Community Spotlight: Tristan Pennicott, IBM Cloud

What does it mean to be a “great product person”?

Tristan Pennicott first heard this when working at a startup. While he had yet to start his career in product management, it’s that question that set him down a path of finding great mentors, asking big questions, and unlocking product management culture itself.

Today Tristan is a product manager for IBM Cloud, part of the globally recognized IBM. In his role, Tristan researches cloud and quantum computing—the reason, in Tristan’s observation, why “there’s so many startups now—everything is done on the cloud.”

But what’s just as important to Tristan as the work he does is how he contributes to the evolving conversation about what it means to be a product manager today. In our interview, Tristan explains how he keeps the door open for the product managers who will come after him.

Erica Irish: You’ve had an extensive career in product management, from startups to a global enterprise company. How did you first get started in product? 

Tristan Pennicott: I think my journey started similar to a lot of people, where you end up being a product manager, but you have no idea you already are one. And I think that goes back to even before my career. I’ve been a gamer for a long time—my brother and I would create different computer games and try to enhance them and work out the bugs. And so that early, I was thinking through feature requests.

It wasn’t until someone mistook me as a product manager that I began to learn about it. I started out at that startup as a data analyst, so my role touched the marketing team and the product team. Product was basically brand new at that company, so when people are reaching out and saying, “Hey Tristan, you’d make a great product person,” I wanted to Google it and find out. And that set off the spiral. Once you figure out what product management is, you start consuming and absorbing all the materials you can, and you learn that product management has its own culture and sub-cultures that you have to learn.

EI: That’s a really strong point, about product management existing in its own sub-culture. What has that culture looked like in your experience? 

TP: I was just talking to my mentor about this not too long ago. He works at Google, and he was explaining how every couple of years there’s a “hot” role identified by the Harvard MBA Indicator. For awhile, it was software engineering, but in recent years it’s shifted to product management.

So the role is becoming more prominent, but the culture is still heavily community-based. Everybody is trying to understand how to break in, how to do an interview, and how to climb the product management ladder. Because of this there are so many different routes you can take within the culture as you define it for yourself. So sometimes, when you meet other product managers, it can be like talking to somebody that speaks a different language. Everyone has different levels of experience.

EI: With that, I’m wondering what advice you have for those who are new to product management. If you could do it all again, how would you start learning about the discipline? 

TP: I’d start by reading a book—it’s called Inspired by Mary Cagan. It’s really the default for cracking the product management code; it does a great job of describing the framework and what exactly product management is. After that, you need to network and find mentors. The trick is that once you’ve made all the connections and consumed all of this content, you have to know what it is about yourself that will help you stand out.

We’re creating a lot of “product management robots” today. You need to understand how you think, what you value, and leverage that when you meet peers and the people you want to work with. You might know the lingo and your resume might be on point. But what you need to show is your impact, not just the intel.

EI: What’s something you’re working on right now that gets you excited about your role? 

TP: What makes me get up out of bed every day is making IBM Cloud competitive. There’s a lot going on with cloud services today. You’ve got Alibaba, Azure, you have AWS and Google Cloud. And we have to stand out in that crowded field.

The interesting thing about my role is IBM purchased Red Hat in 2019. So now, we’re working through roadmaps at IBM versus Red Hat, and we’re trying to align everything to see how we can stay competitive.

EI: What do you think is a missed opportunity in your field?

TP: I think a missed opportunity is giving people a real entry into the mysterious world of product management. And I say this because when people are trying to break into roles, companies are offering associate product manager or rotational product manager roles, or product management internships. And the idea is you can come into those roles and basically learn—and you don’t need a lot of experience.

But what I’m finding is a lot of the people who are getting these roles already had a product internship somewhere. So they’re coming in “with no experience,” but they still have some level of experience. And it’s always that chicken or the egg: I can’t get this role because I don’t have experience, and I don’t have experience because I can’t get the role.

So I would love to see a lot of companies hold up their end of the bargain with trying to create true product managers. Because years of experience is not the best indicator, right? We need more proper entry roles and mentoring on the job. Right now, it’s a lot of sink or swim.

EI: How do you stay inspired? What keeps your cup full? 

TP: I’m big on going internal for inspiration. Meditation, words of affirmation, visualization—I do all of that often. And I’m listening to some great speakers, who are probably product managers at heart even if their titles don’t reflect it. I think of people like Gary Vaynerchuk, Tony Robbins, or Bob Proctor; they’re all different people who really challenge me to think differently from the norm.

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