Derek Butts - From Consulting to Tech Product Management (#23)


Derek Butts is currently VP of corporate development at Workday. Prior to this, he was VP of product management and strategy responsible for planning and analytics, also at Workday.

Since joining Workday in 2008, Derek has served in various leadership roles focused on product, strategy, and business development including five years at Intuit.

Derek holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree in computer science and psychology from Amherst College.

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Episode Summary

“Even when I took detours into industries that I wasn’t necessarily going to be in long-term, they were still the highest integrity people who are awesome. In fact, I still have relationships with people across all of the companies that I’ve ever worked”

—Derek Butts

In this episode we’ll also cover:

  1. Important lessons Derek learned while buying auto body shops
  2. What skills are necessary to be a successful product manager
  3. How is product management evolving?
  4. What Derek looks for people when hiring and building teams
  5. Why maintaining relationships is essential for working at large organizations

Key Milestones


Grant Ingersoll: 00:19 Welcome everyone to the development or podcast. If you’ve ever wondered what careers in tech you can get into with a computer science degree that don’t involve coding, then today’s episode of development or is just for you. I’m your host, Grant Ingersoll, and today you’ll meet another longtime friend of mine who has a computer science degree or who got a computer science degree at the same time as I did, but then went into management consulting and business development and ultimately ended up in product management for some of Silicon Valley’s leading tech firms. Please join me in welcoming to the show, Derek Butts. Derek, great to have you here.

Derek Butts: 00:57 Great to be here. Thanks for having me. Grant.

Grant Ingersoll: 00:59 You know Derek, I think today must be Amherst college day because you’re actually the second guest that I’ve interviewed today from, from the fairest college on the Hills. So while you and I have known each other for quite some time, you know, why don’t you though fill our audience in on, on your background, who you are, some of the places you’ve worked in and a bit more on your career path.

Derek Butts: 01:21 Oh, that sounds great. And I’m, I’m happy to be a second, a fellow alum today. So as Grant mentioned, he and I were classmates in college in computer science and I got a degree in computer science and also in psychology at the same time. And after that, you know, I had sort of self-assessed that I wasn’t the best coder even though I liked it and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do it professionally. And so I ended up getting a job in management consulting, which I thought would be a good way to learn about business. And so I did that and you know, that started me down a path to business and you know, I can talk into the details at whatever length you want, but I’ve ended up long story short in Silicon Valley for the last 20 years working in tech firms in primarily in product management, some marketing jobs and strategy.

Grant Ingersoll: 02:25 Very cool. And I mean, and I want to touch on the strategy thing here in a minute because it’s something I see in, in a lot of your profile. But you know, I mentioned in the lead in, you know, you’ve done business development, you’ve done product management. What do you see some as some of the key skills, you know, really required to be successful in those roles of somebody thinking about being a product management or product manager or going into business development. What do you see as some of the things they really need to think about in terms of a career path that have been helpful for you?

Derek Butts: 02:58 Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because I think product management in some ways it’s evolved and changed over time. And then there are certain things that have been consistent. I got introduced to it. I was fortunate enough to have internships during college out in Silicon Valley for mid nineties, high-growth software firm. And I got to see what the different functions at a tech company were that I didn’t even understand or know about. And this is a consumer software. And so they had marketing and they were selling at retail stores. So they’re selling like, you know floppy disks in boxes on Staples’ shelves.

Derek Butts: 03:35 And so the marketing department was like, how do we get retailers [inaudible] to carry our stuff and how do we get consumers to like pick it off the shelf, read the back of the box and install our software. And so all of the, it’s a world of marketing was open, open my eyes and then there are engineers and understand that you wrote the code you built product. But there’s this other function that I had never known before. And by the way, my job was like checking the order entry system to make sure the codes for on the back of the boxes corresponded with the right floppy. This so I mean we’re not talking exactly, I wasn’t writing code. But what I saw were these people called product managers and they were people that needed to be technical enough to understand how things got built, what was hard, what was easy, could talk with engineers in the same language and be kind of part of the team.

Derek Butts: 04:27 But they also had to understand what customers wanted and how [inaudible] how to see the patterns, how to understand, well, gosh, if I talked to 20, 40, 50, a hundred different customers, what are the things that I could abstract from that that are common, that are the most important and am I able to communicate those in a way that someone else who writes code, who’s never talked to these customers or can’t talk to a hundred can feel the problem as deeply as if they had talked to the customer themselves. And so these product managers had to like go through that process and help determine what was most important because in the end [inaudible] you know, when you’re building software, it’s like anything else you want to build, you have constraints. And so you’ve gotta be able to work within those constraints and make your decisions. If you’re building an apartment building, but you have a very narrow piece of land, you’ve got to figure out how to, you know, deal with that. And so the product managers were sort of navigating that intersection of what customer sort of asks for individually and what gets built. And I thought that was really, really interesting. And so it was my first window into product management.

