Paving a Career in Product Management
We recently sat down with Gainsight CPO & EVP of Engineering, Karl Rumelhart, to discuss how he paved his way into a career in product management and how the role is handled at Gainsight. It’s a great listen for anyone who is considering a career change that leads them in the direction of product management.
A career in product management is somewhat of a calling for those individuals who find themselves in that role. That is no different for Gainsight CPO & EVP of Engineering, Karl Rumelhart. He left his role as a lecturer of mathematics at Stanford. Rumelhart hasn’t looked back from his career in product management.
You can listen to the full episode of Product Talk or check out the highlights below:
On how he found his way into a Career in Product Management
Karl Rumelhart was a lecturer in mathematics at Standford and one book changed his whole career trajectory.
“I’m from an academic family. My brother and my parents all have PhDs and my father is a pretty well-known scientist. The story of getting out of academia, I think was was a little bit interesting. So, I was teaching at Stanford, and to be clear, I was not there was no chance of a permanent, long term position there. I was eventually gonna have to do some go somewhere else. My wife had started a good career in the Bay Area. I was enjoying what I was doing. I kept having my contract renewed. I’m able to stay, it’s kind of cool. Hang on to Stanford and so on and so forth.
I then read a book that changed my life. Andy Grove, most People know is that one of the founders and great CEOs of Intel. He wrote a book called Only the Paranoid Survive. Very famous book. If you haven’t read it, you absolutely should. It’s about Intel’s decision to exit the memory business, which was actually their core business.
They were the leading vendor in the world in computer memory and decided to exit and focus exclusively on this little niche thing called a microprocessor. Intel did that because they realized that although they were at the top of the game, their long term was doomed. And the basic point of the book is that if an action is going to have to be taken in the future, you should act right away. Don’t wait.
The addendum to the book was the same thing for your career. If you are in a situation that is going to end, and not necessarily end well, don’t wait till the bitter end. If you’re just gonna get to a point where you can’t stand what you’re doing, you need to act affirmatively. And that’s it. That’s speaking to me because I said to myself, I’m doing what I’m doing and I’m liking it. Am I gonna be happy doing this for the next 30 years? No. Am I okay doing it for another year? Well, yeah, I could do it another year.
So my question was not if I’m going to leave academia, but when. Qhat Andy Grove told me through his book is if that’s your answer, you can act now you got to move. So I did it. I just said, Alright, I’m out. And I’m gonna do something else.”
On how his role has evolved at Gainsight
In explaining how his career in product management evolved, Rumelhart also offers some great advice for PMs looking to advance in their own careers.
“So my career at Gainsight, there were two transitions. So, I went from VP of Engineering to Chief Product Officer, which was just sort of straight promotion. Then, I took on a larger role that includes all of engineering and operations and basically everything that has anything to do with product.
What do I think was the important point? The point is that I will say I got promoted not so much because of being a good product manager leader, although I think I was I think I am. It’s because I turned out to be a strong executive. And the thing to understand as a senior product leader is that you really have two jobs. You have to lead product. And you have to be an executive of your company and help to lead the company itself. It turns out there’s a reason why so many CEOs are former product people.
So in my case, I dug in on what the company needed overall. Involved myself in sales-related activities, marketing-related activities, in general business and product, company strategy. I think that was the thing that led to my promotion. It also, of course, set me up as I am able to take this larger role leading everything product and engineering because I distinguished myself as one of the important executives of the company who had the trust of the rest of our leadership.”
On how Product Management works at Gainsight
Gainsight has an engineering team in India, but they never lose sight of the most important part of product management: a connection to the customer.
“I believe strongly that product management needs to be close to engineering, needs to be involved in the day-to-day. We just need to make it work in terms of the other thing you need, which is customer interaction and so on. So product management is in India with some folks, a small number of folks in the US and are very tied into everything we’re doing on a daily basis.
This is not a situation where you say ‘great, I have some PMs who are not customer facing and then somebody else tells them what to do and they go actually with engineering.’ That is not product management. In my mind, Product Management means you are the physical connection between customers and engineering. They are tightly tied in with customers. They work nights, do what they need to do to stay tight with customers.”
On what to look for in a VP of Product Management
Rumelhart makes it clear how to identify the people to advance in a career in product management.
“If you were to take a sales call at random. Would you want this person in the meeting? Or would you not?
That person is going to become the VP or the lead of your product. That all-around executive-level somebody that’s going to be relevant in that meeting. They’re not leading a price negotiation. However, they’re there and their presence is going to make that person buying more excited to pay more because look at what we’re getting. We’re getting this type of quality product. They’re taking the first intro call, there to help it any of that.”