you, your own sense of purpose, all that kind of stuff. And this is the soft parts of the job, but again, the ones that I think really matter so much more.
If you think the science of it is the actual execution, the actual doing user studies, prioritizing backlog, figuring out to build, working with engineers, framework, all that stuff. We get a lot of discussion around that. So the art of product management, to me, is really more of the human skills around it that help you succeed as a leader, help you grow and become the type of leader that ultimately is going to be able to drive great outcomes and build winning products.
So yeah, I wrote a piece within the last few weeks called the Art of Product Management to try to put a little bit of structure around that, because I’ve referenced it a bunch of times. I’m like, “Well, the art matters more than the science,” and then fair enough. People have called me on it and they’re like, “Okay, well what is the art? You don’t get to just keep calling it squishy, but not define it.” So I wrote a piece to try to put a little bit more structure on what it might be.
So for people that are earlier in their career or later in their career who are like, “Wow do I grow? How do I learn? What is ultimately going to be the recipe for success in this job?” Have a sense of what to think about and focus on.

Holly:
So if you were hiring product managers, and you needed frontline PMs, and you were presented with no candidates that had both, what would you go for? How do you decide if you’re facing someone who’s got the experience working with engineers and running user tests and things like that, but isn’t very good at the art, versus someone who’s good at the art, but maybe hasn’t really done the more technical side?

Ken Norton:
That’s a hard question to answer. I could argue that’s unfair, it’s a false choice. But I think it’s a good frame. I think this is actually a great question.
I think it would depend on which parts are missing. So if I had a deep sense that this person just has no empathy, isn’t creative or curious, then I think that’s a hard thing to teach. Speaking about the art, if I felt like they’re deeply empathetic, they’re very curious, they’re very creative, but need to understand how to communicate, how to act in a way that brings out the best in the team without being directive, I think you can learn those skills for sure.

Holly:
Yeah.

Ken Norton:
I think you have to want to learn those skills, so that would be another thing I would look for is, does this person really fundamentally care about bringing out the best in a team, helping other people collaborate, understanding different perspectives, empathizing with end users, with customers? Or are they really just seeing that as a means to an end, to winning or being the boss or whatever? So motivation would have to come into play.
I think the science stuff is absolutely teachable, because that’s all what the apprenticeship model is. And that’s why there’s so much focus on it. People are trying to learn just, what do I need to do? What tools, what skills, how do I make decisions day to day? How do I manage my time? How do I get engineers to work with me and estimate… That stuff is absolutely teachable.
I would say that there’s definitely some parts that they would either have to be there or not. Curiosity, empathy, just a sense of fundamental philosophy that you really care about what it is you’re doing and want to build great products, and have impact on the world, and bring out the best in other people. I think that stuff is foundational motivation that’s there or not. But yeah, I think you can certainly teach those skills to people who are eager and want to learn them.

Holly:
Yeah, I would agree. And one of the reasons I asked the question is because I was thinking to some of the startup founders that I’ve been coaching recentl.y and it’s a little bit different, because I don’t get to pick. It’s whoever comes to me, but I definitely have some startup founders that have come to me that have the art side, but need me to teach them the other side. And I think that they make pretty good founders.

Ken Norton:
Yeah. Yeah. This is just… It is a little bit of good humans make good product leaders.

Holly:
Yes.

Ken Norton:
It doesn’t mean bad humans can’t build great products. They can, but good humans, ultimately, I think in the long run, build lasting, enduring enterprises, and companies, and teams, and products, that really sort of-
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:24:04]

Ken Norton:
…enterprises and companies and teams and products that really fundamentally matter. And so a lot of what I often am inquisiting in these sort of conversations, or back when I was doing interviews is really just, what are your motivations, right? What draws you to this craft?
Is it because you think there’s power, and it’s a stair step toward being a CEO and starting your own company? And that’s really all you care about and you just want to scoop up the learnings so that you can then get to the next level. Or do you just really care about the craft of building great products? And are inspired by solving really interesting problems. And bringing something to the world that makes a slight dent in the pain users enduring, or a problem somebody’s suffering. And really care and want to bring out the best in people. And create environments where people really want to do their best work.
That to me is what you can oftentimes tease apart from these conversations. And then whether they come in stronger on the art or stronger on the science? There’s just an eagerness and a motivation there to learn for the right reasons that I think probably matters most.

