Durable Goods Product Managers: Making Our World a Better Place
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
Episode 006: Amber Hall, Product Leader at Kohler:
"My point of view is we as humans exist in a physical 3D body that exists in a 3D world. And for the most part, the things that we interact with every single day have some physical element to them. Even most of the software that is created by way of tech companies often exist on some sort of physical embodiment to deliver that software. And so I think the short answer is we as humans live in the physical world. And so there is literally all sorts of manufacturing industries where physical product is created every single day that needs product managers."
JJ: Hello and welcome to Product Voices. So I started my career in product management and software products, in legal software, in Fintech, and then I even had a digital healthcare startup for a while. But through the last five or six years of my career, I've worked with some really amazing companies that have made physical products durable goods. And so it's been really fascinating for me over the course of my career to see the similarities and the differences between solely digital software intangible type products and the physical, tangible goods that so many organizations create.
So our conversation today in this episode is about how to be successful in durable products. And I frankly think there's going to be something for everyone, whether you work on software products or durable physical products, because I certainly believe and have found that there are things to learn from all corners of product management, regardless of which types of products we work on. But it's going to be really fascinating to speak very specifically about durable products. I think there's a lot of content out there today in product management. It's about software products and about digital products. And so I'm really thrilled to have a conversation centered around these durable products that are so important in our world.
I'm really excited to have my guest here to share her vast experience in durable product management. As a seasoned engineer who garnered 15 patents under the age of 30 with Ford Motor Company alone, Amber Hall combines consumer behavior expertise and product development knowledge to develop incomparable solutions and eye opening breakthroughs for the businesses and brands she serves. In addition to her previous work at Ford, she has been in product for Wolverine Worldwide and Whirlpool, and she currently leads the bathroom, faucets and accessories product category for Kohler. She's also an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University. Amber, thank you so much for joining me.
AMBER: Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: So you've got a really interesting background. You told me one time that you've gone from cars to appliances to footwear to plumbing, which I just love. So you've been involved with a lot of great products. Tell me how that path has shaped your views on product management for durable goods.
AMBER: Yeah. It's shaped everything from start to finish. And so I began my career in engineering, getting all of the exposure and experience with product development one on one and automotive. And I slowly started to find ways to find strategic opportunities to make this thing better, this feature better on the particular vehicle that I was working on. But as I've navigated my career, I realized that I wanted to understand who was behind or what group was behind what we made next. And so I started to put together the pieces of the puzzle to build the competencies and the skills associated with product management. So from innovation to strategy and then going back to school at Northwestern to get my Masters in product management, all of which helped kind of fill in the gaps and experiences that led me to an actual product management role. But what I find fascinating about each one of those experiences is no matter the industry, no matter the application, there are competencies, core competencies, and skills that you gain along the way that can be valuable to executing a product management role, but also helps you build an immense amount of empathy when working with a cross functional team to get the product over the finish line.
JJ: Yeah, absolutely agree with that. Those core competencies are kind of well, as I say, Immutable across Immutable across time and certainly across industries. I love that perspective. So it's interesting I mentioned, as I kind of kicked off the episode, that there's a lot of content and a lot of focus on software product management. And frankly, I see a lot of folks who reach out to me or who that are in the community looking to get into product management. And most of those folks I won't say all of them, but most of those folks are interested in getting into software product management or product manager roles specifically for tech type of products. Tell us a little bit about why you think someone should consider getting into the durable spaces instead of tech product management.
AMBER: For sure. Well, first, I think it's important to acknowledge that tech as a space is incredibly vast. The statement often here is how do I break into tech? And I'm like, what kind of. There's fintech, there's Med tech, there's all sorts of tech.
But I think my point of view is we as humans exist in a physical 3D body that exists in a 3D world. And for the most part, the things that we interact with every single day have some physical element to them. If not, are an actual physical product. Even most of the software that is created by way of tech companies often exist on some sort of physical embodiment to deliver that software. Right. And so I think the short answer is we as humans live in the physical world. And so there is literally all sorts of manufacturing industries where physical product is created every single day that needs product managers. And sometimes the title isn't always as official as product manager, but in other instances, it is. And so there's so much opportunity for that.
