Defining and Executing a Clear Product Strategy With Andreas Prins of StackState | StackPod Episode 15

Episode transcript:

Annerieke: In today’s episode we are talking to Andreas Prins. Andreas has over 5 years of experience in different product management and product strategy roles and at the moment he is our VP of product here at StackState. So, if you are familiar with the product management role - either because you are in a similar role or you work closely with product managers in your job - you might be aware of the fact that product management is often a very diverse role: you’re responsible for the product roadmap, you’re the one who’s connecting different teams so that everyone works towards this certain goal, and you are often also the external spokesperson when it comes to things like webinars and interviews. And then I probably still forget some tasks and responsibilities. 

So, you can imagine we were very stoked when Andreas said yes to the podcast. Not just because he’s a great guy and because he’s great at explaining things clearly, but also because we were looking forward to hearing directly from him about what it’s like to be a product manager. How do you make sure the team stays focused on the short and long term goals? How do you make decisions in a scale up when you have big hairy goals but perhaps not the big, hairy resources? Also, and this may sound like we are wandering off but, what do baking the perfect wood-fired pizza and Lego have to do with software development? Well, that’s exactly what Andreas and Anthony talk about in this episode. So, I will not let you wait any longer, enjoy the podcast and let’s dive into it.

Anthony: Hello, and welcome to the StackPod. This is your host, Anthony Evans with you every two weeks interviewing some of the greatest minds in tech, in business, and some of the people that keep things going, like keeping the lights on at night. We spoke with AWS a couple of weeks ago, and now we're speaking to Andreas Prins from StackState. He's our VP of Product. I am super excited about this interview. Andreas is a great guy and I'm hoping that you guys can all come to know him the way I do, which is in a great way. Andreas, you want to give yourself a bit of an overview?

Andreas: Yeah. Thanks, Anthony and thanks for having me here in the podcast. It's definitely an honor. Been listening to it from the beginning. So, good to be here and share a bit about myself. I joined StackState a while ago and I joined indeed, as VP Product, really building on product strategy, but probably a little bit about myself. I'm in the Netherlands, so on the other side from where you are, managing a family, which is probably equally difficult as managing a product roadmap with two teenagers and two girls, two boys, two girls, a little younger, and I'm a big fan of baking pizza, which will most likely resonate to many of you having a nice woodfired oven in the garden. So probably we might speak about it. And if not, then another time.

Anthony: Well, I am incredibly jealous. I mean, this was a thing, right? You didn't know up until a month or so ago, that water was actually a thing with pizza dough. It's one of the reasons why they say New York pizza is so good. It's because of the tap water that exists in New York, which it's got an interesting taste. Let's just leave it at. It's pretty good if you don't mind me saying, but yeah, it's pretty interesting, but that is something that I am always envious of. Whenever I see the pictures of the pizzas coming out of your oven, when you take them into the office as well, and you give them to people. Almost makes me want to fly over to Hilversum just to have some pizza.

Andreas: Yeah, but just to close on this topic, what a lot of people don't realize is the amount of practice that goes into baking great pizza. I do believe everyone can eat a pizza. Most of the people can bake a pizza themselves, but if you go really all the way from making the dough, making the sauce, making the topping, and then putting that together into the perfect pizza, that is just baked nicely, that has a crunchy crust, that's the art. And to me, that's super similar to making software. So if you would start a podcast on comparing a real life practice like baking pizza and the practice of coding and developing software, they have a lot of stuff in common. The entire process, preparation and delivery to your customers, which is what ultimately matters the most. How does it taste and is it suitable for the job? Likewise, with software development.

Anthony: Yeah, no, that's a really good point. I mean, yeah, when you really get into it, there's so many different factors, not just the water, but then you're talking about how hot do you have the oven and what kind of wood do you have in the oven? What kind of tomatoes do you put in the tomato sauce? It can really get really into the nitty gritty detail around how to make a good pizza in that scenario here. But obviously, we could talk for ages around how to make a good pizza and probably make everybody very hungry as we talk about it, but let's switch over to software development.

