The Advantages of Being a Big Fish in a Small Pond with Spotify PM

Product Gym: How did you get into Product Management?

Charles: That’s a great question. I can talk about my career history because there is a whole story attached to it. When I was in college, I studied finance because I wanted to figure out how financial events affect human behavior– for example, how inflation causes the general population to adjust spending habits.

I noticed that many of my classmates were all of a sudden interested in becoming either investment bankers or consultants, and at that period in time I started to develop an aversion to groupthink; it made me question why many of my friends thought these two were the most highly coveted jobs. I started to talk to my friends to ask them what the driving forces were for this decision. They would say things such as it was going to pay them a lot of money, or that they’d get to travel to many places and get their expenses paid for.

Then I would ask them what’s their end goal? What do they want to do after they finished working? They would say, “ideally I would put 2 to 3 years into the job and transition into tech.” I would respond with, “why don’t you go into tech in the first place?” They said they wanted to develop technical skills at that time for these more defined career structures.

So I decided, while I was interviewing for big banks and consulting firms, that I would interview at tech companies as well.

To be completely honest, I applied to Google off of a low-chance suggestion from my college roommate. He said, “Hey Charlie, you’re browsing through Youtube all the time, you should probably apply to Google and see what happens.” I saw that there was an opening for an Online Media Associates Program role and I just applied to see if it might work out – I had no idea that I’d get it in the end.

It actually became one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I went through the application process and the interviews. I remember the interviews being quite long. In the end, I got the offer. Afterward, something very interesting happened: I actually didn’t immediately go straight into the Online Media Associates Program that I had applied for but I actually got sniped by one of the hiring managers for a new team he was forming on the legal side of the business- it was called a legal policy team, and what we had to do was to write advertising laws for how ads are served on the Internet.

It dealt with things such as how many ads a Google property site could show to a user, and what types of content the ads can be shown against. Obviously, ads cannot be shown against hateful or offensive content or things that have any violence.

Basically, these were things that Google wouldn’t want to be associated with making money off of. I started off my career on the legal team and my main job was to be the risk mitigating person; translated into everyday speech, that means I had to tell people “no” every day – that was my job.

I interacted a lot with the Product Management team at the time and I remember Product Managing was another thing many of my friends would discuss, saying things like, “I want to be a Product Manager but it’s really hard to do it because there’s no real stepping stone to do so.” I decided I really wanted to check it out and see what that’s about as well. While I was working on the legal team, I interacted with many product managers.

There were a few I really respected based on the ways they would go about doing their work. One of them was a man by the name of Johan Land. I really respected him because he always made sure to take in the viewpoints of everyone in a group and find the shared consensus. He made it very clear what his intentions were going to be, and that he wanted to learn what our future concerns were. This was a way of working that I would’ve liked to replicate in the future.

From there I decided to ask Johan if he would be willing to mentor me to become a Product Manager, as I realized this was a career path I wanted to pursue.

This was the beginning of my tutelage so to say. From then on, any future request that he [Johan] brought in would become a coaching opportunity. First, he would get the legal team’s opinion from me. Johan would then tell me the goals and intentions he wanted to achieve, and how they would help address the goals and concerns of the legal team as well.

I viewed it as a brilliant way of working, and I saw Johan do this while he was interacting with other teams as well. There were marketing teams, sales teams, development teams, and cross-development teams.

He would ask the question: “what are the requirements here, what are the pain points you all are dealing with and how can I come up with a set of features that are going to address this?”

We continued for about two years when I told Johan in the end, “Hey, I want to move back to NY one day to be closer to my family. Who’s a mentor in NY that I should get to know as well?” Johan mentioned that I should speak to his manager Brad Bender, who was a director of product management. Johan also mentioned that Brad loved to mentor folks and that he might be able to open doors there.

Then one day on the internal jobs board on Google, I saw an opening for an Administrative Assistant role for none other than Brad Bender and I thought to myself, “You know, this is one of the times in life where destiny presents itself to you, and you have to take advantage of it.”

I contacted Brad and let him know that I wasn’t really interested in being his admin but that I would love to learn what it meant to be a product manager and sharpen my skills of product management under his tutelage. I would perform all the responsibilities needed under the administrative role but my main goal would be to become a product manager one day. Brad basically said, “I like your style, you got a lot of bravadoes; let’s do this.”

