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B2B Advice – Billtrust 2 Business Advice: Derek Bluestone

In a technology company, Product is one of the main pieces of the foundation. The platforms and solutions that make the business unique, the touch points between organization and customer, and the customer experience all can be derived from product. A great product will make or break your company. Derek Bluestone, SVP of Product at Billtrust, has been in involved with many different product creations, launches, and innovations. Derek breaks down challenges that the product industry faces as well as advice from his career here.

How has the product world evolved since you started your career?

I’d say there have been a couple of major shifts: velocity – product releases are now defined in weeks rather than years, design thinking – user experience and great design play a much bigger role in product execution, cloud – years ago, we thought of the physical capacity as a auto limiter on what we built, today with AWS we code our infrastructure and never give physicality a second thought and mobile – ignore it at your peril.

What were some of the challenges when you started in product?

Biggest challenge was managing the transition from waterfall to agile methodologies. This requires great skill in communication and collaboration with team members and customers. It used to be we’d start with a huge stack of static requirements and very little interaction with the customer, today we start with customer conversation and maintain it all the way through to product release.

What are some of the current challenges that product professionals face today and how are we overcoming that?

We have this concept of minimum viable product (MVP), but often the “V” is in the eye of the beholder. Professional product managers have to balance the needs of many stakeholders (Sales, Support, Executives, Professional Services and Customers) to come up with an MVP that is valuable and scales. I’ve seen many products fail because good product goals were not set and the MVP did not service the top stakeholder — the customer.

What is the best piece advice that someone has ever given you and why?

Years ago, a mentor of mine stressed the importance of credibility and integrity. He used to say “you can challenge my competence, but not my integrity” …. the message was clear, your word is your bond.

Who is someone that you have looked up to during your career?

I’ve been lucky to work with and for a number of very talented and supportive folks. Skip Taylor and Bill Wagner (CEO, LogMeIn) were key role models for me during my early years at Fiberlink Communications.  Mike Cohn (Mountain Goat Software) has been very influential in my understanding of Agile and good software development practices.

What predictions do you have for product in the next decade?

The fine line between technical and non-technical product managers will continue to fade. It used to be that product managers exclusively focused on the “what” and not the “how”, but this is changing. Native application development on cloud platforms (Google Compute, AWS and Microsoft Cloud) will continue to dominate the product landscape. The power of code as infrastructure, elastic compute and artificial intelligence/machine learning on these platforms is only just getting started. Product managers will need to digest these capabilities on a continuous basis to inform and enrich the art of the possible.

What are three things that you hope to accomplish before your career is over

  1. Build a successful two sided network (ex: LinkedIn)
  2. Write a book
  3. Become an angel investor

If someone asked you how they could develop their product skills, how would you advise them to do so?

Start by visiting Mountain Goat Software and taking some of the excellent courses Mike Cohn offers. Reach out to an experienced product manager – ask him/her what a day in the life looks like. Most importantly, visit with and listen to lots of customers.

What would you tell yourself 10 years in the past based on experiences you now have?

Do more networking with peers. The product community is amazingly generous with time and advice – use it.

What advice or motivation would you give yourself for 10 years in the future?

Expect to reinvent yourself every 3-5 years – don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t be afraid to challenge conventional thinking. Take care of your team.

A special thank you for going through those career experiences for this article. You can connect with Derek here.

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