Grant Ingersoll: 05:40 Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean I think even, you know, me being a developer for a long time, I didn’t really come across really in depth product managers and tell I went to the Valley. So it’s, it’s kind of a interesting similar experience and you hit on something that I think is really key and that role and I imagine has played a big part in your career in that you’re, you’re often is go between and I know on the show talking to some other product managers, one of the key skills you really have to develop there is this ability to kind of keep a foot in, in all, in all rooms I guess. You know, you have to be part technical. You have to be part sales, you have to be part marketing, you have to be part customers, boy, some days, you’re even a punching bag because everybody wants to beat up on you as the product manager. How come you didn’t think of that edge case. So how do you approach kind of that juggling of all those skills?

Derek Butts: 06:37 So, Mmm. And, and, and I guess my answer to this will relate back to your prior question, which I don’t actually think I really answered, which is, you know, what are some of the important skills? So,

Derek Butts: 06:48 You know, the juggling of them. I think different product managers have different approaches to it based on what their, what their background is, what their experience is, what their strengths are. For me, when I think about like some of the important skills, you know, critical thinking is, you know, critical thinking, the ability to see patterns, the ability to abstract from individual examples that, which is you know, commonly shared amongst nanny, the ability to understand what is good enough. Those kinds of things, the ability to then engage with your various constituents in sort of a multilingual way. You gotta be able to speak in a way that makes engineers feel like you understand them and you’re, you don’t necessarily have to be one of them, but you have to understand how you fit with them and what they need from you and get it to them exactly how they need it.

Derek Butts: 07:44 You have to be able to Mmm. Listen empathetically to customers but not so much that you are willing to solve just one customer’s problem at the cost of everybody else, all other customers, you know, and that’s why so, so I think there’s, there’s a bunch of skills in there. It’s, and certain product managers are better at different things. You can almost draw like a triangle or something or a diamond. You have, you know, customer engagements, you have technical skills, you know, and, and, and you have sort of like business and market skills, you know, and you’ve kind of got, and different product managers and different companies, different product managers have different orientations. And different companies need and value different things. And so reputationally, Google for example, especially early on, they were, It’s a very technical organization and they really valued very technical product managers and their impact on the Valley, I think. And Facebook was that way. And so you have a whole wave of, and by the way, I think it’s an incredibly viable and valid path. Yeah.

Derek Butts: 08:55 And so product managers, you may be come from CS or have a CS degree or maybe even wrote code for a year or two, but then maybe went to shift it into a different function or a business thing or what have you. You know, you might see that you might see somebody who comes from, you know, a customer and worked at the customer, particularly an enterprise software. You know, they were a functional expert. They were the head of financial planning at, you know, Z company. Well now they are the lead product manager on financial planning at [inaudible], the financial planning software company.

Derek Butts: 09:37 They have to be able to abstract their experience, to be able to understand everybody’s experience. And then to know what are the most common. And if we solve these things and just these things and we don’t solve these things, we’ll solve most people’s problems. And, so for me, I learned a lot of the critical thinking skills you need by learning how to write code, which helps with kind of understanding some of them technical things. But I also learned it from management consultant because, and some other product managers may learn it from doing advertising or some other product managers may learn it because they went and got a master’s in fine arts. Because all of these places in some form places that teach you how to organize your thinking, communicate clearly structure and abstract thing in a way that is compelling and shows how you go from a hypothesis to a conclusion by testing it. You know, those kinds of skills can be built in a variety of different ways. And so you know, my brother’s a scientist he’s, you know, a PhD and a professor. He’d probably be a great product manager. He’d just have to learn the ropes because he understands how to prioritize what things matter to achieve an outcome and technically what things are unfeasible to ask an engineer to do.

Grant Ingersoll: 11:00 Right? Yeah. No, it’s interesting. I mean in many ways, you know, your dual degrees one in comp science, psychology and then combine that with consulting and you have kind of the three pieces of product management, right? You’ve got the, you know, the understanding of the tech. You’ve got to, you know, some level of understanding of the way people think. And then, and then you’ve got this layer over it around what does the business actually care about. So, you know, I could see how those first few years really formative and, and helping yourself become a good product manager.