I think the other thing that often I think sometimes people don't necessarily realize is the intersection of the two continues to drive our world forward. If you really think about it, take a step back. The computer you're using, the phone you're using, whatever you're using that has software on it has a physical element to it, and in many cases, vice versa, the car you drive or that sort of thing. Technology is often woven into every element, the exception of maybe. I was actually thinking about this the other day, maybe furniture or something like that. But I think there's even an ad space there's, emerging technologies all the time. And so I think the application is totally vast, but the agencies are relevant no matter the application. And so thinking about it in that way hopefully should provide perspective but also create longevity for anyone's career long term.
JJ: Yeah, I just absolutely love that perspective and could not agree more. I think if folks trying to get into product and get into tech, as you say, which is so funny that you say that because it is so true, you really have to nail down where you want to go. But if they open their mind a little bit more, they would realize that, like you said, the world around us is full of products and physical products, and many of those physical products have some digital component. So I think there's just such a vast opportunity for product management to become more of the norm in all kinds of companies. Right. And so again well, certainly the FAANG companies and the digital software companies of the world get a lot of visibility in the product world. It's the. Physical products that really make the world go round, if you will.
And I think no real history buff, but I think P&G and kind of consumables was really the first product management way back in the day. And so the truth is a lot of the kind of concepts and methodologies, if you will, that are now employed and really thought of as software, product development tools, design thinking and mock ups and all of those things I started with real products. With physical products. Absolutely. Yeah. And so I think there's so much to learn from each other. And I personally have been on a little bit of a mission to kind of get the word out that all the products around us or all the things around us are really critical to making this world better. So I love this conversation, and I love you being here. So this is awesome. Okay. Yeah. I'm like preaching to the choir here, but I'm getting all excited. So let's piggyback on this conversation and talk a little bit about what we can learn from each other. So what do you think? Some more things the tech space can learn from those who make physical products, and then maybe vice versa.
AMBER: Yeah. So I think one of the probably more obvious elements that, you know, something that the tech world, I think, does really, really well, that manufacturing industries or physical product industries struggle with is speed. And so tech often by definition, is moving with speed being agile. That's a word that gets thrown around a lot in the tech space. And the bias for speed, the bias for innovation, I think those are all frameworks and ideologies that many manufacturing organizations are doing. They want to adopt, they want to embed as their culture. But it's a mindset shift. You're talking about many of these industries. It takes years to get a product from idea or problems to solve to actual launch and market versus the text bases, days, weeks, months. Right. I mean, the scale is just so different. And so I think in the physical world, we continue to look to tech, if you will, to inspire us to have more of a bias for speed.
I think on the flip side, though, there's a lot of rigor and discipline and structure that often comes with manufacturing because there are elements that you experience in different ways. So a good example is safety. Right. So in the physical world, when you think about safety for products, you're literally thinking about the physical harm to a person, an occupant, the person driving the car. You don't want the baby to be able to open the laundry room, the washer or dryer and get in and be able to start a cycle. Those would be bad things for those industries.
On the tech side of the world, safety is often in the context of personal information and data Privacy. So they're the same but totally different. And the rigor around each of those looks different. But I think there's something about the physical space that I think there are things that can be learned from those faces that I think can translate into physical or into tech. And I think more than anything, as you see the intersection of products, I mean, there are products in my product line that are connected, one of which was got a CES award at the beginning of the year. As you see the intersection of both in the same package for consumers, that's really where both really have to blend and leveraging.