Anthony: I always find product management to be a very interesting role because product managers are the people who bridge the army of technical people on the one side, who want to build stuff, who want to innovate, who want to do things, but you're focused on the product side. So how do we take all these lines of code? How do we take all these setups, these integrations, these things that people want and can build, and turn them into something that creates outcomes in the form of a finished product?

Anthony: And I think one of the challenges that you have specifically is that StackState is more like a platform. It's a database at the end of the day. And so, the outcomes can be quite numerous. You can be doing automated root cause one minute, you could be looking for anomalies the next, and as we've spoken about in the past, you could be doing compliance the next because it's another usage of the data that's within StackState. How do you keep that under wraps? You've got a lot of potential outcomes. You're not Apple, you're not Google, you don't have millions of millions of developers and billions of dollars at your disposal. How do you deal with that?

Andreas: Yeah. So that's actually a good question and to me, if you talk about developing products, it really all starts, and it's probably super obvious, but it starts with the customer and understanding the customer problem is super fundamental. If you think through, hey, what is the real problem that we want to solve? And there, personally, what I really like is my background in being a director of engineering, leading various engineering teams and actually knowing what are the problems at scale, because I also work for a large bank leading engineering teams, what are the problems they face? So as a product manager, having a super clear understanding of the customer needs, the pains, that is the foundation, but there are many needs and many pains.

Andreas: So then the clear articulation of, hey, who in particular do we want to focus on and where do we want to go after? That's a second big thing that you need to solve. Understanding the pains and knowing for whom you want to solve it. And then it's really going towards, that validation cycle, doing a ton of research, co-developing your application with design partners and continuously learning what it is that you need to bring to the market.

Andreas: And then, making that as small as possible. Some people believe you need to go as broad as possible. I believe you need to go as small as possible, really nailing that one single use case, that one single pain, and then start slowly broadening that up, understanding what are adjacent problems and then moving your product forward. And what I've seen in my former product roles, is being able to make it small, to make it super successful in that particular use case, truly is the foundation to start building stuff out. So yeah, that's the joy I'm having here at StackState of leading that exercise and making that a success for our customers.

Anthony: One of the things that puzzles me, let's put it like that, and one of the things that I don't envy about product managers in general is, you went through several layers of things, which a lot of people know about product management, like how do you get the most out of people? How do you achieve the outcomes? How do you leverage that experience of what you know people can do and align that with risk?

Anthony: Because obviously you not only have to deliver product, you have to deliver product to a schedule and when you've got a schedule, that means that you need to continually look at risk and things like that. What are the what ifs? Do we have enough resources? Do we know people that have this expertise? Do we need to hire people? Is that going to add to... All this fun stuff. But let's go back to the genesis because that's a ton of work, right? But then you've got to be already committed to the vision. How do you go about creating or defining a vision? That's my ultimate question because that's the linchpin that sets in motion all the other work when it goes into play. How do you do that?

Andreas: Yeah, so to me, it has two or three sides if you like. So on one hand, setting a vision is not super fancy. It's having a clear problem and that's probably the boring part. What is a real problem that I want to solve? The visionary part there is how can I leapfrog forward? How can I make a big step and not solve it incrementally, like everyone else would solve it, but what is the genius part behind the technology that I can utilize to solve that problem so it gives you an advantage in the market.

Andreas: And often that is not necessarily what you would put in marketing material or how you would sell it, but that is really what helps you as a company to move forward real quickly in a particular field. And then an ordinary problem comes together with a revolutionary vision. And if you can blend the two of them into a product strategy, articulate super clearly what you want to solve and how to do that, that can help to set a North Star and help your engineering teams really move forward and be passionate about a particular problem. And to me, if you take a look at product companies like we are, really in the DevOps or the observability market, you need to have technical, brilliant minds in your company as well to make that extraordinary dream reality and that's where the two come together.