Derek Butts: 11:35 Totally. That there are other, there are two other pieces and, and w, you know, one is a bit of luck, which I’ll speak about in a second, but I think it translates into [inaudible]. One of the takeaways for me about like thinking about career stuff that’s been helpful. But then the other that, you know, after I did management consulting, I was really like interested in entrepreneurship, but I was living in Boston at the time and there’s a lot of like a private equity, not venture capital, private equity, but like old school, like we buy companies that aren’t working. We figured out how to invest in them strategically and we turn them around and make them better or we get some economies of scale or what have you. There’s a lot of that in Boston and there’s also the financial engineering side of it. But I was interested in some of the strategic, you know, I was like, wow, you can really like just by changing a wholesale distributor.

Derek Butts: 12:27 Yeah, meatpacking facility strategy, you can really change their outcomes. Isn’t that interesting? You don’t have to write your software. And of course what interested me in technology is you can fundamentally disrupt outcomes by using technology, but you can do that in any sort of areas. And so a buddy of mine had left the management consulting firm to join a startup and he’s like, Hey Dara, you love startups. I know that you want to go back to California to join one, but you’ve got to listen to me on this one. And I know it’s not tax, but there are some things in there that are sound technical and it’s really cool. You should hear it out. Oh, that’s awesome. What is this? He’s like, well it’s in the auto body repair industry.

Grant Ingersoll: 13:09 I noticed that on your profile. I was, I wasn’t quite sure how to ask about that one, but this is fantastic.

Derek Butts: 13:15 I was like, now DJ, I mean I do know how to drive. I have a license, but I do not own a car and I do not know anything about fixing them. Okay. Mmm. But boy, I’m fascinated what you got. And he said, well, this company is, is started, it’s a startup and there’s a huge opportunity to, to do a lot of good in this industry to, you know, kind of create higher quality, lower the costs and increase the kind of trust and transparency for, for customers. I’ll fight, man. Those things all sound great. And the way they went about it, and this was a popular business model in the late nineties, but they were, they were what we call roll-up. And so what they did is they bought companies and they started this company because they met one of the top shops in the country in Philadelphia and pitched this notion of [inaudible] vision of how you can create a chain and improve quality and lower costs and everyone would be happy.

Derek Butts: 14:11 And he’s like, I’m in. Oh really? Others would be to like, definitely. So they started essentially a chain of auto body repair shops. Wow. Alright. So I got it. I was like, this is the best business plan I’ve ever read in my 21 years of age or 22 years of age. I was like, I’m in, what do I do? So two days after I started, I just bought, started buying plane tickets every week. Primarily like I covered a region and I cold called body shops, auto body shops. But here’s the thing, the family business, typically you don’t want the anybody inside the shop knowing that they might sell. So you had to get to the owner without telling anybody who you work for, what you did.

Grant Ingersoll: 14:53 Interesting.

Derek Butts: 14:55 And so every week, this is before nine 11 so every week I’d buy a plane ticket to Chicago, for example, our coverage Chicago land, and I’d have from Tuesday to Thursday and my job was to buy body shops. And so I would literally cold call until I’ve sold my schedule. So I know every town in the Chicago land area from like and also Wisconsin to like Schererville, Indiana. So like, I mean, you know, andI literally cold called and I did it in Florida and I mean, you know, all sorts of stuff. I mean, and I negotiated deals. I sourced them, I met people I figured out. And so I learned how to do, I learned how to do deals by accident and, and that was where business development came from. And by the way, some of the best business people I’ve ever met. Or in that industry, like, you know, we kind of laugh and joke about it, but there’s some, it’s a huge industry of some amazing leaders and business people as you would expect. And so I also, you know, had gone from the fortune 500 consulting to small, small businesses in small towns that sponsor the little league teams that were part of the fabric of communities in America and met people who built businesses literally with their hands. And I think it’s just really, it’s really helpful cause I had, I had been exposed to high flying Silicon Valley already and then I got an [inaudible] worn a business suit and done consulting, but then very quickly got humbled real fast.

Derek Butts: 16:35 Well, and I didn’t, you know, I got, and people were not shy about educating me in a variety of different ways that, you know, would not fly from an HR perspective. And I mean, like, you know, I got put in an armbar during our conversation. No, you can’t do that in a software company and not be fired. Two seconds. I mean, I wouldn’t even imagine that. I wouldn’t even do that. Like I don’t do that personally. Like I’ve never done that to anybody as long as you’re okay. I mean so anyway, so that, that was an experience that Hey, I said this isn’t something that I want to do forever and, but I want to learn. And so I learned and that ended up turning into, well this was now 1999 and I got a call cause there was an angel investor that was looking at investing in a new internet startup that was going to sell auto parts.

