Coffee with Suzie Prince

This week, we’re getting coffee with Suzie Prince. Suzie is Head of Product at ThoughtWorks Products — where she started as a graduate in 2005. Suzie writes for Mind The Product, is an all-round badass, and a fellow Brit in San Francisco.

There’s so many gems in this interview. My favorite quote: “Saying no gives you more opportunities to say yes to the right things.”

How did you get into product management?

I didn’t know I was going to be a product manager at all — I have a Masters in Botanical Biodiversity!

When I finished my Masters, I wanted a “proper job” so I looked for graduate opportunities. I applied to 2 opportunities: one with MI5; the other with ThoughtWorks, which is where I still work.

At the time, I had no idea about ThoughtWorks — all I knew was that they hired for aptitude and were looking for people that they could invest in. I also had the chance to live in India for 4 months so I was like “That is what I want to do!”.

I spent the first 5 years at ThoughtWorks as a Business Analyst, and became a PM somewhat by accident. One day they needed a PM, and there I was. None of it was planned; I stumbled into a job where there are great opportunities, and one of them was being a PM.

As soon as I started that role, I thought “Yes, this is what I want to do”. It has all the parts of the things I think are important: working with people, and doing things that help people be better at who they are.

The nature of the role is so diverse; from one product to another, or one day to the next. The breadth of the experience, variety of skills I can learn, and directions I can go in feels really fulfilling.

I don’t want people to struggle through their daily lives. We can do better.

Where does your passion for helping people be better at who they are come from?

Some of it’s a little self-serving; you want to say that you “do good” for people, but that’s a genuine feeling that I have. I want to be able to look back at what I’ve done and know why I’ve done it.

I was having a conversation with a coworker about one of our products that’s not (yet) profitable and about how so many products never reach profitability — we ended up asking “Why are we doing this?”, and I know my answer to that. I know ThoughtWorks is motivated to educate people to build better technology. I know a third of the time we spend making technology is intended for social and economic good. I’m also not naive that things have to make money. Overall ThoughtWorks needs to be sustainable but sometimes some of the things we do don’t make money for us. They have other purposes. For me, it’s being able to look at that, assess where you are, and feel like what you’re doing has a real purpose.

I thought that feeling of fear would never go away. The first year I was like “I don’t know how to do this!”

When you talk to users and they’re so happy that they don’t have to do this terrible thing that they had to do before, you can genuinely see that you helped them. Having that individual tell you that you made this thing better for them — who doesn’t want that feeling? I might not make a magical health app, or the biggest next trend but I can have that feeling from someone telling me that we made that part of their day better.

I realized doing my Masters that many things are created that just aren’t useable. For example, there’s a bunch of academics writing these “keys” for plants; then there’s a bunch of people (the rest of us!) who actually need to know about plants (say I’m doing cancer research). The “keys” are not user friendly, they just don’t work for normal people. So there’s this whole group of people that need to get this information and it’s not accessible to them.

There was something about that that was so truly obvious to me when I was doing it; I didn’t want to be one of the creators of “this stuff” that is so powerful but so inaccessible. That same feeling comes across in what I do now — I don’t want people to struggle through their daily lives. We can do better.

Saying no gives you more opportunities to say yes to the right things.

You’ve been incredibly successful at ThoughtWorks. What “techniques” have you employed along the way?

A coworker recently said to me: “I didn’t realize you were shorter than me — you seem so much bigger”. I think that’s because I’m present; you know when I’m there.

Know where you want to go, and say “Yes!”
I’m a big believer in having goals, but not in having a set plan. If you know roughly where you want to go, you’ll say yes to the right opportunities, talk to the right people, and they’ll offer the right opportunities or connections. I’ve learnt to look “beyond” — knowing which parts of me I want to grow, or where I want to be helps put it out there.

I learnt that saying yes to everything means that you’re actually saying no to a bunch of things you might want to do.

Learn to say “No”
In my first 5 years at ThoughtWorks, I said yes to everything. That’s innate in PM’s — we’re doers. If something needs to be done, we’ll feel our hand rising and shout “It’s me! I’ll do it!”. I call it “the helium hand” — you just can’t stop yourself.

At the start of your career — when you don’t know what you want to do — saying yes to everything is fine. It’s how you learn what you’re good at and what you enjoy. After a while, I learnt that saying yes to everything means that you’re actually saying no to a bunch of things you might want to do.

Saying no gives you more opportunities to say yes to the right things.

Be mindful and accepting of who you are
Be thoughtful about the areas that you want to grow, and spend time understanding the parts of you who make you, you. Accept your quirks and own your strengths.

I told myself: “You know you have to say yes to this but holy crap!”.

Tell me about a time when you said “Yes!” to something that scared the sh*t out of you?

The first time ThoughtWorks asked me to be a PM. This wasn’t a case of “helium hand” — I didn’t say “yes, it’s me!” — I stood there in shock. I told myself: “You know you have to say yes to this but holy crap!”.

I’d worked with that product for two years and with the PM for one of those, but basically had no idea what he did — I probably knew about 20% of the role.

