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PM Nation

A Product Chat with Kijiji’s Gregory Samba

Key takeaway: Product Management is slowly dying (but it doesn’t have to).

Welcome to PM Nation (PMNation.co), a limited interview series where we shine a spotlight on personalities behind great products, learn more about how they got into product management, and provide insider perspectives into how the craft of Product is evolving. To learn more about why this got started, click here.

For the benefit of our readers, could you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do as a Product Manager (PM)?

My name is Gregory Samba and I’m a Product Lead with Kijiji.

So how did you land up in product management?

Back when I was 18 and living in France, I started a business with a friend selling white-label clothing products for dancers. Think of it as something like TeePublic for professional dance teams. That was my first taste of life as an entrepreneur, and our business was doing pretty well until we decided to end our partnership as our lives had diverged.

Soon after that I went to school to do a degree in business, and then joined Expedia as a merchandiser coordinator. A year after that I was a merchandiser, and then a senior merchandiser. As a merchandiser at Expedia, you’re in this weird position where you’re responsible for the site’s content and promotions and all that, but also how the pages look and feel to the user. So I put myself in a position of owning the user experience on the site, collecting data and working with designers to improve the user interface, while also finding ways to grow the business by introducing new features.

So basically what I was doing was making sure I could add value like a product manager so that they could see the potential in me, and start connecting me with the product team so that I could be more involved on the Product side of things. A year after this informal arrangement, I was formally made a Product Manager on the team.

So the trick is to do the job of a PM before you formally become one.

Why is it so hard to get into product management these days? Can anyone really be educated to be a PM, or is it something innate you need to have?

There are key functions in the PM role that you need to know, and those can be taught and learned. Scrum mastering, project planning, UX and UI design knowledge, analytics (in terms of whether you can look at data and understand it)— all of those things can be taught to you. And I think those are strong points for a PM.

What cannot be taught is innovation, the way you think about user problems and how you go about solving them, and identifying solutions which act as differentiators for your product in the market. A lot of the time though you just have to find your way into the job from another job.

It sounds like you’re talking about a combination of imagination, plus the ability to hustle and deliver.

Exactly. But, it also means thinking out of the box in terms of how a solution works. Just because you combine tools, that’s not a solution, getting data out of something is still not a solution for the user. You know what I mean? Getting it to work the right way for the user — that’s a solution.

“Just because you combine tools, that’s not a solution, getting data out of something is still not a solution for the user. You know what I mean? Getting it to work the right way for the user — that’s a solution.”

For those interested in a career in PM — what kinds of experiences should they seek out?

Look for opportunities where you can think like a product manager, and work with design and development to build solutions that solve problems for a user, even if it’s not your formal title.

As a PM, what do you do exactly on a day-to-day basis?

I spend most of my day discovering and prioritizing problems for my team to solve, and then help them solve them.

What do you love about being a PM? What do you wish you could change?

I love how I get to be an entrepreneur, or at least practice entrepreneurial thinking, every single day. It’s a great way to develop that type of thinking.

I wish more companies would spend more time thinking about user needs and market trends, and use Product as a laboratory to help them identify, test out and work towards the next big thing.

Ideally, I wish radical innovation was part of the Product mandate, but that’s usually tough to do because most businesses are too risk-averse, and prefer to use Product to just ship incremental value to their business. The truth is the level of risk acceptance is not as high for many businesses as it is for Product Managers.

But yes, to put it bluntly, I wish more businesses would trust their Product teams to help come up with their mid-to-long-term visions.

But yes, to put it bluntly, I wish more businesses would trust their Product teams to help come up with their mid-to-long-term visions.

So what’s one common myth about being a PM?

That a PM is just a liaison between stakeholders. Some people just see the PM as the person who is supposed to just pass messages between teams.

There’s also another misconception that’s common, and that’s about the difference between product and project management. What is the difference between the two?

There’s a very blurry line between product management and project management, especially when you have a technical project manager on your team. If your organization doesn’t specifically call out the differences between the two, then it really comes down to the people you have in the roles.

So if as a product manager you can find a way to take care of the work of identifying the problem, figuring out user needs, researching and putting together insights, while the project manager takes care of the delivery side of things, then that could work.

How do you develop a vision for a product?

Start by thinking about what it is that you need to do to make your product stand out in the market, as in what’s going to get people coming to your product versus your competitor’s, what problems you’re solving for them, and then work backwards from there.

Defining somebody’s need doesn’t mean the user is going to give you the solution to it. Most of the time the user won’t be able to vocalize the need they have. They talk about a problem, but they won’t talk about a need. So you’ll have to vocalize the underlying need and articulate that. Either identify an existing need, or create a new need by creating an ecosystem that makes the user realize they had needs they didn’t even know they had.

So where do you see the field of Product going in the next 5 years? What kinds of skillsets will PMs need?

So unfortunately, I have the feeling that product management is slowly getting whittled down to what I call product “delivery” and not product “management”, because most businesses are starting to understand how Product has the potential to disrupt a very comfortable status quo.

Because traditional business leaders see how the decisions made by a product manager have a clear impact on their P&L and their KPIs, what they’re trying to do is be more involved in the process of defining what should be done for a product. And unfortunately, if your company is not set up to prevent that kind of thing, you know, the interference of business stakeholders in decisions that should be about users — because sometimes stakeholders don’t have the visibility, skillset, knowledge and position to make the right call, which is what Product Managers are empowered to do — you begin to see the breakdown of the product manager function into more of a delivery or a quasi-project management role.

