Product Management Leadership Ft. John Grancarich, HelpSystems


Thank you to lucidLIFT for underwriting our new Product Leadership interview series!

Featuring: John Grancarich, VP, Product Strategy at HelpSystems

What does Product Management leadership mean to you?

The product leader shapes and implements the company vision, always driving the company forward by focusing on what is most important to the success of the enterprise and its customers.

You always need to be asking two questions: what is the problem we’re trying to solve, and how do we plan to solve it. How you solve it is in large part determined by the products a company decides to invest in and how it develops and matures those products over time. Just as important, it’s about the products a company decides are not part of its longer term plan.

When and how did you get into this aspect of technology?

I used to lead a global technical project management team of over 100 people and was meeting with clients every day and listening to their challenges and figuring out how we could help them. Over time I began to see more and more patterns in the problems I was hearing about, and I got really interested in understanding the dynamics behind this and how I could help solve some broader market problems. I began to split my time between leading that team and working directly with product development across the product lifecycle. I was hooked, and completely transitioned over to product management soon after and never looked back.


Why do you do it, what inspires you?

I think the process of needfinding, idea generation, prototyping, testing and iterating a product to be among the most challenging and exciting professional experiences a person can have. I love working with teams on an interesting problem, and just putting that problem up on a whiteboard and seeing how we might solve it. The difficulty of the work is part of the appeal I think – creating a great piece of software just one time is very difficult to do, and doing it over and over is exponentially more difficult.

Do your technology teams use agile software development methods, or another approach?

We use agile software development across the company which spans all parts of the globe. We do not let process box us in to a specific way of doing things if a different way will get us better results for the problem we are trying to solve. Process is only there to serve an outcome: making great software that customers love to use. If the process doesn’t serve that outcome we won’t use it or we will adapt it to our needs.

How do you ensure that your efforts and objectives are aligned with tangible business outcomes?

I typically start by asking a question: what problem are we trying to solve here? We are constantly peeling back the layers in our customers’ environments to understand what is working well, what is not, and where the next opportunity for us to solve a problem is. The big unsolved problems are rarely on the surface – you have to dig. My experience has been that if you do the hard work of identifying market needs on a regular basis, then the probability of developing a pipeline of desirable solutions goes way up which positively impacts business outcomes.

What software tools do you regularly use and for what?

I use the more common tools you might expect to see for backlog management and project notes: Jira, Confluence and the like. That said, I do my best thinking and my best work away from any tech, so my toolkit is pretty spare – I spend a lot of time at the whiteboard or with a pencil and a piece of blank paper working through problems and ideas. I also spend a lot of time in face to face conversations and on the phone gathering input and feedback.

What is your favorite product management book/blog/resource?

“Inspired” by Marty Cagan. I was fortunate to train with Marty early in my product career and he really helped shape my perspective on how to create great products and how to think about products from the customer’s perspective.

What is your favorite product of all time?

The iPhone. I have read a lot on how the iPhone came to be, and I am continually amazed by how little process the Apple team used to create this product. It was really a three-step process: demo > feedback > next demo. If you are interested in reading the backstory on this from one of the engineers on the first iPhone team, check out “Creative Selection” by Ken Kocienda.

What is the size of your team and how is it organized?

We have over 20 Product Managers each of whom is responsible for end to end product planning and management. We have a very flat structure. Simpler is better.

How do you see product management changing over time?

I’m pleasantly surprised to see the role of product management being elevated in tech companies today – I think what’s happening in Silicon Valley and other tech centers has helped in this regard, and the importance of this field is now spreading further out – including the Midwest – which is a great thing. The big challenge that I see is the broad scope of the role – you pretty much need to know something about everything to be great at it – or be able to learn very quickly on the fly – and you need to work effectively with everyone while driving for results. Not an easy feat. If you want to start or run your own tech company, being a strong product manager is a great way to prepare yourself for that.

What advice would you have for someone who wants to get into Product Management?

Find someone who already is one and reach out to them. Ask questions about the path they took – you’ll probably find that no two paths look the same. Ask them what they like and don’t like about the work. Ask them what they think are the top 3 most important attributes of a successful product manager. Start reading and learning what the work entails – the development work is only one part of it so be sure to go beyond that. Become a great storyteller – learn story structure and how to effectively communicate your ideas and compel people to take action. I think you can create a world class curriculum on product management these days without spending a dime by being resourceful and digging around.

What excites and or concerns you about where business and technology are heading?

Marc Andreessen’s quote comes to mind here: software is eating the world. The unrelenting expansion of software into every part of our lives is here to stay, and this will create wonderful product management opportunities for years to come. My concern is the constant stream of data inputs we are all getting on a daily basis – we are getting notified, alerted, rewarded, updated, poked, liked and upvoted or downvoted far too much. The average person now spends more than 3 hours on a smartphone each day, and most of that usage is dedicated to messaging, social media, and web browsing – there ultimately needs to be some balance. To be successful in any professional or personal pursuit we need to be able to focus, and the pervasiveness of software in our daily lives is making that more and more of a challenge.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

I’m pretty low key. I like to spend time with family and I read quite a bit. You won’t get many adventurous weekend stories from me.


  • Kevin Spanbauer

    Enjoyed your insights John!