Interview with Clement Kao - Product Manager - Blend

An Interview with Clement Kao, Product Manager, Blend

Today with Nonfig is a person who has explored the professional world as a product manager, businessman, biologist, writer, and speaker, Clement Kao.

He is leading his team at Blend as a Product Manager. Clement had a very diversified career so far and explored a lot of fields as a marketer, researcher, product analyst, author, and co-founder. He was the Co-founder at Product Manager HQ which is a web’s leading resource for learning how to break into product management and excelling in the job.

Clement is the author of three books, those three books are a treasure for people who are and aiming to be a product manager. Moreover, his articles on Product Management are really helpful for product managers.

Let’s start talking with him!

Nonfig – Hi Clement, first of all, thank you for giving your precious time and speaking with us today. Let’s start with your career, you had a diversified career, how did you start with it, what made you explore different areas in your career, and what hurdles did you face during that time?

CK – I graduated with a double major in Business Administration and Molecular Cell Biology, but I did those majors for fun. They weren’t targeted at any specific career role – rather, they were areas of deep interest for me.

During college, I worked as a marketing intern, a strategy intern, and a science research intern, all so that I could explore various paths. But, even once I graduated, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I became a management consultant. My hypothesis was that as a management consultant, I would be able to see many different industries and problems and that I’d be able to find something that I was passionate about.

However, as a management consultant, I quickly found out about the power of user research. After all, part of my role was to train my clients on how to use our analytics software. One of the biggest struggles they faced was how to set up an analysis.

I realized that our software was incredibly powerful, but not very user-friendly. In the past, I directly answered my clients’ questions so that I could get off the phone as quickly as possible. But now, I asked my clients what they had expected and what problem they were trying to solve, and I stayed on the phone to talk through their expectations and their concerns.

I brought all of these findings to my product team. And that’s when I started focusing on product usability. I wanted to make our product not just powerful, but also easy to understand. I wanted my clients to trust us, to trust our product, and to trust themselves as they set up complex analyses.

I learned that I wanted to make better products because better products make better lives. I worked alongside my product team to provide on-the-field feedback on usability, and we jointly started creating more intuitive interfaces that decreased the volume of inbound support calls.

From there, I became a user researcher at a real estate brokerage, and I found a new customer segment for us to target. I conducted 50+ one-on-one interviews with home sellers, and I analyzed 500,000+ data points from quantitative surveys to determine which customer segment we should sell our products too. Once we found the right segment, we pitched them on different products and value propositions, and we discovered that we could launch a whole new business within our existing business. So, I advocated our executive team that we should launch that new business, and after months of analyses, they agreed.

But, to launch that business, we would need to hire a new product manager to be hired. We didn’t have any product managers available, so my executive team wound up promoting me as a product manager. I had only worked 7 months as a user researcher, and my promotion came 3 years earlier than I had expected.

This essay covers my experiences in more detail.

Nonfig – As you started your career as an analyst, do you think being an analyst offers a great path/platform towards being a product manager?

CK – Being an analyst is one good way to build up relevant skill sets as a product manager. After all, product managers must deeply understand the behavior of their users and their customers, and analytics is crucial to building that understanding.

That said, one of the challenges of being an analyst is that you may be perceived as “just an analyst”, rather than someone who is eager to break into product management. To ensure that doesn’t happen, you need to demonstrate to your employer why you are a good product manager candidate.

I discuss more in this article on how to de-risk your journey as a product manager when you are a working professional.

Nonfig – How’s your journey as a product manager so far compared to other areas you have been into? What made you enjoy the field?

CK – First, product managers are really digital product managers. I find that making this distinction is crucial because traditional consumer goods product managers (also known as category managers) have totally different roles from what digital product managers do.

I fell in love with digital products because they have essentially zero variable cost. That single fact unlocks a couple of awesome phenomena. Build something once, and you can ship it to millions of people simultaneously. You can run tons of experiments, and you can iterate quickly without needing to worry about outdated inventories.

As for product management, I think of the role as really two jobs: coach and janitor. As a coach, you’re empowering your stakeholders and your teammates to deliver the highest possible value. You’re defining what problem to solve, for who, and why. As a janitor, you’re unblocking your teammates. You’re shielding them from blame and from pressure, and you’re tackling work that is high value but low prestige.

For example, product managers have to write product specs, meeting notes, and test cases. It’s not fun, but it’s critical to document what we expect from our products so that everyone’s on the same page. Similarly, product managers need to deal with crisis communications and angry customers.

I love that I’m working with folks of all kinds to create a powerful engine of experimentation, creativity, and improvement. I love that we’re always pushing ourselves to be better and that I get to lead these initiatives. I also really enjoy filling the white space in between the business, the customers, and the development team. I love defining the problem crisply and coming up with innovative ways to solve it.

