Helping People Land Their Dream Job in Product Management
Based on an episode with Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia 🇪🇸
Welcome to Latinax in Power, a blog and podcast that shares stories of amazing Latinx leaders, hosted by Thaisa Fernandes.
We talked with Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia, the Founder and CEO of Product School, the global leader in product management with a community of over one million of product professionals. Carlos has a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and Industrial Management, and Computer Science. He also studied Global Business Management and Marketing at UC Berkeley.
We invited Carlos to our podcast because he has an interesting journey building global companies and digital products and this is a subject we’d like to talk about more in our podcast. Technically, he’s not a Latino, but he is Hispanic since Carlos is from Spain, and we think we share a lot of similarities. We talked about his journey, his entrepreneurship and of course, Product Management.
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What does it mean to be a Hispanic for you?
I had to reflect on this question because this is the first time that I am being asked about it, and I realized that being Hispanic is a beautiful thing and I’m very proud of it. I’m proud of my culture and I can bring a different perspective to the table. Now in a more global world, especially since I lived in different parts of the world, being born in Spain, having lived in South America in Santiago, Chile, and now, living in San Francisco for the last 10 years. The experience I have had being able to live in so many places might be something that helps me connect with people, and ultimately, helps me to build more diverse products and teams as I grow my career, and mentor others.
How did you land in Product Management?
I landed in product management randomly. I had no idea what product management was not a long ago when I started my career as a software engineer, and studied computer science. As soon I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life coding, I felt stuck because everyone around me wanted to do it, and even my professors didn’t give me any other opportunities. I was supposed to start my career as a software engineer , then become a senior software engineer, then principle or something else at that level. I wasn’t supposed to be there, and this might make sense now, but at the time, I just didn’t know what my options were. My closest friend went to business school, and I thought well maybe there is something there for me, and that’s what brought me to Silicon Valley. I started a master’s degree at the University of California Berkeley and then had a breakthrough. First, I met a lot of other engineers who were thinking about business which was really refreshing to know, that “it’s okay that I’m not the only one here who wants to leverage a technical background with a business background and see myself in a different way”. Two, I encountered a lot of business folks coming from different backgrounds, such as consulting, finance, marketing and so on. They wanted to work in tech, they wanted to get their hands dirty, and they felt intimidated just because they knew how to code, but there is definitely something in between, the business school in this sense was too high level of technicality to some of the things that we were learning there, and we really applied it in our daily lives.
The interesting fact is that there was no single class on product management, forget about product, not a single class of digital marketing, data analytics or ux design which are the things a product manager needs to know. So here we have two different groups of people trying to tackle the same problem from different angles and as I got into my career and started building other companies, at the end I decided to build a broad scope, which is literally a hybrid between a business school and an engineering school that gets the best out of both worlds. It can help the next generation of product managers to get jobs much faster at the end of the day. I’ve been building products with different titles, I had no idea what I was doing in the beginning and then after 10 years of experience doing a lot of different things, I’m now a product manager. I learned a lot of things pretty much on the go because none of that was actually taught in the traditional education system.
When I was in Spain, I loved it. But, I was also in love with Silicon Valley. I just wanted to play in the “NBA of tech” basically. I got all my money together, I didn’t have a house, I didn’t have a car, so I put all of my money into education and came to the US to pursue a dream. The rest is history.
Why did you decide to invest in education?
I was always struggling to find mentors and I was always feeling that I wasn’t in the right place. So I told you my story in computer science, even with my teachers that was a problem because I really wanted to learn and I just wanted to learn from others, I just wanted to choose who I wanted to learn from and what I wanted to learn, and in the traditional system I was being educated in wasn’t set up for that. I’ve always been looking for solutions to my own problems, this is my third company and all of them have been in the educational space, so I’ve always tried to find a way to fix the problems I was having with the knowledge I had gained through school and through working. First, finding those solutions in this arena helps me, and hopefully, this is a bigger problem than just for myself and I think it’s a good reflection of that. I’m very passionate, not just about education, but about product management, because nobody helped me break into product management. They had no idea what product management meant, so now hopefully by solving a problem that really resonates with me, I can connect with others who are going through a similar journey.
