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[Get to know us] What is product management, and what it takes to be a good leader?

Oliwia Połeć, Apr 15, 2021

In the second edition of our “Get to know us” series, we're talking to Jakub Derda, product manager of the LiveChat Developer Program. During the interview, we discuss a path Jakub needed to take in order to be in this position today, as well as his everyday observations on managing a team. Spoiler alert: it was a long way for him but definitely worth it! Jakub also shares an insight of the influence he has on the product and the people around him. If we have any aspiring product managers reading it, we hope you get useful tips and grasp the idea of what such a role will require from you. Have a good read!

LiveChat Jakub Derda

Oliwia: Hi Jakub! Great to have you here. The first question to warm you up: could you tell us something about yourself? What do you do at LiveChat?

Jakub: Hi! For me, it's also a pleasure. I'm a member of the Developer Program team. I often describe my job as trying not to disturb the team and their work, answering my team's questions, and helping them out if necessary. In a nutshell, I lead the Developer Program team.

Oliwia: Nice! I'm curious to know: what is a job of a product manager? What does a product manager do on a daily basis?

Jakub: I'm mainly responsible for creating a solid vision of what we’re trying to achieve as a company and what kind of product we’d like to create. Speaking more precisely, I'm trying to pin down the needs of our customers. In this case, they are developers who create applications available for purchase on the LiveChat Marketplace. What kind of needs do developers have? How can we address those needs, and what kind of problems can we solve within our product? What's the best way to do it? I’d describe this as an infinite cycle of creating, learning, and improving the product we have. Additionally, in my daily routine, I have a meeting with my team to be up to date with what's going on and how our tasks are progressing. Then, all the other meetings, often with someone from the team as well, to discuss important matters and current topics. In addition to that, I also meet with people from other departments, because many of our projects relate to other products. To be aligned with other teams and make sure that we're not drifting away from what we discussed before, I have to sync up with them pretty often.

Oliwia: I want to ask about your studies, as it doesn't seem to be a job you can master at school. Did you learn what product management is in college, or were your studies not connected to what you do now?

Jakub: That's a pretty interesting topic because I never got a degree. I had a couple of attempts, but at some point, I realized that what I’d like to do isn't something I will be able to learn by studying. I needed to get some practice, so I started working pretty early. I was about nineteen when I got my first job. I even tried to get employed at McDonald's, but they rejected me during the recruitment process. I had to look for something else. When I started out, I got hired as a telemarketer. I quickly realized it wasn't a job for me, but thanks to it, I was able to find better offers, mainly related to online marketplaces. For some reason, marketplace startups became the main area of expertise for me. I was working at different positions there. It helped me understand different roles within the company, the steps and stages of product creation and how it influences the customers. My first real job, which I refer to pretty often, was as a customer support specialist. I was talking with customers about the product, answering their questions and concerns also caused by some unfinished features that got released to production. That made me realize the impact we had on our customers and what they were trying to achieve with our product. Then, I was gaining experience in different roles. I learned what I'm using right now in my daily work.

Oliwia: As an anecdote, I applied to Starbucks back in the day, and they never reached out to me. I can relate to your McDonald's experience.

Jakub: At McDonald's, they actually called me and told me, “This isn't a job for you.” If it wasn't for that, who knows if I'd be here today.

Oliwia: Everything happens for a reason! How did you become a product manager, then? Was it your plan all along, or did you come to the realization, “I think that's a job for me, this is what I want to do”?

