Speaker 1: Hey there product lovers. Welcome to the Product Love Podcast, hosted by Eric Boduch, co- founder and chief evangelist of Pendo and super fan of all things product. Product Love is the place for real insights into the world of crafting products, as Eric interviews founders, product leaders, venture capitalists, authors and more. So, let's dive in now with today's Product Love podcast.
Eric Boduch: Welcome lovers of product. Today, we are here with Lawrence Huang, VP of product management at Cisco Meraki. Lawrence, why don't you kick this off by giving us a little overview of your background?
Lawrence Huang: Sure. Thanks a lot Eric for having me and hello to all the listeners out there. My name's Lawrence. I look after the Cisco Meraki product management team today. I got my start early on actually as an engineer. My first real job was designing RFIC circuits as an electrical engineer, that was really at a startup on my grad school advisor started up at the time. Over the years I've taken on a number of roles from the electrical engineer focused on RFIC design to product applications engineering ultimately into product management, but I've been in tech for a long time now it's been a fun journey so far.
Eric Boduch: Awesome. Talk to me about how you got into product management, take me through that story.
Lawrence Huang: I would say it started with a lot of luck. I think that what is true about product management is you don't go to school for product management. That's not a thing, though these days there clearly are a lot more options for educational opportunities focus on it but, I've always loved technology ever since I was a kid and that's what led me into engineering. I really enjoyed my time as an engineer building products that ultimately we get to ship and land in the hands of customers that they get to use as part of their everyday lives and hopefully to make their lives a little bit better. But, one of the things I realized over time after a few years of doing this is I really wanted to have a more expansive view of what it takes to get products from concept to shipment into customers actually deploying it. And some of the friends I had at the time who I trusted, they went on these career journey where they left engineering and went back to business school, and some of them became management consultants, some of them for reasons I don't understand went to investment banking and others went into product management. I had no notion where product management really was so, when I started talking to them it sounded intriguing because it was really that blend of technology and business, and so I decided to take that path as well. I decided to exit engineering, I did go back to school and I will tell you, I ended up picking incredible timing, right? I graduated in 2009 in the depths of the great recession. And for those of you who did not experience that, there's a reason why they call it the great recession. I was very fortunate at the time I was networking up, down, left, right and sideways, taking on every single internship opportunity both paid and unpaid that I could. And it just so happened that there was a team at Cisco that was building a new product group focused on tackling, how do we modernize the electrical grid and focus on smart grid? And they ended up offering me an opportunity to be a product manager on the team. I did that for a couple of years and I ultimately left Cisco and I ended up finding this little startup called Meraki and it's been a fun ride since.
Eric Boduch: Lawrence, talk to me about Cisco Meraki now. What teams you oversee, the problems you're solving?
Lawrence Huang: I'm responsible for the product management team, and this is inclusive of your traditional product managers but also, we have this part of my organization called product enablement, which is really how do we actually develop and create scalable content and trainings to really scale through Cisco and our partner community? It's a little bit different than your traditional product management org. When I think about the mission at Meraki, it's really to simplify the digital workplace so our customers can focus on their missions. And at the heart of it though, the way I would really describe it as, how do we actually simplify powerful technology in an industry that's used to complexity to deliver exceptional outcomes for your customers? And that's really at the heart of what we do here at Meraki.
Eric Boduch: Now, tell me about the teams, how that's grown since you've been acquired by Cisco.
Lawrence Huang: When I joined Meraki, it was about a hundred people in the company. Meraki is now, I think, close to 2000 people. We've scaled out across all functions including product management. I think every year there's always a reevaluation of what it means to grow and scale our teams. How do we think about what's coming? And this has been one of the fun parts of the job, which is continuing to not just product manage products, but also really product manage an organization.
Eric Boduch: What was it like being acquired going from Meraki and then being acquired by Cisco? Tell me about that. Talk me through that process and how that affected your role as a product leader.