On the other hand, if used properly, Product can help companies unlock new innovations to attract new users. Marketing can only do so much. Just as social media was able to create new ways of marketing to get in touch with users, with their deep understanding of users, Product teams are in a position to be able to help companies develop the next set of innovations that increase value across their business. Located between data, business, tech and design, Product is uniquely capable of being able to help companies identify the next big thing.

But don’t you think that’s more of a development in traditional organizations which are digitizing, as opposed to tech companies, because they may not have the maturity of tech companies to recognize the value of Product?

I don’t think so. I think maybe that’s what we’d like to think, but it could just be that product management, as we see it now, is this in-between phase between stages of project management.

Companies which are getting digitized, they have to be willing to go through the cycle of innovation, be disrupted etc. If they’re not willing to do that, the risk that they’ll kill their nascent Product functions is high.

So what started off as project management eventually goes back to being project management after a long detour?

Yes. You see it all the time. Marketing or business teams are starting to realize the impact of product management, and so they try to be involved earlier in the roadmap process, but also want to have more decision-making power over what the roadmap should be. The same with senior executives too, and so it means that the decisions that you make based on research, analysis, strategy, and all of those things that you do to come up with a product that responds to the right needs of the user — all those things will no longer be within the PM’s control.

So it means the decision-making authority of the PM will slowly be taken away, leaving them with more of a delivery and reporting role.

Exactly.

So I guess that means that in 5 years PMs should have even more of a general business background, allowing them to manage enterprise dynamics, while also having a Product skillset?

Kind of. What I think PM will really need is a willingness to add value by understanding how their Products are built, if they want to remain relevant. Again, this is just my take, and it’s not popular, but it’s how I see the field evolving.

PM needs to be closer to technology. They need to be more technical. I don’t think there is a successful PM today who doesn’t know how the product is put together. Knowing the business is not enough anymore. Innovation doesn’t just come with a vision anymore. It also comes with a deep understanding of the product, how the various tools are put together to build the product, and from being willing to find new ways of putting the tools together. Steve Jobs is a great example: he didn’t just care about the vision, he cared about how his products were built, and how that contributed to the edge Apple enjoys.

As a PM these days, you want to optimize the use of your product, but to do so you need to understand how they’re built. If, as a PM, you don’t understand the technicals of your product, you will make the wrong decisions around optimizing its build and performance. You have to think about whether your product technicals are optimized to address all the uses that your user is going to face.

“So unfortunately, I have the feeling that product management is slowly getting whittled down to what I call product “delivery” and not product “management”, because most businesses are starting to understand how Product has the potential to disrupt a very comfortable status quo.”

What’s the most important quality a PM should have (or develop)?

Empathy and trust-building. Be ready to take on ambiguous problems without having a clear path to solving them, as well as to do the things that are not on your job description, while having to move diverse stakeholders towards a solution. If you have to do marketing work, do it. If you have to do design work alongside your designers, or write code (if you can) with your developers, do it.

You need to be able to work with different types of people, and earn their trust. If a designer comes up to you and stands up for certain design principles, you need to understand where they’re coming from. If a developer explains how something works to you, you need to be able to understand why it’s important. Otherwise your team is not going to trust your judgement.

What’s the best way to shine in a PM interview?

Honestly, don’t hide your excitement for the job!

I tend to be very selective about where I seek to work, and so when I apply for a job, it’s usually because I know I can nail it. When I interview, I present at least 2 to 3 different solutions to the problems I know they’re facing, and then they look at me differently.

I want to make my interviewers realize how their product is doing great, and how it can do better. Show an understanding of their environment — what makes them weak, what makes them strong etc — and you will shine.

How do you figure out if you’re the right fit for a prospective PM role?

Well, if I look at a specific product and I’m already finding opportunities to innovate it and make it better, then I know I can add value to that role.

If you can transpose any of your achievements to their needs as a business, then that’s a good start. Understand what type of business it is. Look at the age range. Try to get a sense of the vibe of the place. What kind of energy do they give when they approach their partners and their customers as a business? And if it’s a good fit with your personality, then there’s a high chance you’ll be a very good fit with the team.

It’s time for the Lightning Round! What’s a good book, movie, TV series or video game you’d recommend right now?

So a great book I’m reading right now is This Child Will Be Great, the memoir of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of Liberia, and possibly the first female president in the history of the continent. It’s an amazing story about perseverance. If you start in a position where nobody believes in you, but then come up with different ideas, different processes and different ways of bringing people together, you can stand out, make your point and be successful.

Favourite place for a coffee chat?

Any place where we can walk and talk.

Favourite dish to pick up after a long day?

Just give me some fried plantain, and I’ll be happy.

Where do you dream of traveling to next (after COVID)?

To be honest I’m still trying to wrap my head around COVID, but if I had to pick a place, it’d be St. Lucia, or some other place where I could take long walks on a beach.

What’s your hidden talent?

Well, it’s not so hidden, but I’m a dance teacher (specializing in Afrobeat and hip-hop), and an author of children’s books.

If you ever decided to get a tattoo of a brand or a logo, which one would it be, and why?

I wouldn’t put a brand or a logo, but probably a quotation. I like the one from Thomas Edison. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Greg, thanks for making the time!

Any time, mon ami.

For the rest of our conversations with Product Managers from around the world, visit PM Nation.

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