Derek Butts: 17:33 Well guess what I had done, I had negotiated auto parts deal [inaudible] so I ended up, he said, what are you doing? I said, I’m gonna try to apply to business school cause I want to get to Silicon Valley and become a product manager. And I think that’s how you get to be a product manager. So you got go to business school and he said, he said, well why don’t you meet this company? They got two people, they’re just starting. I gave them $50,000 or something like that. He’s like, what are you doing between now and business school? This is like March. And I was hoping to get into school and start in September. He’s like, I was like, well, I was going to come out to San Francisco, like wait tables and sleep on my buddy’s couch. He’s like, why don’t you come out to San Francisco, help start this company, sleep on your buddy’s couch and then go to business school.

Grant Ingersoll: 18:20 The rest is history as they say.

Derek Butts: 18:22 And so I was like, great. And so I knew a lot about auto parts. Yeah. And I knew and I learned in management consulting how to think about a business in a structured way. And so I started and I was called business development, but really I ended up writing the requirements for the first product. That first product did not succeed. So two years later the company raised a ton of money on the back of this hypothetical first product we were going to build that was going to be amazing. We raised like, you know, this is the height of the dot com boom 20 years ago we raised like 50 million bucks from fabled investors and that part of the business didn’t work. A couple other products we started did work better, but it ended up being like a 30 person software company that, you know, lasted for a long time.

Derek Butts: 19:11 But I was like, man, I shouldn’t mess that up. Or I didn’t mess it. I just didn’t get it right. We shouldn’t have raised all that money and gone to 200 people. We should just stay to 30 people and build product two, not the one that I did. And so I was like, you know, now I want to go back to business school because I want to understand, I want to learn now. I have now seen sales, I’ve seen marketing, I’ve seen us develop a market presence and it didn’t work and we didn’t tell her the goods, but something good came of it. And so I ended up applying back to business school. And I was fortunate enough to get in and and I was very purposeful. I was like, I’m not looking for a career shift. I’m looking to hone my skills cause I’ve already been working for five years and I want to be a product manager when I leave school.

Derek Butts: 19:57 And I kind of been doing that. Right. and so when I left school, I wanted to go somewhere. So I went there, and what I really wanted was a job at a company that had a proven track record of successful products. And I guess that was one thing, you know, lesson learned is, especially early in your career, if you can pick a place that’s really good at what they do and learn how they do it, it’s really useful to see success. So I was really fortunate. The management consulting firm I worked at [inaudible] was really good and they were good at what they did. So I learned best practices, the auto body startup, I learned through the school of hard knocks, but we had really good attorneys and I learned how to do business centric legal negotiations. Mmm. And, and then when we started the company, I learned how to mess things up. I learned how to not do things right. I learned how to build a bad product that didn’t meet our customer needs correctly and it wasn’t realistic to implement. So it was an interesting idea. Yeah. And then I saw the simple idea that seems like a throw away, a buddy of mine started a business around that turned into a runaway success and one of the early big SAAS outcomes.

Grant Ingersoll: 21:17 Yeah. Interesting

Derek Butts: 21:19 So the takeaway for that was man, go learn from people who know how to do it. You may decide the way they’ve done it is kind of crazy, but you know, like go somewhere that has a track record because it’s sort of like, you know, if we were in the 1600s and we wanted to learn a trade, we’d go find the best man and say Chi apprentice to you. Well it’s not the same idea in practice, but conceptually it’s like what you really want to do is fine. If you want to work in product management, say who builds products that are awesome.

Derek Butts: 21:53 Yeah. So go to the, go to the apples, go to the workdays, go to the goods.

Derek Butts: 22:00 Yeah. Or it doesn’t even need to be the name brands because you may say like, Mmm, you know to me saw luggage or whatever I saw consultant have that. I figure consultants probably have the best luggage. So that’s probably really good luggage. Or you may say, I’m like, I have a friend who works I think at like method soap. Well method was an innovator in life, the way they dispense soap or something like that. I don’t know. And, and so it was a high quality organization. So what underlies typically successful organizations is really good people with really good values.

Grant Ingersoll: 22:37 Yeah, that makes sense.

Derek Butts: 22:39 And build really good products and you know, you can draw a through-line and they can be small products, they can be big products are gonna be small markets, they can be big markets, it can be just the product you love. But that to me was by accident because I went somewhere that has been around for awhile and maybe wasn’t the highest flying, but people love their products. And so I learned how they did their product management. So you know, that that was how I got into product management by accident, through auto body repair. Through, You know, not being a coder by act like, yeah. Cause I didn’t think I was good enough.

Grant Ingersoll: 23:20 Well, I think, you know, a lot of people kind of have this, you know, especially in this day and age of everything has to be intentional. I think people sometimes miss out on and on this serendipitous moments that happen. And you know, this notion that everybody’s, everything’s gotta be intentional and, and you’ve got to know in advance and, and follow your passion. And for a lot of people, you just don’t even know. And moreover, like you, you might fall into something that that you end up liking that, that you didn’t even know existed. So how can it possibly be your passion when you’re 18? You know, so I, I think that makes a lot of sense. You know, Derek, you know, built into a lot of the things you’ve talked about is this word that keeps coming up, you know, the strategy and you know, it’s a really nebulous thing and a lot of ways for companies, you know, trying to decide what the future looks like, you know. So how do you approach defining strategy for a product or an organization?

