Product People in the News spotlights Hayden Gyles, Senior Product Manager at Civica.
With a career in education spanning over a decade, Hayden Gyles’s experience as a classroom teacher and a school executive gifted him with great insight into the administration of schools.
A passion for education led Hayden to explore the ‘other’ side of school administration, behind the scenes of a school management product.
We spoke to Hayden about his transition from school to product, the similarities between the two and the lessons learned along the way.
Tell me about how you got from teaching to product management.
Well, when I started teaching, I thought that's what I would be doing forever. Then when my wife and I had our first child, I was able to take extended parental leave, and I started thinking it would be nice to try something different.
I have always been interested in educational technologies. I saw a job, applied and got it and thought ‘I’ll do this for a year, if I don’t like it I’ll go back to teaching”. That was a sales role (in education technology), and while in that role, I was very interested in the product side of the business, even though I wasn't thinking that I would go into it.
After a while I was actually asked by the business if I would step into a product role, so I started doing that and thought ‘okay, well this is this is pretty good. I can do this’. And I’ve never looked back!
Do you see similarities between the two? How did life as a teacher prepare you for life as a product manager?
A lot of teaching is understanding how to communicate and connect with students. Being a trusted authority in what you're teaching is also really, really important. The moment that a student realises that you don't know what you're talking about, things can go south pretty quickly! The presentation skills and the clarity with which I speak to stakeholders was learned and honed working in schools.
There’s also a lot of conflict resolution that you learn working in a school that transfers to any product role – whether you’re talking to customers or to people inside the business around expectations and priorities.
Teachers also know how to break things down into small pieces for consumption for learning – that's a big part of teaching.
Leadership and managing people was also a big part of my role in education, and that's a big thing in product – you’re haggling with nearly every stakeholder within the business, whether it’s the sales team, the support team, the design team, the development team.
Let’s talk about the product – Civica Education Suite. What job is it doing for your customers?
Civica Education Suite is a school management system.
Every school needs a school management system to help support them with the day to day running of the school, which can mean a lot of different things – management of the application and enrolments of students, the whole database of students, their attendance, their wellbeing, their academic results, their reports, communications with parents and guardians.
There is a lot required to run a school, and in the last couple of years, the benefit of having a cloud-based product to do that has been obvious.
Some would argue that being a ‘subject matter expert’ is not always an advantage- what do you think?
I can see the argument that it's not an asset, but I think it depends on the sector. Definitely for educational technology, there's a huge amount of nuances in schools and what things mean, and how things work. Unless you've worked in one, you might not ever properly understand it.
And I think lots of people think that they know what a teacher does, and they know what schools do because they went to school. But the reality is that there's a lot more to it. Unless you've worked in a school, you're not really going to understand how a complex house pastoral system will work, for example, or how the school wants to record information.
That's why, in the education tech sector, people that have worked in schools are highly sought after. If you can get an ex-teacher in your sales team or in your product team, that's massive. But many people don't want to leave teaching because they're scared that they won't be able to do it, or they're comfortable in what they're doing. Maybe they don't have the confidence to back themselves, or they really like teaching and being a teacher.
So how do you get a really good one? It's hard to get them out.
What surprised you about working in product?
Initially, it was the number of factors between turning an idea into a product in production and the number of things that are just completely out of your control.
It’s not just coming up with an idea and explaining it to someone, and then it magically gets built. There are all of these phases in between around the design of the product, the testing of the product, the building of the product, and technical limitations that you might face, the resources that you have, your budget and capacity, and then the planning of it being released out into production with customers and a go-to-market plan.
Particularly in education – you can't spring changes on schools around how their product works. You know, if you log into Facebook or Spotify and a button has moved somewhere, you can't call them up and say, ‘Hey, I don't like that’. But with a school management system, your customer definitely can! So everything needs to be really considered around communicating a change, as well.
Overall I think the thing that surprised me most was just the amount of time it takes to get a feature out the door, and I never really appreciated the amount of work that goes into that.
I remember working in sales and getting an idea from a school, you know, ‘we'd like the product to do this’. And I’d think, that's a great idea, and then I’d go to the product team and say hey, the product needs to do this. And they say yeah, okay, we’ll put it in. Three months later, I’d come back and ask where's that thing? They’d say we're still working on it. And I would say ‘it's a very simple thing’. And they would tell me, well technically it's not actually, it's not simple at all. It's months and months of work.
What advice would you have for others looking to move into the product profession?
One of the best things you could do is educate yourself – do some sort of “What is Product Management?” or “Product Management 101” course. And talk to some more experienced product managers to get a feel for what the role actually is.
I've never met a product manager who decided to be a product manager straight out of uni! People find a pathway to it. I tend to think about them in two different ways – the domain product manager who knows the sector and the technical ones who have experience with the engineering component and come from outside the sector. Both have their advantages and disadvantages so there's an opportunity for people across any role or business to find their way into product.
I wouldn't even know how people find their way to being a product manager because I think everyone I've spoken to has fallen into it! But I think having a core understanding of what they are and what they do would help.
A big thank you to Hayden from the team at the Association of Product Professionals.