Lawrence Huang: Well, the honest truth is when I left Cisco the first time, I did so not because I didn't think it was a great company or that I didn't like the people I was working with, but I was ready for a new challenge. I wanted to be as part of a business that was really tackling a set of problems that would have great impact. And when I joined Meraki and I saw the product demo for the first time, even though I wasn't focused on the networking world, to me it was very clear that this is the future of networking and I was really excited to be part of that. So, I joined Meraki at the beginning of 2012 pre- acquisition. At the end of 2012, Cisco acquired Meraki, and I wouldn't say that my first reaction was definitely one of trepidation and I think a big part of that was I really loved the team, the culture, the things that we built here, and I really want to make sure that we were able to preserve some elements of that. I'm sure you and your listeners know most acquisitions, they're not always successful on being integrated or they're integrated in such a way that it's a very different organization at the end. And I think one of the things the Meraki founders did very exceptionally well is this idea of how do you actually put up for lack of a better word firewall to maintain the organization, keep it intact, giving it the space to continue to grow organically of course, benefiting from the scale and reach and the investment of Cisco. And that's something that we've been able to execute on. And in fact, I would say Meraki's been one of the Cisco's most successful acquisitions and we become a model of sorts for how do you, how does Cisco think about integrating acquisitions? When do you actually keep that team intact and let them grow in scale organically versus trying to more planned integration if you will.
Eric Boduch: You talked too about some of the cultural components of Meraki that you wanted to make sure survived the acquisition. Talk to me about those, what were those?
Lawrence Huang: I think a lot of it is the way we develop products that was first front and center of what I care deeply about. We have this concept that Meraki that we internally call the closed loop and a big part of what it means to be this closed loop is you're basically developing products in such way that every part of the organization, every single department is influential in how you think about developing and taking to market. And so, a good example of this is when our support team is starting to see issues that crop up in new firmware releases that we ship out to our customers, they don't have to wait to get that feedback back to us they're sitting in the same building, they're part of the extended team. And so we get that immediate feedback so we can start making conscious decisions. Is this important enough to put aside the projects and work that we're doing to go tackle this immediately? When I think about our sales team making sure that they have a clear understanding of how our roadmap is evolving, how our value proposition continues to change being able to communicate that efficiently and effectively, that's all part of our closed loop and a big part of the culture that we developed here that quite frankly has made us as successful as we've been so far.
Eric Boduch: Now, after acquisition you talked about that firewall is part of the reason that the Meraki acquisition has been successful, not only that firewall, but the assurance that you've been able to continue those core product cultural or values that you've had, is that had a big impact on the success of Meraki post acquisition?
Lawrence Huang: I would say that some of the things I attribute to that success post acquisition initially yes it was the firewall, but I think a big part of what it means to be part of the Meraki within Cisco is this idea of what are the core values of Meraki and Merakians in general. And values are something that I believe are consistent throughout time. And I've worked at enough companies and organizations where values are printed at the back of your badge. It's sent in an email and that's pretty much the extent of what it means to lean into the values. And in some ways it's something that's printed with actual very little value. And at Meraki we talk about values and live our values in a way that I've never experienced before in an organization. So, it's everything from this idea of caring deeply for one another, always trying to simplify everything, always being brave. These are some of the elements of our core values that every Merakian embraces, but then when you go beyond values, then it goes into, what is the mission for the team? Being very clear with the product team what our mission is, how we're going to deliver on this. These are things that you have to be crystal clear on the team knows where your true north is. And ultimately culture is something that I believe should evolve and continue to evolve with every single new person that we add. And collectively we steer the ship in terms of the culture, but the foundations, the values and then making sure that there's clarity in terms of our north star.
Eric Boduch: So, now Cisco Meraki or Cisco a couple of times, talk to me about the difference being a product manager at a startup and at a large enterprise and do you have a preference?
Lawrence Huang: I think a lot of the fundamentals are absolutely the same, right? You have to know your product, you have to know your customers, you have to understand your routes to market, you really have to understand your business. And I think the biggest difference for me being part of a startup outside of your typical startup chaos is this idea of scale and reach as well as the increasing complexity of stakeholder management. This would have been true if Meraki remained independent versus being part of Cisco, especially as you grow and scale. Now, I like to think of it in the following way which is, would you rather build products that are amazing that no one actually gets to use or would you like to build those products that have incredible impact and reach? And I think of the benefits that has been so clear to me is the reach scale being part of a company like Cisco is phenomenal. When we actually provide new software updates, literally hundreds of thousands of our customers get to experience that benefit overnight. When we think about how do we actually release new products or services, there is a very loud marketing engine behind this with a very strong partner community that can augment and amplify that message and that is incredibly powerful. So, it's not about just one better than the other. It's really about what you are optimizing for within your own career and what's important to you.