Andreas: It's definitely not my skill, having that extraordinary technical vision, but where my skill is, is in bringing the two together or bringing skills in or marketing into the mix and really articulating as a company across all the disciplines, where do we want to go into? So yeah, connecting the people and the teams is, for me, a super crucial part of product management and yeah, driving a product company forward.

Anthony: Yeah. I think if anybody who's listening wants to get an understanding as to what Andreas is talking about, specifically when it comes to the vision stuff, that the developers and all that other stuff aside, I think one of the easiest ways you can see the difference is if you look at a first call sales deck, in other words, what are you telling the sales people to tell our customers, compared to the venture capital funding deck. What was the deck that you used to raise your series A and series B, because they're going to look very different.

Anthony: The funding deck is going to really articulate the company's mission and the company's vision. It's going to leapfrog those three or four steps that you would need to, not coerce, but convince the customer A, that they have a problem. Venture capitalists, they already know that there are problems. They've got the money to solve the problems. Customers don't always admit that they've got problems, even though they know that they've got them under the hood kind of thing. And that's one thing I would tell people to go and look for. If you work for a series A or a series B company, maybe ask internally, if you can look at the deck that was presented to investors. Sometimes that's confidential information, but it would give you a great view as to what Andreas is mentioning there in terms of the difference in the vision.

Anthony: When you're creating a company and a product and a roadmap, that's different from selling to a customer. That's different. You're thinking five steps ahead of most people and actually, it must be so annoying when sales people just turn around to you and say, "Hey, where are we with this integration? Why isn't it out yet?" You're thinking, "God almighty."

Andreas: Well, that's part of the game because then the beauty of product management is bringing reality, bringing the vision to reality, and I mean, a dream only becomes true if you implement it in small steps. And in our case, in integration to other observability or monitoring tools to utilize the data and build topology out of that. That's the execution because without the execution, you're never going to help your customer move forward and that's what I love in product. It's exactly these two, and then you talk to an analyst; Gartner, Forrester, and then you talk again more about the strategy.

Andreas: Then you talk about the vision. How do we see the market evolving? How does our product evolve? So there are parts of the job that are dreams that are out in the future. And then there is the majority of the work, which is just day to day execution. Taking the teams into the next iteration of the product. And then there's one which is really crossing both and that's thought leadership and that's the other part of the job as a product manager. Doing education, participating in webinars, conferences, giving talks. And you really can bring in some of the visionary part and stuff to enlighten people that are in the audience.

Andreas: And that's personally what I, what I really like as well. Being that entertainer teacher, making people think, "Hey, there's probably another solution to my problem or there's probably even an entire problem field where I'm not thinking about and I should start paying attention to." And in particular, in larger enterprises, if people are trapped into day to day business, enlightening them with a piece of total leadership, can be helpful to help them accelerate in what they do in their day to day business.

Anthony: Yeah. I feel like if we're talking about culture and because obviously, when you think about the big picture and you've got your roadmap and whatnot, and then you go back to the day to day, that can be deflating sometimes because it's like, oh, we've got so much work to do. And then because you're the product manager, you're not the person who's physically writing the code. You then have to make sure that the people who are writing the code feel listened to, like they're working towards the beat of the same drum.

Anthony: And I also think as well, one of the challenges from a development standpoint is that you get so deep in the code with your teeny tiny piece of functionality that you can sometimes lose grip of the ramifications of it.This is how we get bugs. This is how we get things that don't meld together because you've got different visions around the outcomes and different limits and things like that. And I think you do a very good job of engaging with people on a day to day level to make sure that they're aware of the bigger picture, that they don't just feel like cogs in a machine and I think that's a very important part of product management.

Anthony: A lot of the time, product people just sit back, they define the vision, they define the PowerPoints, they do the product presentation, and then they go off and do more planning. You're a very hands-on person. I think that's your experience coming into play. Having worked with engineers, you don't just define a vision then go off and take your paycheck and then work on version six of the product. You are very much integrated into even the patching of the product, which is very rare, actually, for a product manager to get involved at that level?