Jakub: Actually, it was neither option. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. A lot of times I was just going with the flow. Soon after I started to work as a customer specialist, I began looking for something that was a better fit for me. At some point, I got employed at Znany Lekarz, a Polish startup. That was where I had an opportunity to start working on the processes in the customer department. Thanks to this, my manager noticed that I have a certain ease of gaining knowledge related to numbers, and that's how he made me an analyst. I would say that was the first moment when I understood analyzing numbers and metrics is something I'm good at. So I was trying to pursue my career as a business analyst for a couple of years. I started working for a different company, and during that process, I understood that this job didn't provide me with the level of influence I would like to have on the product. I was just able to give advice, but it was up to someone else to decide if they wanted to follow it. It was often a cause of frustration for me because I knew that my suggestions are a good way to go. But at that point, the decisions were different. I decided that this was high time for me to make another change and seek a position in the product department to have a real influence on the product and the ability to make decisions, not suggestions.

Oliwia: Do you think that your work at Znany Lekarz was the process that shaped your career the most, or were there any other projects that influenced your career more?

Jakub: I would say the time when I was working for Znany Lekarz was a turning point for me, or at least for my career. Then, I started working for Booksy, a company I had worked for before I joined LiveChat, and the place where I got the opportunity to work in a product team. In the beginning, I was also a business analyst, but the marketplace team that I worked for was pretty small. We started to have projects related directly to the product, and we were looking for someone who would lead them. At the same time, we only had two people in our department. Due to that, some of the projects I was leading by myself while others were led by my colleagues. I handled this well enough to become a part of the product team. For a couple of months, I had a very interesting role. I was responsible for what we could call side projects, and I was able to treat anything I wanted as such. I was looking for opportunities in projects that we had started in the past and never finished them, or we did, but they were in a shape that needed some refinement. That was an interesting time for me. Then, unfortunately, COVID happened. My role also evolved, and I was responsible for the business implementation of the products we were delivering at the time. It required me to cooperate closely with different departments, so it was also another opportunity to learn about different product areas.

Oliwia: It seems as if you've been learning how to manage a team or a project for quite a long time now?

Jakub: I was rather managing projects, and for the need of those projects, I was able to gather a team of people from different departments. I’ve never had such an opportunity as I have right now to cooperate with the same group of people for a longer time. In the past, I had to find the resources somewhere else because they were limited in our team. Some roles were directly connected with our team, but for many others, I had to find the manpower first.

Oliwia: And how do you feel about managing a team?

Jakub: It's great. I've always felt I’m a team player and wanted to be a part of the team. I don't feel very well as a frontman. Another anecdote: I was playing in a rock band for a couple of years but I’ve never felt confident listening to myself, watching myself, or being in the limelight. But belonging to a team where you can feel support from everyone is amazing. Sometimes my role requires me to present ideas and projects or to defend some implementations we planned. At times, the meetings are very calm, peaceful, and more of a conversation rather than a discussion, but sometimes you have to stand up for the team and actually be the leader. Having in mind that you are part of the team and feeling their support, even if you’re alone during such conversations, empowers you with great confidence. This is something that helped me a lot with making the decision to transfer to LiveChat. The team I was able to join is great. I'm happy to be here.

Oliwia: Definitely, having a good team surrounding you is most likely one of the biggest pros of being a leader. Speaking of your team, what are the other rewarding parts of your day-to-day work?

Jakub: I feel amazing when I can notice my impact on metrics and numbers. Of course, you have to remember they represent something more than just numbers and goals. Behind them, there are people, their achievements and needs you're trying to fulfill. For me, as a person working with numbers for a long time, it's very rewarding to see them change and grow. It can also fill me with anxiety if they fall or if I don't know what to measure. I don't feel confident when there are no metrics I can track to verify if my work is influential or not. The other gratifying part of the day happens every morning, and that is our team meeting. This gives me a power boost because I can start the day with the team and feel their energy. Besides talking about work, we spend some time chit-chatting, for example: how did the previous day go? How are you today? How are you feeling? Everyone has a story to share. That's also a possibility to get to know each other better. But the most important thing for a leader, and me personally, is when someone from the team succeeds. I'm proud that I can be a part of this, that I probably shared an insight, a hint, or asked a question that helped this person achieve their goal. That's very rewarding.

Oliwia: Do you feel that getting on with your team is the core of being a leader?

