Jan. 11, 2023

Enabling Product Teams to Succeed with Eric Xiao of Fountain


Eric Xiao is the VP of Product at Fountain. In this episode, he talks about his transition from an individual contributor to a team leader and his learnings and struggles along the way. He also shares how he supports his team and prioritizes projects. Finally, there are some awesome book recommendations, so listen to the very end!

 

 

Time Stamped Show Notes

Getting into product [00:41]

Transitioning from IC to a leader [01:50]

Supporting the team [03:02]

Balancing research and company priorities [09:59]

Advice for aspiring product leaders [15:27]

Book recommendations [16:41]

 

 

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Transcript

Product Chats: Eric Xiao Episode

Kayla: [00:00:00] Thanks for tuning into Product Chats. On today's episode, I talk with Eric Xiao, who is the VP of Product at Fountain, and we talk about how to enable teams to be successful, finding your product superpower, and also three things he looks for when hiring. So, hope you enjoy the show and don't forget to leave us a review.

Hey Eric, thanks so much for coming on today. 

Eric: Thanks for having me. 

Kayla: Awesome. Well, in a minute or less, can you tell us about yourself? 

Eric: I'm currently leading the product team at Fountain, which is a platform for high volume hiring for some of the biggest companies in the world. 

Kayla: And so how did you get into product? Tell us a little bit more about that. 

Eric: I graduated in CS from Berkeley. Kind of when I realized while trying to start random side projects that I like computer science. I like coding, but my friends were just better at the technical aspects. I was way more invested in the design and business side. That was a [00:01:00] little sweet spot in the three of those. When I interned as a web developer, my boss at the time was willing to take a chance on me and switch me into a product role with no real experience or understanding of the job. And it's really just through that that I was able to work on product for the rest of my career. 

Kayla: So with that, right, coming to your current role, like what does your day to day look like?

Eric: It's like a combination of pitches to customers, pitches to prospective employees, pitches to my own team. In some ways, it's the transition from being a IC to a leader in the company. I thought I would be doing a little bit more like on the boots on the ground, like this is what the product's exactly gonna look like as opposed to just like pitching what my kind of point of view of the future is going to be. And then aligning everyone to worldview. So in a way it's like pitching of all forms all day, every day. 

Kayla: So with that, I wanna dive into something around going from an IC to a leader. So let's talk a little bit more about like that transition and what's really important when you're [00:02:00] moving from an IC to a leader.

Eric: A lot of on the job training, that's for sure. I was really blessed to be in this role and have somebody take a chance on me, and frankly had never managed a single person before this job, so I just tried to read every single source that I could about what does good management look like? I think a lot of my inspiration actually came from MBA coaches.

I read quotes from players. You say, oh, this coach, like he just actually cared about me on a deep level. I wanna like run through walls for him, but it's not like managing in a company is really that much different. And the stakes are obviously way lower than the MBA, where these are like the best people in the world at their jobs.

But it starts with caring about people and wanting them to succeed. And then the rest is about trying to put the company second after the employee of how do we just set a vision for where we wanna achieve and then how do we get there? And sounds a little overly simplistic, but that's been the bigger transition for me.

How do I have more leverage on my time? How do I enable my people to succeed as opposed to think about what can I do [00:03:00] individually to try to make things happen? 

Kayla: So with that piece of support, what are things that you do to make sure your team feels supported and make sure they're doing their best work?

Eric: We installed a program really recently, we call it Portfolio Review, that it's been pretty successful and when I first joined the company, we're only 60 employees and only two PMs. It's really easy to just like get in a room or a so called Zoom room and just talk things out and then just chip. But as we've grown to six or seven PMs and six or seven designers, and everyone's working on different things, one is it's just really important to stay grounded on understanding progress, understanding truth, and then second is actually adding focus, I suppose, removing focus by each.

Essentially how Portfolio Review works is every PM puts together just one slide per project and outlines the desired outcome. What did they do last week? What they're gonna do this week? And escalations. Sounds pretty simple in theory. Oftentimes the teams are focused on outputs as outcomes, and this is the way to essentially force the issue and say, [00:04:00] yeah, we're gonna track progress on the outcome that we wanna create for customers.

