Meet the Proxyclicker: Pieter Strouven, Product Manager

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Pieter Strouven, Proxyclick Product Manager

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a Proxyclicker? Are you eager to put yourself in the shoes of each of our interesting and diverse employees?

In our latest blog series, we’re sitting down and catching up with our team to understand their background, their role, how they’re striving for improvement, and what keeps them motivated for success.

In our “Meet the Proxyclicker” series debut, we dove into a day in the life of Pieter Strouven, our Product Manager.

Q&A with Pieter Strouven, Product Manager

Let’s start by having you introduce yourself. What’s your role at Proxyclick, and what exactly do you do on a daily basis?

Pieter: I’m part of the product team. My function is product manager and my job is to collect as much information as I can to determine how we will evolve our product. We look at what our customers are saying, what our customers’ needs are versus what we offer, if their needs have changed, whether our competitors are changing, and what we want as a vision for our product.

What we develop isn’t 100% driven by customer stories. Some product features are also driven by our own opinions on what we feel a good visitor management solution should be.

It’s really a balancing act between trying to find the right clues among the noise coming at you to define the next thing we should build, and working with the engineers to find out how we build it.

A product manager typically finds what problems to solve in the right order, works with the product designers to make experiences that solve these problems, and then works with engineers who invent the best way to build everything.

On the other hand, a product manager also interacts with people on the revenue team - they are our satellites. Sales and customer success people are in contact daily with customers and prospects much more than I am. They catch a lot of info and that’s really useful for me because they know what prospects and customers are asking for - especially what we don't have, what people are missing.

When you’re ready to release something, you have to communicate back to the sales team so they know what they can sell. You work with product marketing, and you communicate to the broader company what we do in our monthly product update so they can prepare themselves to communicate this to customers.

So you’re in contact with many different teams?

Pieter: Yes, being a product manager is being in contact with everyone. Most of the time, you’re communicating with engineering, because they’re the people who need to get the job done. You need to guide them, be there for them to answer their questions.

But to get the feedback you need, you need to talk to a lot of people. That gives you a very nice view of what’s going on in the company, you know what’s going on in everybody’s mind.

Sometimes, it’s a bit stressful as well. Everybody’s needs are not always aligned and you have to be diplomatic. But it is very interesting, especially if you’re a person who has a very broad interest.

A product manager is not a specialist, but more of a generalist, and that’s why I like the role. I’m not deep into any specific domain. For example, I’m not a software engineer, but I do have some basic knowledge of computer programming.

Tell us a little more about your background.

Pieter: I’m an electrical engineer by education. I started my career in a management consulting firm, which has nothing to do with engineering and is more a business and economics role.

But it’s always the same thing: you start by taking a complicated problem, you split it up into something slightly less complicated again and again, until you get a series of uncomplicated problems and then you start tackling them. I really like that approach, it’s like making a puzzle.

You can do that in engineering, in business, in a very broad set of domains. Product work is something that is really nicely in the middle of that.

You need to combine what your customers want, which is a business problem, and what you can do to build a product, which is technical. That combination is what I love about the role.

It’s not the first time I’ve worked in product. Before working at Proxyclick, I was working at my own startup - that failed by the way. That’s where I had my first product role. I was able to learn about what I liked and disliked, and what I wanted to avoid.

So why did you choose Proxyclick, and the SaaS space as a whole?

Pieter: When I was deciding where to apply for a new start, Proxyclick was not a difficult choice. I’ve found it to be a place where I can focus on the things I really like about the job. I wanted to be in product, in pure SaaS.

I love that one morning in Brussels, you can flip a switch and suddenly, all across the world, all of your customers have a new feature. And they start using it, things go well, and things go wrong, and they give you feedback.

Sunfix kiosk

You then go back to your team with that feedback and discuss what we can do about it. You come up with something new, you develop it and flip another switch and bam, all over the world, people have something new again.

It’s this dynamic that I find super engaging, and there are no other industries where you can really do this. If you’re making a car, it takes years to design a car. If you make furniture, it takes a long time to design it, then you have to go to production, then to distribution, it has to be sold and delivered. You never hear back.

With software, everything is digital and you’re almost directly connected to all of your end-users. That’s powerful, and it’s really unique that you can keep changing things and adding to your product, making it constantly evolve. I really wanted to be in this online SaaS business model because it provides you with this dynamic.


So, the work is never really done. But that’s what you like about it, right?

Pieter: That’s a very good point, it’s never done and it will always change. You will never be able to wrap Proxyclick in a box and ship it off to a customer. It’s simply not what we do. Customers change, the market changes.

Let’s talk about the changing market due to COVID-19. This has been a pivotal time for many organizations, including Proxyclick. What are your thoughts on this?

Pieter: The beautiful thing about it is that operationally, the impact was minimal. But strategically, it was very significant.

Operationally, one day we were sitting in the office and the next, sitting at home working. But almost everyone on the team was able to do the exact same tasks, in almost the exact same way, from home.

Of course, doing whiteboard sessions look a little bit different now, but there are so many solutions that allow you to do so many things without having to be in the same room together. So actually, the adaptation there was quite low. I don't feel like we lost productivity or opportunities by having to go into lockdown.