For part of the Hispanic/Latinx History Month last year, we wanted to use our platform to feature incredible Latinxs product leaders who are really changing the world. We have VP’s of product management at Google Assistant, there are other VP’s of product management at incredible companies as well. Gretchen Rodriguez who Latinx in Power already interviewed was there also, I met her in 2014 at Product School and now she’s growing her career, so I think it’s very important for us to support each other and use our platforms for that purpose too. There are a lot of Latinxs out there inspiring us and helping us give back to the community. Eventually we will hit many communities and give back the knowledge that we use daily in our Product Management roles.
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Is there any quote you live by?
I will give you one that I actually shared yesterday on Twitter, which is “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion”, which is a quote by W. Edwards Deming. What I would add to that quote is that without an opinion, you’re just another person with data. I like to supplement that quote because in product management, I always say it’s part art and part science. I think I came from thinking that omega is just art. You need to be born with amazing ideas, as you couldn’t have actually learned this. But, that’s not true. It’s obviously a science piece of data that is mostly backed by data. So it’s very important that in our role, people feel more comfortable using data and making the driven decisions and knowing that those decisions will change over time and be more agile.
I like to find the right balance between art and science, because you can also put all the eggs in the data science basket, and that would be perfectly ok and could be good, it is probably what is expected, but people need to do more. They acquire the information they saw, something about using their experience, and only they can develop that by themselves. While what you are showing to convince a person if you’re just saying something to them, it might be just your personal opinion that you rely on, so you will need that information with numbers. If you don’t have those quantifications, some companies would call this the HiPPO that means that the “highest paid person’s opinion” is the acceptable opinion to follow. Usually, that was what people followed to confirm what opinion was going to be used, but not anymore.
What makes you feel inspired or your best self?
It might sound cliche but, I truly love what I’m building. For me it’s very important to have positive reinforcement because yes we have a big vision to really become the gold standard in product management training and help millions of people. We’re actually helping hundreds of thousands which is already a lot, but that also sounds too high level for me. When I receive messages of approval from someone, that is the best part for me, for example, when I receive messages of people saying “I took your program, four months ago and now I got a PM job at Twitter, or I just got a promotion, so thank you”. Just yesterday, someone said, “I’ve been following your events for two years and this has been extremely helpful for me”. It’s just incredible, so I love sharing those micro stories with the team via our Slack channel and really remind people of the impact of what we’re doing. Also, I remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing, and what myself and my team are doing is being able to put a name and a face in a very particular case. It just sounds much more powerful than just saying “well I want to change the world”.
How’s the pandemic affecting the work Product School does?
There’s never been a better time in history to build data products because if you think about it and, obviously, macrocyclic is not looking great in general, but in our own world of product and data it has accelerated our roadmaps. Now with more companies working remotely and more businesses moving online, that means that there is a bigger need for product managers to lead that data transformation so we’ve seen many many companies that even if they are downsizing, they are still hiring more product managers and increasing their investment in data.
In our case, all of our training programs are delivered live online which is now allowing people from all over the world to have access to incredible product leaders who are based in the Silicon Valley, in New York and so forth. All of our instructors keep their full-time jobs in companies such as Netflix, Google, Facebook and so on. When we were doing these training in person, only people who lived in the same locations were able to benefit. Now, this completely normalizes access to high quality education, in addition, we continue the conversations in our community and we just want to put out more and more high quality resources to help.
It’s not just about just taking a course, it can be listening to a podcast, or it can be attending a free event or conference. We have a job board where there are hundreds of companies posting opportunities so the way I think about us is community, and I really want to help people connect through this community so they can grow in their careers. We are here for the long term, no matter how you want to learn, as long as you are getting 1% better every day, and that compounds really fast.
In reality for Product School, we were online already offering all of our services, and at the same time we were a remote team already. One of the benefits of being international for me, it’s been very natural to hire people across the world, I’ve been working with people in Europe and Latin America as my default option. I actually never understood why everyone was supposed to be in the same office all the time and taking this into account during that regard, nothing has really changed.
