Courage to Really Have an Effect on People’s Lives - Courage to Lead Podcast
I was a guest in The Courage to Lead Podcast with Coach Harlan. We discussed the clashes between product management and engineering and how focusing on who they serve and how to serve them can solve the issue. He emphasized that the product manager's role is not only to specify what needs to be built but also to engage in a conversation with engineers about how to build it. He believes that engineers should be empathetic with the end-users and give feedback on how to improve the product. I emphasized the importance of post-release retrospectives to analyze what went wrong or right, take action, and assign responsibilities for implementing changes.
I also shared my insights on the importance of hiring people who care about the market and product, rather than just having the necessary skills to perform the job Highlighting that the difference between good and great is the level of care towards the outcome.
We also discussed leadership qualities and the importance of building a culture of trust and accountability in organizations. The need for empathy, the ability to learn quickly, and the ability to speak with wisdom are essential qualities in a leader. Harlan shared his experience working at Lockheed Aircraft on the Skunk Works and how the dedication of the leaders inspired him to be part of the team.
Harlan: Hey, coach Harlan here. What do Walt Disney, Andrew Carnegie, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and FDR all have in common? They shared one secret that propelled them to achieve remarkable success. They each belonged to a mastermind group. If you've never experienced the power of Mastermind group, now is your opportunity. Join my Business Success Mastermind group today. New cohorts are starting soon. To learn more, go to iB4e-coaching.com/mastermind. Courage to Lead, episode 223.
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Hey, coach Harlan here. Welcome back to the podcast. Hope you guys are having an exceptional week. I'm having a great week, and I'm excited to introduce you to my guest today. Please help me welcome David Subar. David Subar, Better Products Faster has always been his mission. Coupled with strategic implementation of the Lean Startup method, his mission has led to major valuation increases for a quickly growing list of more than 30 technology companies. David's strategies are becoming the standard for how technology companies scale while continuing to deliver products that impact the lives of their customers.
David began his career in R&D and now leads teams in more than seven countries for clients that ship products for tens of millions of customers, some of his career highlights include building products with more than 600 billion monthly page views, building hardware and the operating system for an augmented reality device, assisting linda.com in their 1.5 billion sale to LinkedIn, advising the Walt Disney Company on Disney Plus, founding two companies, and serving as an advisor and executive for three unicorns. David, welcome to the show.
David Subar: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Harlan: No, that's quite a list, man. What do you do in your free time? Holy cow.
David: There's not much of it left, really. I got three dogs, got three daughters, wife and I run a bit, ski when I can. But not a lot of free time.
Harlan: Very good. Well, busy is good. Busy is good. I want to take some time to talk about how you got your start, how you got to where you are now, who you work with, how you help them. Of course, we're going to talk about courage and leadership. But before we get started, I've got 10 questions that I ask every one of my guests. Listeners know these are the questions made famous on the TV show, Inside the Actor's Studio, where the host, James Lipton asked these same questions of his Hollywood guests from TV, film, and stage. I figure if they're good enough for the Hollywood Elite, they're certainly good enough for my guests. David, are you ready?
Harlan: Ten questions, question number one, what is your favorite word?
David: Favorite word? Hope.
Harlan: Nice. What is your least favorite word?
Harlan: What turns you on?
David: Opportunity and learning, those two.
Harlan: Nice. All right. What turns you off?
David: Closed doors.
Harlan: What sound or noise do you love?
David: When my children greet me.
Harlan: Nice. What sound or noise do you hate?
David: Closing doors. I guess it goes with the previous one.
Harlan: Question seven, what is your favorite curse word?
David: The F-bomb.
Harlan: I hear you. That's the most popular I can tell you already. What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt?
David: To be an astronaut.
Harlan: Nice. Very cool. What profession would you not like to do?
David: To be a transactional attorney?
Harlan: Good job. Final question. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly Gates?
Harlan: Anything short of that would be concerning? Yes, absolutely.
David: It would. Glad to have you. That'd be good.