The best of both is where great product happens. And so I think often times, companies that have a tech first approach, sometimes maybe missed on some of the things that a physical, durable company might get right on the first try. And there are things that a durable, good company might miss if they try to deliver check. And we see that with a lot of examples. When Tesla launched their first car, one of the things very few people are critical about the software behind Tesla and the interface. It's beautiful, it does a lot of cool things. But when it came to the actual assembly of the vehicle, many people complained about its craftsmanship and its quality and its door gaps. And that was because you had tech people executing on manufacturing. And there's a whole industry that is physically located in a completely different part of the country that does that really well.
And then vice versa. You've got physical companies trying to create software for the very first time. Like, I remember being at Ford and them creating their first digital human machine interface. And there was a partnership with Microsoft, and people didn't love it. Right. There are so many examples on both sides where it's like the competency of each. Really compliment one another really well. And I think the secret sauce for anybody is seeing an opportunity and stepping right into it because there are so many examples like that in our history where in either case, products have launched and maybe they didn't hit the mark because we didn't have all the right competencies to really bring the best product to market.
So that's just I think from my perspective, I think the ways in which we can learn from one another. And I think partnerships in general can really be really helpful. I think a lot of companies want to do it all, but I think the smart companies, the ones that are going to have sustainable growth long term, know how to strategically partner and get the right people in the room to help facilitate a meaningful conversation on product development management.
JJ: Totally agree. And it's really interesting. And I don't know if you would agree with this or not, but in product folks who have been or started in, I'll say more of a waterfall type of. And I use that a little bit loose because it isn't necessarily about the process, but it's about the rigor, as you said. And the building of physical products has more rigor, there's more business risk, and that de-risking process is a little bit more diligent in physical goods.
And I have personally found that product managers who move from that environment to a software environment where things are more iterative and agile and a little bit less rigor, they actually succeed more than the reverse. So folks who have been only in software product management and seen only an agile environment and move to a physical world, they struggle a little bit more because they're not used to the rigor. They're not used to the diligence, and they see it as a negative, just a flat out negative, when they don't realize that there are just different business risks and business models, if you will, that need to be taken into account. Your example of safety is a great example, right? Safety means different things, but in some cases, the tech space.... It's not that they don't take it seriously, but it's so much more tangible and real in the physical world. So it's just very interesting. Now, again, I don't know if you've seen that or have that experience, and I'm certainly not generalizing against everyone, but I have seen it that agile product managers, if you will, moving to the physical world, have a little bit more of a learning curve and a gap there than the reverse.
But I couldn't agree more in that we have to start to learn together. And back to your point about so many things being connected products and so many physical products having digital components. We're going to have to do that. We're going to have to, as a product community, start to learn to how to make those things work. Love the idea of partnerships or whatever it's going to take to allow each person or each entity to focus on their strengths. I think that's a really important point that you made there.
AMBER: Definitely. Yes. I appreciate that. It's interesting because I think for the tech first product managers that I've had the opportunity to connect with, I think many of them, I perceive, don't even realize that there is a whole other world out there. And as they start to get into it, and even where I work, there are roles that are product managers for connectivity, product managers for our smart home, that sort of thing. And then there are project managers for the physical stuff. I didn't know I could be there my mindset or mentality. And so I've been trying to push the needle on reframing, if for what it for what it's worth.
If we as product managers, no matter what application you're in, if you thought about yourself as the product. Right. And the problem to solve, the floodgates would open for opportunity for you. If you thought about it in that way and if you looked at yourself relative to the competition and you benchmarked. Right. And you did the things, you would understand that your competencies are accurate multiple places, but you have to look at it like that. And so part of this is a reframing exercise for many. And most product managers have those tools for the products that they manage. Right. I mean, those are core competencies of being a product manager. Look at your career that way and the opportunities start to become far more vast and available to you.
JJ: Yeah, I completely agree with that. One of the things that I am hoping for is that we as employees and individuals managing our career will realize that we are the product. Like you said, I haven't looked at it that way, but I love that. But also that all of these different experiences can add up to a better product, to us being a better product manager. So if there's kind of this philosophy now that you don't have to stay at a place for 5, 10, 20 years to be successful, you move around companies and you not only learn yourself, but you bring different perspectives to companies. And I think that's good for both employees and employers. And I'm really loving this kind of new focus on this. I don't even know that it's a new trend, but this new focus on folks staying in a company long enough that they add the value and they get what they need out of it from their perspective, and then they move on. And again, I just think that's good for most folks, most parties.
