Interview

How I Deal With Failure as a Product Manager

Clement Kao
Product Manager at Blend
Clement Kao is a Product Manager at Blend, a San Francisco-based startup that wants to re-imagine the consumer finance industry. He’s also the Product Manager-in-Residence at Product Manager HQ, where he writes about product management best practices. During our chat, he told us how he dealt with failure in his career and shared a few tips on how aspiring PMs can successfully break into the industry.


Talk us through your day as Product Manager, what are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on transforming one of the most manual and time-consuming workflows in mortgage lending into a seamless digital experience. Essentially, it’s what loan officers need to complete before they enable their borrower to start shopping for homes.

As for what my day looks like: one common theme you’ll hear across product managers is that there really isn’t a typical day, since we’ve got so many things going on! Last Wednesday, I started my morning by presenting a design mock to one of my customers, to get their feedback from a compliance perspective and from an integrations perspective.

Then, I worked with my user research team at Blend to kick off a new set of surveys so that we can better understand our loan officer users. Right after, I sat down with one of our account managers to discuss how we can surface user-level data to our customer executives, to drive more feature adoption and more value for both loan officers and borrowers.

Then, I worked with a designer to polish one of the design components for the pre-qualification flow. I headed to my pod’s daily stand up, where I learned about the work that our engineers, designers, quality analysts, and data analysts are tackling. Afterwards, I jumped into product analytics to understand the potential upside of a particular feature I’d like to tackle, to determine whether it’s worth the effort.

Keep in mind that every product manager has a different set of responsibilities, which drives their schedule.

How did you get into Product Management to begin with?

I started as a consultant for a big data company. There, I found out that our analytics product was hard for new users to master. I started compiling user feedback to send to my product team, which led to a new role in user research and analytics at a real estate brokerage.

There, as a user researcher and analyst, I worked with my executive team to find a new customer segment to serve. We found a particular customer segment that was attracted to a particular value proposition, which powered a profitable business model for us.

We pitched the business model to the executive team, and they agreed to run with it. They needed a product manager to lead the initiative, and asked me to tackle it! Even though I had zero experience working with engineers or designers, they decided to bet on me, and eventually, I wound up leading a team of 20 engineers responsible for multiple business lines.

“Even though I had zero experience working with engineers or designers, they decided to bet on me, and eventually I wound up leading a team of 20 engineers responsible for multiple business lines.”

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when you were getting started?

I didn’t know how to code, or how to design, or what shipping a product looked like. I didn’t know how to manage people who were older and more experienced than me. I didn’t know how to hire and fire vendors, or how to negotiate contracts. I knew nothing, and I was scared to death. I didn’t want to make the wrong decision, especially when so much of the company was on the line.

“I knew nothing, and I was scared to death. I didn’t want to make the wrong decision, especially when so much of the company was on the line.”

To remove that fear, I spent hours after work and hours on the weekend trying to learn as much as I could about product management. I scheduled countless 1-on-1 meetings with peers to download everything in their brains into mine. And it was precisely because I was uncomfortable that I grew so quickly.

Honestly, I could have been a lot less aggressive as a new product manager. I could have taken my time to ramp up, and I could have focused on much smaller features and much smaller deliverables. No one would have blamed me. But I forced myself to get comfortable with discomfort.

Each time I mastered a new skill, I moved on immediately to the next one. I was constantly uncomfortable, and I felt like a failure every day because there was so much that I felt I didn’t know. The thing is, each failure contains the ingredients for the next success; you need to fail enough times to have the ingredients to win.

I learned to enjoy being uncomfortable. There’s this thrilling sense of excitement and opportunity and wonder when you’re faced with a gigantic challenge ahead. It is that very sense of excitement that accelerated my growth, and continues to keep me moving forward each day. I’m still uncomfortable every day, and I know that means I’m learning, growing, and providing positive impact to my organization!

“I felt like a failure every day because there was so much that I felt I didn’t know. The thing is, each failure contains the ingredients for the next success; you need to fail enough times to have the ingredients to win.”

What's something that you've learned in your career that other aspiring PMs should hear?

I truly believe that product managers need to treat themselves as the most important product they’ll ever ship. Whenever I get questions around finding a new PM job or about professional development, I’ve found that as soon as people take their own biases and fears out of the discussion, they find the answers that they’ve been looking for.