David: Not so good. Why are you here?
Harlan: Who are you?
David: That's right.
Harlan: I think you want the line over there. David, we're going to take a short break. When we come back, we're going to talk about how you got your start, how you got to where you are now, who you work with, how you help them, your take on leadership and courage, and probably a lot more. Listeners, we're going to talk about all of that and more right after this. Stick with us.
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I'm back with my guest, David Subar. David, thanks again for taking time out of your busy schedule. You're all over the place. Appreciate you coming in. You've been heavily involved in product management and software engineering for years. How did you get started in that?
David: I started my career doing research and development in AI and machine learning. Previous to that, and this goes to my astronaut answer I had always wanted to be involved in technology. I remember one of my earliest memories was Armstrong setting foot on the moon, and that set my path.
Harlan: That got you interested where that's what you wanted to do. You wanted to be part of all that, right?
David: Exactly. Yes.
Harlan: Very cool. How did you get into an R&D? Like what was like a think tank? Military?
David: It was a military-owned think tank in DC and I knew I wanted to do stuff in artificial intelligence, and I thought I wanted to create new science. I thought that was the cool thing and that was parallel with the moonshot, was creating new science and we were going to make AI do everything. I quickly learned R&D was very different than building real tools that people used, really having an effect on people's life.
Harlan: Because there's a theory of how things work and then there's actually building things into it.
David: That's exactly right. The world needs scientists and they're really important, but the world also needs people that take that science and build things out of it. To me, that's the most compelling, not denigrating scientists, it's important the work they do, but they build the raw knowledge that we build other things on. I wanted to have things that had an impact that I could talk about and people understood.
Harlan: Nice. Product management, what are some of the products or product lines, I guess, you worked with?
David: A bunch of stuff. You talked about Disney Plus before that, I consulted with Disney at the Disney ABC television group where they had Disney Channel, ABC News, ABC Primetime, linda.com, you mentioned but also some things that are more arcane, worked with a company called Reify Health that did B2B SaaS software for drug discovery. worked with a bunch of other media companies, working right now with the Australian Soccer League on their digital strategy. It's all over the map, but it's really all about how to build teams that can build products that effects on people and margins.
Harlan: Nice. Very cool. I was reading on your LinkedIn profile. You spoke at the product world meeting out in Oakland a few weeks ago, right?
David: That's right. Yes.
Harlan: You're speaking on clashes that occur between product management and product engineering. Talk to me about that. What happens? What are you seeing out there?
David: Well, a lot of times product managers think their job is to write user stories and to specify what's going to get built. The engineers think their job is to write software to build what they're told. The classical is the what and the how. But that creates a misalignment because an engineer can then say, "I built what they told me, if it wasn't the right thing, it's the product manager's fault." The product manager could say, "I told them what to build, if it took too long, it was engineer's fault." That's the clash, and the solution to that clash is, who do we serve and how do we serve them? It's about engineering, knowing why, because there's four or five ways to do anything. I want them to be empathetic with who they serve. I want them to get a good feeling like we released something, it created value for people, or we released something, it didn't create value. What did we learn? Product managers are the same way as, here's who we serve. I want to engage in a conversation with engineers about how we're going to get it done. I want their feedback to say, "Oh, product manager, we could do that. It'll take three weeks. Or because I care about the customers, we could do this other thing. Here's my idea that I contribute as an engineer to the product definition." It's all about what you focus on.
Harlan: Yes. My background is in organizational change and a lot of times we were the go-between between the product managers and the engineers. Because you're right, it's all about the user story. What does the user need? What do they want? Why do they need it? How are they going to use it? How is this going to change how they do things now? All of that's important to really understand, and then make sure both sides understand what that is.
David: Then it's incumbent on the product manager after something is released to go back to the engineers and say, "Here's how we did. Here was what our bet was. We were going to serve these people in this way and they're going to like it." By the way, that produces revenue because they want to buy the products and we succeeded. Congratulations to us, we overachieved. That's really interesting. What did we learn? We underachieved. That's interesting. What did we learn? How do we get better at it. If we're going to expect the engineers to have empathy, it's incumbent on product managers to report back the stories of the impact the product has had.
