#DualoopProductTalk: Interview With Product Manager Marcelo Afonso Knakiewicz

Let’s talk to some product managers, shall we? This week, we’re launching our new interview series, the #DualoopProductTalk. During these series, we’ll be interviewing many product managers from all around the world to talk about everything about the product management world and their experience as a PM. 

This week, we are hosting Volkswagen Digital Solution product manager Marcelo Afonso Knakiewicz for a #DualoopProductTalk session. We talk about how he managed to become a product manager without having the PM background, his vision of product management and how his company integrates product management in their culture. 

Marcelo Afonso Knakiewicz is a product manager originally from Brazil. He started his career in product management at HBSIS in 2018 and then moved to Portugal in 2019 to work for Mobiag as a product manager as well. He then continued his career as a product owner for the SaaS Cloud Platform of VAKT Global Ltd. Marcelo freelances as a mentor at Product Guru’s and Tera where he helps people to find their path in product management. 

Marcelo also wrote many interesting articles on Medium. Make sure to check them out as well. 

Hello Marcelo, it’s lovely talking to you today! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Yes, sure. I’m a product manager here at Volkswagen Digital Solutions. I’ve been working as a product manager for the past 6 years already. I’m originally from Brazil but moved to Portugal in 2019. I’ve already worked in startups in the past. Although I’m at Volkswagen, we have a startup environment inside this huge corporation. I’ve graduated in chemical engineering, although I never worked as one. I started my career as a process engineer, I was very focused on lean manufacturing. And this is the main reason why I changed to being a product manager. 


Why have you switched to product management? What motivated you to join this industry?

I’ll say that it was by chance to be honest. I had a friend who was the owner of a startup in Brazil. I was doing post-graduation. One day during off-break, he said “look, I  have this vacancy there, would you like to join?”. 

But when I arrived there, they didn’t really know what to do with me. They told me “although your friend hired you, we don’t have anything for you. We didn’t have a vacancy, we actually created one just for you. So I don’t have anything to do for you. I don’t know what to say now. I maybe suggest you use these three months to study and understand a bit more about the PM role”” – just a little bit of context – every year things in the company changes, new goals and new projects arise, so they say : “look after three months, you’re here, the inner group will change, and maybe we’ll have something to do for you”. 

So I actually took the opportunity to learn what a product manager was and that was actually very good. To be honest, the more I learned about it, the more I loved it. And even back then, I was very proud of what I was learning – about everything that I was studying – yeah – I cannot see myself doing anything different nowadays.


After studying product management, how would you define it?

The way I like to define a product manager is like a maestro of an orchestra. Someone that doesn’t make a sound – actually I stole this phrase from one guy called Benjamin Zander from a Ted Talk – it’s someone that doesn’t really make a sound but has the power to make the others powerful.  

So this is basically what a product manager is. I don’t build products. I just empower people to make good products. And I empower them by providing them the information that is needed, or by taking the decision when it's needed and communicating properly and having everyone aligned. This is how you empower them and how you build good products.


So how does Volkwagen integrate product management into their culture? On what level does it operate? 

Here at Volkswagen, we have these innovations labs – we can call them like an innovation lab. And we try to tackle problems – we don’t work with products inside cars – we just work with everything around. And we try to solve problems that are pitched to us. 

Let’s say if someone has a problem - some dealer has a problem selling a car because something is not working, it might be an opportunity for us to solve and create a product that maybe will be spread along more than 30 or 40 countries and will be sold in all those countries. 

I can see that some movements are happening - strategically - some movements are happening to become more digital. You can see on the news, things are happening. Volkswagen is becoming very digital and creating this digital ecosystem. Everything starts by having this product mindset where instead of building things just because people ask us to do it, we actually put our effort to understand the reason of building it, what problem does that solves - back in the days, we were very used to stakeholders just telling us “look, build this because I believe that is what needs to be done”. But with the product mindset we actually look to the problem they want to solve, we make questions to understand what problem they have, what is their pain point. And I can see that nowadays these kind of situations are happening more often, people from business are approaching us saying “look, I have this problem” instead of “I want you to build that”

I think this is happening now because we’ve been saying a lot about this product mindset and we’ve been blocked in many things in the past.


