Originally published on Austin Voice of Product run by my friend Reza Shirazi.

Josh Tong of CognitOps: Startup Product Management

Startup product management creates opportunities to learn quickly, shared Josh Tong, Principal Product manager at CognitOps, for my interview series Austin Voice Of Product. Our interview has been edited for clarity.

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Austin VOP #110

What was your path to product management?

I am probably one of the few people that studied Product in college. I stumbled across a Design Thinking product development course at Arizona State and they brought together business folks, engineers, industrial designers and graphic designers. We spent a year working with industry sponsors to go through the entire product life cycle from understanding problems to generating solutions, getting feedback, prototyping and building a business model.

That was my introduction to Product.

But I had no idea how to find a job doing that because, at the time, I was focused on physical product development. I didn’t know that software product management even existed.

So I founded a startup. My team launched a company based on the product we were exploring in the class. It was a medical device for first responder paramedics. And we brought it to a university incubator, got a little bit of seed funding, and spent about a year and a half trying to get that off the ground. I turned down the corporate job offer and tried to make that startup successful while doing a little consulting on the side.

I made a lot of mistakes, but those taught me some really important lessons. It also sent me down the path of entrepreneurial product management. After my startup failed, I worked for a startup accelerator and then later moved to Austin. That’s when I officially joined the software product management space.

Tell us more about why startup product management is your jam.

I lean towards the entrepreneurial side of product management, because I love building companies as well as products. I love seeing a company go from a raw hypothesis to something truly meaningful to a market. I also enjoy establishing the processes, structures and teams required for a startup to scale.

Startup product management allows me to hone valuable startup skills and experience, while still taking care of my family. When I eventually go back to found a company, my early-stage product management experience working cross-functionally with marketing, customer success, engineering, sales and business development will really help.

Startups are also incredibly challenging. I just love the high stakes and the high ambiguity. The only limit is what you bring to the table in your ability to execute. And, it is not — hey, let’s take this product that is 90% and get it to 100% by optimizing it. Your job is to take the product (and the business) from 5% to 90%. That’s high-challenge, high-impact work and I love it.

I don’t think that my path was totally deliberate. Sometimes you fall into a space and then you learn to love it. You start to understand it. You start to develop a level of mastery. That is how I feel about startup product management and why I have stayed with it.

What advice do you give to aspiring product leaders?

I asked an Austin startup CEO the same question early in my journey. One piece of advice he gave me was to join a company early. That was part of what kept me at early stage companies and it paid off for me.

Whenever you are in a growing company, growth creates opportunities. It creates opportunities to learn quickly and accept new responsibilities and challenges.

You can be in an established company for a long time and sometimes not encounter many new challenges. But when you come in right after a Series A round, you get to see the company grow and change in a short period of time. I believe it’s possible to get 5–10 years of experience in just a few years at a fast-growing startup.

I often tell people, when you join a startup, you don’t join just one company. You actually join four different companies all strung together. As the company grows it changes. You hit different challenges at different growth points. Maybe over a two or three year period it goes from 20 to 75 to 150 people. The opportunity to develop skills and insight is kind of unparalleled. It gives you a broader set of experiences solving many different types of problems.

In an early stage company, the product is immature and so are the processes to build the product. You get experience setting up first-time product processes, which is an experience you generally don’t get at a larger company. You have a hand in early product strategy work. You work closely with founders and department leaders. You also see other parts of the organization maturing as well — how a scrappy engineering team becomes a predictable and mature one. You see all these other teams evolve and put processes and structures in place that allow the company to scale.

What has inspired you lately?

Writing. I recently started writing and sharing on LinkedIn. When you write or teach something, it forces you to deeply understand it yourself. It has helped me synthesize many of the lessons and experiences I have had over my career. It has even unlocked some unexpected insights that I probably wouldn’t have uncovered otherwise.

It’s also a really fun creative outlet. As product managers, you don’t get to build anything yourself. So it is satisfying to actually create something useful and publish it to an audience.

What is exciting about the product you are working on now?

We build software for the Warehouse Operations space at CognitOps. Since COVID, every part of the supply chain is getting squeezed. Warehouses tend to be the “shock absorbers” of the supply chain. And they are under enormous pressure.

Consider the macro-trends. Companies are seeing an influx of online orders. Customers expect fast shipment times. Warehouses often cannot get access to inventory, because it’s sitting outside of the port of Los Angeles. Meanwhile labor shortages are a very real issue.

But that’s not all. The complexity inside the warehouses is increasing as well. You have a blend of manual operations, advanced automation equipment, and an assortment of old legacy systems. These pre-pandemic era systems and tools just can’t keep up with the growing demands and complexities of modern day warehouse environments.

Our product, ALIGN, plugs into these legacy systems and provides analytics, machine learning powered predictions, and recommendations to warehouse operators. It helps operators see where work is, where to place people in the warehouse, and if they are on track to hit customer commitments. It also predicts into the future to help them see what’s coming. You would expect most companies to already have this kind of visibility, but they don’t. Pre-pandemic era tools are failing operators. We are excited to contribute to a new era of warehouse tools that are purpose-built for the modern warehouse environment.

How might we build a stronger product community in Austin?

I think we need to lean into the strengths we already have. We are an incredibly open and supportive community. If you reached out to a product leader and said “Hey, I want some advice on something or need some help”, nine times out of ten they will happily hop on a call. It is such a supportive community.

There are other places where they might have the openness, but not the density; everyone is scattered. Or you have places where there is density, but too much ego. We have this blend of not having too much ego, but enough density with talented, experienced people. That combination is really powerful.

If we hold on to that, and help all these new people flooding into Austin catch that vision and that vibe and that culture, we will amplify it even more. We are getting tons of new people with new perspectives coming into town. If we can pull them into the fold and maintain this value, I believe we will be one of the best cities to be a product manager.

Last question, what is your favorite product?

My favorite product right now is a product called ReadWise. I love books. But I forget what I read. Readwise takes all of your Kindle highlights and it sends them to you every day. You can also add quotes and audiobooks. It uses an algorithm to send you five excerpts from books you have read. And so, if you have got a big catalog of books you have read, it is powerful because you are reminded, “Oh yeah, that was a really helpful book”, “Oh that’s a great point about XYZ”, or “Oh, this is really good, I’m gonna share this with my LinkedIn community”. It’s made all the books I have read over the years, but unfortunately forgotten, come to life again. It’s a great product and I highly recommend it.

Thank you, Josh!

Austin VOP is an interview series with current and future product leaders to inspire the next generation of product leaders.

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