I had just wrapped up another full-day onsite interview session at the RTP office this past Friday for IBM’s new cohort of future product managers. Exhausting, but I remain intensely optimistic as we attempt to change the culture of product management for this massive 100+ y.o. organization from inside out, one offer at a time. 1200 applications. Dozens of video interviews. 16 onsite fly-ins. Offers out the door in the coming weeks.

During the day (and the cocktail evening prior), we met a group of high energy, and well-qualified candidates of a diverse range of personalities and background. As we got to know one another over this time, I’ve been hit with questions of varying versions around “What’d make a great product manager?” Not my first time getting these questions. Without much hesitation, I fed our candidates with the typical answers we’d expect — “passion for our users”, “intense curiosity”, “ability to think broadly and in a highly detailed manner at the same time”, etc. However, it became more apparent to me that these metrics still leave plenty of room to this sense of ambiguity — ambiguity which we deal with, and have learned to embrace.

As I brooded over my disappointing response, I began to wonder how my colleagues thought about who they’d want to bring on to their team. Naturally, when we came up for air in the “command center” in between our interviews, I introduced the same question in their mind.

“What does a great product manager mean to you? No, I’m not talking about our established metrics/guidelines. What would make you seriously think about hiring or not hiring someone on your team?”

Silence.

“Well…” a brave soul daringly took the lead.

This is where the conversation became very interesting. If our candidates can put on their invisibility cloaks and just sit in the room, they’d be surprised to find how starkly different the responses are from one another. I remember leaving the room thinking to myself: “How can we possibly articulate what a good candidate is if we barely know ourselves?”

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Aquila – Standard of the Roman Legion

I don’t know how many of you studied Latin when you were growing up, but I grew up as a Latin kid (with a teacher and mentor one would dream of having). You see, as with learning any language, what you learn goes far beyond the language itself. You learn to appreciate the culture, the history, and everything else that comes with the language.

Shameless plug here — if you don’t know much about the Romans, look into it. You might be pleasantly surprised and/or fascinated by what you find. Here is a really awesome documentary on the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. For those of you who like Cliffs Notes version of everything, here’s a crash course. You’re probably not going to gain an appreciation for the Romans, but hey, we all start somewhere right?

So far, in this post, you’ve already seen a thing resembling an eagle (aquila) and an image of a person carrying an eagle standard (an aquilifer), and you might be wondering why I’m referencing these in this post. Well, here’s my attempt at drawing an analogy which made sense to me, and it all starts with the notion of the aquila and the function of the aquilifer in the Roman Legion.

An aquila, or “eagle”, is a prominent symbol for the Roman Legion. An aquilifer [= aquila (eagle) + fero (carry/bear)], or “standard bearer” is a legionary who carries the aquila. Each Legion is made up of 10 cohorts (~5000 men) and carries one aquila.

The aquila was extremely important to the Roman military, beyond merely being a symbol of a legion. A lost standard was considered an extremely grave occurrence, and the Roman military often went to great lengths to both protect a standard and to recover it if lost; for example, see the aftermath of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, where the Romans spent decades attempting to recover the lost standards of three legions.

Now, how is this at all relevant to product management?

As I toiled over the single-most important characteristic that I look for in a great product manager, I can’t help but make the connection to the function of an aquilifer in the Roman Legion. Let me explain why.

Given the significance of the aquila in a Legion, there is a natural importance placed upon the role of the aquilifer. However, this is not a game of “capture the flag” as you might expect. The aquilifer not only carries the weight of the Roman Legion on his shoulders, but also the initiative — the initiative to take his men to great victory, or great peril. The importance of the aquilifer was well accounted by none other than Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico IV.25, which I shall share below.

[25] Quod ubi Caesar animadvertit, naves longas, quarum et species erat barbaris inusitatior et motus ad usum expeditior, paulum removeri ab onerariis navibus et remis incitari et ad latus apertum hostium constitui atque inde fundis, sagittis, tormentis hostes propelli ac submoveri iussit; quae res magno usui nostris fuit. Nam et navium figura et remorum motu et inusitato genere tormentorum permoti barbari constiterunt ac paulum modo pedem rettulerunt. Atque nostris militibus cunctantibus, maxime propter altitudinem maris, qui X legionis aquilam gerebat, obtestatus deos, ut ea res legioni feliciter eveniret, ‘desilite’, inquit, ‘milites, nisi vultis aquilam hostibus prodere; ego certe meum rei publicae atque imperatori officium praestitero.’ Hoc cum voce magna dixisset, se ex navi proiecit atque in hostes aquilam ferre coepit. Tum nostri cohortati inter se, ne tantum dedecus admitteretur, universi ex navi desiluerunt. Hos item ex proximis primi navibus cum conspexissent, subsecuti hostibus adpropinquaverunt.

When Caesar observed this, he ordered the ships of war, the appearance of which was somewhat strange to the barbarians and the motion more ready for service, to be withdrawn a little from the transport vessels, and to be propelled by their oars, and be stationed toward the open flank of the enemy, and the enemy to be beaten off and driven away, with slings, arrows, and engines: which plan was of great service to our men; for the barbarians being startled by the form of our ships and the motions of our oars and the nature of our engines, which was strange to them, stopped, and shortly after retreated a little. And while our men were hesitating [whether they should advance to the shore], chiefly on account of the depth of the sea, he who carried the eagle of the tenth legion, after supplicating the gods that the matter might turn out favorably to the legion, exclaimed, “Leap, fellow soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. I, for my part, will perform my duty to the commonwealth and my general.” When he had said this with a loud voice, he leaped from the ship and proceeded to bear the eagle toward the enemy. Then our men, exhorting one another that so great a disgrace should not be incurred, all leaped from the ship. When those in the nearest vessels saw them, they speedily followed and approached the enemy.

So if you ask me the same question in the future, here’s my answer — someone who has the guts and the judgment to lead the charge and put a stake in the ground in the face of uncertainty; someone who takes the calculated risks necessary in order to help his/her team succeed, and at times, at the cost of his/her innate tendency for self-preservation.

Romanticized much? Indeed. But a worthwhile goal.

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