Blair has worked as a product manager for enterprise products for many years and even co-wrote a book called Building Products for the Enterprise: Product Management in Enterprise Software. During this Recess break, Blair talked about the nuances he’s noticed around building enterprise software, as well as how he approaches launching features for this specific client base. As the world has shifted to working from home, Blair also talked about why he thinks remote work should be called distributed work and how the nomenclature can shift the mindset around working from home.
Blair shared some great insights on how to build products for enterprise clients and distributed work, so be sure to tune into the full talk. If you’re tight on time though, we’ve pulled out some highlights below.
(The highlights have been condensed and edited for clarity)
How Blair landed in product (3:05)
Amy: Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you got involved with product?
Blair: Sure, I’m one of those people who sort of landed in technology the wrong way, right? I had no intention of ever doing tech. I started off doing international development, so I was a Peace Corps volunteer in central Africa, in Cameroon, after that I came back to the States and I was working in global health as a program manager for a number of projects in South Sudan and Vietnam, Kenya and South Africa and a couple other places. And so I had that experience for a number of years and decided to go to business school to basically continue my career in international development, not happy with that. And I had fun in business school, I guess. I went to Duke and that was lots of fun. I went to University of Virginia and that’s where my loyalty still lies, I don’t root for Duke.
And following that, I actually had a job lined up and then I lived in Rotterdam for a couple of months. Came back to the States, there was a reorg happening, and my job sort of vanished for a little bit. And I was told, “Sit tight, when this reorg is done, we’ll get you back in or whatever.” And that happened for three or four months and nothing happened. And so I was finally like, “Well, heck I needed a job.” So I had actually interned at IBM because here in Raleigh Durham where I live, IBM has a very, very large campus here about 10,000 people. And I’d done an internship there before and I was like, “That was okay.” I could try working in technology. I don’t know anyone who works in tech. I hadn’t really ever thought about it, but I could probably do that, right? And how hard could product marketing be, so I went and did that.
I got a product marketing job at IBM. I eventually moved into product management mostly because I thought it was a little bit more interesting, I do enjoy the technical side of what we do as well. And I’m probably better at it, honestly, than I was at marketing because marketing is a hard job and I honestly did not do it very well, or I don’t think I do it quite as well — I’m better at product. And from then I moved on from IBM, to Demandware, to SAS, which is also a big Raleigh area company, and I came over to Salesforce a little over a year ago. And so I’ve been in product now for probably six, eight years.
Enterprise vs. consumer product management (7:40)
Amy: You co-wrote the book called Building Products for the Enterprise: Product Management in Enterprise Software. Wow, keywords, SEO, you got it. Well, because you saw a gap for knowledge there, tell me about this.
Blair: Yeah, so my friend is Ben Gaines, he’s a group product manager at Adobe, and a great guy. He and I were on opposing products for years, we were competitors but we became friends anyway, and he’s a super great guy and they have a great product. And we’ve talked for years about how a lot of what you hear about product management isn’t spoken about, especially in tech circles, it’s very, very consumer focused. It’s all, there’s a lot of Google, a lot of it is Facebook. And a lot of how he was talking about the practice of product management, it looks nothing like my job, it didn’t look anything like his job. And we kind of had to brainstorm like, “Why? What are the actual differences here?” And we finally came up with a summary and figured, “well, we’ll write a book about it.” And O’Reilly was interested and so they published it, which is kind of interesting.
At a very high level — I mean, what distinguishes consumer project management and enterprise project management is that we have to sell our things to someone who buys it, right? So ad models, for example, don’t exist for us. On the consumer side, a lot of consumer product managers don’t have a Salesforce or they don’t have sellers, right? If your product is monetized in some other kind of way, like at Spotify or Twitter or gosh, Netflix or something like that, they don’t have sellers, or they have sellers and they sell to advertisers. And so as a product manager, I would never really go on a sales call, there’s a disconnect between me and my consumer in that kind of case. And that really changes the practice of product management in a really fundamental way.
Whereas in the enterprise we have customers, we have people who buy our products and need them to work. And a lot of that really breaks that whole move fast and break things kind of philosophy, that doesn’t work in enterprise software, people get mad at you. We don’t really build for scale quite as much as we build for engineering.
So for example, we don’t have a hundred thousand customers. Now, the Salesforce platform actually does have many more than a hundred thousand customers. I mean, in most cases, except for very large enterprise platforms like Salesforce or Adobe or whatever else, standalone products could have like, you could have 20 customers and you’d be doing really, really well, right? You’ll get a company like IBM or Oracle or one of these, which no one really talks about in kind of the product management circles or whatever, but they make billions of dollars every quarter. So this is partly a kind of fashionable type discourse versus kind of the way the industry actually works sort of thing. And we thought we would write about that and responded.
Launching features for enterprise (10:55)
Amy: Yeah, so you mentioned it doesn’t work to move fast and break things with enterprise. How do you suggest then launching features and products for enterprise knowing they are more careful, there’s more red tape and the impact for them can be very large.