And I love that idea of thinking of ourselves as a product because that fits well. Right? It's okay. I've improved the product. Now let me move on and go to durable goods and learn about that. And then let me come back to tech. I'm hoping that some product folks see that as a valid career journey. Maybe you and I can start that trend. We'll be the cheerleader.
AMBER: Totally. The long term vision for my own career is to be the chief product officer at a company. I don't know that I've identified exactly which one. I have a short list, but that's the aspirational role I see for myself. And when I think about imagining that world. Right. Leveraging foresight to anticipate what are the skills, the competencies, the experiences that will be relevant to take on that role and the things that I need to do along the way to get there. It's very possible I might have a stent in tech somewhere along the way. And I certainly will continue to do what I can in the companies that I'm part of on the durable side to get those connected related experiences. I've been working on connected products since 2016 in my career, more than half of my career so far. And I learned what an utterance was and how to work with Google and Amazon. Right. To have a voice activated product so those skills will carry me for sure.
So I think if we were to do the journey map of our own career, thinking about what are the experiences along the way, that for whatever role, even if it's just in the next three years. Right. I think it could help so much for many of us, create a North Star for ourselves and really help not. I mean, there's nothing wrong with falling in love with the role of the product, but I think it helps create some synergy.
JJ: Yeah, that's amazing. Really good advice. And frankly, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever you'll be in the CPO role at some point, excited to see that.
My final question for you is share with us some of the go to resources that you've used and that you found valuable as you've been on your product journey.
AMBER: This is somewhat of a tough question to answer, in part because I think I've been lucky and that I've worked for some companies that have been able to have access to their own proprietary frameworks and tools. That kind of helped me along the way. But I think in addition to that, going to get my Master's, and there was a ton available there.
There's a couple of books or frameworks that I like to rely on when it comes to just kind of day to day product management. The two books, Ten Types of Innovation and Ten Faces of Innovation, are both, I think, really great. I think oftentimes innovation or breakthrough, innovation or transformational innovation, all the different ways we talk about innovation. We get really caught up sometimes, and we miss the process innovation, business model, innovation. There's so many other things along the way that help us get to the breakthrough. And then also the Ten Faces, I think, really helps frame up the different types of people you work with along the way to deliver innovation from a product management perspective. Not everybody comes with the same skill set, and not everybody come to work with the same passion.
And so we have to really be able to I think the key to product management is being able to tap into what makes the people you're working with tick in a way that creates value. And so I think the Ten phases of Innovation helps kind of at least identify different archetypes and kind of think about that in the context of the team you're working with to execute great product. And then the other one is one on one design methods. I mean, you know, design thinking, of course, is a great framework when it comes to product management and kind of all things agile and continuing to figure out ways to leverage design thinking methodologies and weave them into your product management process. It certainly looks different by organization, but I think that that's one great one to kind of have in the back pocket. And for what it's worth, I'm one of those, as you've already mentioned, that's kind of jumped multiple industries every few years. Take the best of what you're learning in the companies or the roles that you're in and find a way to adopt them or translate them in the next opportunity. Those are massive tools that can provide so much longevity for your career in product management as well.
JJ: Yes, absolutely agree with that. And I love Ten Types of Innovation. I haven't read Ten Faces of Innovation yet, so I'm excited. I'm going to go check that one out. So those resources that Amber just mentioned, Ten Types of Innovation, Ten Faces of Innovation, and 101 design methods, they will all be linked on the episode on Productvoices.com. This has been an amazing conversation. Amber hall, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom on this topic.
AMBER: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
JJ: And thank you all for joining us on Product Voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.
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