There’s a misconception going around saying that product managers don’t do anything or they don’t add any value to the company. What would you say about that?

Well .. of course I am biased otherwise I wouldn’t be here right. So – um- we definitely add value because we are these people that orchestrate everything to happen in a smooth way you know. So we have these – we create those bridges between many sectors and we create the communication between all those different areas, different perspectives of companies. So if we don’t exist – the company still can run of course – but, potentially what’s going to happen as a product might not be the best option. 

And again, I’m back to my maestro orchestra example.  If you think about the maestro of an orchestra, you can find scientific studies about – if the maestro is needed or not. Every study says that. Even though we are not needed, the orchestra plays better with the maestro. So I see the same way for the product manager. 

Although we are not very needed – like a must – the company is better with the product manager. Because we create those connections, we create those bridges. And at the end if you’re doing your job as expected, if you’re doing a good job, at the end the product will be a better product. It might even become viral or whatever.


What would you say is the most fulfilling thing about your job as product manager?

I’d say once you launch a product, or once you launch a feature. Once you’ve done a test, an A-B test, and find the – this is what we should build. And once you’ve built and delivered it, and seeing the impact on the numbers, seeing the - whatever – you took the risk to build because we are never 100 % sure, so we are always taking risks – and that risk was worth doing, you know. 

So I think at the end of the day, seeing that maybe – a conversion rate, or churn – it’s getting better. That is very fulfilling.


Is there, you think – what's one thing you wish you knew before you became a product manager? In a pleasant or unpleasant way? 

One thing that I wish I knew when I started is how much communication skills I had to have. I knew of course that I will be maybe the one communicating the most in the company. But I didn’t know – I had no idea that I had to change my way of communicating according to whom I’m speaking to. 

I can speak with – in a way with the development team, or the designers but the way that I speak with the C level for example is really different to – at the context where I need to give is different and even the structure, or whatever the presentation I’m doing. Although the subject is the same or whatever I’m saying is the same, the structure is very different. So I wish I knew that in the past because if I knew that would’ve saved a lot of time and effort, I’d say.


Would you then say that, for example, the skills you need as a product manager depends solely on the kind of company you’re working for or do you think there’s some kind of a basis of skills you have to have?

I think that there is a basis, yes. There is a basis like you need to be good at communicating, you need to somehow have the ability to understand, to have a holistic view. You need to have a very good power to control your stress level and to control your mind, your thoughts. But depending on the company you might need to have a different technique. 

For example if you are working on API based products, no front end, only back, potentially you might need to have more practical or coding level skills, or something similar. Or if you’re working product-based, providing loads of data to another product for example you potentially might need to be knowledgeable in this area. But I do believe that there is a base.


Let’s talk about slack communities. You have joined our dualoop slack community recently. What do you think slack communities provide to product managers? How does it affect you or your tasks on a daily basis?

Umm.. Not necessarily just slack communities, but communities overall… So I wouldn’t be – I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t be a product manager – but potentially the time that took me to become a product manager would be longer than it took if I didn’t have a community to help me. 

Back when I started in 2016, this community idea was just starting in Brazil. And everything was very centered in São Paulo and I wasn’t from São Paulo. I had to find people in São Paulo to help me understand the whole concept about product management. I'm very glad that I found these communities and they helped me a lot.  Not only providing experience but also suggesting courses and articles. I believe that the community has the power to leverage someone who is starting or is in this career of product management. Any career to be honest, not just product management. I believe that by sharing knowledge and sharing experience, you can cut steps of your career progression you know. Because potentially someone already faced whatever you are facing by sharing experience, you can learn from that person.


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