Holly:
Yeah. One of the things that made me think about too is how I perceive the ratio of people who fall into those two camps of being after product management for the power versus being after it for the impact. I perceive that to be something that’s changed over the past 15 years. As the discipline has gotten more popular, I feel like it’s more common than it used to be to come across people who are using it as a stepping stone. So I’m going my own curmudgeonly route there, I think.

Ken Norton:
Yeah. Well it’s because if you’ve done the job, it’s not a source of power. But it looks like it from the outside. I think, and this is something I’ve opined about as well and written about is, I think a lot of people really do see product management as a necessary stepping stone to something else. And that’s totally fine, right? I mean, I know plenty of incredible CEOs who started on the product path. Who saw it really as their path to general management or becoming a product leader.
And that’s great. But it is totally fine for it to be an end in and of itself, right? I mean, for so many people like me, you had to have another career even before you got into product. It’s like some people you started in marketing or you started in customer success, you muscled your way in. You finally got that product job. You’re were engineer for years. And then now you’re supposed to do it for a couple years and step onto something else. Why can’t this be the job, right? This is a great place to be. This is a very fulfilling career.
And so I think there is a little bit of a sense that unless you’re marching forward onto something bigger that maybe you’re falling short, you stalled out in your career. And I work with a lot of clients that are in this place, right? Midlife have been product leaders for a long time. They’re directors or VPs at big companies or startups. And they’re like, “What if this is what I want to do? What if this is it? Why do all my peers keep asking me when I’m going to be a CEO, or when I’m going to go become a VC or general manager? What if this is what I want to do? Is there something wrong with that?”
But I think that the appeal of product, the innate attraction of it as a exciting, shiny place to be has also created this assumption that unless you’re using it to do something more important like be a founder or a CEO, then you’ve failed. And I think that’s really disappointing and completely misleading, because hopefully you’re drawn to this because you love the work. Not because it’s just a stepping stone to something else.

Holly:
Yeah. Are most of your clients in that camp or do you also have clients who are using it as a stepping stone?

Ken Norton:
Both. Yeah. I have both. I mean, most of my clients are chief product officer or VP product at startups, venture backed companies or director and above at Fang, Google, Facebook, Stripe companies like that. For a lot of them, they are certainly seeing this as a path to the next thing. I have a lot of clients who are, “I’m three to five years out from being a CEO. And so I want to understand what that path looks like.”
I have others who are trying to figure that out. That’s a big factor of our coaching is, “What does the future really hold for me? What do I love? What’s my purpose? Why do I even think about this?” And then I have others who are just like, “This is what I want to do.” That’s really exciting for people to be like, “What do I want to do when I grow up? I want to do this, but more. I want to keep doing this.”
And so I love that sort of mix. And for some, it’s really very much a, “What is it going to take to be CEO? I’m ready in three years.” For others it’s, “How do I just keep getting better at this? How do I bring out the best in other people? What does the next level look like for me when I know that it is this on a bigger scale, more impactful, more confident, more short?”
So yeah. I would say it runs the gamut from people that see this as preparing them for something else. Now I think I would say all of them that I work with are in product because they fundamentally love it. Not because they’re taking a cynical approach to using it for something else. But I think it’s perfectly fine to decide this is what you want to do. It’s also perfectly to decide you’re going to go start a company or be a CEO yourself.

Holly:
Yeah. One of the things you mentioned there was about the impact. And I was thinking we don’t end up with a lot of guests on here who have worked on products that have had the amount of impact that many of the Google products you’ve worked on have had, because it’s huge. So I’m curious what do you think is unique about working on high impact products at Google?