Harlan: Yes. We always talk about lessons learned. The postmortem at the end of a project.
Harlan: There are a lot of companies that learn. They don't learn the lesson, they document the lessons, but they don't always learn them. You'll see them do a second product or something, product launch, and they make the same mistakes they did before. Is that a lot of stuff that you help them with, help them understand how to learn these lessons?
David: Absolutely. It's important that you do a retrospective after, so you know what happened, but then it's about what actions are you going to take, who's going to be responsible for them and when they're going to get done. The whole process of post-release retrospective is critical to that. A lot of times people do retrospectives wrongly. They run through the steps and they say, "Oh gee, we'll just work harder next time."
David: Well work harder is something not specific, it's, what are we going to do? How are we going to do it differently? When's going to get done? It's all about doing it in a way that doesn't point the fingers or assign blame.
David: It's also about people being responsible to each other to help everybody be better.
Harlan: Yes. Like you said, getting those teams to work together, [crosstalk] to work towards that common goal. That's-
David: Yes. Right.
Harlan: That's tough. [crosstalk]
David: That goes all the way to hiring. You want to hire people that care about the market and care about the product. The difference between good and great is not whether you can perform the task, but whether you care about the outcome.
Harlan: Nice. I like that. Is that a lot of what you do at your company in Interna, is that what you do is help those different [unintelligible 00:13:44] I guess work together?
David: Yes. It starts with strategy. What's the company strategy? What's the product strategy? Who's on the team? What's their process? How do they communicate? How is the org design all the way to architecture, which is really getting close to implementation, and then about building quickly, releasing quickly and getting that feedback. Those are the things that we think about. It's that cycle from market strategy, organization release, learn, wash and repeat.
Harlan: Yes. It's like an ecosystem. All those things have to be in balance and in play. Right. Any one of those missing and things are going to fall apart.
David: That's exactly right.
Harlan: Very cool. Tell me about your company, you're founder and managing partner in Interna. How long have you been doing that?
David: Nine years.
Harlan: Nine years. Nice.
David: All of us that are actually doing the client-facing work have been ex-chief technology officers and ex-chief product officers.
Harlan: I see.
David: We've all sat in the seat and we will go and we'll get the calls we typically get from the CEO are, "Hey, we're just hitting scale." We cobble this thing together. The things that got us here aren't going to get us there.
David: Or I keep putting capital into product management and engineering and I'm not getting more out. Something seems wrong, please help.
David: Those are two of the typical calls we get. There's a third one, I'll tell that in a minute. For them, we'll go and we'll do a deep dive into the teams and we'll say, "Here's what you need your product management engineering team to do. Based on your strategy, here are the attributes they need to have. Here's how well they're doing. We'll rate them red, yellow, green. Here's why they get that rating. Here's what we suggest you do to get them healthy to the extent that they're not." We'll lay out a diagnosis and a prescription. Then often companies will come to us and say, "Hey, we don't have someone who can do that. Can you help run the team on an interim basis and get them healthy, moving from a doctor to being the trainer, if you will."
David: We'll manage the team and help hire someone permanently when the team gets healthy. If they have someone, then we coach them, we'll coach the CTOs and chief product officers. We stay in those two areas--
David: We'll help them get to the next level for themselves, for their team, for the company. Those are three things we do to deep dive. The interim work, the coaching. The fourth, and this relates to the other call we get is an M&A transactions or PE firms or VC firms making investments. They'll ask us to do due diligence. It's very much so with a deep dive as we'll go and we'll evaluate what's going well, what could go differently, and tell the people that are doing the transactions, the investors or the buying company, "Here's some things you might want to watch out for."
David: Just to think about, by the way, no company's perfect. Every company's got issues-
David: We just try to help them think about what's next.
