Scaling Product Management at SendGrid: Part 1 – Growing the Team

Product

I joined SendGrid in July 2013 as the company’s first Product Management (PM) leader. At that point, the company was four years old, with 150 employees and an impressive revenue growth rate. Installing and optimizing PM at a rapidly scaling company is hard, so I’d like to share some of our learnings as we tackled various challenges, in hopes that it benefits the broader PM and technology community. This post is the first in a series, and addresses the topic of how to grow a PM team.

Unifying the Team

When I joined SendGrid, we had 3 Product Managers and 1 Designer on staff. The Product Managers and Designer were primarily engineering facing and had not been managed as a team to that point. My first move was to create a sense of unity and alignment on the team. For new PM leaders, I recommend the following tactics to get your team established.

  • Facilitate team building. To that point, the existing team hadn’t operated as a cohesive unit, rather as free agents in their respective areas. I facilitated team building, and eventually trust within the team, by setting up regularly scheduled team calls, team building social events, and team-wide projects (e.g. hands on competitive analysis).
  • Create a shared product vision and roadmap. I involved the team in the process of developing a product strategy and roadmap presentation, which gave them shared ownership over our product direction.
  • Sell the value of PM internally. You can’t scale a PM team without the support and trust of executives and cross-functional leaders. When I joined, one of the execs was rumored to have questioned “Why do we need a Director of PM anyway?”. Given the overall organizational skepticism around the value of PM, I knew I had some bridge building to do. One of my first moves was to set up 1:1s with key players across the company, to listen and understand their issues with PM to that point, and to open lines of communication that didn’t previously exist. Over time, trust developed and with it came the internal support to grow the team.

Optimizing Ratios

Once the team foundation was in place, it came time to aggressively scale up the team. The key to this investment in the PM organization was executive level support for the function. Our CEO, Sameer Dholakia, is a former Product Manager, so he understands the value of the role and the impact to the company if done well. He worked personally with me on a hiring plan for the team that would get us the kind of experience and coverage we needed to run PM at a high level.

During 2015 alone, we added 4 PMs, 1 Designer, and a Director of UI/UX. We now enjoy healthy ratios of Product Managers to Designers (1 to 1 on UI heavy product areas) and Product Managers to Engineers (1 to 7 on average). Having healthy ratios enables the Product Team to plan further out in front, solicit more customer feedback, and spend more time on the finer details of design. Do you have the internal support you need? Who is your champion?

To Grow or Buy PM Skills?

Companies often face the dilemma of whether to “grow” less expensive PMs from other internal functions, or “buy” external PMs with more experience. We decided to employ a mixed strategy. We hired 5 PMs from the outside, and transferred in 4 from other internal functions. 5 of the PMs were more junior, and 4 had a Sr./Director level depth of experience in PM and email.

We like this combination, as it provides us with a rich mix of PM, email, and SendGrid experience. The “SendGrid-grown PMs” can learn PM best practices from the more experienced team members, and the external PMs can learn from the SendGrid veterans about the customers and technology behind SendGrid. For the 11 of us with PM titles, we now have 63 years of PM experience, 68 years of email industry experience, and 22.5 years of SendGrid experience on the team.

Hiring Best Practices

Hiring well is hard, but mission critical. Fortunately, SendGrid has an excellent HR team, a strong cultural foundation, and a robust hiring process to help the cause. Whether you have an excellent HR system behind you or not, here are a few best practices around finding and hiring good PMs:

  • It takes time. I probably spent 25% of my time on recruiting, interviewing, and onboarding new hires when I was in full hiring mode. This felt like a ton of time investment, but was well worth it.
  • Leverage a cross-functional team to interview candidates. Culture and system fit is especially critical for PMs. Our interview teams typically consist of myself, two fellow PMs, and an engineering lead.
  • Clearly identify your target and don’t compromise. We had a number of hires who were super specific in terms of the experience level and type of domain experience we were looking for. It took patience to wait for the right fit, but in all cases, we found a match.

Conclusion

Growing a PM team at a rapidly scaling company is exciting but also full of challenges. You need to unify your team, gain executive support to grow your team and optimize your PM:Design and PM:Engineering ratios, decide on your strategy for “growing” vs. “buying” PMs, and nail the hiring process. I hope you took something away from the post, and best of luck growing your PM team! Stay tuned for Part 2, which will cover the topic of “Prioritizing Usability.”


Scott Williamson
More Posts by Scott
As VP of Product Management, Scott leads SendGrid's 16-person Product Management team. Scott and his team are responsible for driving SendGrid's product strategy and new product development, with the mission of delivering products that customers love and value.