Season 2, Ep. 34 – Meet the team: Product Manager, Haley Harris
Breaking into product can be really difficult, even if what you’ve been doing your whole career is technically build products. In this week’s “Meet the team” episode, hear how our newest recruit, Haley Harris, made the move, and what she’s looking forward to helping us build now that she’s here.
How are you doing? (Hayley: Good.) Did you have a good New Year?
I did. Christmas into New Year’s is just a wild week with a kid at home, and my son’s birthday is on the first, so…
Oh my gosh.
It was just like pure chaos for a week, and now he’s in camp this week before school starts again, so…
That’s great for everyone <laugh>.
<Laugh> I was just reading a tweet from this guy, Randy, who you haven’t met, but he’s been on the platform forever and with like, one of our long-term clients, and we convinced him for a period to work with us internally, too. But, he tweeted this morning, he’s huge into music, and he’s like, years of Ticketmaster bullshit has prepared me for signing my kid up for camp in New York City <laugh>.
Yeah. It’s a thing.
It’s just like, preschool where like…and you know, daycare. I’ve heard that it’s very competitive.
Yeah, it’s crazy. Some places in Austin have like, a year and a half waiting list for their infant classroom, and you’re like, I…that’s impossible. The math does not math <laugh>.
Oh my god. Yeah. That stresses me out. I’m like, should I get on…whatever. Yeah, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. (Hayley: <Laugh>.) Well, Haley, welcome back to the Frontier podcast. You’ve been here before on your first day, actually.
Yeah, very soon after I started. That was a fun pop into things.
You’ve been here for, well, almost a month.
A month, yeah. Mm-hmm <affirmative>.
How have you been acclimating?
It’s been great. It’s been a fun time of the year to join the team, because so much of getting used to a new role and learning so much is just having your heads down and asking people questions. And, I feel like the end of the year is when everyone’s, kind of, in that head space anyway, to be reviewing the past year, and–
That’s true. I haven’t thought about that. How like, if you’re looking for a transition, the end of the year is probably a good time to do it, (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) because like, nobody’s really sprinting towards anything in December. It’s really about like, reflection, planning, slowing things down a little bit. So yeah, folks do have more time to just like, answer questions or just like, leave you alone <laugh>. Like, joining a new company sometimes, if you like, hit it when like, things are kind of on fire or everyone’s moving really quickly, it’s like, “Welcome, and also here’s like, sixteen things to do before the end of your first week.” And it’s like, I really just need some time to read <laugh>, (Hayley: Yeah.) and observe, you know?
Before Gun, universally, that has been my experience. So, it’s been really nice to be here. Like, oh, I do have time to just absorb, and think, and all of that. So, yeah.
Also apologies in advance for if there’s background noise. Rumor on the street is there will be somebody showing up to my house to actually do work on it for the first time in like, three months. And, of course it’s like (Hayley: Today.) mid-podcast record. Yes. (Hayley: Yeah.) So, if you hear like, a dump truck backing up–
Oooo, that’s fun work happening, then.
I know there’s been like, a moat around my house, which was cool for a while. When it rained it was like–
Yeah. It was like castle vibes. Like, try to break into my house. You can’t, because there’s no way in (Hayley: <Laugh>) <laugh>. And then, I realized it’s actually like, really not good for your foundation to just have like, rushing, slash, standing water. (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) Anyway, hopefully that gets fixed today. (Hayley: Yeah.) There’s actually somebody pulling up in a truck right now. But, I’m really excited to chat, ‘cause last time we had you on the podcast, we really just talked about being a parent and how that fits in with working in general, working from home specifically. Today’s really about you. So, I’m excited to learn more about you. I think to start, let’s just share, like Hayley, what do you do here at Gun.io? And, we can go from there.
Yeah. I am…my title is product manager, and I guess I’m the first addition to the product team in addition to Grey. That’s a fun position to be in, because, and I’ve been there before on other startup teams is, you know, so often you’re starting out with, you know, one person trying to tackle everything and getting to a point where they realize that it’s time to bring someone else on to help tackle more problems or allow for specialization. It’s fun to get to be that person. So, that’s what I have hopped into this last month. So, I get to work with Grey on a daily basis. It’s been fun, because I’ve really been given a lot of freedom and free reign for this past month to just investigate and be a fresh set of eyes on the product that has been built and existed for the last 18 months, I think, and just bring, you know, my feedback to that. How…what’s working, what’s not working feedback, honest feedback I’m getting from our users, and just starting to come up with, you know, without any context of what conversations have been going on in the company for the last year, more what I would do first.
So that’s where I’ve been so far <laugh>.
Product management is funny to me, because I have so many people, so many friends who haven’t worked in technology before, and they wanna make the leap, and they come to me and they’re like, “There’s a million jobs for PMs. Like, what is that? What does that even mean?” <laugh>. So like, yeah. In the simplest terms, can you define like, what does a product manager do?