Do we receive the metric win? Did we launch this in a really meaningful way? What is people's feedback to the feature? Is it actually high quality enough? Did we meet or ship goal? There's a lot of the things that aren't just building, designing and getting the product to production where previously that was kind of celebrated and there's urgent things that come up and then you just move on and then you don't get anything outta the feature.

Kayla: So I wanna go off this celebration piece and kind of hop into celebrating your team super power. So can we talk a little bit about that? 

Eric: Yeah. At least for me, I'll start with what exactly is my personal superpower and how it's actually permeated in the team that I've created. For better or for worse. I like to think of my superpower as the mixture of design, technology, and business thinking to get to the root of customer problems.

Or being really centered in what is the ideal customer journey for, let's say for applicants? Like when you, if you think [00:05:00] about just applying for any job, let's say how well like bash brands here, but let's say you're going for a clothing chain. You go to their website, you have to click seven times to get to their careers page.

You have no idea what job you're supposed to apply for. It's not even centered on your location. You're like, there's like jobs in New Jersey and California right next to each other, and then when you apply you have to fill out 70 different form fields. But so just thinking about what is a future that I could create that really puts the user and the applicant first and then the rest follows.

Revenue will always follow, like, great outcomes for customers, but then how that's permeated through my team is that because kind of see that as like an innate thing for myself. The thing I really looked for was strategic thinking and business minded thinking and problem solving as opposed to like, design thinking.

And then on the flip side, there's also a lot of visual design, but that like middle thing is actually missing within the company. So it's still something we're trying to figure out. But to answer your question more directly of how do we enable teams to be really successful, [00:06:00] there's no one size fits all.

We recently launched offshore engineering dev shop working in India, and it's our first time having full-time employees there. Just a lot of leg work to like make sure that everyone was prepared to work with the offshore team and work in a very different style environment where we actually threw out a whole bunch of our original best practices.

There's no scrum. There's essentially very few meetings. There's PM and design are here, whereas engineers are offshore, but there's like kind of big asks to say, oh, how often are we gonna meet in evenings? And like a lot of people, when you hire them, they didn't necessarily sign up to work India hours necessarily.

But the real big takeaway was having a culture of demos every day, just energized everyone. Every single day there's a new feature that's demoed by engineering or by design to say, look at what we build and let's really start creating momentum. And if we can essentially spread that practice to every team, then we start creating focus for the entire [00:07:00] company.

We start creating a brand for being one of the more innovative places to work, and it eventually starts compounding on itself. So hopefully that answers your question. 

Kayla: So with that focus, how do you make sure that your teams are always focusing on the right things that are most impactful to your customers?

Eric: Some background is that we very much used to be a sales-driven organization or customer -driven organization in actually a bad way. And what I mean by that is that we took customer's words as everything, as gospel. Like a customer says, I need these seven check boxes to do my job, or else, Or, I need this very complex permissioning, or I don't trust my workforce to do X.

So then I need the product to have all these granular types of ways to support my workflow. And we would just take that at face value and build exactly what they recommended. And you do that enough times and then the product ends up in a bad state. So what we've really tried doing is instead of going from [00:08:00] customer projects, strategy, vision, which is like a backwards way of, Oh, we're building all these things. Let's like try to craft a story around the things we're building that customers are telling us. We're trying to do the opposite, which is start with where we wanna be as a company. What is our, like two things that we can hang our hat on to be best in the world? How does that dictate the markets we wanna play in and the products we wanna build, which then become projects which we then do user research for.

So then everything is within the lens of those two pieces of differentiation. That has really helped with focus. It's helped with which KPIs that we're actually caring about and driving. It also helps with like, when there's two product lines that are very unrelated and one PM saying, Oh, my project's in trouble, and another PM also wants more help or guidance.

And you have to make a trade off between two things that are basically uncomparable. How do you actually make that trade off? It starts from the base level, what's the most important for the company. 

Kayla: And I think a piece of that, right, is always aligning it back to company goals. And [00:09:00] I think it's really interesting that you had that shift of like, instead of build, build, build, let's actually take a step back and make sure we're building stuff that aligns with like the vision of the company. And actually always continually tie it back to it. 