Jakub: It depends on what kind of leader you want to be. Leadership isn’t merely about assigning tasks to people. It means participating in everyday events, inspiring others to accomplish their goals, but more importantly, encouraging them to be the best versions of themselves. What happens at work reflects how your personal life goes, but I have more influence on people work-wise. So that's the area where I'm trying to inspire others. This is the backbone of being a manager.

LiveChat Jakub Derda quote

Oliwia: I see. Considering the fact that working closely with people is a lion's share of a product manager's work, maybe you have any tips you'd like to share for someone who's just starting to manage a team?

Jakub: Listen, but do it actively. Do not only pretend you're there but be for the team. Answer their questions and let them make decisions. If something bad happens, don't blame others. Be the one who takes responsibility. It's up to you to either take responsibility for your team's failure or to address what requires improvement. And when someone from the team succeeds, make sure this person gets the credit.

Oliwia: That's great. Seeing you're able to answer that on the go without preparation is definitely proving that you are a good leader right now, and you're going to be even better with time. Moving back to the product manager job, you are the product manager in the Developer Program team. I suspect that you might need to have a little bit of a different skill set than a manager of another department. Do you feel that your skills were a big influence on you becoming a technical product manager rather than a manager of another team, or it wasn't that much connected?

Jakub: I would say that the department or the area you're working in requires a lot of flexibility. It doesn't matter if it's a developer-related topic or something related to sales. Your experience helps a lot. At the beginning of my career, I wouldn't feel very confident managing sales-related projects because of my lack of experience in this area. However, belonging to a developers team helps you with cases that your lack of experience makes difficult to resolve since you're talking to developers every day. It's easier to get to know the context, feel how your target group communicates and what their needs might be. The flexibility I mentioned is something that I would say I do have, and it helps me a lot. Then again, the team does most of the work. Having the possibility to be a part of the team and invite them to cooperate with you on different topics is a superpower of each leader. So we don't have to actually know everything. You have to know who and what to ask about when you need help. The rest will just come in the right place at the right time.

Oliwia: If you looked back at your career now, is there anything you wish you had known at the beginning?

Jakub: I would go even further back in time. If I'd known in school that software development is so interesting, I would’ve probably pursued it. I've never met anyone who would inspire me to learn that. A lot of people had programming classes in high school, I also did, but what we learned wasn't very compelling. For instance, we were learning how to solve problems, but without an explanation or context why we were doing it. It didn't allow me to understand all those important and creative parts of software development. Many of my colleagues are programmers at this point, but I never felt that was the way I should go. There were times when I regretted not having such a chance. Besides this, I'm very happy with where I am right now. I wouldn't change my role to any other.

Oliwia: You must really like your job! When I researched a project manager profession, I found out that quite some people wish to become one. Based on these findings, I believe that many people could think that product management is for everyone. What's your take on this? Do you feel this is a job anyone could do?

Jakub: I would say that a limited group of people has the required skill set to be a good project manager. In my career, I've met a lot of people who were managing projects, and there were not so many whom I would call good product or project managers. There is often pressure in the company to focus directly on the task, not on the people you're working with. Yet your teammates are more important than just projects because projects change. They have a beginning and an end. Then you jump into another one. Of course, you try to apply the lessons learned from the previous projects, but they often don't last long. People you work with, on the other hand, are always in your work life. This is what you should pay attention to, not just what you're trying to accomplish. I also noticed that people rarely focus on the outcomes of their current task, what they're trying to change or improve in the product.

Oliwia: I feel the same way. When I saw these results, I thought, “But you need to have these specific skills, and not many people have them.”

Jakub: The other thing that I’d say is pretty important is experience. It's very hard to be a young person work-wise and be a good leader. You have to learn and understand a lot. Of course, possessing specific soft skills gives you the opportunity to cooperate closely with your team and to compensate for areas you might not be fully knowledgeable about. But having your own experience and being able to see the nuances of where the team can improve, and give them tips on how to do so, is something that you won't learn in any other way than just by doing and breaking things.