Andreas: But if you think about it, if you want to build a successful company, you need to be aware not only about the process of execution and what you're executing upon the content, but you also need to be aware, what is the context? Where is this company operating in? And in particular, in the last two years with the pandemic, when remote work, I mean, it was there, but it has shifted so dramatically in how we engage. People underestimate the need to connect to others. And if I'm talking about connecting, if you think about an engineering team, you mentioned it. He's really deep onto a particular capability or a piece of code. One of the things, my task I see as my duty is, can I help him to understand where does that capability fit into the end to end picture? So can I help him to elevate a little bit as, hey, what was the purpose? With who am I working? Who's in front, left, right of me?

Andreas: So that's one part. The other part is not only what is his capability in the bigger picture from an execution perspective, but what is also his thing, how is that evolving over time from a visionary perspective? It's not only the technical integration, but it's also, how does it integrate into the vision where we want to go? And there, you already have that piece of thought leadership and vision. But super important, and a lot of people forget it, I mean, I spend more hours with my colleagues than with my wife. Let's think about it for a minute. You need to build that personal connection and that comes by building trust, by having joy together.

Andreas: Sometimes I do think a product manager should be Mr. or Ms. Glue. Can you connect the teams to people in the teams together to ultimately build that team or the company vibe? How hard it is to catch that vibe, but really the atmosphere in a particular company. And I really like that and that is by making jokes, the tone of jokes. Stupid jokes, good jokes, but also to pay attention. If someone is suffering privately, do you take care of that person? Because if things are not going well at home, you better pay attention to it, talk about it, to help someone moving forward and that's really what I like to do. And then, bringing all these puzzle pieces together to build that company culture, to me, is super important.

Anthony: Yeah. I think there are three things every employee needs. They want to be needed, they want to be wanted, and they want to be heard. A lot of people will say, oh, employees need to feel like they're wanted, they need to feel like they're heard. That's only a bandaid. If you make somebody feel like they're heard for about 30 minutes, great job, you've managed them for about 30 minutes and you've wasted the rest of the time. I think if you're a sincere person and you, like yourself, are looking for opportunities whereby you can engage with people, you're going to start to understand not only their weaknesses, but their strengths. And so, as a product manager, you're going to be able to bounce around a lot better when it comes to that resource management and when it comes to that risk management because you're going to be able to mold people to work together very quickly, as opposed to if you didn't know them at all or if you just acted like some oracle of information.

Anthony: If you actually get into the weeds, if you treat people with respect and with dignity and you make them heard, you make them needed at certain points, they don't need to be needed 24 by seven or heard 24 by seven, but as long as you lead with that sincerity, that's the important piece. Then I think that saves you a ton of time. And I think you and me like to lead with the same type of cultural element. I believe that if you make a joke in a meeting, people are going to remember that meeting. If you don't make a joke in a meeting, it's going to be the most forgettable meeting.

Anthony: There's never any situation that doesn't require us to just take a step back and think, "Okay. What's the bigger picture? Can we relax? Are we getting gray hairs? What's the point?"

Andreas: And one other element there. Normally, if you want to build for success, it's long lasting. So it's not a short journey that we are embarking on, so that is why it's important to me to build that personal relation, one, but also, there will be days or even weeks, or potentially even quarters, where we need to go the extra mile, where we really need to push ourselves to the limit. And then, doing that in an environment where people feel appreciated and connected, it's much more joy because you do it together for the same purpose. So to me, you're building a muscle memory, really, not only for today and to enlighten each other for today, but really to be that group of colleagues that become close friends, almost right. Really, to achieve these great things. I always try to disconnect.

Anthony: Almost, almost. That was a reference to me there.

Andreas: No, no, no, no, no. No worries. No worries. But I mentioned it. You're more together with your colleagues at work than with your wife at home or partner at home.

Anthony: Well, we've got to talk about one thing before we wrap this up. Lego, show me your Lego.

Andreas: Let me then show my best piece of Lego.

Andreas: I know this is overall a podcast, but if anybody's on YouTube or anything, you've got to see the Lego here.

