This is the first post of our Modern Product Partners series in which we interview prominent product and growth leaders from today’s forward-thinking digital agencies. We’ll draw from their ideas and experiences to learn about modern practices for building successful digital products.

We wanted to get in contact with Blake Sirach, the Chief Product Officer at WillowTree, as WillowTree is recognized far and wide for being a best-in-class product organization including being rated the leader on Clutch. The WillowTree team has helped companies like Pepsi, Verizon, CBS, American Express, and Fox to achieve their digital product aspirations.

Name: Blake Sirach
Company: Willow Tree
Current Role: Chief Product Officer at WillowTree
Location: Charlottesville, Virginia

How did you get to where you are today?

I started my career in digital as a web designer + developer, working primarily on higher education platforms. I was deeply interested in designing for mobile and how mobile could fundamentally change the human experience and joined a small mobile-focused agency called WillowTree as its first designer. We were (and still are) a lean operation, in which every designer and engineer distributed the responsibility of product across the team.

As the team has grown to 275+ product people & engineers over the years, my role has shifted from designer, to designer/strategist, to designer/product manager and WillowTree has grown from a mobile dev shop to a full end-to-end digital product partner for our clients.

willowtree-best-place-to-work WillowTree was named a Fortune’s Great Place to Work in 2018.

When WillowTree first got started, it was early days for mobile. Companies were hedging their bets by minimizing their investment in mobile while figuring out where it fit into their larger business plans. Mostly, we helped in a marketing capacity: extending their web functionality or running ad campaigns.

Today, though, the world is much more savvy about mobile (and mobile is obviously much more powerful than it was before.) Today, the best projects we take on involve building products that are central to our clients’ businesses.

The best partners are the ones who see mobile as a powerful complement to the user experience you get from web (and mobile web). ”Never be ashamed of what you don’t know or don’t have, and don’t be afraid to ask a question.” -one of WillowTree’s valuesWhen it comes to tasks like buying tickets to the movies, watching your favorite series on a global OTT platform, or building apps for the industrial internet, native is the most powerful platform.

To bring this kind of intensive product focus into being organizationally, you need to build the right kind of team.

willowtree-agencyWillowTree began in 2008, on the day that the iOS SDK was first released.

I realized through that evolution that I was really passionate about building teams and a team culture around great product development, so my role evolved into product team leadership, and ever since then my focus has been building a strong, cross-disciplinary product team at WillowTree.

The product team at WillowTree is comprised of Product Strategy, Research, Insights, Design, Content Strategy, and PM. The mission is that across all our client engagements we keep a unified focus on product from idea through delivery and evolution.

It’s an organizational design based on the famous Steve Jobs adage: “You have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

augmented-reality-willowtree An augmented reality feature that WillowTree built for Regal Entertainment’s new mobile app.

In today’s world, this is how you have to think about product. Mobile is not a hedge anymore. For more and more consumer-focused companies, mobile is table stakes – you must think mobile-first if you want to build something that users are going to be habitual and passionate about using. To do that, you need a team that is focused on the customer experience, not just on performing the siloed task of their department.

A big part of my responsibility at WillowTree now is to make sure that as we continue to grow exciting emerging tech products for our clients, like voice, AR/VR, and anything else that comes along, we’re continuing to put customer experience first.

What role do you think data has in product management?

At the risk of sounding pedantic, we have a saying on the product team: “People over Data.”

That doesn’t mean we don’t collect and interpret data—quite the opposite—we do, all the time: from analytics, to A/B testing, to surveys we run as part of our user research practice. But data always supports, rather than replaces, the human-centered design methods we run on every team.

We built a whole UX research lab in our office, complete with an observation room, two-way mirror, and testing room with multiple cameras and microphone configurations.

willowtree-lab
With our lab, we can bring people in for a day, watch them use the product, film them and the phone or computer screen at the same time, interview about their experience, and more.

We collect a ton of quantitative data through our surveys and through our product analytics, but no data collection program is complete for us without that human-centered perspective.

What’s the best thing you’ve read to learn how to be better at your job?

Creativity, Inc.—especially the story of the “beautifully shaded pennies.”

Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, had found that a team of artists at Pixar had spent weeks creating detailed art and renders for a part of the movie that would appear on screen for maybe three seconds.

Pixar had built its reputation on a dedication to quality, and the overbuilding was in line with that culture, but there needed to be some communication of creative limits if they were going to get work out on time and on budget.

You can immediately see why that applies to digital product. There are so many aspects to any modern day software product that if you get hung up on shading pennies, you’ll never be able to ship on time or on budget. Every software project involves trade-off and compromise. The thing that we don’t often talk about is setting those creative limits.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received on how to be a PM?

A mentor once told me “Don’t ask, don’t get”—which at the time was practical advice related to asking a client to compromise on a roadmap decision. What that has turned into is an ethos of radical transparency both within WillowTree but also with our clients: never be ashamed of what you don’t know or don’t have, and don’t be afraid to ask a question.

This can be hard because with clients the desire is often to be the unimpeachable, expert presence—you don’t want to take up any more of their time or cognitive space than you absolutely need—but too often, it’s those little questions and little doubts you don’t ask about that end up bringing projects to a halt.

When it comes to personal, professional growth, what are you most focused on right now?

I’m laser-focused on ensuring WillowTree continues to be true to our mission: enabling “the freedom to create products people love.” Personally, what that means is that I’m applying elements of self-management to empower our product teams and determining how best to scale product-level thinking across the entire organization. The best products come from largely autonomous, empowered teams of highly skilled craftspeople—my job is helping make sure those teams emerge, organize, and succeed at WillowTree.