I wound up moving to NY where I was supporting Brad and 3 other product management directors as an admin assistant. Within Google, an admin assistant usually assists about 3-4 directors at a time. From there, I got to see a lot more of the higher level strategy thinkingcompetitive analysis, and “how to outwit your competition” types of exercises that they would run. During my experience at Google, the first mentor let me witness building actual functionality and features at the ground level. The second group taught me how they plan out a strategy for the overall company’s direction. This was quite eye-opening for me.

Later on, I had the opportunity to join a startup as a Product Manager, and I took the leap to start the role fresh. This was coupled with a lot of motivation from one of the former managers working at Google as well.

He told me that Google was going to be a very large company and that I would be spending a lot of time working on very small tasks; if I really wanted to get my feet wet, I should just jump into the frying pan and join a startup outright. Following his advice, I joined a startup called The Orchard Platform, a Fintech startup trying to create a secondary stock market so-to-say. Basically, they were trying to create a platform for transacting marketplace lending loans.

Marketplace lending loans are like Lending Club loans, where there are people who need money and there’s a crowdsourcing option where people can contribute towards a goal, similar to Kickstarter and Indiegogo. I started working there and very quickly started to realize there was a bit of a hiring mismatch. I thought I was coming in as a junior level product manager when they needed a director level manager, so I got fired in 6 months.

Afterward, I reached out to the mentor at Google who encouraged me to look outside and find other opportunities. I took a leap, and even though it didn’t really work out, I told him that I appreciated all the help he gave me along the way. He told me that things sometimes don’t work out as you think they would, and he asked me what I was doing the following Monday. I told him I would be looking for a new job. He then told me to come in that day, as he had started a new company called MightyTV. MightyTV deals with machine running algorithms within this mobile app that helps you find the best movies and TV shows to watch. With that said, I joined MightyTV shortly after.

I took on a Product Manager role at MightyTV, where I was responsible for launching the Android app. Taking a few steps back, MightyTV is essentially a mobile application that is, as I like to describe it, the “Tinder for Netflix.”

You swipe left and right on various movies and TV shows and from there, the machine learning algorithms send a bunch of signals to figure out what you would like to watch as a result of your swipes. At the time, we were working on developing an iOS app when we realized we had to get an Android version out as well. I was responsible for making sure that the Android version launched without any hiccups.

It was only a 9 person startup, so I was wearing a lot of hats. I was responsible for making adjustments to the machine learning algorithms, the analytics platform, seeing how users were going to use the app, what were their usual user flows, and what portion of the app they interacted with the most. Also, I worked on the social media marketing campaigns as well as legal policies due to my previous experience at Google. I was doing that for about a year and a half, and we were seeing significant growth in our user base. Then, in March of 2017, we were acquired by Spotify.

Within Spotify, I’ve been working on a data infrastructure team where we built out a single source for data, especially financial transaction data.

Before, there were many disparate data source teams we were bouncing off of in order to figure out what was going on in the business. We eventually reined all of that in and started to build out a defacto source to base Spotify’s hypotheses and performance analysis off of. That’s pretty much in a nutshell how I got into product management and to the current point, I’m at today.

Product Gym: When you moved from Google to Orchard Platform then to MightyTV, do you think it was a better experience for you to go to a smaller company before going into a company like Spotify?

Charles: I definitely think so because the smaller companies are going to need to take advantage of everyone as much as they can, meaning that they’ll let you work with multiple disciplines and focuses. At MightyTV, I was a Product Manager, but I was also able to work on machine learning and legal matters. I also got to work on the analytics components and the social media marketing. However, I was able to make it very clear that my focus was to be a Product Manager. The flexibility of being at a startup definitely allows for that. When you’re at a larger company, there are very well-structured guardrails in place to make sure that you don’t overstep your bounds into other facets of the company. Given that, going to a smaller company, in the beginning, was very helpful for me.

Product Gym: When you’re at a smaller company, one of the things people think about a lot is stability– “Am I going to be working there for 4 months and not get a paycheck?”– how were you able to vet at Orchard and MightyTV that were going to be able to pay you, especially in a city like New York?”