Andreas: So at the start of the pandemic, I decided rather than traveling to all the different cities abroad which is super difficult, I decided to start buying the Lego architecture cities of all the ones that I've been like Berlin, London, Paris, New York, which is bringing the world into my house. And then, I discovered it's pretty cool, but in particular, to do that with my sons because there's a nice moment of connecting to them and teaching them really good skills, but yeah, then these small pieces, they're super simple, they're junior, I mean, they're just a couple hundred pieces and that's about it.

Andreas: So then I thought let's give myself a little bit of a challenge and that monster is over here which is the Colosseum of Lego, which I believe is the third biggest Lego piece. And if you think about building Lego and building software, the amount of repeatability, knowing what comes first. You cannot start with a roof if the foundation is not out. So yeah, I really like to take different perspectives and take these lessons back into product or product management, if you like. So I love Lego and probably in a couple years, this home office is full of more structures.

Andreas: One more comment. I mean, you also discover the character of your children. So my two boys being extremely impatient and the girls, more patient, more careful. So that's also super nice to see when you're building Legos, that different characters bring actually different skills to the table. And if you think about building teams, again, that's my lesson. You also need these different characters to compose a super powerful team because if you have copies of Anthony copies of Andreas all across the company, it will be a big joke, but probably no delivery at all.

Anthony: We'd turn the company into a comedy seller.

Andreas: Exactly, exactly. Could be fun.

Anthony: Just serving drinks and doing jokes on stage. Oh, man. Well, in any case we have run out of time now. Andreas, thanks again for being here and for helping us out. By way of your parting, I know we've spoken about Lego and some other stuff, are there any books or any recommendations you could leave for people who either want to get into product management or want to be inspired if they are already in product?

Andreas: Yeah. Yeah, let me see if the book is over here? "The Product Book," definitely. So if you want to join product, this book, "The Product Book", is absolutely a warm recommendation for all of you to start reading and there are tons of super practical instruments called out there, so that's a recommendation. And then the other one, which I recently went through, is the book "A More Beautiful Question." And obviously, no matter in what role you are, we ask extremely narrow questions and we narrow down the discussion and sometimes during development, that's a good thing, but often, early on, we need to ask a more beautiful question. A question that opens up, that gives more perspectives, and that is challenging others to think outside the box, actually. So if you're experienced in leading teams, this is definitely one of the books that will help you out, grow even further, and start asking different questions.

Anthony: Yeah, no, I haven't read that book yet, but I did see it on my list of things that I should read. It is something that I believe very much in, in that humans are really good at adapting to problems. And we're so good at it, that we forget that we have problems at the end of the day and you just automatically go into autopilot. It's like, okay, the next innovation in the car, maybe that they get rid of the gear stick all together and that you can go forward and backwards just by pressing a button on the steering wheel. People will think, maybe 20 years from now, man, do you believe that people have-

Andreas: There was a stick in the middle? Exactly.

Anthony: Use their hands down here, when now all we have to do is press a button here. It's almost like America where they've got go-karts. They've almost done that here, but it's still a gear stick at the end of the day. But it's those types of things that you think about, it's like, oh yeah, why are we doing it that way? Maybe it would be better if it was there. It's a very narrow example, again, to your point, to narrow down examples, but you get the point. It's about thinking out the box.

Andreas: Yeah, yeah.

Anthony: Awesome. Well, yeah, thanks again for listening. Anybody who is interested in learning more, you can listen on Spotify, Apple podcasts. Andreas is available at StackState. If you want to talk to him, send him over some questions, just email info at stackstate.com and we'll be more than happy to help out whenever we can. Thanks for listening again and I'll speak to you soon.

Annerieke: Thank you so much for listening. We hope you enjoyed it. If you'd like more information about StackState, you can visit stackstate.com and you can also find a written transcript of this episode on our website. So if you prefer to read through what they've said, definitely head over there and also make sure to subscribe if you'd like to receive a notification whenever we launch a new episode. So, until next time...

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