Eric: Yeah, and I'm stealing this from the one of Scott Belskey's articles at podcasts who's at product officer at Adobe. You can follow him on Twitter. He does not know who I am, but thank you for all your wisdom, . He has like a small image of what happens to every single product that gets customer feedback and reaches hyper growth is that they get a whole bunch of customers because their product is well-designed and simple. Those users request a whole bunch of power user features. You listen to your customers, you put a whole bunch of power user features into your product, and then all of a sudden it becomes too complex and a new, simpler product comes back into the market and steals all your customers.

It can be really easy to fall into the trap of just listening to your customers outright as opposed to just listening to what problems they have. It's our job as designers and product managers to come up with a solution. 

Kayla: And I think that's [00:10:00] like such a good point because it's understanding like the problem versus let's build and let's try to put all these bandaids on, right?

Cause it's when you just feature build, right? It's bandaid, bandaid, bandaid. But then you're kind of getting away from what is like the core of what our customers are challenged with and what are we trying to solve? So like when you're going out and you're trying to figure out like how do you actually balance the research that you're doing and listening to your customers, but also making sure it aligns with like company goals and the direction that that Fountain is going in.

Eric: In the past, we would actually just listen to the feedback, we take it very tactically. Hey, this customer is this amount of revenue size. This is how frequent this customer problem occurs for this customer. And then essentially just rank short order by a fake quantitative estimates of, Oh, if we build this feature, it will unlock X amount of revenue.

But then you put all those things together, it just feels like a pish posh of things doesn't actually achieve [00:11:00] some sort of like bigger objective. And our kind of output for customers is more hires faster. When we've done a lot of user research with both buyers as well as users of our software, their feature requests are great, but a big fallacy is that when they're reporting their problem, It's always like the most important thing on their mind, but when you actually stack rank, like of all the problems that matter, which ones really, really matter, oftentimes that problem they were just talking to you about and complaining about is like number 20.

We did a stack rank sort order exercise through our user researchers. Amazing. And what we actually found is that number one is more hires. Number two is faster, and number three is the site stays up. And then everything else is, Oh, it helps me do my job. It's a convenience. I wish it integrated with X, but honestly, they're willing to look, overlook all those things if we just deliver the more hires faster.

So having every single product through and filtering every single feature through that lens of does it contribute to our customer value [00:12:00] of creating more hires faster? Or does it contribute with like the keep the lights on things? Like we have to keep the side up, we have to support international customers or like, does it help us like penetrate a new market?

Kayla: I think that's getting down to the core, right? Of listening to customers and their pain. Because at the end of the day, also, like multiple bullets could fit into those pains. They're just kind of you as a product like leader and product managers, you have to think about like, okay, they're dealing with these challenges.

How can I actually take a step back and think about what is the challenge they're actually dealing with? Right? It's maybe we're not hiring fast enough, so maybe there's multiple bullet points they recommended that fit into that. 

Eric: Totally. Yes. Yes, and I think as like advice for any new PM starting out, I feel like the biggest superpower that you can just learn in a couple of days and then just apply that thinking of for the rest of your career is just customer journey mapping. It can be all customer journey mapping really is just from the [00:13:00] start of a task to the end of the task, what are the exact steps that they actually accomplish and do. Write out every single one. Have a little graph of like how they're feeling at each step. What are their thinking? What are their pain points? How do they get there? What are they gonna do next? How are they perceived while they're doing this task? And then once you dive into all of the different obstacles and blockers underneath that path, you can start developing really deep customer empathy for whatever task that you're really analyzing. Because oftentimes you hear their pain point and even just rank sort ordering pain points by value versus effort misses the overall broader picture, which is, they want to accomplish a task at the end of the day, especially for enterprise software or for things like applying for a job, you just apply that for the rest of your career and you can very quickly pinpoint what the goal is for fixing something across every single product that you work on.

You're pretty much set. 

Kayla: And I think to that also, right? It's again, understanding your customer and understanding their customer journey. So, If like sitting down and [00:14:00] actually understanding what does their day to day look like? What are the challenges they're dealing with? And I think this goes to like when I talk to a lot of product leaders, it's like what do you hire for?

And it's like someone who's getting in the weeds and understand the customer and really listen to customer journey is cuz then you can actually understand what their pain points are. 