Oliwia: Do you think being a business analyst influenced your way of thinking a lot?

Jakub: I would say so. It helps you with focusing on details, which then create a bigger picture. It also lets you understand that the information you're seeking is in fact hidden in numbers and data. What you see in front of you isn't usually what you're looking for. You have to dig deeper. It also helps you set goals and priorities for projects.

Oliwia: Do you think that you wouldn't have become a project manager if it wasn't for your experience as a data analyst? Or those were two independent paths?

Jakub: Where would I be today if I hadn't made this and that decision? It's hard for me to answer that. I try to avoid such questions in my life. Even if I had accomplished to become a project manager without any prior experience in business analysis, today, I wouldn't be as good as I am. It does not mean that I'm a brilliant project manager, but for sure, I would lack some skills that I developed while being a business analyst.

Oliwia: You're saying that you're not really into answering the “what if” questions, but I have one similar to that. It’s rather a creative one, though. If you weren't a project manager, what would you be doing? Is there anything you have in mind?

Jakub: For quite a long time, I was thinking about being a programmer. Maybe that would be a thing I would do. Being a business analyst was interesting as well. I don't think I have a broad area of interest work-wise, but everything related to digital projects and products would be good for me. If I would have to do something else related to this area, I'd be okay. As I said, I'm flexible.

Oliwia: Being flexible is great.

Jakub: Sometimes it's great. Sometimes flexibility can disturb you when you're trying to set a clear goal for yourself and do everything to achieve it. These qualities are something I don't have. If things aren't going my way, I'd rather find a way around or focus on finding another solution that will suit my needs better instead of pursuing this one given goal. This example can give you the idea that I wouldn't be a good athlete, as I wouldn't spend hours training. I am not the person who will repeat actions multiple times just to see some sort of gains. Don't ask me to run 5 kilometers either. I will get bored.

Oliwia: I'm just the same about running. It's boring for me too! You mentioned programming. Do you have a lot of experience in coding, or is that just a hobby of yours?

Jakub: It's a hobby I have. Sometimes after work, instead of watching movies on Netflix or reading books, I'm just coding. My wife isn't too happy with me working after I finished my work, so isn't my family, but I think that helps me relax. It also helps me with work since it gives me another perspective and the ability to see the ideas forged into solutions. Hopefully, at some point, I will create something so useful that it will become a separate side project for me.

Oliwia: Do you wish to grow your skill to the point where you can code like a developer?

Jakub: No, not work-wise. I don't have a goal to become a programmer and change my profession unless I create something that will be entirely mine and start my own project. Otherwise, I don't see a way for me there. As a developer, I wouldn't have the influence on decisions made in the company in a comparable way to what I have right now.

Oliwia: I see! Moving on to the last question, you've mentioned that you think of creating something yourself. If you could take your whole team, maybe even the whole company, and think of creating a new product, what would it be?

Jakub: That's a hard question!

Oliwia: Just to shake up your brain a little.

Jakub: I often have discussions with my wife about working on a project that could change many people's everyday life. I'm thinking of something related to what I currently do, creating communication opportunities between people and things around us. For instance, your freezer starts to malfunction, and you don't have an idea why, but the fridge itself is able to tell you what broke down and which part isn't working correctly. You don't have to do anything. Those are the things related to communication, which is LiveChat. They will not only influence a company and its customers, it has the opportunity to influence everyone at some point. Creating something like this would be great.

Oliwia: That's a big plan. I hope you didn't share too many details for anyone who reads this interview!

Jakub: We will make it an application available on the LiveChat Marketplace.

Oliwia: Alright! I think that's it. That was a great interview. I had fun, and I hope you did as well.

Jakub: Certainly. It was a pleasure for me.

Oliwia: Thank you, Jakub!

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