Well, I think that the simplest way to put it is that a product manager is responsible for translating the needs of multiple different people who are interacting with your product, who all speak different languages. And so, that’s, you know, that’s your external users for Gun, at least a significant part of our product is our internal staff users, and then it’s the engineers, or the developers that you’re working with, and all of them speak different languages, have…in engineering cases, like actual programming languages. And then, you know, they all have different motivations and priorities and senses of urgency. The role of a PM is to absorb all of that information, make sense of it, and then communicate it back, rationally, in a prioritized fashion to build something of value or fix what needs to be fixed. It can be chaotic at times. (Faith: Yeah.) I think I have done some self-reflection, and realizing that that’s part of why I love it. (Faith: <Laugh>.) Little bit of a <laugh> a chaos fiend. But, it’s fun. It’s, you know, it’s getting to create order out of chaos and put puzzle pieces together.
Yeah. That’s how I describe just like, working at startups in general to folks. (Hayley: Yes. Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) For me, I have that same, kind of like, lust for chaos, (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) and just being thrown to the wolves, and given freedom.
What is that about?
I dunno, but it’s why I liked teaching too. (Hayley: Yeah.) I used to teach like, eighth and ninth grade here in Nashville, and Metro Nashville Public Schools are just terribly underfunded, (Hayley: Mmm-hmm <affirmative>.) and it was kind of a similar experience where it was like, “Hey, here’s a mess and also like, ninety to one-hundred-and-twenty children that require you to be like, very good at your job. Go figure out how to do your job.” And, I liked that, and I think that’s like, been a common thread through working at startups too. So, I was listening to an episode of Lenny’s Podcast this morning, and the guest that he had on today is a product manager as well, and he was talking about how difficult it is to get into product. (Hayley: Mmm-hmm <affirmative>.) And, there’s several paths, right? Like, you can join at a startup and be one of the first product folks (Hayley: Yeah.) where like, really they’re just looking for people to learn on the job, or you can join a large company, but that’s obviously a little bit more competitive and difficult to get into. How did you get into product?
Well, I definitely took the first approach by working with a number of startups and elbowing my way into product over the years. (Faith: <Laugh>.) So, right out of college, I worked for…I went to Belmont in Nashville, so I worked for a small nonprofit in town and their treasury department for a while. Was a good first job, but definitely not scratching my itch to do something creative and challenging. And so, one of my buddies from school had a connection at a really small startup in Nashville, Game Wisp, <laugh> back in the day. It was a ten-person team, and I joined as…I don’t even remember what my title was. Operations specialist? (Faith: <Laugh>.) Essentially it was, you know, if my title could have been “wear every single hat,” (Faith: Right.) that’s what would’ve been on my resume.
But, yeah, it was great. I joined a ten-person team, was working in support. So, I had to know, I had to learn and know the entire product to be helpful in the support capacity to our users. And, that was really my introduction to software and technology for the first time. And so, you know, I was doing QA, and I taught myself SQL, (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) ‘cause I was tired of waiting for people to run reports for me. (Faith: Yeah.) And, it really just opened up this world of, you know, I think my personality is one where I try to find ways to be helpful, no matter what. And so I, you know, I, I took my role and I expanded it into, sort of, this product adjacent capacity. So, QA, reporting support.
So, I didn’t achieve the title of “product manager” there before, like many startups, Game Wisp closed its doors. That was my first experience with that. (Faith: <Laugh>.) And then, I moved back to Austin where I’m from, after that, and I worked for another startup. That’s where I got into product, eventually. So I, again, I joined in like, an operations and support role, and then had a major pivot to…I was in charge of the recruiting function for the company for about a year. (Faith: Wow.) And yeah, very strange, but like strangely helpful experience to now be working at Gun. (Faith: Yeah.) And, I was…I think I hired eighty people over the course of the year. (Faith: Oh, my god <laugh>.)
So that, in and of itself, is like major project management training. But yeah, after that the hiring slowed down, and I found myself in a position again where I was like, “Okay, I wanna be helpful. Like, please let me be on the product team. Like, I’ve been here the longest; I know everything about the product.” And so, they finally let me get my way onto that team in a support capacity. So, I started getting to own a couple of projects, and it was just so fun. I hadn’t felt as like, fulfilled or as creative ever in a job that I’ve had. That started in March of 2020 <laugh>. (Faith: Oh my god <laugh>.) And then, you know, the whole world shut down, and I was at home with a 14-month-old, 15-month-old, and trying to break my way into product management while Covid was starting. And, it was just…it was unmanageable. So, I actually, I left that job just so I could stay home with my kid and not try and burn myself out, trying to–
Right, and like, pivot careers all at the same time.