Derek Butts: 24:24 So for me new strategy is a loaded term. Mmm. And you’re right, it is, it is very nebulous. Mmm. For me a strategy is just a description of how you’re going to get to your vision, not necessarily the tactical things are going to do. What’s your game plan? So if you’re going to climb that mountain, well how are you going to do it?

Derek Butts: 24:50 Not when I’m on there, I’m in there like move my stuff, my crampon from this step to this step. But rather I’m going to take the North route and I’m going to leave early in the morning because I’m really strong at ice climbing hand, it’s frozen in the morning on the most technical part of the climb is ice. In the morning. And so I’m going to do that because it plays to my strength and so I’m going to build a strategy that way. So strategy to me is really just an articulation of how you’re going to go about it. And like there are strategy consulting firms and they’re hired by really big companies to do really because those are companies where they have enough moving parts where the strategy actually requires a lot of analysis and understanding of all the inner working parts in order to get to something simple. But younger companies, so for example, I’ve had, whenever I’ve had a formal role of strategy, there has to have, there has to be enough complexity in a company such that they need someone to focus on how should we go about doing this?

Derek Butts: 25:56 That’s, that’s all they do. Whereas I believe, and, and at some points in time and company’s lives, they need to do that. But like let’s say you and I start a company and we’re going to be, we’re going to, we’re going to decide our strategy like upfront and that’s it. We’re going to decide it once and go execute it for awhile and then we’re going to ask ourselves, is it working? If it’s not working, let’s change it. There’s not like a, you know, we have to hire a management consulting firm to figure out our strategy. Strategies like, Oh, what are we going to decide what to do? Not working with to try to decide to do something else. But as you get bigger and more complex, understanding all the ramifications of one action is actually non-trivial.

Grant Ingersoll: 26:40 Yeah. So

Derek Butts: 26:40 Now you are a global bank and you’re trying to figure out what’s the right next city to enter. How do you make that decision?

Grant Ingersoll: 26:52 Yeah, that’s

Derek Butts: 26:54 When I enter that bank. Do I open 15 mega branches with 20 small branches? Do I just open with 100 ATMs and one mega set? Like what’s my strategy, what’s my plan? And then you build an execution plan behind that. And so strategy to me is really the act of describing, understanding what you’re trying to accomplish and then articulating how you think you’re going to be, what the things you need to believe in order for those outcomes to be true. You know, and going through all kind of that structure. And then you can test the strategy by saying parishes. Is it pretty simple to understand? Because by the way, it’s not simple. I understand that’s going to be awfully difficult to execute.

Grant Ingersoll: 27:40 Yeah. And to explain for that matter.

Derek Butts: 27:43 Yeah. And so I believe everyone in every role has an opportunity to exercise their strategic, you know, in quotes like their strategic capabilities by being able to articulate in simple terms, here’s our objective, here’s kind of what we’re good at and therefore we’re going to play to our strengths. You know, if you’re a sports person, it’s, you know, I’m really good with my right hand so I’m going to go right all the time. Well, if you’re defending that person trying to make them go left. Yeah. And so that to me is what strategy is in, in translating that to product management. Or some companies will have a product strategy title, but really product manager and product strategy end up being very similar in the product planning title in the following, which is, which are really trying to say is, what are we going to build for who and when, which also implies what aren’t, what are we not doing and who are we not serving?

Derek Butts: 28:48 And that’s kind of what your product strategy is doing. And then you say, and here are the things that we have to build or address in order for you to believe that we’re going to execute this strategy and it’ll achieve our objective. So for example, I’m going to build an online banking product. Well, that banking product is can allow people to view their balances, but it won’t allow them to do pay their bills. Is that okay? You know, and you just are figuring out what’s the path I’m going to take to get my target customers to sign up with me.

Grant Ingersoll: 29:23 That makes sense. Yeah. Super useful. I mean, I think it’s always one of those things that’s, you know, you try to, you know, especially as you grow in your career, you’re thinking about, you know, Hey, how do I, how do I be more involved in strategy? Because that’s often the, you know, the people who are above you are doing strategic things. And so as you’re looking up, it’s important to understand it. But I think you’re, you know, you raised a number of good points that no matter where you are in your career, you should think strategically. You know, shifting gears a little bit, I mean, anytime I have somebody on with, you know, like a VP or a manager title, I love to ask a couple of questions just kind of real quickly and the first one is, you know, really stepping back and looking at, you know, what was it like for you as you shifted from that role of individual contributor and to more of a leadership type role? What is, you know, what took place in your career or how did you approach it? How did, what, what did you have to go learn that you didn’t previously have to do?