One interesting thing is the number of people that we get from Brazil is through the roof. It’s really amazing to see that people are hungry to learn and now they have access to these opportunities and they can really connect with them. Which ultimately, I think makes us all better now, there is no excuse to say well, “Netflix is not in my power”, well no, it’s not and that’s what exists in your laptop. I admire leaders who are extremely generous with their time because they want to give back to the community. The main reason why they do it, is because they echo a problem that we too are trying to solve. Most of these professionals didn’t have a product school when they were brought into product management, and they all have different journeys, and now they see an opportunity to help that next generation.
What advice would you give to someone transitioning to Product Management?
I get that question a lot and as many questions, it always depends. I’m going to try to give you some tactical points based on the data I’ve generated with over 20,000 students in the last seven years I’ve worked with that to understand what the patterns are on why some people are more successful than others, or what are some of the ingredients that helped them get their first deal faster than others, just for example.
It comes down to three things; one is technical acumen. What I mean by this, is that you don’t have to be a software engineer and you don’t even need to have a Computer Science degree, but if you want to work in tech and you’re going to spend a lot of time working with software engineers, you to feel comfortable enough to have conversations with them. Obviously, if you come from an engineering background, that’s fantastic. That gives you an edge but, if you don’t, that’s not an excuse for either not to try to become technical enough and really understand how they work, how they think, and what their motivations are and what are the tools they use. The more you learn about them, the better it is for you, because you’re a journalist in the middle. As a product manager, you’re not really going to be coding so you really need to lead by example and influence and make sure that everyone understands why you are there.
I remember when I was an engineer, I would hate to have my boss, who wasn’t an engineer, come to the engineering room and give us the list of tasks to code. I wasn’t supposed to think or have ideas, so I think it’s very important for the product managers to really make engineers be part of the decision making process, to explain what’s happening and why they are doing it. I think it makes a big impact to explain what’s going on outside the engineering group. There are many ways you can do so but definitely try to be in their shoes does help. Obviously there are companies that are much more technical than others. So this requirement might be even stronger if you’re working in a super high tech company that is doing voice AI devices where maybe the vision of being technical enough is much stronger than being technical enough in an e-commerce website, just to give you an example. It’s important to also check in with every company to know exactly what they mean by being technical enough.
Business Acumen and Industry Domain
Number two is business acumen, I will also add to that to create an industry domain, because at the end of the day you see a lot of entry level product procedures that require two to three years of experience, which is crazy. It’s a chicken and egg problem, how am I going to get that experience? If you’re ready to document your experience for this job, the trick here is that even if you don’t have the title, you may have some product management experience that could be applied as experience in product. Maybe you worked as a project manager, program manager, business analyst, Scrum Master, software engineer, or other. As you get closer to the product team, it is important to see exactly what you’ve done that could qualify your experience in product management. Certifications probably can help as well, but what I mean by having this range of experience, is not just an MBA, or a degree in business administration, it’s that you really need to care about the product and the user. You need to know what’s going on in the market, what’s going on with the product, what’s going on with your competitors, who are the users. Hopefully gain some knowledge around economics, how your product makes money and how you build. There are a lot of things that you can learn on the go, my point being, you don’t need to go back to business school and spend two years full time just to then come back with a degree and realize that actually doesn’t guarantee you any job.
The trick here for folks who are thinking about landing in product management, if you don’t have a job yet, maybe you can look into companies that are part of your industry, or just competitors but in similar industries, because that can leverage a lot of the experience that you have and prove to a recruiter that you have that experience they are looking for. If you try to switch titles and industries at the same time, it’s going to be almost impossible, especially if that’s your first PM job. I think that becomes less relevant when you are in the middle of your career, because there are some fundamentals in product management that can translate across different industries, but at the very beginning, it’s better in my opinion to take more baby steps and to make sure that people understand where you’re coming from and what you can bring to the table.
