Q&A With Bogomil Balkansky
Vice President, Cloud Recruiting Solutions, Google
How did you get your start in product?
At Cornell University, I declared an economics major, but my first two economics classes bored me. However, as part of the general requirements, I took calculus and I loved it, so I ended up becoming a math major. Honestly, I never saw myself as a career mathematician, because the only thing you can do is earn a Ph.D. and become a professor. But high-level math is all about abstract thinking and problem-solving, and that is helpful in any job.
When I finished my undergrad degree, I worked as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company for three and a half years. Then I attended business school from 1998 to 2000, during the crest of the dotcom wave. You could call it lemming mentality, but, like many people who attended Stanford’s business school at that time, I ended up in technology. My first tech job was as a product manager at a startup that closed its doors during the 2001 recession. That was my baptism by fire in product management. At the time I was very green; I didn’t know what I was doing, but that’s how I got started.
I really learned the craft in my next job at Siebel Systems, where I had a chance to work for a great manager, Kamal Shah. I consider working for Kamal at Siebel as my alma mater in product management and product marketing. I spent three and a half years at Siebel and then went to VMware, where I had the unique opportunity to build the product marketing team from scratch.
What are your tips for building better product teams?
From 2005 to 2013, I led product marketing at VMware. I had the luxury of recruiting some of my team members and working with them for an extended period. This allowed me to teach them the craft the way I understood it and the way I wanted the team to run. In 2010, I also took over the product management team. At that point, my team had grown to more than 100 people. But as my team expanded through reorgs and mergers and acquisitions, I had not recruited or coached most of the people I led.
The result was an inconsistency in the quality of work and methodology, leading to inconsistent results. To be effective, our team needed to get on the same page about what we were doing and how we were doing it. We needed a common vocabulary and tools for how to approach our work. When I shared my frustrations with members of the team, somebody said, “Hey, if that’s your goal, let’s bring in some external help.”
In 2011, we piloted Pragmatic Institute training with approximately 10 people. I sat in and liked it. Over the next year, we ran everybody in product management and product marketing through the class.
The training had a lasting impact; it gave our team a shared vocabulary and tools. We learned the importance of developing personas and being clear about who we were building products for and who we were marketing those products to.
Are you working on any passion projects?
My side passion is to help develop the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Bulgaria, where I’m originally from. I’m involved with an initiative called the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center. We have been brainstorming about how to have an impact on the technology community in Bulgaria, where the skills in product marketing, product management, and sales are essentially nonexistent. Bulgaria has a vibrant technology startup scene, and a lot of large software companies have major research and development centers there, including VMware and SAP.
But there is a natural path for some people who have worked for large companies for a while. They have their own ideas and get tired of working for a large company. So they split off and try to do something on their own. What I consistently observe with these startups is that the founders are engineers who are capable technology and product people, but really don’t know much about how to bring a product to market.
I’m connected with some of the incubators and early-stage VC firms. I’m also on the board of one of these startups and an advisor to quite a few. Because of my positive experience with Pragmatic Institute back when I was at VMware, I suggested that we hold a Pragmatic Institute Foundations course for some of these tech startups, to see how they like it and whether it’s appropriate for them. If it is, we’ll make it a regular thing. And if it’s not, at least we tried. This is what led me to help organize Pragmatic Institute training for a group of maybe 20 companies in March.
I still need to digest all the feedback from our first training event, but the reaction has been very positive so far. People saw it as absolutely helpful. They wrote that there was an appetite to take some of the other classes. People basically told me, “This is very timely, it’s very helpful.”