Derek Butts: 30:25 Mmm, well I, I probably, I feel like I probably fell into someone like the cliched traps early on. And maybe still do. I mean, you know, I’m sure I have blind spots. And, you know, let me know.

Derek Butts: 30:41 I think when I first transitioned into and my first transition from individual contributor into managing people, I almost just treated it like I had to, I had more work that I was responsible for. Their work. No, I was responsible for their work, kind of. I mean they were, but I was held accountable for the teams output. And so I really managed work and if I didn’t see work getting done, I’d either step in if I needed to or ask people to do it or what have you. And it seemed okay, but it was awfully non-scalable somehow and I just would get overwhelmed with all the work.

Grant Ingersoll: 31:23 Cause you’re basically feeling like you’re also doing their job alongside them

Derek Butts: 31:28 Perhaps, or at least managing their to do with and making sure they have the right to do list. Then, you know, kind of, and I think in some cases that led me down a path of micromanaging. And, but after, you know, a year I was like, Oh, I’m getting pretty good at this. Okay, I’m getting a good, I’m getting good practice. But like in retrospect there’s not, I was not, it was sort of like I got, I got good at like the first thing, which was like understanding how to balance many to do lists and not crack. But what I wasn’t doing was like doing a good job as in what my job as a manager was, which is leading the team. And, and I think what happened when I got Mmm [inaudible] when I got to the point where I was managing more than more to do lists and you know, two levels of people where I couldn’t know all the work that was going on.

Derek Butts: 32:24 And that’s really, it required me to change. And, and in retrospective, if I had done the change earlier, I would have been far more effective with managing three people, which is that instead of managing people to do it. And you know, I think about the one on one and how important it is. Well, I would always approach the one-on-one with my agenda and I reshaped the one on one to their agenda. And it was that very simple. I mean, there are other things that I did too in terms of like communication and, you know delegating work and, but instead of focusing on the work, I focused on the person and what they were trying to accomplish. And what I did separate from the one-on-ones, inseparable from the interactions with my team, was make sure that the collective work we were doing was the right work so that any individual to do list could be mapped against that themselves. And so, almost by definition, trying to create an environment where none of the work that a PM was working on wasn’t dedicated. There was no clear line of sight from what they were working on to why. And therefore I never had to say I could see the status of all the projects. So I could just say what’s going on? Is there anything that you want to talk about? If not, I’ve got some things I’d like to ask about, but the things I’ve got, well you know, or just to fill time if you have nothing.

Grant Ingersoll: 33:54 Hmm. Yeah, that makes sense.

Derek Butts: 33:56 And it was just like, you know, that for me really mattered. I mean there are other things that I did as I managed more people, but I felt like my primary job in many ways is to develop people and help them understand how great they can be. You know? And if you can help understand like, cause that’s, I’ve been most motivated when other people helped me understand that I can achieve a lot and then entrust me with a lot more work than maybe I feel like I can handle, but just enough to make me feel that way, but not so much to ground me. And then they’re checking in on me and making sure I’m not drowning.

Derek Butts: 34:35 Yeah. And I feel like the shift that I made was going from managing someone else’s to do list, to empowering them to manage what was important and bringing to me their problems and if I could create a trust that way I was more likely to have them surface the real problems.

Grant Ingersoll: 34:54 Right. No, that’s great.

Derek Butts: 34:56 Real problems sometimes had to do with the work itself, but they often had to do with working with other teams or sometimes something might have been going on like external to work that they just were impacting that week and it was just important to be able to talk about it and just creating that space for people, particularly in a high growth environment. That was really important. That is really important to me personally because my, I decided that my job as a manager was to help everybody on my team achieve their hopes and dreams.

Grant Ingersoll: 35:29 Yeah, that makes sense. The second part of the question that is how do you go about, or how, what’s your approach for hiring? What do you look for in people that you’re bringing on into your team?

Derek Butts: 35:42 So aye values and culture alignment are critical to me and, you know, different organizations have different values, so that’s going to mean different things to different people. But that is really critical. Mmm. Understanding how they, so, so understanding whether I think there’s fit and helping them establish themselves, whether they’re, there’s fit from a values perspective, from a cultural perspective and then from an alignment of interest and what the role is. And so if I can know, I like to not sell people into a role. I like to do my best at being really transparent about what it is so that they can share with me what they hope to achieve in trying to get the job. And then we can together evaluate it. And through that process, and by the way, there’s a sidebar of technical skills through that process, really trying to establish whether we collectively agree that they’re going to kick butt when they get in that job and that they are really ecstatic about it and that they know some of the things that aren’t awesome about it despite, cause I’m like, you’re gonna the day you’re hired.

