Interview with Johanna Rothman, Managing Product Development–Author, Consultant, Speaker

Published on Mar 5, 2018

4 min read

image for Interview with Johanna Rothman, Managing Product Development–Author, Consultant, Speaker

Location: Arlington, Massachusetts
Current role: Managing Product Development–Author, Consultant, Speaker

What’s your background and how did you get into management?

I started work as a developer. I became a tester, a project manager, a manager, a program manager, a director, a developer and a VP. No one has a linear career and mine certainly hasn’t been linear.

As I project-managed small projects, I realized I liked project management. I had an opportunity to manage one person (!) as a young manager. I realized I wanted to learn how to manage well.

As I managed projects and programs, I learned how to ask for the results I wanted, and how not to micromanage. I had a terrific mentor for moving into “real” management, where I managed first a department, then several departments, and product lines. I moved between management and program management several times.

As a consultant, I took on several contract VP roles, where I managed departments and product lines while looking for my replacement.

It turns out that project management, program management, director and VP-level jobs have these similarities:

  • You have to be able to say no. No to more features. No to more projects. No to re-architecture. That means you need to know what to say yes to: visible progress, building in quality as you proceed, and change.
  • Building relationships with the people doing the work is critical to your management success. I became good at one-on-ones out of necessity.
  • Building relationships with peers is just as necessary. That’s because managers of varying stripes create and reinforce the system of work and the culture.

In my experience, management is about building allies and relationships, not power. I like to acquire power not through title but through my–and my teams’–accomplishments.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

As a manager, I had to learn how to manage the project portfolio. Everyone was multitasking and that doesn’t work. No one was getting anything done, so I had to identify the projects we were going to work on now, later, and never.

I had some terrific managers, so I already had a model of how to do one-on-ones and offer feedback and coaching on an ongoing basis. For me, the biggest challenge was the project portfolio.

What is your approach to hiring?

I’ve written a couple of books about hiring. The most recent is Hiring Geeks That Fit. I like to define the qualities, preferences, and non-technical skills first, before the technical skills. It’s really easy to hire for technical skills and those are the easiest to learn.

I want to know how will this person work: can I depend on this person to take initiative, to explain his or her status, to make their work transparent? Does this person want to keep learning? Will they work well as part of a team?

There are more non-technical skills, but those are the ones I most often look for.

What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?

Realize that management work is different from technical work. Management work is different from technical work and quite valuable. It’s valuable because managers amplify the work of others. Managers create and refine the culture which can make or break our ability to get the work done.

Whats your work day like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?

I have several parts of my day: writing time, workshop creation time, client time, and email time. I often schedule the creative time (the writing, workshops) because it’s too easy to get lost in the minutiae of email. I schedule client time as needed.

I work to finish at least two, often three pieces of work a day. I use personal Kanban inside one-week iterations so I have a flow of work and a cadence of planning and improvement.

What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?

I timebox many things. Sometimes, it’s a 10-minute timebox. Sometimes, it’s an hour. It’s often 20-30 minutes. I can’t always spend as much time as I would like on a piece of work, but with a timebox, I can get to a reasonable finishing/stopping place. My timeboxes allow me to work in an agile way, delivering value often.

Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.

I like TextMate. I use it for my book writing. TextMate allows me to write in markdown, which is easy. I can preview as I write. And, it’s easy to create projects so I have all the files in one place.

If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

I recommend two: Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management because it helps managers see what they can do to be effective. And, my newest management book is Rewire Your Management “Logic”. I’m determining the final title now. The second book is about the myths, traps and illusions that prevent managers from doing reasonable management.

We have too few “do this in this way” books for managers to understand what success could mean for them. I write books that help managers learn what success can mean for them.

Where can we go to learn more about you? (LinkedIn, twitter, Github, etc.)


Twitter: @johannarothman

My sites: and

This series asks engineering managers to share their experiences with the intent of helping other engineering managers learn and improve. Have someone you want to see featured or questions you think we should ask? Contact me.

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