Harlan: Nice. You talk about a company calling up and saying, "Hey, we got here, but what we did to get here won't get us there." That seems like it wouldn't be as common. A lot of times the leaders of the companies don't know what they don't know. They think everything's running fine. We've got it here. We're making millions. I think we're doing okay. It takes a certain kind of person to say, "You know what? I think we need help going to the next level."
David: That's true, but there are, typically when companies get investments right now, suddenly there's a large infusion of cash. The new investors will ask questions, or the CEO will say, we'll know that they were cash strapped and so know that they had started the team in certain areas and now have opportunities. There's generally an event that happens that steps them from where they are to think more broadly. Sometimes by the way, we just get calls and someone says, "Can we just talk to you on the phone for an hour? I just want to run something by you," which we're glad to do. We do it all the time. I'm glad to just do it for free. Just glad to help the community. Sometimes those lead into, "Oh, I hadn't thought about that. Can we engage you on something?"
Harlan: Nice. When you're working with these leaders, what is it that's broken or missing? Is it their vision? Is it the teams they have or is it a combination sometimes?
David: Sometimes it's a combination. A lot of times it's communication. That can be either way. A lot of times it's just process. Communication looks like the engineers don't understand the business drivers and what the business is trying to do. They understand how to talk in a language that makes sense to engineers. That can create a communication gap. Or it could be the other way, that the executive management don't understand how to communicate things in a way that engineers are aligned with. A lot of times it's about process.
It's about, how do I deliver the smallest amount of value quickest so we can see what the market wants? As opposed to, a lot of times people will give very specific instructions and the engineers will say, "Great, we'll do exactly what you've asked for," and it's going to take six months. Both sides don't understand that better is, once again building a little and basically having the market address it and say, "Oh, this worked, this didn't work." How to iterate that quickly. That creates a whole different conversation and a whole different process and leads to much better use of capital to become effective.
Harlan: Are the engineering schools doing better as far as when they graduate their engineers? Used to be the engineers were very almost siloed. They didn't really think about the end user as much. It seems like they're getting a little bit more of that kind of training, where they're coming out, being able to think a little bit more on the consumer side or on the user side as you are for the engineering. Are you finding that?
David: I think some. I haven't looked at the university programs lately, so this may be a little bit off. I think it's something that I find people need to be trained to do. By the way, this was me too. The people that want to be engineers tend to be more invested in learning the technology and algorithms. If you get really good at that, then you're promoted to do the next thing. It takes a different skillset and a different kind of learning to be aligned to the business. I think some are naturally bent that way and others need to learn, and I certainly needed to learn.
Harlan: I worked at Lockheed Aircraft years ago and we just had some engineers that came down and said, "Here, build this." It doesn't make any sense to me. I was in the tool and die area. Making the tools to make the parts that they were looking at. It's, you can't get in there to drill the holes you need or put in the connectors you need. We'd have to build a little model of them. "This is what you asked us for. There's no way we can actually do this." It's weird, but it seems like they're coming out now where they've actually had some classes that have them thinking more along end user side. That's why I was asking.
David: The other thing is, is that there's some people that know how to ask those questions, but they're put in an environment that says, "Don't ask, just do," and so part of the culture is to encourage them to ask. Those are the people that are engaged with like, "I want to solve the problem. I don't want to just do as I'm told, I want to solve the problem. Help me understand the problem." That's where innovation comes. That's where creativity comes. That's where companies can do something that really changes markets in a significant way.
Harlan: Nice. That's where the leader comes in, building that culture, right?
David: That's right.
Harlan: Where you do ask and try. Very cool. We talk about courage on the program. We talk about different types of courage that leaders have to tap into on a daily basis. Intellectual courage, the courage to set aside your long-held beliefs, the knowledge you currently have to make room for new knowledge. There's social courage, being able to say what needs to be said, when it needs to be said even if it's unpopular, empathetic courage, all that. We talk about where that courage may have come from. When you got started, a lot of people will probably look at your career and say, "Wow, going into an RD area, that may take courage getting up in front of people and talking like you do." The podcasting you've done, the different speeches you've done at different places, that takes a lot of courage.