What did change a lot is our strategic direction. The whole COVID-19 situation made us think about how people are looking at our product. Suddenly, everybody was banning people from their buildings, so no one was looking for a VMS.

remote-registration

But visitors are going to come back, and for some organizations they already are. Customers are starting to look at this situation completely differently, and having a VMS becomes critical. First, the bigger need was to improve hospitality, but now a VMS is becoming a security and liability tool. It helps ensure that you ask people the right questions, you’re doing your due diligence, and you’re protecting your employees.

Those reasons were already in our minds before the crisis. There are so many ideas about how to make our product stronger, more secure, easier to get people to register before coming to the building...and suddenly, these ideas became the big priority. We had a whole roadmap that was totally turned around because of COVID-19.

We needed to stop thinking about features and focus on the problem: what’s the minimum thing that we must build in Proxyclick that answers the question, “How do we manage visitors returning to the building when we open back up?” and “What’s needed from a visitor management solution to solve that?”

The newly formed squad basically took on a project that sped up the building of features that we had originally planned to tackle later in the year. They combined these features and turned it into what is now known as Remote Registration. This combines ideas around approvals, pre-check-in, and safety videos. Instead of doing each of these very advanced features separately, we made an MVP and combined them for this specific use case. That was really welcomed by customers.

It was a great collaboration between the revenue team, customer success, the product team, engineers, and design. It was really impressive to see and for me, it was inspirational. The way the team handled this was exemplary. The feedback was great, and this is the way we should tackle most of our feature development work in the future. And I'm happy to see that it’s already happening.

This crisis made us aware of the fact that we can be more flexible with where we work and how we work, and it also taught us a new way to develop our product, think about customers' issues, and act upon them. These learnings are something we can benefit from in the years to come. So in that essence, this time was positive for us.

How do you manage that sudden change of priority for your team? Did they have to drop everything they were doing to focus on this new problem?

Pieter: We were already on the path to working within the principles of the agile philosophy. In its essence, agile means that you organize yourself in such a way that you can flexibly change course, that you’re self-organized, and that you are able to always focus on the things that matter most for the business.

Agility fosters a mindset of not getting stuck in your own desired solutions, but rather dive into the problem and understanding what is the minimum change needed to satisfy some of the customers. You deliver small changes fast, learn, and iterate.

If, suddenly, the world changes (which it did!), you should be able to very quickly adjust your structure in order to cope with that. And that actually happened.

There is no need to permanently change the team’s structure, but it can always change based on the needs of the business at that time. If another crisis hits tomorrow and we need to rethink structure again, we could make different teams compiled with different people. 

Were there any specific learnings you took from reorganizing due to COVID-19?

Pieter: Yes. If we were to do this again, we’d probably mix junior and senior people a bit more. At the same time the crisis started, we had a lot of new hires starting. All of a sudden, there were a lot of people on the team with different knowledge and experience.

We had our senior team members who have been at Proxyclick since the beginning - they know the product, the market, the business, and the clients. Then, we had people just starting. There’s a huge knowledge gap, and you need to onboard these colleagues.

You can expect recent joiners to write code or design workflows or develop test cases, but they don't yet know the ins and outs of your product, they’re unfamiliar with the line of business that you're in, and they have to learn by doing. The main way they do that is by solving problems, making new features by working and talking to their colleagues.

If you balance out a team with both fresh faces and ‘veterans,’ it’s easier for the new ones to quickly come on board. They can very intensively work with these senior people. If you put all of your veterans together and all of your new joiners together, your transfer of knowledge is not going to go well.

And I think one of the most mature things you can do as a team and as a company is to admit, “We failed here, this is why and this is how we can make it better.”

You mentioned your team is organized in squads. How does this work at Proxyclick specifically?

Pieter: A squad is a cross-functional group of people working together to build iterations of a part of the product. Today, our squads are organized by platform. Our product has different platforms by which we provide our service to our customers.

We have the Mobile Squad, which manages the kiosk application running on tablets. We have the Core Squad, which develops what you see on the web - everything on the browser. We have the Access Control Squad, which manages everything related to access control systems integrations.

Our fourth squad is our Infrastructure Squad, which basically makes sure that there are sufficient machines running our systems worldwide so that customers can access our product. They don't build functionalities per se, but they make sure that anyone in the world who wants to work with us can, in a comfortable fashion, and that the product is fast and responsive. They basically lay the groundwork so everyone else on the team can deliver.

Three people working on an access control system

The Access Control Squad at work 

People are really open to change, which is something I really like about Proxyclick. People already wanted to work in an agile fashion. That’s the cornerstone of every change project - people need to want it for themselves. You can't put something like an agile methodology in place from the top-down. People need to want it and need to be convinced about why it’s a good thing. And that was the case here.

Now, both the people who’ve been here for a long time and the people who are joining are getting the hang of this way of working. It’s also a learning experience for myself - I haven't done it at this scale yet! But everyone is open and supportive - we’re all working on this together and that’s a great feeling.

We also don’t expect everything to go perfectly. If things get lost or miscommunicated, we created a space to address this and voice concerns. By giving people time to talk about what went well and what could be done better, we’re not pointing fingers or blaming people but looking at how we can work together better.

It’s never, “Who did what wrong?” but rather it’s “What can we do to be better?” It’s always about “we”, we’re a team. So you see people really helping each other, which has always been a really big part of the culture at Proxyclick.

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