Interview: A Chat with BPMA Mentor and Edx CTO, Mark Haseltine

GuidanceLast fall, I had the opportunity to begin a six month mentorship program through the BPMA. Being paired with my mentor Mark Haseltine, CTO at Edx, was a unique and valuable experience. I recently had a chance to sit down with Mark and discuss the product ecosystem and Boston tech scene as a whole.

How did you get involved with the BPMA?

Being born and raised in New England, I’ve been a part of the Boston area development community for decades now — making a point to foster and support local professional organizations whenever I am able. I want to see Boston continue to be a hub of technology innovation well into the future.

I was made aware of the BPMA organization through a close friend and colleague who I worked with for several years. She encouraged me to participate in the BPMA years ago and I’ve been active in the organization ever since. It is an important resource for the product management community.

Who has influenced you the most?

I’ve been fortunate to have several key mentors in my career. It would be hard to choose just one! Each has advised me in different ways and on different aspects of what I can bring to an organization both personally and professionally.

As a CTO, I am asked to fulfill various needs depending on the particular circumstances of the company. In addition to a technology focus, I often need to be more involved in the business or product side. I tend to seek out people who can advise me best in my current circumstances.

What are the things you find personally rewarding in your career?

The most rewarding aspect of what I do is helping others achieve their full potential. Being in a leadership role, I get a great deal of satisfaction watching others succeed. It often isn’t about what decisions I make, but more about the quality and strength of the team doing the actual work. My job is to hire the best people and put them into an environment where they can do their best work.

It is one of the main reasons why I’ve chosen to participate in the BPMA mentorship program. I enjoy advising people so they can be more successful in achieving their career outcomes. I hope I’ve been able to give some good advice over the years. I’ve certainly learned a lot from each of the people I’ve worked with through the program.

Do you read specific publications, blogs, etc. that are field-specific to product management?

I read a lot in order to stay current. I follow a number of blogs, standards organizations, training sites, news organizations, etc. on a regular basis. If I find a topic of interest, I’ll drill down to learn more about it. I consider this an important part of my job.

As for product management specific resources, there are quite a few good ones that I read regularly. Quora has a great discussion thread on exactly this topic. I consider Marty Cagan’s Silicon Valley Product Group (SVPG) blog a must read. I also often find myself looking back at Ben Horowitz’s Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager which I still find very relevant today.

How has the field changed since you first started your career?

Product management has changed tremendously since I first started my career. When I started, the role was most closely associated with the classic marketing function. Product managers dealt heavily with pricing, positioning and communications.

It evolved quickly to be more closely aligned with development — not just understanding the customer and their needs, but aligning the product with those needs. Product works out the value proposition and guides the development of the product.

At the same time, the rise of Agile development had a tremendous impact on the role of the product manager. It has allowed them to move away from writing product specifications to focusing on collaborating with customers. It broke down many of the existing barriers between product and engineering while requiring them to be far more involved in the technology.

In the last decade or so, we’ve seen the rise of big data which also had a big impact on product management. People in this role have had to quickly develop skills interpreting data to drive product development. In many cases, the conversation has changed from “what do you think” to “what do you know from the data”.

I expect it will continue to evolve at a rapid pace.

What trends/challenges for the product field do you see in the future?

I mentioned some of the challenges above. Big data and machine learning in particular are areas where I see significant opportunities for the product management field, but they bring complexity and higher demand for deeper technical knowledge to keep up. The expectations of product management continue to grow and evolve rapidly.

Can you provide some examples of results you have seen from the mentorship program with your involvement?

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know several talented product managers through the program. They have all come from wildly different backgrounds with distinct career aspirations. I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot while offering up my perspectives on their situation. I hope it has been as valuable for them as it has been for me.

What advice do you have for someone planning to start or expand their career in product management?

My advice to someone considering a career in product management is to know yourself. By that I mean, know what motivates you — what you like and don’t like about your jobs so far. Having this kind of perspective will guide your choices. The role can vary quite widely across different markets and companies within those markets. To find the right fit, you need some idea of the activities that give you the most job satisfaction.

I also suggest that to be in product you need to be constantly learning. Employers expect you are talking to customers, surveying competition and keeping up with industry trends. This means you should have a good plan for keeping your knowledge and skills up to date. It is an important signal of how serious you are about the role.

The next mentorship program starts in late summer 2016. Learn more about the BPMA Mentorship Program, or to apply to be a mentor or mentee.

Feature image from Flickr Commons

About Mark Haseltine

As Chief Technology Officer at edX, Mark leads the overall technology strategy and engineering efforts. Prior to joining edX, Mark was CTO, Afternic at GoDaddy where he led the development of their domain aftermarket products. He served as CTO at NameMedia which GoDaddy partially acquired. He has also held engineering leadership roles at Oracle, AltaVista and Gerson Lehrman Group. He has led engineering for large scale online business in each of these roles, and plans to apply the same creative technological approaches to the challenges at edX. Mark holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University. Mark spends most of his free time with his family and occasionally running marathons.

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