Where did you find that? Where did that courage come from?
David: Good role models. One of my heroes growing up was Muhammad Ali.
David: Here was a guy who was super unpopular at the time, top of the world, champion of the world, didn't want to go to Vietnam. Thought it was immoral. He gave up everything for what he believed in. Now, eventually the world came around to him, but he didn't know that was going to happen. He got dethroned as a boxing champion, lost the best years of his career for something that he firmly believed in. Now, I was a little kid and then I didn't really understand all that, but followed his career, read about him. That was a courageous thing.
Armstrong setting for the moon, I'll go back to it, that was an experimental vehicle. I think it was Armstrong who said, "I regret to know that this vehicle was built by the lowest bidder." I think it was Armstrong who said. That was courage, and it required a team of thousands and thousands of people to do that. There's demonstrations of courage every day all the time. I wish I could say I was always courageous, that everything I did when I had the opportunity to do the thing that was a little more risky, I always did. It's not true. It's also like a muscle. The more you put yourself out there, the more you find the risk of failure isn't that significant and there's always a way to pick yourself up and go ahead.
Harlan: Absolutely. What type of courage would you say is most important for entrepreneurs or leaders today?
David: Speaking out in a honest, authentic manner, to execute even when all the data isn't there, because all the data is never there, and then to ask for that retrospective, that introspection, after things happen and be able to adapt. I think those three kinds of courage are required to be a great leader.
Harlan: Excellent. Like you said, what went right, what went wrong, what can we do different next time? Right?
David: That's right. Sometimes as a leader, it's your fault,-
David: -and you've got to not only listen for that, but encourage your team to tell you that. Your team is afraid to always tell you the truth if you sign the paycheck, and so you have to create an environment where they can tell you what is scary for them to tell you and have them know there's no risk.
Harlan: Build that culture where it's okay to say, "I don't know, or I'm not sure," or, "Hey, I made a mistake." The last thing you want them to do is hide that from you. They make a mistake and they don't tell anybody about it, it could grow exponentially. How many folks do you have working for you at Interna?
David: We are seven.
Harlan: You've managed teams before? Large teams?
David: Oh, yes, of hundreds. Of hundreds, yes.
Harlan: All around the world, right? Your teams were--
David: That's correct. Yes. I've managed teams in China, in Israel, in Austria, in New Zealand, bunch of other places too.
Harlan: Nice. Very cool. If I was to bump into any one of those folks and ask them what type of leader you are, what would they tell me? What kind of leader are you?
David: I would hope they would say I'm one that sets hard goals and creates opportunities for people to succeed in them. That I listen to feedback and I adjust, but when we make a decision, I give them the tools and I measure progress.
Harlan: Nice. Good job. What do you look for in a leader? We've talked about a lot of different types of courage you think they need, but what else do you look for to know that hey, this person's going to make it?
David: Empathy, the ability to learn quickly, the ability to speak in a way that's understandable, and with wisdom. Eisenhower said a leader is someone who people follow them because they want to do what the leader wants to get done. Leadership is sales as much as is about vision.
Harlan: Absolutely. The vision is important, but they have to buy into that vision. They have to see that, they have to feel it as much as you do and say, "Man, I want to help with this. I want to make this happen." Right?
David: Yes. It's more than once I've said, "I'm going to ask you to do something that's really hard," and we're doing stuff that's really hard because that's where value is created, that's where things are changed. All of the easy stuff has been done. All that's remaining is going to be the hard stuff, so expect that we're going to work together, we're going to do a lot of hard stuff, but you're going to be able to go home and say, "Here's how we changed the world."