Derek Butts: 37:02 I’m still the same person who hired you. So it better feel like working with me right now during the process. And if you like that or don’t like that, that should tell you something. And please, I want you to give that to me too. Now obviously it’s an interview and you’re assessing technical skills, but that’s where I’m really looking at at, at fit is do I think you’re going to be fired up? Do I think you fit? Do our values align? Do I believe there’s a chance if I invest in you, you’ll be able to you know, move the needle. You’re for yourself and therefore for us. And by the way, I expect that you’ll move on at some point. So no, that, I know that. So we’ll talk about your career, not just your job.

Grant Ingersoll: 37:43 Yeah, that makes sense. That I think

Derek Butts: 37:48 Evaluate them, but that’s got a, that’s got to fit with them. That’s gotta be what they want. Because if they don’t, then they should know that they just gotta. So that transparency allows you to align together, generally speaking and have someone come in, leaning in to their job.

Grant Ingersoll: 38:07 Yeah, no, I think that helping people see the bigger path even right as you’re hiring them that can be really useful.

Derek Butts: 38:15 And then I also, by the way, I also have, you know, I try to understand what [inaudible], how hard do they work when no one’s looking, what drives them, what motivates them? Mmm. How, how do they go about, you know, as a product manager, what’s really important is if they don’t have prior experience, how do they build teams? How do they build collective ownership? I mean, there’s a lot of technical things in there as well. So, yeah. You know, I perhaps digress too deeply into the fit side, but I do think I think fit is important.

Grant Ingersoll: 38:50 No, I think that makes sense. And, and you know, there’s a lot that goes into that because it’s not just, you know, you want people who, who sharing the vision, but also are willing to stand up for what they believe in and can bring some different insights to the table. So, I mean, I think, I think you hit on a lot of important pieces there. Yup.

Derek Butts: 39:11 The other side of it, by the way, is knowing who you have on the bus and making sure you’re bringing the skillsets that compliment.

Grant Ingersoll: 39:17 Yeah.

Derek Butts: 39:17 Perhaps push. So you think about the team as well.

Grant Ingersoll: 39:23 Well, so you know, let’s shift gears here a little bit and maybe just one or two more questions and then we can wrap up. You know, this has been really great. I think you’ve hit on a lot of interesting pieces here. And you know, you mentioned really early on that product management has changed a lot. And you know, and as I look at that kind of role, you know, there’s, there’s this trend, right, of, of more people are technical than ever and more people are business savvy than ever. And, and so the role of product management has to change to fit with that level. Right. You know, 20 years ago, you know, only half the companies spoke engineer and the other half, you know, did the business and these days that’s really merged together. So how do you go about that in a more modern you know, how do you think of product management? How do you see it evolving, you know, say next couple of years, next five years?

Derek Butts: 40:17 Well, I mean, you know, product management today for the most part you have to be your data-driven so you have a lot more data usage data and understanding how to so I think there’s a few things. One, how to update and change their product based on what you learn, which comes from data. And in the old days data would be like surveying and interviewing customers. You’ve got to do that too. You still interview customers, still listen to all of the subjective, but you also have a ton of data about what preferences are. And so you’ve gotta be able to test things. You’ve gotta be able to make decisions relatively quickly. And depending on whether you’re doing enterprise software or not. In enterprise software, you have to be able to balance moving quickly with being able to move in quickly and confusing moving quickly with not building the hard things.

Derek Butts: 41:16 You know, and so I think that will still be a balance. But the availability of data, the ability to turn things out relatively quickly, stand up prototypes, you know, the rise of obviously the public cloud allows you to abstract a lot of your stacks. You don’t have to worry about a lot of the same stuff. And so I think this highlights the importance of really understanding your customer like deeply all of these different things. Deeply understanding our customer and being able to respond at the rate that they most want. Even if they don’t tell you it’s what they want. So in some places, some cases that’s really fast. Yeah. For, for other times it’s slow. Yeah. Hey, I’m on fortune 500 company. I do not need a weekly update. I can only handle an annual update by golly.

Derek Butts: 42:09 And so I think you’ve got, you’ve got different things, but at the heart of it, you know, the, the focus on understanding the customer problem and delivering an experience to that customer that meets them where they are. And that means really understanding the natural workspaces that your customers are in. Or the natural places they’d like to be and how quickly they’re going to make a decision about whether you add value or not to them, really on the consumer side. And so I think product managers have to recognize that and understand this is still about solving customer problems. You just can do it perhaps more rapidly. You can test things more quickly and you can get data about your tests.