Yeah. Yeah. It was a difficult decision at the time. I think it was absolutely the right one. But, at the end of 2020, started trying to find my next opportunity, got my kid back into a school, I started applying for PM jobs, and I couldn’t land any, because I didn’t, obviously, have that experience to back it up, and that was really frustrating at the time. (Faith: Yeah.) I was able to, through the great power of networking, land at another tech startup actually based outta Nashville, and was like, one of the first non-engineering members of their product team. And so, eventually, I was able to work my way into finally getting the “product manager” title. So, that was a very long-winded (Faith: <Laugh>.) story. But, I think that finally identifying what I was passionate about, and what really excited me, and what I could find myself doing for hours without looking up from the computer, and then just relentlessly pursuing, trying to make sure that’s what I was doing every day.
Man, that’s such a good nugget of wisdom for folks who are maybe in like, a generalist or operator position. It sounds like that’s where both you and I started is like, you know, coming into a startup that just needs like (Hayley: Everything <laugh>.) people power. (Hayley: Yeah.) Yeah, just needs, like brains on problems. (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative.>) And, those problems might be operational, they might be business model related problems, they might be product, and being given like, the space and the freedom to, kind of like, figure out what puts you into a flow state. (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) For me, it was not an intentional career step to do that. I think if I was offered like, earlier in my career, some like, big sexy position at like, a FANG company, I would’ve been like, yeah, duh <laugh>. But, you know, the wealth of experience I have now, and it sounds like you have now in, you know, all facets of a business (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) serve us well. But, it’s interesting that you called out like, that struggle with applying for PM roles and getting feedback that like, well, you know, you don’t really have experience as a PM. (Hayley: Yeah.) Even though, you really do. Like, you’ve been essentially like PMing things since it, sounds like, your first role.
Yeah. I didn’t, you know, my resume job titles didn’t make it through their ATS screening. (Faith: Yeah.) And so, you know, I really found that if I can have a conversation with somebody about my experience, I feel fairly confident that I can identify if we’re a good fit and sell myself (Faith: Yeah, yeah.) and my product experience. But yeah, even this last time around before landing at Gun, I was finding that, too. Even though I had, you know, some amount of time of actual PM experience on my resume, I was getting feedback from a lot of companies that they’re like, “I think you’re better fit for an associate role.” I’m like, “Ok, that’d be fine, but like, please just take a chance on me <laugh>.” So…
Right. Like, let’s talk.
I feel like product is also one of those things where there are really discreet skills that you just like, have to know how to do, but it’s really accessible. (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) Right? Like, that information is really accessible. It’s not something that you need to be like, in school for, or you need to have ten years of experience. It’s like, (Hayley: Right.) it really is, kind of, like a tactical role in that way. What advice would you have for somebody, kind of like, in your shoes maybe a year ago, who’s looking for like, a way to break into product?
You know, depending on where they’re starting, if they’re in a product-adjacent role or just completely not in a company where they could move into one, you know, what I found was that…I found what I liked, and then I just started doing it, even if it wasn’t asked of me. And, even though I wasn’t recognized for it a lot of the time, just being able to get reps on, you know, okay, here’s a problem that I know my product team is trying to solve. How would I solve that? (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) And like, there’s a very basic framework for how to write a user story that anybody could Google or ChatGPT could tell you at this point, <laugh> so, just like, trying to do it. And, if you have people in your world who are open to giving you feedback, just like, putting your work and your ideas in front of them and getting their feedback. ‘Cause I feel like that’s the only way to be good at product is just doing it, and doing it more over time, and getting feedback, and not being afraid of the feedback you’re going to get, and just iterating. So, you know, finally what helped me get into the position that I wanted was being very clear about what I wanted, which is hard for a lot of people. (Faith: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) But, I just said, you know, this is what I want. This is what I have been doing, and make it happen, please <laugh>. So…
Yeah, yeah. I feel like, yeah. I feel like a lot of the struggle is like, finding a name for the thing you wanna do.
Like, often job titles don’t, I mean, the nature of the work that you do and the job title is like, totally arbitrary (Hayley: Yeah.) in so many cases. So, it’s like–
I had some really creative ones like, (Faith: Yeah.) what was I…technical customer success manager, manager, technology strategy and special projects. Like, what does that mean? That was a product manager <laugh>.
Yeah. So, I feel like that’s like a huge part of the struggle is just like, what’s the name of the thing that you actually wanna do? And sometimes, it’s not just the name, right? It’s also like, the field or the vertical within the company. Like, is it product? Is it, yeah, is it ops? Like, there’s just, there’s a lot there, and I think the only way we can get better at it is by like, talking to other folks and, kind of like, building our personal board, getting a sense of what happens at other companies, making sure you’ve got great mentors, like all the stuff that you just, kind of, alluded to.