It was our flagship product and I knew that everybody had labelled me as “young”; yet, they’d still asked me to do it. I knew I was going to do it, but I had no idea how to do “this thing”.

When you’ve come through something like that, you see that not knowing something isn’t a barrier to doing something.

I thought that feeling of fear would never go away. The first year I was like “I don’t know how to do this!”. Every time I did something — like stand up in front of a sales kick-off meeting to rally the team — I’d never done it before.

Now, it’s so amazing to not have that feeling and to have said “Yes!” to that opportunity.

When you’re faced with something you haven’t done before, you have no idea how to do it, then you do it, you get through it — maybe it doesn’t go so well but you’re still there, still alive and you learn. When you’ve come through something like that, you see that not knowing something isn’t a barrier to doing something.

What advice do you have for people transitioning into their first PM role?

Ask for feedback. One of the things that really helped me in my first PM role was getting feedback from people. People would tell me when I was doing well, and when things didn’t go so well. Being accepting to that feedback — knowing you don’t know, seeking feedback, and not beating yourself up about it — that’s what helped me through that year.

Be open with whoever offered you that role about where you think you are. In my case, I would have said “I understand the breadth of the role up to this point; what are the parts that I don’t understand?”. Talk through what you think the role looks like and ask someone whose done it to tell you about the other parts.

Be aggressive about learning. Identify the areas that are most important to your learning (where do you need the most help?), and orient that to the goals of the company (what’s important to learn to be successful here?). Be super honest about what you don’t know and aggressive about learning those things.

I’ve seen people who know they have a thing they don’t know be like “I’ll just not look at that for a while…” because it’s not enjoyable for them — you have to step into that fear.

Remember why. When you’re struggling in this new role, take a moment to remember why you said “yes” to this opportunity — take a moment of calm, step back, and reflect on why you’re there.

What books do you recommend to PM’s?

  • “Your Brain at Work” — this book is great for being mindful of who we are, and as PM’s understanding how people work. It tells the story of a work day from two narratives, and explains what’s happening when those people make innate decisions.
  • “Hooked”— this book is great for understanding how to build products that stick. There’s a bunch of things you can learn in this book.
  • “Crucial Conversations — I read this book at least once a year. It taught me that a lot of conversations can be turning points — for you personally, for how a team works, or even a business. It has great advice on how to be thoughtful while you’re in a conversation.

What do you consider the traits of a great PM?

I’m glad you asked for traits and not skills. I feel like traits are more important — skills you can learn but traits are innate. These are the traits I look when hiring PM’s:

  1. Being flexible. There’s so many facets to how flexibility is important for PM’s; mainly for getting through your day — something is going to come up that you’re not expecting, and you’ve got to deal with it — if you’re someone who can’t roll with the punches, it’s likely to be incredibly frustrating to you. It’s not even just “rolling with it”, it’s actually enjoying that aspect, enjoying the uncertainty. I’m a planner — I like lists and ticking stuff off, but I also feel good that something can happen, I can react to it, deal with it, and then get back to where I wanted to be.
  2. Being resilient. Following on from flexibility, those things that come up might be good things or they might be bad things — you’ve got to have the resiliency to handle them, and relish getting through them.
  3. Being decisive and trusting your gut. I’m a big believer in research and I think good product people are very thoughtful about what they do. At the same time, there are people who just make decisions — hundreds and thousands of decisions — each one leading to this bigger goal that you’re trying to achieve. Being someone who can make a call in the moment, usually with little information, and not beat yourself up about it if you made the wrong decision. Someone had to make that decision, it had to be you and you did your best. You can move on.
  4. Seeking feedback. You have to be a lifelong learner — you’re never satisfied with where you are and what you know. You’re going to be purposeful about asking for feedback — “How did that go? I was trying to achieve this, do you think I achieved that?”. You don’t have to be formal about gathering feedback; you can do it everyday. We make huge assumptions that we can transfer what’s in our brain out into the world. I know I ramble sometimes so I make a point to ask “Did everyone follow that? Do you want to playback what you heard?” so that I can get feedback on whether I got my point across.
  5. Listening. As PM’s we have to speak — we lead our teams, we speak to customers — we’re almost always the person that’s chosen to speak. Being quiet is a great trait of a PM — when you’re with your users, listen to them; when you’ve asked your team a question, wait to hear their response. Be thoughtful about really listening to what people are saying.

I left coffee with Suzie kicking myself that I haven’t asked her these questions before. Suzie & I met a year ago (over a user interview; funny story) and we grab dinner at least every 2 months. Yet, we’ve never tackled these questions. I learned so much in this chat, Suzie — thank you!

A challenge

Learning from my experience, I have a challenge for you, badass reader — yes you, you’re badass. In the next conversation that feels right, ask an open question about your counterpart’s past experiences, challenges, or lessons learned.

I’d love to hear how it goes over Twitter or email. And if you’re not sure what question(s) to ask — no worries — shoot me an email and we’ll solve that :).

This series is all about learning from awesome women in product. If you enjoyed this interview, it would make my day if you share it with others that might too.

The next Coffee with will be published next Wednesday. In the meantime, hear from Merci, Anna Marie, Cara, Jessica, and Ellen here.