Eric Boduch: So, are there different times in your career where you appreciated different sized organizations?
Lawrence Huang: Absolutely right. As I mentioned, I started working my first job at a startup and I've worked at mid- sized companies to very large fortune 100, 500 companies. And I think all of them they definitely have their ups and downs. I think this is aligned with the way I think about my own career evolution. Every few years you should ask yourself the question, is this what I want to continue doing? Because I tend to think of my career as sequences of investment on my time, every few years I should look around reevaluate whether I should spend the next few years continuing doing what I'm doing and ultimately do the pluses outweighed the cons and that's how I have steered the ship if you will, for how I think about my own career evolution.
Eric Boduch: And that's a good segue too, because I want to talk to you about your career, right? And your advice for people climbing the product management ladder. You were the first product manager at Meraki switch now you lead a team. What advice do you have to the PMs out there about scaling their career in product and in advancing throughout a product organization as a company grows?
Lawrence Huang: The straight forward answer for me is for most of my career, I've never taken the approach that I'm going to reach for this title or this role per se outside of major shifts from being an engineer to product manager, I've always focused on being good at what I do and ultimately being able to deliver value to the organization and that's allowed me to find the opportunities to take on more responsibilities, whether it's owning more of a product portfolio to leading a small team, to ultimately an organization. But I think that's a little bit unfair in that it discounts what actually happens behind the scenes, right? The reality is that I've had a lot of great leaders along the way. I've had a lot of people in my corner who are willing to advocate on my behalf and knowing what I do now, I would say that especially as someone who isn't the majority of representation in Silicon Valley in executive roles, as I reflect my earlier self not asking for promotions and I think I would actually take a very different approach now actively seeking out sponsors, mentors, being a mentor to others, right? You don't have to be in a role of a manager to be a leader. That's something that it took me a little while for me to learn, but I think it's incredibly valuable to recognize that early on to develop those skills.
Eric Boduch: I think that's a really good point that you mentioned that you don't have to be a manager to be a leader. You can mentor people, you can help, you can go out of your way to help make the company successful even if it doesn't directly impact your particular job function. I think in great companies people see that and they see that as the people that they want to promote and they want to turn into leaders too.
Lawrence Huang: Absolutely. And I think that goes back to what do you optimize for, and a big part of why I've stayed around is also that cultural element. This culture that we built is very collaborative. It does want to see people grow and develop and succeed in their career. I always tell people on my team that I want the relationship that we have to be radically candid right? In the vein of radical candor. But, as part of that, that also means they should also expect that I'm in their corner. And what that means is if they think the next step for them is a role that we have available, that's great. But if it's a role outside Meraki within greater Cisco or even outside the company, we want to support that. And that's something that's been one of the elements that has allowed Merakians as a whole to continue to grow and develop and evolve their career, we really want this to be the best moment in your career, the best place that you've ever worked at, even the day that you choose to leave.
Eric Boduch: So, let's dig more into that. Let's talk about building out product teams. How do you build those high performing product teams, how do you get those people that you were just describing in the organization, what's the structure look like, what are the relationships between designers and PMs and engineers? Talk to me about building out those teams.
Lawrence Huang: One of the things that we talk about a lot at Meraki is we've brought in scale, is this idea of Conway's law, which is really the products that you build can be a reflection of the organization structure. And one of the things that has made our customers love our products is that it feels it works seamlessly together, that it is a cohesive experience. And that's very hard to accomplish because if you look at the networking industry, switching wireless as to LAN, these are all massive areas in of themselves and there are whole companies built around just one product category. So, how do you actually build out product portfolio that feels more cohesive? And that also comes down how your teams are organized. I also believe that a big part of how we do this is that we have teams with a high degree of autonomy that have a lot of independence, but there's also a very tight coupling and alignment at the leadership level, so that goals for the organization can be propagated down, but still giving teams a lot of flexibility to go execute. I think that's been one of the ways that we've really thought about how we continue to organize here. Practically speaking, what does this mean? We still have product teams that are focused on a given product area. We have product teams that are focused on our cloud infrastructure. We have product teams that are focused on compliance regimes like FedRAMP. But at the end of the day, we also have a lot of product areas like our network assurance capabilities, the overall dashboard experience, the API investments that we have that need better coordination across teams. So, knowing when to spin up virtual teams versus actual teams, these are some of the things that we have to keep experimenting and being okay to iterate on over time.