Nonfig – As a product manager, what do you think is the main thing that a PM should keep in one’s mind when leading the team?

CK – The goal of the product manager is to fill the white space. Therefore, the most crucial thing to do is to ensure that you have stakeholder empathy and that you take care of everyone around you.

I think of the product manager as the beating heart of the team. You need to make sure that people feel appreciated, heard, and understood. You need to ask your customers, your business stakeholders, and your engineers about how they make decisions, and what their pains are so that you can serve them as best as you possibly can.

Nonfig – You have written three books:

i) First Contact
ii) Breaking Into Product Management
iii) Excellent Execution as a Product Manager

If I ask you to recommend one book to each of the persons so which book will you recommend to who and why?

i) A fresh graduate stepping in the professional world
ii) A person with 2 to 3 years experience
iii) A person who just got hired as a PM  

CK – A fresh graduate should read Breaking Into Product Management. In that book, I detail the lives of product managers, and I also share best practices for how to tackle interviews.

Someone with a couple of years of experience should read the First Contact, which details the journey of a hypothetical product manager as they rise the ranks within their organization.

Someone who was just hired as a product manager should read Excellent Execution as a Product Manager. In that book, I dive deep into best practices for how to drive success on a day-to-day basis.

Nonfig – What would you do differently if you were starting your career now?

CK – The core challenge that I faced when I started my product management career was that I didn’t know much about product management at all, and I needed to learn everything on the job.

If I were to start my career now, I would first go look for product management resources such as Product Manager HQ. There are so many good resources out there, including the This Is Product Management podcast, the Mind the Product webinars, and the Products That Count webinars.

I would also actively seek a mentor who had 2-3 more years of experience than me. In finding a mentor, I would want to make sure that I drive my personal development agenda so that my mentor has clarity on where they can help me the most.

On top of that, I would push myself to do lots of product teardowns, such as the fantastic teardowns from UserOnboard. Practising teardowns of well-known products is a great way to think like a product manager.

Nonfig – How does Configuration Driven Development benefit enterprises more compared to Developer Driven Development? 

CK – Configuration driven development is crucial for enterprises to have speed, flexibility, and scale. One of the challenges of developer-driven development is that you’re always bottlenecked against a finite number of developer hours. No matter how many developers you hire, you can’t possibly build every single workflow that your customers might need you to support – that’s especially true as you grow your customer base!

When using configuration driven development, developers now get to focus on core functionality rather than tackling business logic. This means that developers can create the appropriate abstractions, while enterprise customers can maintain and enhance their own configurations in a self-serve manner.

That’s why we see the rise of so many low-code or no-code platforms in the B2B productivity space. Enterprises demand more and more flexibility to serve their customers and their employees. As the world continues to accelerate, organizations need to stay nimble and agile, and using a configuration driven solution is a great way to have the responsiveness required to quickly meet new business demands.

Nonfig – I Hope this pandemic will surely get rid of. Tell me what is your next travel destination after this pandemic. And why do you want to go there?

CK – My relatives are in Taiwan, so I’d love to go see them again! It’s been years since I’ve seen them, and the pandemic has emphasized just how important my family is to me.

On top of that, I would love to also visit Japan again. Japan is the perfect place for an introvert like me. The architecture is beautiful, the food is delicious, and the people are so courteous and kind. I’m hoping to bring my girlfriend with me so that we can explore it together!

Nonfig – Sadly, in this pandemic situation, some businesses have collapsed and few still running smoothly. What do you think about your business activity in these challenging days? How is your working experience in this pandemic? 

CK – Blend has been growing quickly, especially during the pandemic! COVID-19 has forced a lot of consumer finance to go digital, and that means a digital lending platform like Blend is even more important than it used to be. We’re hiring for many open roles right now, and we’re even hiring more recruiters so that we can hire faster.

I’ve been lucky to say that our business activity is booming and that my teammates and I are all doing well. That said, transitioning to remote work has been difficult, so I wrote up a guide on how to transition effectively to remote product management.

Nonfig – Your articles and books mean a lot to people who aim to become product managers, what advice would you have for them for development and career growth?

CK – Remember to treat yourself like a product. If you want to become a product manager, you must first understand what employer you want to target, and you must understand what pains they’re facing.

From there, you can then ensure that you pitch yourself as the solution to their pains, whether that’s through your resume, through your cover letter, or through the interview process.

You need to remember that you must first create value in the world before you can capture value for yourself. So, think carefully about who you want to create value for, and understand what they find valuable.

That brings the end of our interview. Thank You for your time Clement Kao, Nonfig wishes you all the best in your future endeavors.

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