Leading Product with Empathy

A look into cloud-based technology product management and what it takes to build products that customers value

Corey Grone, Senior Product Manager Cloud-based technology products“The paramount role of a product manager is to understand markets and empathize with consumer needs,” says Corey Grone, senior product manager of cloud data protection at iland Cloud.

Grone manages a suite of products that fall under BaaS (Backup as a Service) and DRaaS (Disaster Recovery as a Service) portfolios. They provide peace of mind for companies in an age where digital databases are the norm. One of the largest products that Grone manages ensures that organizations can easily get a copy of their offsite backups into the cloud for protection in the event that something were to happen to compromise their data locally.

“Many companies use Microsoft Office 365 for their emails – one thing many people don’t realize about Office 365 is that it does not back up your emails,” he explains, “if you accidentally delete something, it’s gone forever.” iland Cloud’s product, Secure Cloud Backup for Microsoft Office 365, is designed to solve this problem.

‘Disaster Recovery as a Service’ products go a step further than backups, says Grone. These products are designed to respond to a crisis before it happens. “If something bad happens locally, like an office losing power, having a copy of important data somewhere else isn’t enough. It can take weeks, or even months, to get back up and running even though companies have a copy of those backups,” he says. These products make it easier for companies to bounce back after encountering big problems.

We’re Here for the Symphony 

There’s a scene in the Steve Jobs (2015) biopic, where Steve Wozniak asks Jobs, “What do you do? You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?”

Jobs replies, “Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.”

This is a quote that resonates strongly with Grone. “Being a product manager is like being a conductor,” he says, “it’s not about telling people how to do their jobs — it’s about coordinating and producing a final product to be enjoyed.” He also humbly adds that a product manager, like a conductor, is not meant to get all the attention for success or have absolute authority over a process. A product is a collaborative effort, where Grone’s role is to set the tempo for each player to do what they do best.

We Have One Priority — the Product 

“Companies hire product managers because they see the value of having someone whose job is to catch everything that falls into the gaps between different silos,” Grone says. Even within a company, the product managers serve as a liaison between different departments. On a typical day, Grone meets with leaders of the support team, works with developers and answers questions from individual salespeople.

“With each of these audiences, I apply different skills. The single most important skill in my role as a product manager then becomes the ability to viscerally put yourself in the shoes of the person sitting across the table from me or on the other end of the phone line,” Grone adds.

Grone highlights how he’s working to help make jobs easier for different teams. For example, to support leadership, he might say “let me tell you about this new self-service feature that we’re introducing to the product so that you guys are going to get fewer tickets, and then you can help educate customers on how they can do it themselves the next time.” In guiding support leadership like this, Grone adds he’s both lightening their load, as well as helping the customer have a better experience. “Everybody wants to control their destiny.”

When interacting with salespeople, Grone explains that he answers specific questions about his products. “I’m playing the role of subject matter expert and the person who knows the most about the product at the company.” In addition to this, he ensures that the rules are being followed. “I’m making sure that salespeople are selling the products as they are meant to be sold. Oftentimes, people come to me when there’s some sort of one-off situation they’re not clear about, or how to answer a customer’s question or something like that.” He explains that upwards of 50 percent of his day is spent handling very tactical work – whether this means reviewing the language of a marketing document or sharing an insight regarding a particular customer request.

Discovering Product Management 

If you’re wondering how Grone got into product management, he laughs as he says, “when I look back on my career, I’ve always been a rolling stone.” He explains that the variety in his experiences has helped him succeed in product management.

Grone has a Bachelor’s in Computer Engineering and an MBA with a concentration in Management in Information Systems from the University of Pittsburgh, and a history of working in a variety of IT roles. After earning his degrees, he and his wife moved to a rural part of India for a couple of years, where Grone began doing IT work with Management Science Associates, Inc. After returning to the states, he continued to work with the company in a variety of roles.

As Grone learned more about product management, there came a moment when he realized, “ah, this is my calling.” He began his transition to becoming a product manager by taking advantage of training opportunities and certifications to get the skills he needed to succeed.

For Aspiring Product Managers

Until recently, this was one of the only paths available to would-be product managers, and is ultimately what led Carnegie Mellon University to create its first-of-its-kind MS in Product Management degree program that’s laser focused on building better product managers. The 12-month interdisciplinary degree is a partnership between two of Carnegie Mellon’s renowned schools – the Tepper School of Business and the School of Computer Science.

While the program didn’t exist when Grone was working through his own career transition, he does add that Greg Coticchia, Director of MSPM has been very helpful to him – connecting him with other product management industry leaders who’ve been generous with their insights in this dynamic, evolving field.