Eric Boduch: What about diversity and inclusion?
Lawrence Huang: So, we have this concept of employee resource groups at Cisco, and this can be anything from those who are military veterans to those black professionals. One of the events I attended recently, there was a quote from this woman, Carol Stokes and she said something to the effect that" Diversity is a fact, and inclusion is an act, and belonging is an outcome." And, one of the things that I talk a lot about with our CEO, Denise Thomas, she likes to say that talent knows no zip code. And the reality is that we all know the benefits of diverse and inclusive teams. We all know the benefits of teams with a strong sense of psychological safety. And one of the things that I struggle with is looking around at the diversity of my industry. It's not where I believe it needs to be. So, what are the things that we can do? What are the actions that we can take? And for me, it starts with things that are under my control. We can have structured interview processes. We can define for a given role what are the skills we need? We can develop the questions to test for this skill. We can do our best to create on how diverse interview panels to try to take out as much bias out of the system as possible. We can also invest in a different way for early and grow talent. When I think about our internship program, we actually bring in a really good class of interns every cycle and so, one of the things that I can do here is make a conscious decision to hold head count to convert our interns to full- time hires, to increase the diversity of the team. So, these are some of the actions that I can personally take that I think does contribute towards that goal of building more diverse and inclusive teams.
Eric Boduch: Now, it's been 12 years, right? Or they're about you've been a product manager. So the roles have evolved a lot too during that time. How have you seen the role evolve and how has things like this product led movement impacted the role?
Lawrence Huang: The interesting thing that I see is that with product managers, it's not just sufficient to be an expert in your technology domain in the market area, but there's a trend towards increasingly being able to measure and really just being a scientist, right? Coming up with a hypothesis, testing your hypothesis and then iterating based on the results of the things that you do. So, whether it's you have features that you choose to develop, to bring out to market, to understanding how your users actually use your products today, finding more ways to measure and then to use that to help too in your product roadmap, that's becoming a lot more consistent in the product managers that we tend to hire for that we see in market.
Eric Boduch: Now, I want to jump back to something you mentioned, you made a mention of FedRAMP and being someone who builds for the enterprise I completely get the challenges of building for the enterprise and supporting things like FedRAMP and SOC 2 et cetera. Talk to me about building for the enterprise space. What do you think is something product managers absolutely can't overlook if they're building for those types of users? And any advice you have for people that have maybe worked on products geared towards smaller businesses that are now moving to a company that builds products primarily geared for the enterprise.
Lawrence Huang: I think the evolutionized team even within Meraki is every increasing part of our business is in the enterprise space and enterprise customers tend to have very bespoke demands or requirements. So, how do you actually develop a product strategy to serve both? And in Meraki we define that in such a way that we are still going to focus on simplicity at the heart of our user experience, but to support the needs of enterprise customers we want to be able to invest in such a way that others can build on top of our platform essentially. So, investing in API end points, building out a set of ecosystem partners to enable our customers, our partners to solve unique use cases that may be applicable to a handful of customers versus the mass market. Now, the other side to this is making sure that you understand their use cases, right? Oftentimes in networking, because it's such a large mature industry. When you talk to enterprise customers or as someone who's been in it for a while, they're going to tell you they need feature X because that's what they know, because that's what all the other vendors offer. Now understanding the why behind it so you can determine as a product manager, should we deliver on that use case? Yes or no. Should we deliver on that use case the same way that everyone else has by building feature X or can we do it differently? And those are the types of questions that we consistently ask ourselves even as we're trying to serve these large enterprise customers. I think the other piece to it is knowing when to invest in things that your customer never asked for. Our CTO and I we often have this conversation because our sales team, our customers they're going to ask for our features and they're going to ask for things to solve use cases, but how do we invest in quality? How do we invest in reliability? How do we invest in scale? Because these are things that no one will ever ask for until it's too late. And so, it's about really understanding the metrics that are important to you and then are you within those defined metrics? Because...
