Product Sommelier

by Dominic Gadoury Interviewing Chris Butler

In this first episode of The Product Sommelier (although I’m wondering if we should change the name to The Product Cicerone), I interviewed Chris Butler who recently joined IPSoft as it’s first official head of Product. Chris arrived for our meeting with what I quickly determined was a high degree of energy and excitement. He was more than eager to share his ways of thinking about Product Management and some best practices. He asked the waitress for a Pilsner and we were quickly into our conversation.

You may find that Chris has a very academic view on product management and has a great understanding of the all the tools available in driving value and innovation. Bear in mind that what Chris (and future interviewees) say are not exact quotes, but rather my interpretation of what wisdom they have shared based on a series of questions tailored for them. This first interview certainly set a high bar (my hands were sore from taking so many notes)…so without further adieu, The Product Sommelier V1.

Tell me about the vision for your new and current product.

It’s really to enable humans to be more create through the use of automation. IPSoft was founded in 1998 and currently provides services to 1/10 of Fortune 500 Companies. It is currently a $700-800M Revenue business. They have built an AI chatbot named Amelia who assists companies with automating customer service interactions, among other things. They are looking to better predict user needs even before they need to make contact with the company service organization.

Since you recently vetted and accepted this role, how did you establish the level of support the company leadership would provide in adding a Product Leader?

First we can never assume that product will be supported. The product leader needs to come into a new role and really listen to what’s happening. It’s my goal to spend the next 30 days truly understanding what is a pretty complex product offering. Then I can figure out how I might bring value.

What made you jump back into the Enterprise Product world from Consulting?

Well, first, I don’t think most people consider me a product person. Consultants are seen more as mercenaries and focused on strategic consulting above all else. It’s been a challenge to try and break that perception. Honestly, I’ve missed owning a product and look forward to building a product team to help drive something with a longer timeframe and view.

What do you think is the most important trait for a Product Manager?

Knowing that “we don’t know everything.” In my experience, my teams and I would try to solve all the problems of a user given the information we had up front. In every case we were wrong in our assumptions and how we might solve problems. There is no way to know everything, and you probably won’t. There is something to be said about ambiguity and coming into problem solving process knowing that it’s all experimentation and sometimes you just have to flip a coin and test one direction. You could be right, somewhat right, or just completely wrong – but it’s not worth stressing which decision you make until you’ve tested it.

What kinds of things do you look for in a junior product person?

I try to hire people who are different than me. For instance I tend to be a bit on the academic side *we both chuckle*, and so I look to balance that with people who are more action oriented. I also don’t buy into the “culture fit” rhetoric we often hear about. A team of harmony almost never creates good creative products. While there needs to be psychological safety in any team, having one with varying perspectives and a healthy amount of passion creates a workplace of true innovation.

As you’ve progressed through your career, what one thing would you change about the Product Management field in general?

I’d like to see us critique one another’s work more often. As product people I think it would be beneficial to set time aside every week to review how each product manager is doing with handling the day to day workings of our expertise. All other teams do it – engineers, for instance have code reviews, etc.

While there were many other topics covered and great insights provided, I recognize that we want to keep the posts on The Product Nerd to the brief side. If you want to learn more from the wisdom and experience of Chris (and you really should), be sure to check out his posts and responses on Medium. Thanks Chris for your great insights!

Stay tuned for V2 of the Product Sommelier when I interview Jordan Birnbaum as we discuss the intersection of Product Management and Behavioral Economics.

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