Blair: Yeah, there are a bunch of ways you can do it. I mean, obviously we launched new features, we launched new product, we’re doing that right now, and there’s a bunch of ways we do it. So for a lot of SAS platforms, like one thing that Adobe is very well known for is they have a beta group you can just opt into. And a lot of their… power users love that stuff. They love getting access to a beta group, maybe it’s a new tenant or maybe it’s just a new area of the product where they can sort of test drive these features, they give you immediate feedback. And that sort of thing.
Another is pilot groups, beta groups, a lot of people like doing those approaches because they’re very easy to set up and you can opt into them. It’s really more about you can’t spring surprises on enterprise customers because if I’m paying you $25,000 a month for my organization’s tenant or environment, I can’t mess around with your workflows. Especially with business critical, mission critical applications that people spend much or all of their day in. You start messing around with buttons and workflows and stuff like that, you’ll hear about it really, really fast.
Part of what a larger enterprise pays you for in your software is to not change. I do think the enterprise product managers tend to be more customer responsive because we have to talk to their customers because we don’t have a million of them and we can get that sort of qualitative feedback much more easily than we can quantitative.
Enterprise buyer vs. customer (13:33)
Blair: That’s the other thing about enterprise — our users and our customers are different. So we are building for our user, but as a business analyst whatever at some company, you’re not really our customer — the buyer is five levels above you and they have signing power for a million dollar deal and that person’s never going to use this product, right? My favorite example of this is Lotus Notes because I was at IBM while we were still using Lotus Notes and Lotus Notes is this like terrible piece of software that is garnered it’s reputation, and very, for good reason,
But, you know what? IBM they’d make a billion dollars a year selling it and the reason is because CTOs loved it, IT departments loved it, right? Because it’s just very secure, it’s bulletproof, it’s resilient, all of the fun stuff. And it checked all the boxes on a RFP. And users hated it, but users didn’t get a voice. And there are some tools where as product managers, again in the discourse or whatever we’re trained to say, “User feedback is everything, it’s built for the user.” Or whatever, and that’s kind of true, but it’s also not really always true at enterprise. There are certainly applications where a user has a lot of influence on a deal and others where they don’t. So if you’re making point of sale software, your user does not matter. Your user is being paid 10 bucks an hour at a cash register or was until just recently. But your buyer is an IT administrator or a director in HQ, and that person is a person who’s feedback you’re actually taking seriously. So there’s a lot more nuance to it, that’s all.
Remote or distributed work? (15:35)
Amy: So something that’s quite topical for a lot of companies right now is working from home or remote work and one of your hot takes is that it shouldn’t be called remote work, but actually distributed work. Can you talk about this idea and how the nomenclature can sort of shift that mindset?
Blair: I think that remote work it’s become just the popular term or whatever. And the reason I don’t like it is because it connotes this idea of the old fashioned, I’d log into a server back at headquarters and run jobs on there. And then I’m here, the work is being done over there, whatever. And I guess it still exists somewhere, I’ve never done that, right? But we build software for a living, all of our work is on the internet, right? So I’ve never worked for a tech company where everyone’s job couldn’t be done at least as well at home or remotely, anyway. And I think there are a lot of people who just culturally, socially, they like offices or whatever, and fine, personal preferences aside, there’s no business reason for everyone to be at an office, especially if you’re working in software.
And it’s been really interesting, I think that distributed teams is actually a better description of what we do. Even if you all were co-located in an office, most of your day is spent on email and Slack and whatever else. And I think that, especially now you’re seeing even the companies that were dead set against remote work, “It doesn’t work for us. We’re special. We’re unique, yeah, yeah, yeah.” Facebook, Google, Shopify, Slack, all of them were dead set against… And they all started launching new products in April after they were all completely remote and it just demonstrably works. I think that’s just another objection that has been pushed away now, and now we’re all going to be doing this for a long time.
Audience Q&A period
(17:56) How do enterprise product managers differ when needing to brainstorm on roadmap ideas and opportunities? Do they just turn into request takers versus thought partners?
(20:00) Do you build more for the buyer or for the user in enterprise SAS?
(22:35) How do you acquire customer feedback and include it in the product development life cycle? Do you find all feedback is good feedback?
(24:24) Do you think product management takes a little bit of intuition, because if there is just a framework to be a PM, then that takes out that intuition portion of it, right?
(25:56) So what do you think makes a good product manager?
Blair Reeves is a software product manager and amateur writer. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia, a returned Peace Corps volunteer and holds an MBA that he rarely uses. He lives with his wife and daughter in North Carolina.
Amy’s a Content Marketing Specialist at Roadmunk on the Marketing team. She produces Recess, the Product to Product podcast and video content. Prior to Roadmunk, Amy worked as a journalist in various Canadian newsrooms and wrote for publications like NBC, CBC, Vice and more.