Eric Boduch: How do you do that? How do you invest for liability scale performance, how do you spend time removing technical debt or scaling up the architecture, how do you allocate for that?
Lawrence Huang: I can say that we can always do better. I think every organization can probably make that statement, but I think it goes back to defining the metrics that you care about. So for us this means being okay that we may not know everything, but we should have a point of view. So, if the metric for quality is making sure that the number of SevOne in a given quarter or given year is below a certain number, then are we within that bound? If not, what adjustments do we have to make to make that true? And then ultimately just the metrics that you pick is that actually reflective of the experience your customers have? If the SevOne metric is incorrect, maybe it's actually around page load time, that makes the most difference for your customer. So, it's not a single variable equation, it's multi- variable, it's complex, but being willing to test your hypothesis and being able to adjust is important.
Eric Boduch: So looking to the future, what trends do you see in product management, how do you see the role of product management continuing to change, it feels like product managers over the last five to 10 years, the role has gotten more and more important inside of technology companies. Would you agree with that, do you see that continuing?
Lawrence Huang: I think I have a little bit of different perspective on that, and I think it's an outcome of me growing up in product management within Meraki. And I think one of the things that I see is incredibly powerful is that when you have collaborators that work well together, you can achieve incredible things and when I think about that classic three legged school of engineering design and product, there's something to that, but it also extends beyond that into that closed loop I mentioned earlier, how do you take the input of your sellers, your marketers and really using that as part of one of many sources of input that you think have to evolve your product roadmap and strategy. And it's not that one is more important than the other, one team, one person. But they all have something of value to contribute, and I think if you believe that it's product manager is the most important thing, then I think you're going to end up in an organization that I personally would not want to work for. And I think that it just leads to poor outcomes and products for customers.
Eric Boduch: I would definitely agree with that. I also remember the time where there weren't product managers in companies building software, right? It was 30 engineers and maybe two designers and the designers were there to make things pretty when the engineers were done building it right? I think we've seen that change a lot in the last decade where even some of the companies you might not think of as traditionally as being product management oriented companies, say the home depots of the world have really big product management team supporting their engineering and design staff.
Lawrence Huang: Absolutely and I think it comes down to what are the outcomes you're trying to optimize for and what are the team structures you need, whether you call someone a product manager or not that type of role, that type of function clearly is important for delivering products and services to the market, whether you are a classic technology company or a pizza chain.
Eric Boduch: Absolutely. You see that, pizza is a great example of how technology has been a differentiator for some of the pizza chains, especially that's been compounded obviously by the pandemic and remote work but, it's affected stock multiple in some of those public companies.
Lawrence Huang: Absolutely.
Eric Boduch: So, let's talk a little bit about you Lawrence. What's your favorite product?
Lawrence Huang: My favorite product is actually the Peloton. I ended up buying one on a whimp back in January 2020, because after having kids I was probably in the worst shape of my life and then the pandemic hit. And that was a godsend in terms of mental and physical health. They built an incredible community and experience around their product and it's something that continues to be engaging and I'll sing their praises up and down.
Eric Boduch: It's amazing how many people pick Peloton now as their favorite or one of their favorite products, it just goes to show... you think about it at its lowest level it's a bike, right? But then when you use it, you understand the power of the community and just all of the little details, how well edited the classes are, the connection with the instructors, the music, everything, how it all works together. It's just really well done really well thought through.
Lawrence Huang: Absolutely. And from someone who builds and develops products for the enterprise market, I definitely appreciate the thought and care for a consumer focused product.
Eric Boduch: Absolutely. So, one final question for you today. Three words to describe yourself?
Lawrence Huang: Father, husband, realist.
Eric Boduch: Thank you. This was awesome. I enjoyed it.
Lawrence Huang: Thanks a lot Eric. I definitely appreciate the time.