Charles: That’s a very good question. In all honesty, I think at Google I knew there was going to be a day when I needed to be financially independent, so I did as much as I could to save up very very aggressively. To be completely honest, when I left Google and joined these other companies, I was very well aware of the risk and made sure I had a backup plan for a financial safety net. I gave myself a decent amount of time to recover if that ever happened.

Product Gym: I’m looking at MightyTV right now- are they still around?

Charles: We got acquired by Spotify and we basically completed dissolved.

Product Gym: By chances of fate, if things didn’t work out at MightyTV, what would you have done?

Charles: That’s really hard to say because I never felt like that was happening. If I were to look at an alternate reality where I thought that things weren’t working out as well, I probably would have joined a General Assembly type of course or tried to figure out what types of developer programs are out there for the product management world. I’d also tap into my network to see what other startups were out there that need a product manager. I would not have been averse to working for free as well. I really know that this is the type of function that I really want to perform in.

Product Gym: Now that you’re at Spotify and you’ve been there for about a year and 3 months, what do you think will be next for you?

Charles: I always ask myself what I want to do in the next 5-10 years. I know that my goal is to definitely become a director, a VP, or even one day be a senior VP of Product Management at another established company. In my mind, my dream position would be someone who helps set the strategy of the company in order to predict the future and create it, as Steve Jobs said. I would want to be a part of that, which helps create the way the world works in the future. If you wanted to ask me about my roadmap for the next few years, it would be to build my working experience to prove myself to move up through the ladder.

I’m a Product Manager now; I want to become a Senior Product Manager next, where I’m planning multiple years out, then be a Director where I’m managing teams of Product Managers to align towards the company goal, and then become a VP or Senior VP level where I am conferring with the CEO of the company to figure out if the company should be pivoting or should be doubling down a certain path or initiative.

Product Gym: At this point right now do you code?

Charles: At this point, not as much. I still do, but I can definitely see it scaling down. At this point, I push out commits to adjust descriptions for datasets.

Product Gym: You’ve been on a very long journey. I can’t even imagine that time you were let go by Orchard. Were there any books or materials you found helpful in this journey from where you started off to where you are at now at Spotify?

Charles: There are a ton; I love reading books on this stuff. I mean from the philosophical to the practical.

  • The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

That’s one of my favorite books because it talks about how to think as a leader and how to think about someone who’s going to make consequential decisions in a very humorous way.

  • Zero to One by Peter Thiel

He lists out things very well. The goal of the company is to become sustainable from day one, that’s the goal of any startup. He makes things very very blatantly clear and marks out things you should be worried about and look out for.

Another book that I really like is:

  • Good to Great by James C. Collins

It talks about how to make companies last past their leaders, for example how Walgreens was able to go through multiple legacies of management and really keep the momentum

going. It talks about how Apple’s current structure looks after the leadership and vision of Steve Jobs and how they’re trying to adjust with that as well.

  • The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.

It really hammers home the “measure twice, cut once” mentality that I think Product Managers should keep in mind of data-driven analysis, making sure you try to gain as many data points as you can to make a decision.

  • The Mythical Man-Month by Fred Brooks

It is a great book that I think any Product Manager that is not trained in the technical world can use because it really helps you understand the mind and method of an engineer. One of the most classic stories is that you can’t just solve a problem by throwing more engineers at it; you need to think about the independent workstreams that are going to be needed to satisfy the problem. A very similar analogy to the “too many cooks in the kitchen” parable.

  • The Dev Ops Handbook” by Gene Kim, Jez Humble, and Patrick Debois

That talks about how systems fail and how to make sure you see the warning signs before the overhead gets way too crazy to deal with.

I’m really big into reading these books. There’s other stuff I’m into reading, like the Alexander Hamilton Biography by Ron Chernow and the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. I think just by reading about the lives of very influential people who had to deal with some very serious stuff helps you think about the pressures they faced and what kinds of tough decisions they had to make in the face of duress.

About Charles Huang

Charles is currently a Product Manager with Spotify in New York. Charlie began his Product Management journey has a Policy Strategist for Google at their Mountain View office. 3 years later Charles landed his first Product Manager at Orchard  Platform, where he built product specs with key stakeholders and clients; while creating KPIs to evaluate product success. He later transitioned to MightyTV, which was later acquired by Spotify.

He has a Bachelor of Science in Management Science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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