Eric: We have a pretty similar kind of interview process when we're recruiting for talent. Oftentimes, it's very easy.

We're hiring companies, so we better innovate on our own hiring process as well, even if it's not hourly workers. But yeah, we definitely try to look for talent in a slightly different way than usual. It's very easy to just check the box and say, Big tech company A, B, and C. They did these interviews for execution, leadership and strategic thinking.

So we're good. Right? We'll hire from the good college, we'll hire from the good tech companies, and then we're set. Versus looking for talent in different places, and embedding on potential as opposed to the resume. And really, all I look for is three, three items that I'm recruiting for PMs on my team.

It's clear thinkers, which [00:15:00] includes clearly communicating clarity, across all stakeholders and being able to dive really deep into customer problems or really be empathetic about the first principles. Second is just the ability to get things done and being super action-oriented. And then third is a growth mindset, which makes it very easy to give and receive feedback and then it ends up being a full force multiplier effect of everyone else on the team. 

Kayla: Perfect. And then one last thing is, I think you have some really great points. What are some pieces of advice you would give to aspiring product leaders?

Eric: I think for me, especially given the experience that I had coming in, I took a lot of chances joining a lot of startups that didn't necessarily work out, they got bought, but that didn't necessarily mean I got the reward for it. Took a lot of chances and I got lucky. And a big part of that is exiting gracefully from every company that you've been in, being a true professional, making sure that you actually leave a place better than you started, as opposed to burning all of [00:16:00] your bridges.

Sounds obvious. Reading a ton and always learning in some ways. Some of the companies I've worked at, I've almost treated as my MBA, so to speak, except I get paid for it. And then eventually you get promoted for a job that you're not qualified for on paper. And how are you going to like rise up to the occasion and measure up and try to apply some of the frameworks from the books or from mentors that you aspire to be and learn from.

And I've made tons of mistakes on this job. I'll be the first to admit that, but you have to start from somewhere and eventually you're gonna land in a place that's gonna be very uncomfortable. But I would say the start of it is just take action. Take a lot of chances. Don't overthink it. Ask for what you want.

Kayla: So last question is, are there any readings or books that have kind of impacted you and you would recommend for an aspiring product leader to read?

Eric: I'll name three items and they're going to be fairly non-product related books. The first is book that really [00:17:00] kicked off my thinking of how to make decisions called Decisive ]by Heat, the use their framework called Wrap which is W R A P, widen your options, reality test your assumptions, attain distance before deciding, and prepare to be wrong. And in a way, when you think about the product management discipline, it's about trying to make the right decisions and then drive clarity with your team to deliver some sort of outcome.

It starts with really good decision making and best practices in decision making apply to all areas of discipline in your life. Second book I really liked was like a portfolio by a designer, a Muji called Design Without Thoughts, and one of the quotes I really love by that designer is that: "Thinking takes time, but feeling does not."

And you can essentially apply that for every single product feature that you build within your company in business like, we like to think that people are ruled by numbers and they're super rational, but honestly, even for myself, you want to buy software and work with people that make you feel good, makes your company look good, helps you create a higher employee [00:18:00] base that you can be proud of.

And of course, the rational outcomes matter, but the emotions matter just as much. And then the third isn't really a book recommendation, it's more like a recommendation for a category of things to read. And I really like to read investor presentations. And pretend to put myself in the shoes of the leadership team over there and consider, is this strategy actually sound?

Are there financial projections? But like based on any sort of factual reality? When you look at some of the specs that have come out on the market and you look at their investor reports, like they're like projecting like 10 to a hundred x sales in five years and there's no way it's gonna happen.

Versus there are definitely some of the best companies in the world and the best leaders in the world publish a public report every quarter of here are the priorities that we're thinking of, and here's exactly why we are picking them, and here are the financial results and the kind of leading indicators to back it up.

And you can essentially have a master class just by reading, watching the earnings calls and looking at the presentations. And [00:19:00] I found that to be a really great source of strategic thinking. 

Kayla: Well. Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on today. 

Eric: Thanks, Kayla. Super happy to, to be on. 

Kayla: Thanks again to Eric for joining us on today's episode of Product Chats.

If you want more product management resources, head over to canny.io/blog and we will see you next time.