As an example: whenever I talk to aspiring PM candidates, I hear a lot of anxiety and fear in their voices. They’ll ask me what sorts of questions to prepare for, or what classes to take, or what sorts of projects to prepare in advance. Whenever you place yourself in the position of being a candidate, you’re automatically in a defensive position. You worry about rejection, or you worry about not being good enough, or you worry about doing the wrong thing.

But taking a step back—what’s the first thing you should do for a new product? You should find a product/market fit by understanding which market you’re targeting, and what the needs of the market are. Similarly, candidates need to understand what hiring organizations they’re aiming for, and what needs those organizations have.

As soon as people consider themselves as products, they shift from a defensive position into an aggressive position. When a hiring manager says “no”, that’s not rejection anymore—that’s learning about how the market behaviors, that’s a new data point that can be used to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

When you treat yourself as a product, it’s entirely transformative. You learn that you don’t need to be perfect because there’s no such thing as a perfect product. Rather, you learn that you need to be flexible, that you need to iterate on yourself quickly, and that you should focus on solving the needs of others. I’ve seen candidates shift from defensive to confident within a single hour, just by reminding themselves that they are products and that the goal is to find a product/market fit.

“When you treat yourself as a product, it’s entirely transformative. You learn that you don’t need to be perfect, because there’s no such thing as a perfect product.”

How have you developed your skills as Product Manager over the years?

Product management is a highly experiential role. That is, you need to experience many situations firsthand to be able to develop new skills. That said, you can learn new skills by talking to other product managers, and you can solidify your existing skills by teaching others—whether it’s through writing or speaking.

As mentioned previously, I treat myself as a product with a roadmap to drive my own professional development plan. I look into the needs of my organization, into my own strengths and learning velocity. From there, I decide which skills will benefit my organization the most, and create a personalized plan to gain those skills quickly.

Finally, the fastest way for a product manager to learn is for her to actively reflect on her experiences. If you just do lots of stuff without taking time to think through what you’ve learned, your rate of growth will be naturally slower than someone else who thinks through her learnings. I dedicate at least 30 minutes a day to reflect on what I did well, what I could have done better, and what resources I can use to close any gaps I find.

“Product management is a highly experiential role. That is, you need to experience many situations firsthand to be able to develop new skills.”

In addition to being a busy PM, you also write. What motivated you to start writing about product management and how do you choose your topics?

When I started as a product manager, I felt lost. I wished I had someone to guide me through the basics of product management. Then, as I became more experienced, I was frustrated that I couldn’t easily draw on the experiences of other talented product managers. I found that the only way I could learn from them was to talk to them, and good product managers are usually too busy to talk!

That’s what inspired me to write. I want to serve as an accessible resource for the product management community. After all, product management has recently become one of the hottest careers out there, yet there’s very little standardized knowledge around product management.

I approach writing the same way that I approach my products. I seek to understand who my audience is, what pains they’re currently facing, what the depth of that pain is, and what existing alternatives there are. By doing so, I ensure that I’m tackling the highest-impact topics through my writing.

I look for quantitative validation through SEO (search engine optimization) tools, which helps me understand the frequency of the question and the type of person who asks that question. I’ll also look for qualitative depth by reflecting on inbound questions, whether they’re through email, LinkedIn, phone calls, or coffee chats.

I’m honored to be the Product Manager-in-Residence of Product Manager HQ, which is the oldest product management Slack community. If I notice that there’s a trending set of questions with no clear answers, I’ll intervene by pulling together an article to address the gap.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to change careers to product management?

The most important thing to keep in mind is that there’s not a single right path to product management. In fact, if you copy my path step-for-step, you will likely fail to become a PM. That’s because it’s not the path that I took, but rather the way in which I took it.

What does that mean? It means that successful product managers don’t become successful by completing particular projects or having particular titles. It means that we all became product managers because we share the same attributes when it comes to our work.

We proactively solve problems, even if those problems aren’t formally ours to solve. We act as connective tissue for our organization, by circulating information about our customers, our development teams, and our business needs.

We’re comfortable with tackling ambiguous situations. We step up to tackle unglamorous work that we may not be experts at doing, whether it’s taking notes or jumping onto calls or testing features. We seek to understand others, and we’re driven by empathy.

We don’t claim credit for ourselves—we give credit to our teams. We don’t blame others—we blame ourselves. We push those around us to grow, and we inspire others to step up.

If you can actively exhibit the traits above, then it doesn’t really matter what your major is, or what certifications you have, or what job you did before. You will naturally stand out as a candidate because those traits are fundamental to the art of product management.

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