Product Love Podcast: Brandon Chu, VP of Product at Shopify (Part 1)

Published Jan 8, 2020

If you’re an avid reader, you’ve probably seen the name “Brandon Chu” floating around the PM-focused parts of the internet. He’s the creator of the Black Box of Product Management, a site that “shines the light on the PM discipline.” I’ve discovered so many amazing frameworks and insightful articles on his site that I knew I had to have him on the podcast.

Brandon is also the VP of product and GM of platform at Shopify, an e-commerce platform for online stores and retail point-of-sale systems. In this week’s episode, we discussed Brandon’s pivot into product management from financial modeling. He says he’s always had an entrepreneurial heart, which explains how he’s won so many tech startup contests just with a pitch deck and idea. He’s even raised a quarter of a million dollars. Yes, really. 

Brandon is also a bit unique in that he climbed the product ladder at Shopify while also shaping the PM function there. He joined Shopify when there were only five people with a product-related title, yet none were actually product managers at that time.

Brandon goes into detail about what it was like to define the product organization, even amidst skepticism about what product managers exactly do (a PM’s favorite question). What defined success for product managers? How could they help their teams when the ratio to developers was 1:100? What steps did he take to figure out the team’s mandate? How could he evangelize product within an engineering-centric organization? Brandon says it best when he says that his own story of growth is the story of the growth of product management at Shopify. 

We also discussed his two favorite articles, “The First Principles of Product Management” and “Applying Leverage as a Product Manager.” If you want to hear Brandon’s advice for junior product managers and why he thinks the job of the product manager is actually quite simple, listen to the episode above.

Notable moments

0:37 – Brandon Chu introduces himself and gives an overview of his background. He talks about his pivot from financial modeling and capital markets to the world of tech. 

5:20 – He wanted more creative expressions outside his job, and met someone who could help him build a startup.

11:21 – When he first joined the product organization at Shopify.

11:55 – The executive team asked, “What is product management at Shopify?” 

12:45 – The one-liner of what product management did at Shopify: “We’re here to help the team ship the right thing.” 

13:15 – Brandon’s consulting mindset when it comes to the early days of product management at Shopify. 

16:10 –  The ratio of PMs to devs? 1:100.

17:28 – Brandon talks about the recognition of product management at Shopify post-IPO and the importance of earning trust and immediately showing value.

20:40 – The team’s mandate. Do they only work on features? What were their expectations? He also delves into the team’s imposter syndrome. 

23:30 – Judgment is what really matters to product managers, but it’s often a difficult thing for PMs to get because they’re hyper-analytical and rational.

24:05 – Brandon has promoted several junior product managers and shares advice on how they can best grow. 

26:40 – Brandon delves into one of his articles, “Making Good Decisions.” Product managers need to understand their company’s vision and strategy and how their decisions roll up to that. 

28:55 – Brandon talks about why he started the BlackBox of Product Management. A lot of the writing was him clarifying his own thinking.

32:52 – Sum up product management in one word: context. There’s no playbook. Context dominates what’s happening.

34:50 – “The First Principles of Product Management.”

36:55 – How do you explain product management to your family?

37:23 – Brandon talks about “Applying Leverage as a Product Manager.” Don’t waste your time doing the busywork of backlog management. 

39:52 – Why Shopify product teams spend less time on backlog management.

40:45 – Brandon’s advice for PMs on how to put together a vision.

42:11 – You can’t build a good product strategy without understanding the company and business strategy. Product managers need to know what matters to the org. 

To be continued.