Grant Ingersoll: 42:47 Yeah. But of course the data is still doesn’t show you the things that you didn’t try. Right. And so there’s always still this little bit of intuition and insight that you have to, you know, no matter how much data you have, that has to come in.

Derek Butts: 43:04 And I think that’s, that is exactly right. And that’s where, you know, if I go back to the beginning where pattern recognition be able to talk to people and learn. And then frankly, in many cases as a product manager, your job is to engage your engineering team because the most brilliant solutions often or pretty much all the time are in their brains, you just have to connect them properly to the problem. Because in my experience for the one kinda eh idea I have about solving the problem, if I articulate it right, the innovation comes from an engineer thinking deeply about how to solve the problem in an elegant way. And I just remember sitting in and calm sigh and trying to hack an algorithm and having it just be like really brutal and then seeing someone design it elegantly. And that wasn’t that I can just record know it’s not easy to do.

Derek Butts: 44:03 You have a good engineering team and a good dynamic between your PM and your engineer if you’re able to articulate the problems well. Mmm. And you, you can explain the what then your engineering team is gonna deliver the how and ways that you could never imagine. And that to me is that that tie between the PM and the engineering team has always been critical. It’s evermore critical because of the pace at which you’re expected to solve these problems. So PMs gotta be able to articulate the right ones and the engineering team still have to solve it.

Grant Ingersoll: 44:37 Yeah. Derek, I think that’s probably a perfect thing to, to wrap up on, especially, you know, that makes my heart as an engineer really happy and I’m sure yours as a product manager. You know, the synergy here, I couldn’t agree more with, let me then ask you this. You know, the one final question I asked, pretty much all my guests is, you know, what’s kind of that, you know, one nugget of career advice that really has helped guide you on your journey. Or maybe it’s two, you know, maybe it’s just the mundane, but you know, what’s been kind of the guiding principle for you at the end of the day?

Derek Butts: 45:14 Okay. So the, I guess there’s been two guiding principles for me as I look at it. One is every company I’ve worked for share the same values and has the same level of quality of people in my estimation. So I have been a values and people-driven person as a necessary condition to anywhere I’ve worked, not sufficient, but necessary. Yeah. And that has always served me well. Even when I took detours into industries that I wasn’t necessarily going to be in longterm, they were still the highest integrity people who are awesome. And in fact, I still have relationships with people across all of the companies that I’ve ever worked. So that is the number one foundation that I was fortunate to fall into. The second is personal, which is, you know, I’m always interested in growing and learning and contributing.

Derek Butts: 46:14 And so I’m always trying, early in my career I wanted to pick up as much growth experience as I can to help figure out what I wanted to do. No, I didn’t. My first PM job was I think I was 30. Mmm [inaudible] something like that. And so growth was really important. And so that was the other thing. And I guess the last is an abstract framework that sort of emerged, which is imagine that capital I, you know, kind of a wide base on the bottom and a wide base on the, at the top or wide top and you know, narrow, skinny, middle. Well if the Y axis is time on the X axis is a breadth of experience, you know, at the beginning of your career it’s okay to go explore and then in fact its always okay to explore.

Derek Butts: 47:01 You’re always going to zig and zag. But as you find the things that you’re really interested in, you can focus on them and that sort of as you go, you focus on them, you, but you build expertise. And look, this isn’t a life sentence to just doing one function, but as you build expertise, you arrive at the other side when you start getting asked to do broader things again, but based on your demonstrated expertise. And so I think that that is a and by the way, you’re half up or across, it’s still will feel like zigs and zags in the middle. I mean, when I look at me, I’m all zig and zag, but there’s a general focus of expertise. Once you find what you like, and it might take 10 years, it might take this 15 years [inaudible] it’s okay to vent a hunker down, put your blinders on and get really good at product management in this case or strategy or what, or whatever you’re interested in. Once you demonstrate you’re good at that, people like Gee, you’re really good at that. Maybe you can solve this. And next thing you know, you’re a a CTO that’s pitching things to customers.

Grant Ingersoll: 48:07 Yeah, that’s brilliant. Derek. I love that analogy. I’d never heard it described that way, but it’s so, so very true. And I think a lot of people relate to that. So, Hey Derek, you know this has been fascinating hearing all the different paths through, you know auto body repair through to working on financial products and companies big and small. I just want to thank you for joining me here on the Develomentor podcast.

Derek Butts: 48:34 Oh man. It’s been a pleasure and it was great to talk, Grant. Thanks so much.

Derek Butts: 48:38 Yeah, thank you Derek.

outro: 48:57 [Inaudible].

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