Number three is what I call communication skills. As a generalist you are going to spend less time or no time coding, selling, designing or doing marketing. However you’re going to be working with engineers, designers, salespeople and marketers that means that you will need to be the best at everything. You need to know enough about everything in order to have the knowledge you need to align people. How do you align people by communicating? You do it by having some time with them, you’re free on your calendar to think, to review documents, to schedule impromptu meetings between people who need to air out whatever situation they are having. It’s very important and this is something I definitely struggle with coming from a specialist role as an engineer to a generalist role in product. I used to default to doing the things that I’m good at, and thinking that I was what people expected, but in reality, it took me a long time to understand that here as a manager, I’m more of a coach, and even though sometimes I know how to do something, I just need to stop trying to do. I need to train others, even if I don’t know what to do, I need to train myself to ask the right questions and help people get to the answers instead of being in constant problem solution mode because that is just going to burn everybody out.
Something that you really need to dedicate your time to is feeling comfortable with the new language you’re speaking. It’s still a work in progress for me and I think that made me want to learn even more, because I struggled getting my point across in the beginning. In addition to learning how to communicate, I also had this other language I spoke more fluently which in my case was Spanish, and sometimes things can be misunderstood when you are not able to see each other’s faces with the remote environment and that can be hard sometimes.
Obviously when I say communication skills, I mean not mastering being a public speaker or book author. It’s really knowing how to craft an email, knowing how to take a conversation offline and over Zoom. At least there are certain things that you can only learn with experience but it all starts with having that curiosity to learn. I don’t expect when I hire PM’s or when I train PM’s that everyone comes with a playbook or is a master communicator. You can master listening, how you are not going to give up, and even though we may have an accent and we may not know the words sometimes, there are other ways you can communicate and I think that can also be very powerful.
What a Hispanic/Latinx entrepreneur should always keep in mind when developing new products overseas?
I think we have full advantage here, which is that we really understand different markets. I’m talking about maybe people who are now in the US and are from a different part of the world. Maybe they are trying to expand, you might speak different languages, and you understand different cultures because you’ve lived in different parts of the world, so embrace that. You can bring a perspective that maybe others can’t even if they Google it.
It’s important to embrace the difference and I am seeing this trend now in teams, they’re becoming more and more diverse. I’m also seeing much more diversity in the professional background too, traditionally it was mostly engineers. Now, I’ve seen a lot of diverse teams in terms of gender diversity, geographical diversity and ultimately, that may help us build products for everyone and build better products for people, so I’m a huge advocate of diversity and especially for people who come from a Latinx background because I know how much value they can add.
We don’t take a lot of things for granted, we know that we weren’t born with Amazon boxes next to our door, and we know that many payments are actually done via cash because not everyone has a credit card, and just to give some basic examples, but when we think about expansion to different markets, it’s definitely not just about translating a website into a different language, it’s really about understanding all the different cultural differences.
Which resource helped you in your journey?
I would love to create a movie on product management. In the meantime, I recommend checking out our community because over 90% of our resources are free and available right now. We have a podcast called the Product Podcast, and a book called The Product Book became a bestseller on Amazon and got over 200,000 copies downloaded. The book was translated into Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic, and we also have an audio version keeping in mind the diversity and accessibility aspect.
The good thing about lifelong learning is that it’s for each of us to decide what works for us. I’ve never understood why we are supposed to be full time students in our mid 20s, and then we have to work full time for the rest of our lives. Now, we can learn on our own terms which means that you don’t have to put your life on hold, you can keep up with your family, with your job, with whatever makes you happy. Then maybe weeknights or weekends, you can listen to podcasts, you can read books, we have 1,000 events per year where we try to feature the best and a couple of very different topics within the product management topic. We also have a conference called ProductCon, and they’re also free and available to everyone as well as a job board for our members to check out.
Don’t be overwhelmed by all the different options. I don’t think you have to keep yourself up from zero to 100, but something that I personally like to do is to block time for self development, and then put it on the calendar. Life happens and it’s so easy to get distracted with life, then Netflix at night and whatever else. You can integrate learning as part of work and life that can ultimately help you continue growing, because otherwise, it’s so easy to forget about ourselves, and I guess be in the trenches with work and life and then what about learning?
I hope you enjoyed the podcast. We will have more interviews with amazing Latinx leaders the first Tuesday of every month. Check out our website Latinx In Power to hear more. Don’t forget to share comments and feedback, always with kindness. See you soon.
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