Ken Norton:
Oh, there’s a probably a long discussion to be had there. I think understanding what it takes to build systems at a massive scale is really exciting, right? Just so this sense of we’re going to do this and we’re going to get hundreds of thousands of queries per second. Just all the things that you have to prepare for, think about.
An edge case at a startup where you may be like, “Yeah, but only 1% of users get that error.” And you’re like, “Oh, that’s a hundred million people.” Right? It’s like… That just the scale of it is astonishing. And the scale of the infrastructure and the systems required to do what we were doing would blow your mind. I mean, just the number of times where I was just shocked and stunned to discover that we had done something where something was operating at a scale that we was operating was amazing.
I think you can easily lure yourself into feeling like you’re winning and succeeding even despite yourself. Some of my favorite memories when I was working on mobile maps for Android. And this was during the years when Android itself was exploding through the roof, right? And it would be like 500 million monthly users. And then it’s like 750 million. It’s up and to the right. And it’s crazy. And you can step back and you can pat yourself on the back and you’re like, “Look at our growth.” And It’s like, “Well, I don’t know how much… We’re just riding a rocket ship.”
So how do we actually measure success with a product like mobile maps when you know all the utilization is just coming from everybody getting Android phones. How do we tease out what we’re contributing to that? What we’re not contributing to that? How do you understand whether what you’re doing is making a difference or not, or if it’s just coming for free?
Now it’s a great problem to have. Don’t get me wrong, but it does make it a little bit hard to do what you might do in some cases where you identify some core metrics that you feel like are helping you understand your growth and your contribution. Those metrics may just be happening for free. The ability to do quantitative tests on a large scale where you could try something with 0.1% of users for a week and learn statistically significant things is amazing capability that every time I’ve ever been in a startup or a startup I missed, I was just like, “Oh yeah, if we could do that, we can’t do that here.”
So there’s certainly some benefits. But the other thing that I think you learn at Google is the unwieldingness of what you call the business infrastructure that has to be navigated, right? That you just don’t appreciate until you’ve operated that scale. The like, “Oh, you can’t do that in Holland. And the reason you can’t do that in Holland is because of this weird obscure EU thing. So how are you going to make sure this doesn’t work in Holland?”
You have to deal with that kind of stuff, or the deep privacy infrastructure, legal infrastructure. All that kind of stuff that is so critically important to operating at scale that can sometimes feel like bureaucracy to you at Google. But is obviously there for a super, super important reason because the consequences of getting it wrong are so critical. But you just learn that that kind of stuff really, really matters.
And that’s I think one of the things that people who have operated at that scale who go to a startup bring is just an understanding of you can’t short change that stuff. We can’t think about that later, right? We got to think about that now, because there’s all sorts of examples that we’ve navigated at Google where we thought about it too late and we had to deal with the consequences. And so, that’s one of the things that’s really amazing.
The best part of it is probably everyone you meet knows the product you’re working on. Pretty fun, right? It’s nice to be like, “What do you do?” “Well, I work on Gmail. I work on… “Oh, I know Gmail.” Of course you do, right? So there’s a sense that you get that feedback in your real life that the products you’re making actually are being used and people care about and couldn’t live without.
I remember I was one of the earliest PMs on Google docs. That was my first project. And I remember my son got to elementary school. And this was years and years ago. And the teacher shared a Googled doc with us. And I was like, “Oh my God.” I was just overwhelmed with joy, because I was like, this is the first time I’d seen the product in the wild. And one of the dreams was like, this would be amazing in K-12 school system. And just seeing that product be used in that way, in that environment, was this just incredible feedback loop for me that what we’d been doing actually made a difference.
So yeah. That’s part of what you really, really gain by working with the world’s greatest engineers. It’s just this sense of there is no problem that is not solvable. And I mean, great engineers in that the world’s greatest engineers. But they’re also the most curious, creative engineers. There’s no, no, we can’t do that, there. And so that combination of having people be excited to try to find ways to solve problems that have never been solved before. And then you solve it and be like, “We’re the first in the world to ever do that.” It’s a really special place.

Holly:
Yeah. That sounds really awesome. So how did you decide to make the transition from Google to not Google?

Ken Norton:
So you’re like, “Why’d you leave?” That’s a great question. Well, I’ve been there 14 years, which was about 11 to 12 years longer than I thought I was going to be there. I came in through an acquisition. It was a company called JotSpot. There were only 25 of us. By the way, more than half are still at the company now. 14 years later. Probably one of the most successful Google acquisitions ever in terms of retention. All of those folks are VPs, directors, very senior folks at Google now. Even the ones who left, most of them were there 10 or more years.
For me it was, I turned 50 last year. And I had this thing in my mind for a long time which was, I’m not going to be still doing this when I’m 50. I could just… It was going to back on my mind. It was just like, “I love this job, but I don’t want keep doing this when I’m 50, for whatever reason.” That was a milestone.
And then the pandemic happened. And there’s a very interesting thing about the pandemic. One of many, obviously a lot of tragic things, but one interesting thing about the pandemic is, it forced me to look at my job through a screen and not through all the trappings of being at Google and the cafes and just being around other people.
And when I stepped back and looked at it through a little browser screen on my computer, I realized I was ready for something else. I had long considered becoming a full-time coach. I did a lot of coaching in my days at GV. I’d obviously learned and done coaching as a manager. Really missed that being a big part of my job.
And so there was a lot of contemplation of what might I do next. And long story short, I ended up leaving Google to go to another company. Decided that that wasn’t right for me. I didn’t really want to be in another company. I wanted to do this coaching thing. And then ended up hanging up my shingle and saying, “I’m open for business as a coach.” Benefited a lot from the fact that in 2021, there was no one who was skeptical of being coached over zoom. In 2019, I would say I would’ve. Many of my clients would’ve said, “Yeah. I’d love to work with a coach, but it has to be in person.”
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [00:36:04]