Harlan: Nice. Very cool. I worked at Lockheed Aircraft on the Skunk Works, the ADP, the Advanced Development Projects, years ago. I'm going to date myself here. Kelly Johnson was the head of R&D and everything. Ben Rich was his underling. There were times when they actually came down on the floor and climbed up on the aircraft we were working on. Climb in there, roll their sleeves up, and dig in and see what was happening. You saw that dedication from them and you wanted to help, you wanted to be part of that. I think that's huge.
David: There's no task that needs to get done that is under the leader that's requiring to get done. As a matter of fact, sometimes the best task for the leader are to empty the trash can. I've set the goal. We've talked about the goal. You've agreed to do it. I've asked you to come back and tell me how you're going to get it done. We've debated about that. We've locked that. My job is to make your environment better and to help serve to make that better. If the most important thing to get done that you can't get done because you're focused on your task, the trash cans are getting full, I will empty the trash cans. Got no problem with that.
Harlan: Nice. Man, I wish more leaders thought that way. It seems like a lot of them, they feel like they have to be the smartest person in the room. They're afraid to say, "I don't know." They come up with something or they point back at their employees and say, "Well, you need to figure it out." Right? "That's what I pay you for, blah, blah, blah." I don't know. To me, the courage would be, "Let's work on this together. Let's fix this together."
David: That's right. The fact is that every leader has 24 hours a day and seven days a week. If you want your organization to scale, you've got to use the minds of the people in your organization. Otherwise, you're going to become a bottleneck, and your organization will only grow to the extent for hours you don't sleep.
Harlan: Wow. Good deal. What's next for you? I said you've done so much, you're so busy. Speaking engagements, things like that. What's next for you?
David: I love this. I love this. I've been CTO and chief product officer for a lot of organizations. I love having an impact, and I love learning, and I love meeting people, and I really like business. So there are other jobs that I'm sure that you could do that with. But this is pretty much optimized for what I really like. I do like going and speaking. I like presenting ideas and having people think about them. I'm going to keep doing this. I'm going to keep doing this until-- Someday, I guess I'll quit and I'll volunteer and I'll do things.
The other thing I'm doing is I'm starting to come on boards. That's like this, but more sprinkling on a little bit less in more places. Starting to serve on boards of directors. That's the other thing.
Harlan: Nice. Very cool. Is there a certain niche area that you work in? I know you do a lot of SAS stuff or SAS. Is that your niche area or do you work with almost any?
David: Almost any software, almost any company where software is a revenue driver.
David: If it's internal IT, like a grocery store that-- Amazon is a grocery store in some ways, but they're a technology company and technology is a revenue driver. If it's just a grocery store, inside insurance company, nothing wrong with those. For them, technology is a utility like electricity. If a company can get leveraged with technology, can increase their market, those are places that we can have value.
Harlan: Nice. Very cool. People are looking to get in touch with you. How can they do that? What's your website?
David: www.interna.com. Interna is like the word internal without the L, I-N-T-E-R-N-A. You can hit me up on LinkedIn. David Subar, my last name is like Subaru without the U, S-U-B-A-R. I'm D-Subar, almost everywhere on the internet. The website, there's a contact us page, LinkedIn, just reach out to me and always glad to help.
Harlan: Awesome. Any upcoming speaking engagements?
David: Yes, there's two that are not announced that are going to be in May, one in New York and one in San Francisco. Then there's a bunch on tap that we're waiting to hear about. Generally, I speak about every 4 to 6 weeks somewhere. I know those two are coming up. I think I have another two also, one in New York and one in San Francisco at the end of the year. Then stay tuned. On the LinkedIn page, always announced beforehand and then afterwards to the extent that they are on video, we're posting there too.
Harlan: Very cool. Excellent. David, this has been great. I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for taking time out to talk to us.
David: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Harlan: Yes, this has been good. All right, let's just hope you guys have taken a lot of notes. Definitely check out interna.com. If you have any questions about anything that we've talked about, definitely reach out to David and share this episode with your family, friends, colleagues. Leave us a review because reviews are important for those algorithms. We all live and die by the algorithms, so put your reviews out there. Stick around because there's always more coming.