Yeah, and I think the other side of that is advice I wish I would’ve given myself a year, two years ago, is that, you know, so often in startups, whether it’s ten people or, what are we today, 40, there’s always something to do, right? And, there’s always a way that you could be helpful outside of the responsibilities of your current role. And, I think for a long time I thought that if I saw a need, I had to be the one to fix it. That had a time and a place, and it certainly helped, you know, keep the ship afloat for a number of the companies that I was part of. But, I think the more mature perspective, now, that I have, is that if I don’t step in to solve that problem, and it actually, kind of, you know, multiplies as a problem, and other people start seeing it, there’s maybe a better fix for it, overall holistically, than me just inserting myself, and fixing it, or putting a bandaid on it. (Faith: Yeah.) And so, that’s, you know, that’s something I have on my ‘23 vision board, I guess is (Faith: <Laugh>.) find ways to, you know, set better boundaries around what are my responsibilities, what are the things that I own? And, you know, using that to help the company grow better overall, by just like, letting things come to light.
God, that’s such a good call out. I was talking about something, kind of, along those lines with my leadership coach a month or two ago. Like, how do you…when you’re in a position that allows you to see broadly across the company, and you’re also like, you’re thinking about doing your job well, you’re thinking about the company succeeding, but you’re also thinking about your own professional trajectory and like, where do you actually wanna be slotted in? (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) The center of that Venn diagram is the work you should be doing, but it’s so hard sometimes to identify what that is, right? And like, maybe there is like, a really big, juicy, cool problem over here on the other side of the company, (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) but the question I have to ask myself is like, not just your line of questioning, but like, is this what I want to do (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) like, in ten years when I am like, doing something else or applying for another job? Like, am I gonna call this out as like, a huge success I had that will help me do the next thing I wanna do? Or is it just like, big and sexy because it’s a problem that needs to be solved, and I feel like I need to insert myself? So, I’m with you. (Hayley: Yeah, absolutely.) Maybe we can be accountability buddies (Hayley: Yeah, let’s do it.) this year <laugh>. Okay, Haley, final question. This one’s kind of a quickie, but outside of work, when you are not working with us at Gun.io, where can people find you?
Well, because I work from home, my location does not frequently change, (Faith: <laugh>.) but yeah, I’m, I guess, I’m a parent to a very active four year old. So, spend a lot of time at the playground, and at gymnastics, and Ninja camps. (Faith: <Laugh>.) And, when I’m not in parenting mode, I’ve got two dogs who love going on hikes. That’s it. My life is, you know, I…Covid really helped shrink things, yeah, from my introverted soul, and I haven’t really expanded out again, (Faith: Yeah.) and that’s just fine with me. So, <laugh>…
I feel like having, you know, a handful of critical areas in your life that you can, kind of, see at all times (Hayley: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) is huge for just like, mental peace, <laugh> you know? (Hayley, Yeah.) Like, I’ve found as my world expanded, it was really easy for things to be stuck like, outside of my line of sight, and then to feel stressed, like, oh no, let that thing just, kind of like, simmer and burn for too long. And now, (Hayley: Yeah.) it feels like it’s not part of my life anymore, so I am team “few things.” <laugh>. (Hayley: Few things.) Few things to focus on. (Hayley: Yeah.) Yeah. Well, awesome. I, too, love to be outside. So, if you have any great hiking recommendations for the Nashville area, since I know you’re familiar, please send them my way.
I’m gonna be in Nashville in a couple of months and…Radnor Lake, obviously.
Oh, it’s the best, yeah.
Yeah. I’ll definitely be going there.
Awesome. Well, I’m excited to get together when you’re in town.
Yeah, me too.
Hopefully we can get the office put back together before then. I got like, a redecorating bug a few weeks ago, and Tyler and I just like, moved all the furniture in the office. So, it’s a little bit chaotic right now, but it should be good soon.
I did that in my house over the last week. So everything, this panel is very clean, but everything else on the other side of it is not. So…
That is, every time I like, record a podcast, people are like, are you in like a video booth or like a WeWork? I’m like, no. Literally everything that I’m looking at is chaos. (Hayley: <Laugh>.) There’s a bathroom vanity, like I’m touching a bathroom vanity right now (Hayley: Yeah.) that is (Hayley: That’s good.) going into, hopefully, will be installed in a new bathroom soon. But, it’s all about the background, baby. (Hayley: Oh, yeah.) People think you’ve got it together, then you’re golden. (Hayley: <Laugh>.)
<Laugh>. Well, Haley, thank you so much. This is such a fun conversation, and I hope that it’s helpful for other folks who are thinking about getting into product. They’re so curious about other folks’ professional journeys, so thank you for sharing. I really appreciate it.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
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