Ken Norton:
Many of my clients would’ve said, yeah, I’d love to work with a coach, but it sort of has to be in-person. I can’t imagine being over Zoom. And I think that would’ve been pretty limiting just in terms of the number of people you can really truly serve, even here in Silicon Valley, in-person. It’s just difficult to make that work versus to be able to coach people anywhere over Zoom to work with numbers of them a day without having to get in a car and drive somewhere, or for them to come to me, or for us to be rescheduling. And so as terrible as the pandemic was for the world, certainly for all of us, I think an opportunity was created to try this for real and to do it in a way that I think could serve more people than I thought I could serve.
And it would not have happened had it not been all those circumstances kind of coming together and forcing me to be like, okay, I think it’s time for something new. I miss Google terribly. I get to cheat by coaching a lot of people at Google. And so I get to sort of stay close to the company and get to work with a lot of amazing Googlers, and obviously enjoy that part of it. But it’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss that place.

Holly:
Yeah. It sounds like an incredible place. I think that it’d be just fortunate for people to get a chance to work there. I hear it can also be fairly dependent upon what team you ended up being on and things like that.

Ken Norton:
Sure.

Holly:
A lot of big companies, that’s the case.

Ken Norton:
Yeah. And I think probably that would’ve always been the case. It might matter more now because the company, as it’s scaled, it’s probably harder to move around like you might have been before. But yeah, I think that there are really strong teams at Google, there are weaker teams. There are more political organizations that frankly feel more like oracle than Google these days, not naming names. There are others that feel very googly, that feel the same way they felt in 2006 when I joined. So it’s an incredible place to start your career as a product manager too.
I think anybody that has the opportunity earlier in their career, either through the APM program or just as a place to spend a couple years learning the craft of product, because all these things we talked about that you’re going to learn sort of how to operate at scale, but also that to be able to learn from just incredible people to just start to piece together how do different people navigate these different things? And how do people approach the art? What can I learn from them? Who does it this way? And I actually don’t want to do it that way because I don’t like that. It’s not authentic to me. It’s a really great place to learn it.

Holly:
Yeah. You’ve said a couple times now this idea of authentic. So I’m curious, what does it mean to you to be authentic as a product leader?

Ken Norton:
Yeah, that’s a great question. To me, authenticity comes from values, and to sort of be connected to your values, understand what they are and to sort of be living your values. And that’s something that years ago I would’ve not even understood what that meant. But there were so many times when I sort of reflect back on my career where I was frustrated or unhappy, it was often because there was something that mattered to me, it was a value that mattered to me that I wasn’t honoring it in my life, or the environment wasn’t honoring it, or I was being asked to lead in a way that didn’t feel like it honored my values. I have a very self deprecating, humility is a value of mine. I like to put the team first. Bring the donuts. This is a whole been my sort of way of being. And for a long time I was sort of told or got the impression that just you can’t lead that way.
You got to be Steve Jobs or you got to be a CEO. You got to be command and control. You got to tell people what to do. You got to make them fear you. And I picked up a lot of mixed messages around that. And not that I tried to be that way, but the mixed messages I got were, I guess I can’t be a leader because that’s not the way I want to lead. And so authenticity in that case for me was really sort of becoming more centered on, hey, what are my values? Humility, empathy, compassion, teamwork, humanism. Okay, what does it look like to really lean into those? What is it like to find out how to be decisive, and to drive change and to make tough decisions through the lens of those values? Not sort of having to set them aside to be something you’re not. That took working with my own coach, my own sense of understanding who I want to be, getting more emotional intelligence, something I’d never had early on and just sort of becoming more centered.
And this is the sort of, who are you part of all this. And it’s a lot of what I work on with my clients is, who are you? How are you going to be who you are? And how are you going to find a way to express who you are and navigate the world in a way that feels right for you? And so when I talk about authenticity, that’s a lot of what that is. And I’ve watched people struggle without their whole career trying to be who they are, and sort of fully express themselves and honor what matters to them in a way that is compatible with sort of navigating the world.

