How one instructor is teaching students to pull something from nothing, make the right product, and solve the unsolvableJim Morris was a product manager well before there was such a thing as product management because he saw something that others didn’t. Having worked in early stage start-ups, tech companies and Fortune 100 corporations, Jim realized that the key to a successful product was figuring out not just how to make products, but how to make the right ones — those which will be successful in the market. Now a company founder and an instructor for UC Berkeley’s Master of Engineering (MEng) program, Jim challenges both his students and his clients how to make something out of nothing and engineer a product that will change the world with the solution it provides. Jim is now helping to shape the world’s future engineering leaders through his Berkeley MEng courses on Coaching for High Performance Teams and Product Management for Engineering Leaders. This is his story.
You graduated from Stanford with a degree in computer science. How did you get into product management and what’s the connection there?Many years ago, product management was not a discipline, so when I got into computers, it was really to build things. I really enjoyed that satisfaction of building something new and so when I got out of school, I started with a company; however, I only worked for them for three months because they said it would take about two years to get on a team to build something. I soon switched companies to work for a friend’s startup, primarily to be able to build something quicker. Within 30 days at this start-up, I built and launched something. To me, that was incredibly satisfying. When the business people came over to the engineering area to discuss an idea they had, I was the engineer that engaged with them and I became sort of the business-minded engineer. That was about 10 years of hands-on keyboard coding and managing other engineers and acting as that business and technology connection, which we now call product management. So I did that role before it was called product management.
So what is product management and what about it interests you?As time has gone on, it’s been easier to actually build products. To build software 20 years ago, we would have to buy a server, find a secure place to put it that had secure access and great internet connection like data centers. Fast forward to now, we just rent computing by the second or the minute and you don’t have to just buy a computer. Though it’s much easier to get a big company going from a small company, people still are implementing their really bad ideas. They’ll come up with an idea and want to manifest it into some technology — some apps, websites, etc. — and they’ll commission a bunch of engineers to build it but then no one uses it. The crux of product management is, “Why isn’t anybody using it, what’s wrong with our idea, and how can we figure out a better idea or pivot to a new idea?” And that’s what I realized eight years ago:
The big problem in the market is not making things, it’s making the right things.That’s the problem I wanted to help other companies solve.
What prompted you to found Product Discovery Group in 2015?After the company I was working at went public and was bought by a competitor, the stock market crashed. Then, I got married, took some time off, traveled the world for about eight months, came back and started the company with a couple of friends. At that point, I was back to being a software engineer, a hands-on keyboard person. And then again, rose up, managed engineers and then we started to create a product management function. When that company was bought, I was kind of burnt out of start-ups. For 10 years, I committed my entire life to a company, working long hours and weekends either on call for the servers or a client. The stress of being a small business growing into a larger business, having 1,200 clients with million and billion dollar revenues, building a platform, and hiring and managing teams adds up. Plus, I have a family and I wanted to be a little bit more family-centric, so I broke off and became an independent consultant. It was a combination of what I wanted to do, which was to help people in the product world and my life goal, which was to have a job with a little bit more vacation and less stress.
What led you to start teaching in the Berkeley MEng program?I’d been reaching out to various university programs to see if there was a place where I could do some education. To me, it’s a way to kind of get better at what I do and better how I think about it. At my previous companies, we’d always hire college interns and folks just out of college, whereas many companies and many start-ups do not — they only hire experienced people. I love bringing that new energy into our company and I loved training my engineers on how to have interns and give them productive work so they could learn and grow and we as a company could get value out of it. Now that I was no longer working for such a company, I wasn’t longer exposed to that new energy that comes from college students, so I sought it out. Eventually, I had a friend who told me about the Berkeley MEng program and so I applied and they reached out when there were some openings.
What is your teaching philosophy and how is it similar or different from your coaching philosophy?I strive to teach concrete techniques and tactics that help people. I teach the techniques to students that I’ve taught to 150 teams as a coach so I know that I’m giving them value because I know that these things are valuable in the real world. One of the struggles for new students is that they have the intellectual knowledge, but very little practical experience. So I strive to make my class very hands-on and team oriented, and they’re meant to sort of see the examples and then to make their own versions.
How does your class, “Coaching for High Performance Teams” relate to the work you do coaching product organizations?Coaching is interesting because I often don’t know much about the material the students are working on; I’m much more used to dealing with software whereas a lot of what they are working on is mechanical engineering, robotics and hardware. What I strive to do is teach them organizational skills and really help them with the chaos that is the capstone project. Most students have been exposed to well thought-out organized homework assignments. Whether it’s a project, a problem set, or a programming assignment, it typically has a fixed outcome, whereas a capstone project does not.
How do you know when you’re done? How do you know what success is? How do you get in touch with your advisor? How do you find the resources you need? How do you even know that you need resources? How do you know when you’re stuck?What I realized with these teams is that they need fundamental guidance on how to pull something from nothing. My history of being in start-ups and also dealing with all the clients that are in that phase enables me to help them embrace the chaos but then also give them a couple of tools to lead them out of it.
What is the biggest lesson you hope students take away from your classes?Be more comfortable with the unknown because that’s more like the real world and dig a little bit deeper when you’re stuck. Maybe you have a nifty technology but it really doesn’t solve a problem so you are unsure of where to go from there. In that case, I would ask, “Well, what would that problem be, what would be your success metric, and if you solve that problem, how would the world be different?” So I help them look at the same situation from different points of view in order to get unstuck.
Is there anything you’ve learned from your students?I’ve learned about a lot of new technologies whether it’s self-driving cars and the different ways to do that, material science used in ways to combine elements into compounds, or the different ways people are trying to apply robotics and different things to the world. It gives me hope that the students are trying to tackle hard problems like, “Where will the next wildfire happen? And when it does start, where do they predict that the wildfire will expand to, given the weather conditions, so that people can evacuate sooner?” There are problems that seem unsolvable and then when you look at folks trying to solve it, you start to see that maybe they are solvable. There’s a lot of cynicism about young people entering the workforce, quiet quitting, this and that, and I think for those of us who spent our 20s working 10am to 10pm, we may not connect with that. It may be easy to just say, “Young people don’t work that hard or don’t think deeply about the world’s problems.” But, working with college students and clients on a regular basis gives me hope that there are people thinking about the hard problems, who are passionate about solving things and just need a little bit of direction to reach their end point.
What do you love most about teaching and why do you keep coming back?When I teach it to other people, I’m striving to be relevant to them which helps me get better at what I do and that helps me have a job as an independent consultant. We have to prove ourselves every day, so I would say that’s a big motivator. I do think folks who know technology need to know the product side and they need to know why certain technologies take off in the world and why some don’t even if they look very similar to each other. For example, how would you figure out which parts of AI are interesting or not from a revenue, commercial or a start-up point of view versus those that are just nice to have and interesting.
Helping teach the technologists — these engineering leaders — how to make better decisions and how to evaluate which technologies they should bet time and money on I think is really interesting and important.I’m a Stanford grad myself and while Stanford gets more well known for start-ups and entrepreneurship, there are so many folks at Berkeley that can turn technologies into viable start-ups, companies, and create the next technology of the future. I definitely am pulling for MEng students and Berkeley Engineering to be an additional source of these great companies. Connect with Jim Morris. Edited by Veronica Roseborough.
Engineering Leadership Instructor Jim Morris on helping Berkeley MEng students “embrace the chaos” was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.