We'd like for you to meet Rob Johnson, our new Head of Product. Rob started at Gradient Works last month, and is here to build out our product team. We sat down to talk to him about his new role.
GW: What are you responsible for at Gradient Works?
Rob: There’s a ton of discussion these days on “PM Twitter” and elsewhere about what the primary job of the product leader is at a company like ours. Many people have attempted to distill the answer to a simple, brief and evocative answer.I suppose I’ll add my voice to the chorus. I view my primary responsibilities to be:
- Guiding the team to focus on solving the most impactful problems our customers face
- Creating the environment that ensures every builder in our team has enough customer context to create a praise-worthy solution to those problems
- Illustrating how we can improve the way we work to accelerate the velocity of our efforts to bring praise-worthy solutions to our customers
Perhaps this can be simplified: I see it as my responsibility to ensure we’re working on the right customer problems, the team has the right customer context to do great work, and we collectively get better and better at delivering for customers all the time.
GW: Tell us about your background, including how you got into product management.
Rob: My path to product management began with an entrepreneurial journey. I started a small startup shortly after college and spent three years failing to make it work. When it died, I immediately joined another young startup (Gnip) with a fierce determination that I wouldn’t repeat the mistakes I’d made with my first startup and we would absolutely, unquestionably only build things that we had proven customers wanted. That mindset quickly led to me acting as the “first PM” at Gnip and I grew as a product manager from there. I learned to build and manage a product team, navigated that team and product through an acquisition to Twitter, and grew to be an executive product leader at Twitter responsible for a large scale org and business.
After finishing my ~decade long career journey from the earliest days at Gnip to large scale product lead at Twitter, I decided I was eager to go back to the “building” days at a small startup where I could reactivate my creative muscles and build again, armed with all the experiences (wins and losses) i’d gained over the years.
GW: We’ve found that everyone is passionate about something related to their chosen career. What’s yours?
Rob: I love solving customer problems and the feeling of pride that emerges when you see a customer's world meaningfully improve as a result of something you created and delivered to them. A close second for me is that I love watching others in my team discover their creativity, talent, and hard work can create something really good that is beyond what they thought they were capable of.
GW: What are you most excited about at Gradient Works?
Rob: The creative chaos & primordial swirl of early stage startups. It’s just a ton of fun to move fast and be able to easily adapt and quickly see results.
GW: What do you do for fun?
Rob: I live in Colorado and like many of us out here, I head outdoors and to the mountains to find joy. A recent expression of this for me has been long-distance hiking. In the past two years I have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Colorado Trail. I think I'm attracted to the overwhelming scale of the challenge to just simply persevere for so long and walk so far.
GW: We’ve all learned a lot over the past two years. What’s something you’ve learned?
Rob: I’ve gained so much context for my professional work and where it fits in my life. A close colleague of mine used to say about the work we do creating software as “Nobody’s Dying Here” to help remind us of the real life context for our work. Walking thousands of miles in the mountains during a global pandemic really brought that point home to me and helped me gain a healthy perspective for the importance of my professional work.
GW: Anything else you want to talk about?
Rob: I’m a huge Clemson football fan (and Clemson alumnus). Dabo Swinney has created a generational change for the university by showing the power of setting extraordinarily high ambitions for what a team can achieve and making sure everyone simply finds joy in the work to get there. I aspire to bring even a hint of those vibes to the team at Gradient Works and would love to talk to any other Dabo-admirers who think similarly (Dabo-haters are welcome to stay on reddit).