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Ways We Work

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Heath Black

Product Manager at reddit

Heath W. Black is a product manager at reddit currently trying to figure out how to make reddit content more accessible through new media. He initially joined reddit to launch social commerce experiments like a worldwide scavenger hunt and a Christmas gift for cats. Prior to reddit, he was the product lead at Chirpify in Portland, Oregon. Before that he was the VP of Accounts and Digital Strategy for a creative agency in Chicago. He's likely the only person you know that has a Masters of Arts in Irish Literature.

What do you do?

I am a product manager at reddit. Initially I joined to help build out some experimental commerce experiences like this and this. Now I am working on figuring out ways to make reddit content more accessible and enjoyable for the entire universe.

What do you find most rewarding about your role? Most challenging?

I absolutely love my job. I like that I get to use critical thinking, creativity, and organization skills on a daily basis. I'm one of those people that can't sit still for very long, so I enjoy switching contexts throughout the day. Answering emails in the morning, giving design feedback in the afternoon, testing a new feature in the evening. It helps me feel like I'm always in the honeymoon phase because every day is new and fresh.

It's definitely a challenging job. Personally, the thing I struggle with the most is right before a launch. I can't turn my head off. I have a million questions- did we implement this feature properly? Did I forget to double check this thing over here? Is this going to succeed? The week or two prior to a launch are usually pretty sleepless. But I try to use my sleeplessness productively by taking online courses, reading new books, or writing poetry.

How do you stay up to date with trends in your industry/field?

I read a lot.

I have a few go-tos everyday. On my commute home, I read the Mattermark Daily, it's a FANTASTIC newsletter covering venture capital and startup issues. Highly recommend it. I check out Product Hunt at least once a day. I also have at least one product/business book that I'm reading at any given point in time.

Lastly, I love Twitter. I keep Tweetdeck open all day. If you curate your follows properly, you can pretty much rest assured that the content that surfaces on your feed will have something of quality at any given point in time.

I've also recently started going to some meetups and fireside chats with folks here in the Bay Area.

I also believe that the only way I can effectively do my job is to use my product, so I check reddit a few times a day. It helps me get a pulse of how healthy our communities are. It gives me insight into how other people on reddit think, which is ultimately way more empowering than any book or blog.

What are your top five applications or tools?

I try to keep things pretty simple. New tools ≠ more efficiency.

Slack - it's helped me cut down on meetings and email, and it has .gif integrations, how can you beat that?

Evernote - I take notes on everything. I always have. This helps me easily organize my unorganized thoughts. I actually have every note I ever took in college in a box at my mom's house.

Google Calendar - I live and die by my calendar. My dad taught me to always be on time, so this is probably my single most important application. It's not about my time, it's about being respectful of everybody else's time. If you take anything away from this interview, take away the importance of being on time. It's the only currency on earth that we cannot print more of.

Wunderlist - When you switch contexts so often throughout the day, it's easy to miss todos. I like wunderlist because it syncs across my devices and allows me to create folders for what context my todos lie in.

reddit - Having fun is just as important as being efficient.

Best way to stay on top of email?

I don't have as much email as someone like...Dave McClure... which helps. Slack has also drastically lowered the frequency with which I receive emails.

What I do is try to be as timely as possible in replying, if a reply is necessary. If a reply is not necessary, I will either read if i'm available OR delay the email via Mailbox to a more relevant time when I know I'll be free to focus and read it. If that time is today or next week, no sweat. I just make sure that I have that email delivering to me at a contextually relevant time. It drives one of my best friends crazy because he thinks I obsess over being timely. I don't think my approach keeps me from being any more/less productive. It just helps me clear my mind and stay on top of my tasks.

What is your best time-saving trick?

I don't think "time-saving" is as important as "time-sequencing." What I mean by that is that it's more important to work on things in the correct order than it is to try and save time on any specific task. Time-hacks often result in bad work. Quality should always trump quantity.

There are a few ways that I do this, specifically. First and foremost, if something is urgent or time-sensitive it is a priority. These are things like urgent bugs, agile initiatives that we decide to run, etc. Secondly, if the task at hand gets you closer to your vision then it's worth an investment now. Lastly, knock out the low-hanging fruit. If numbers one and two take a little more time for you to do them properly then that's to be considered a success. People often knock off the easy things first. Save those if they aren't the most important things, they'll be a breath of fresh air when you get there.

Discerning what isn't worth your time is one of the hardest things about product management. There are times when being a "Yes" person is good and times when being a "no" person is good. There are a lot of times when you need to delegate a task outside your core competency.

At reddit, two of our core values are "Think Deliberately" and "Be Doers." I believe we get the best work done when we find the perfect intersection between the two.

Time is finite, but rather than focusing on "saving" time, it's better to focus on enhancing time.

What does your workspace look like?

It's fairly plain. I have my wireless keyboard and apple trackpad, my sunglasses, a coffee mug and/or can of coca cola, a box of pens, laptop with stand, and monitor. Anything more than that and I'll get distracted.

Structure of your typical day, how do you divide your time?

One of the most important parts of the day for me is my morning commute. I take the ferry to work, so I use that time to soak in the sunshine, read some fiction for pleasure, and get my head in the right place to start the day. I don't touch email, I don't touch Slack. This time is focused on mental preparedness for the day ahead.

Other than that, most days don't really look the same. I try to keep my meetings to the beginning and end of the week so I can focus more in the middle of the week. This tends to help quite a bit.

Even though a lot of people say not to read your email when you first sit down, I like being the type of person that people know will respond in a timely manner, so I start out each day with about 30 minutes of emailing, followed by another 30 minutes of research - Product Hunt, tech blogs, reddit, etc.

After that, my day is a mixture of meetings, brainstorming, organizing current feature builds, doing design review, planning out long-term plans for my part of the product. Being a product manager means you have to be okay operating with uncertainty and a little bit of chaos.

Why do you do what you do? What makes everything worth it?

I think it uses most of my passions and skills. First, I'm very people focused, so I like that I get to work cross-functionally with developers, designers, writers, etc. Secondly, I'm organized and detail-oriented, so I LOVE the planning stages of a product. Lastly, I'm the kind of person that enjoys thinking about the short-term in regards to how it affects the long-term goals. Ask my wife. We'll do something and I always ask "how does this decision affect us six months from now."

Ultimately, I get to work with really great people and build products that impact really great people on a daily basis. I get to work with really awesome people like Alexis Ohanian (the co-founder of reddit), and Ellen Pao, and Dan McComas, and Kaela Gardner and tons of brilliant, smart people and it's really encouraging. Every day at work I learn something new, which is awesome.

As far as the products go, knowing that I'm helping deliver happiness and community to people is way more important than any pay scale or benefit a company can provide. Happiness is transcendent, paychecks are not.

What is the greatest piece of career advice/wisdom you’ve ever received?

"Be the guy that gets stuff done before someone asks you to." My dad

Also, in Bill Simmons' 800 page The Book of Basketball, Isiah Thomas says: "The secret of basketball is that it's not about basketball."

I think about this pretty regularly. I think startups should think about this every day. It's not about the tech, the tools, the sales plan, the go-to market strategy, the revenue.

It's about people. It's about communication. It's about being humble enough to let those around you improve who you are and how you work. And somehow, basketball helped me realize that.

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

Ryan Hoover from ProductHunt
Alexis Ohanian from reddit
Chris Sacca from Lowercase Capital
Sam Altman from Y Combinator
Dave Morin from Path / Slow Ventures