Rocket Science: Ben Gaines
Ben is a Director of Product Management at Adobe, where he and his team work with Adobe Experience Cloud customers to understand their evolving needs and build solutions with market fit. He and Blair Reeves are co-authors of Building Products for the Enterprise, published by O’Reilly Media.
You’ve recently taken up running. What’s been your biggest challenge on that quest?
The biggest challenge has been my impatience. The gains you see when you run are incremental over months of training, and I tend to want to push myself too far, too fast with it. Like, I’m not ready to qualify for the Boston Marathon, even though I feel like I’ve been training forever now. What is wrong with me?
It’s not uncommon. Wanting big things now is sort of . . . our culture. We want it to be easy: training, weight loss, major purchases, the lifestyle we want.
I always have that voice in the back of my head telling me I’m not good enough, focusing on what went wrong instead of what went right. My training program calls for three runs a week, but that voice tells me I could be running five days a week, or six, or seven, and I’d get to my goals faster.
I feel a little anxious on days when I’m not running, because, like, are my leg muscles going to atrophy? And I know that’s irrational. You’d think more running should equal faster, better training. But it doesn’t always. In fact, it can really set you back.
You recently went to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. What session stuck out to you?
I attend the Sloan Conference mostly for basketball analytics, and to be honest with you, over the past few years I had started to feel that the topics around basketball in particular had started to feel a little stale. This year, the discipline within analytics of biomechanics added something fresh. Applying 3D motion capture to understand the motions of running, jumping, shooting … it’s a whole new realm for analysts to start exploring.
Also, I should shout out Kirk Goldsberry, who teaches at UT Austin and writes for ESPN. He’s been a leading voice in this biomechanics movement. He’s a Harvard-educated cartographer, so probably not the background you’d expect for a basketball analyst, and the way he maps NBA data heightens the experience of being a fan and helps us understand the game differently. He’s also just a great guy, a very down-to-earth person who will stop and chat with you. I’ve had that experience a few times and would love to see his star continue to rise in that world.
I also liked the session celebrating 50 years of Title IX, and how it explored how far women’s sports have come. It’s exciting to see some of the things that have happened, like the US women’s soccer team getting their share of revenue finally after fighting for it for years. The future’s certainly not without challenges, but there’s a feeling of achievement there.
You’ve just been named as the next NBA Commissioner. Congratulations. What’s your first act, day one?
There are a couple of intertwined things that I think need immediate attention: player health, season length, and the watchability of the league. The very first thing I would do is make the start of the season right around Christmas day and go through the middle of the summer.
There are a few reasons I would do that. One, stop competing with football. Two, get off the 20th-century media model of aligning the season with the fall release of new automobiles; in the 1950s, new cars would come out in October, and they wanted to advertise those during games, so that’s why the NBA season starts when it does. That’s not a thing like it used to be. It’s certainly not as important to the way the league thinks about advertising and revenue. Starting in December would also the NBA to occupy some space in the late spring and summer that I think it could share easily with baseball.
This is a cliche and I’m sorry about that, but: I would make the season shorter. And yeah, this means finding a way to replace lost revenue from cutting the season from 82 games to, say, 72 games. That’s always the big question, right? But the league is really good at maximizing revenue, and it’s not insurmountable.
The length of the NBA regular season drives virtually every superstar these days to sit out some games for load management. Kawhi Leonard was the big example, kind of the first load management success story. When Kawhi’s healthy, Kawhi should be playing. I mean, if you paid for a ticket to see the Clippers come to Atlanta to play the Hawks, you want to see Kawhi on the floor. It’s a player-driven league. We’ve got to get them out there.
If you could start a podcast tomorrow, what would it be about?
I have considered starting a podcast actually, and it would be focused on product management for B2B SaaS product managers. It would overlap with traditional B2C product management, too.
I co-authored a book on this subject with Blair Reeves a few years ago. And every now and then, we’ll get a question or a compliment that makes us think, like, “Oh, we should just do this podcast. There are so many B2B product managers we could interview. And it would be so fun.” But we both have kids and we’re in different time zones. Someday.
I would love to start a sports podcast, but I’m not sure if I’m knowledgeable enough to do that well unless it’s a super niche thing. One idea I had is to center each episode around old sports card packs. Every episode you open a pack of a different year and you and your co-host go through and reminisce about those players, like, “Oh, that photo was taken in the NBA finals in 1992.” Sort of a nostalgia play around sports cards. That might already exist, but I haven’t found it.
What’s a sneaky trend going on right now in product development?
The first thing that comes to mind is not new by any stretch, but product-led growth is evolving very quickly.
What is new, perhaps, is that a lot of traditional B2B software businesses are reimagining themselves through the lens of product-led growth. Thinking not just about your go-to-market strategy, but really how you design and develop the product to be very engaging to retain users. It’s more than simply driving a sale.
Adobe’s Creative Cloud Express launched recently, and you don’t buy the product upfront. It’s a freemium model. I talked to a Creative Cloud Express product manager last week, and I was thrilled that, unprompted, she was like, “What we want is for our users to be happy.” It’s awesome. That’s so, so great.
In B2B and B2C, it’s become less about the quick sale of terrible software and more about how to make users actually love this thing. As a B2B guy, that’s really encouraging to see. I’m excited to be a part of that.
What’s an overused term in data analytics?
I’m trying to think of one that I don’t use all the time. I think that there’s a lot of misuse of the term “persona” in product design.
For instance, “marketer” is not a useful persona 95% of the time. There are a hundred different kinds of marketers. Good persona definition is supposed to be uncomfortably specific. The person you’re designing for, what do they eat in the morning for breakfast? What is their commute like?
I’m hyperbolizing a little bit, but when you have a persona that is too broad, you end up designing for nobody in particular, and that’s not solving anyone’s problem. What motivates them? What makes them happy? We should know the answers to these questions.
What’s a non-digital thing you own that has a really great design?
The entire experience around Lego. Lego absolutely crushes their customer and user experience. The instructions are easy to follow, every piece fits perfectly, every set is complete, and here is something so elegant about executing a really beautiful Lego set. The design rules are so consistent, whether it’s the Apollo 11 rocket or The Colosseum or the Millenium Falcon.
My kids and I share a love of Lego building. And we’ve never had a set with a piece that was missing. That’s an unbelievable thing to execute at that scale.
Who’s a creative person you really admire?
There’s a folk-rock artist from Idaho named Josh Ritter who has an economy of words unlike anything that I’ve ever heard.
His ability to paint a picture with lyrics is phenomenal. He can take four words to make you feel things that are so human and universal about loneliness, love, tragedy … all the things. I feel like he deserves all the attention in the world.
What’s the most beautiful spot in Utah?
Oh boy, the most beautiful spot in Utah. Let me give you one obvious answer and then one based on my own discoveries. I am a sucker for Zion National Park.
Going through those canyons … it’s impossible to not have this transcendent experience. You can totally imagine this proto-world walking through what was a river, when Lake Bonneville covered the entire Western United States and prehistoric birds were living there. It’s like being transported to another time.
Then, there is a canyon 15 minutes away from me in Pleasant Grove, Utah—Grove Creek Canyon. It’s a mountain trail, a little creek with a bridge, babbling brook … the whole nine yards. I love to go up there and just sit and be. You look out over the whole Utah Valley beneath you. So, so peaceful.
Building Products for the Enterprise, published by O’Reilly Media, is available at bookstores everywhere. Follow Ben on Twitter.