Holly:
Yeah. That’s beautiful. I feel that it really resonates for me as well just thinking through, again, going back to that first place where I felt like I really had a mentor was also the first place where I felt like I was more authentically myself. Early in the career, I think it can be scary to be your authentic self if you don’t see models that look like that around.

Ken Norton:
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And I think even more to that point, literally look like you, I mean, for folks that from underrepresented backgrounds, women, people of color. If you don’t see people who look like you, that you can sort of feel included, you can feel empowered, you can feel like someone like me can be a leader, you are sort of forced to act as if you’re something you’re not. And look, as great as companies like Google are, and as inspiring, and creative and non-hierarchical, there is a certain archetype for what is a leader that Western society, and certainly Silicon Valley sort of honors and puts forward. And so if in any way you don’t feel like you look like that or act like that, it sort of sets you up even more for feeling like in order to succeed, I have to be someone I’m not, or be someone that just doesn’t feel right for me.
And so I think that’s why I love working with leaders, because the more different types of people and styles of leadership there are, you can watch someone lead in a particular way and be really successful, and watch someone else lead in a very different way and see them be successful, and sort of find ways to appreciate both styles of it. I think the more variety there is in leadership, the more we start to move away from this cookie cutter sense of you got to be this sort of certain way, you got to look a certain way, you got to act a certain way, or else you’re just not capable of being a leader.

Holly:
Absolutely. It’s reminding me of a book I read a while back called Dream Teams by Shane Snow, where he was sort of trying to bring some quantitative evidence to show these different kinds of leadership and what kind of effectiveness they have. And I think that there’s a lot of people that look at the command and control leader as being really strong and leading really strong teams. But there’s actually a lot of evidence out there that the inclusive leader gets farther.

Ken Norton:
Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. A framework is sort of the sort of reactive tendencies versus creative leadership, I think it’s a good framework for thinking about that. But yeah, I mean the evidence shows that over time, what creates the most vibrant, creative teams that deliver the best results are the type of leaders that bring out the best in people around them, not the sort of top down command and control. And we’ve been trying to move away from that since, I mean the 50s and the 60s is when sort of early management science was like, hey, maybe that isn’t the way. But those are the faces that we see on TV. Those are the sort of names that we worship. And it’s easy to think that that’s the only way to lead. This sort of goes back to our earlier point, until you’ve been exposed to a different way, and you’ve seen it and you’re like get to work for a great leader who can show you that the path is as colorful as you want it to be.

Holly:
Yeah. That’s awesome. Do you have any final thoughts or things that you want to share with our listeners?

Ken Norton:
Yeah. I think there’s this, maybe this sort of undertone of the job is both harder than you expect and easier than you think. And what I mean by that is that there are no ways out. There’s not one way to do it. There’s not a tool, or tip, a framework, a checklist that’s going to be the shortcut on how to do it. And that makes the job very intimidating, because I know you want that. But the part that makes it easier than you think is you’re going to get to figure it out on your own by drawing on these parts of humanity, parts of sort of being a curious, creative, independent, thoughtful person, that if you bring those to the table, you’ll figure it out. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to flop. You’re going to fail. You’re going to have disastrous outcomes at times. But if you lean into that what I was calling the art, you’ll find a path forward.
And so I think this is sort of weird dichotomy between it’s harder than you think, but actually navigating it might be easier than you expect that I think is really interesting and fun about product management.

Holly:
Yeah. Awesome. So where can people find you if they want to follow you?

Ken Norton:
Yeah. So bringthedonuts.com is my website where you can find everything I’ve ever written about product management going way back. Newsletter that I’ll occasionally send out. Don’t expect a high frequency of newsletter. But I will promise a high quality bar, even if it’s a low frequency. And then I’m on Twitter at Kenneth N.

Holly:
Awesome. Well thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you today.

Ken Norton:
Thank you. Thanks for having me.