Christopher Nheu – Head of Product at Mad Paws
Posted September 1, 2017, by Jenny Sakr
Since joining Mad Paws from its start-up days in 2015, Chris has done it all, from user experience design to customer support, project management and more! See how he's not only evolved his career but help build the company.
What is Mad Paws?
In a nutshell, Mad Paws connects you with pet sitters who will care for your pet when they're alone.
What did you study to get into product management?
By trade, I’m a Solar Energy Engineer. I have a B Eng (Photovoltaics and Solar Energy Engineering) and B Arts (Chinese). Did a product management course at General Assembly, also a lot of self-learning online!
What did you want to be when you were younger?
As a kid I always loved drawing, my parents thought I might become an architect or an animator! In high school, I fell deeper into the sciences and mathematics I thought I might work at CERN one day, but my science teacher convinced me that Solar Energy was the future. Now I’m helping people share and experience the unconditional love of pets!
What was your first job?
My first job was sorting mail at a Post Office. I remember thinking two things:
1) Shift work pays so well! (I was on like $35/ hour which was awesome as a teen)
2) I need to do something else. The time I was losing not learning could not ever
be taken back.
When did you first know you wanted to pursue this career path?
When I bought my first Apple Macbook, I got so many questions from friends about why I’d go for a Macbook, when it couldn’t run so much software we needed for engineering! I didn’t fully have the answers to those questions at the beginning. As I delved deeper, I realised the product had come to represent an image of who I aspired to be. Rather than the mindless focus on technical performance, I was intrigued by what made the Apple ecosystem so great and why I was such a sucker for it! When I heard Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement in 2005, and then later learning about the subtext of his health condition at the time, I found my calling. Life is too short. It was then that I decided I wanted to learn how to build amazing products that can create a real impact in people’s lives.
Explain a typical day at work
1. Get in and triage issues. Triage the Inbox, Calendar, Slack, Things (to do list app). I really like using the Get Shit Done (GSD) framework, do it now, do it later/ schedule, delegate, or don’t do it.
2. Focus and pick one thing that matters which I NEED to do in the day. We have a team Slack channel where we post up the things that matter most that will deliver most value. For us it’s a social commitment to the team and to ourselves.
3. The day usually comprises of a list of blocked out calendar events. That includes facilitating workshops, writing specs, prioritising the backlog, meetings, QAing features, strategic work (me-time). Basically whatever is needed to ship the product!
What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened to you in your career?
It was the shift from engineering to product management. As a solar energy engineer, I was working at a national supplier of solar thermal systems. I sourced, designed, built and tested a hybrid solar thermal system. Then after I smashed my thesis, pitching this magnificent product, my boss at work asked me to figure out how to sell the device! I started doing really alien things to me at the time, going on sales calls, working with installers, talking and listening to end users. Very, very weird times! I started doing customer development to understand their needs. It was with these insights that I iterated on the system’s design, developed a website and quotation system. Most importantly, I noticed my questions started shifting. I was no longer asking “how” but “what” and “why”. This was the paradigm shift for me that has taken me to where I am today.
Name the best and worst parts of your job
For me, the worst day is one where I’m stuck fighting reactive fires. I hate those days. But they can’t be avoided in a start up.
My best days are exactly the opposite. It honestly doesn’t matter if I’m stressed, if I’m exhausted, or if I’m working really late, I’m completely satisfied if I set a plan, and completed that plan. I’m really task-oriented in that way.
What’s the most important career tip someone has given you?
Ahhh!! So many! This is the recent one I’ve gotten that’s stuck with me. It’s something like: “listen as though you know nothing, speak as though you know everything”. I think it highlights the fine balancing act required of a product manager. Sometimes you need to just listen, empathise, let ideas cross-pollinate and flow. Sometimes you just need to make the call, hold yourself accountable and make the decision.
What do you wish someone had told you before starting in this career?
I wish someone had told me that software was going to eat the world. I would’ve started coding a long, long, time ago!
Where do people have to start to work in product management and what is a standard salary package for this role?
The salary package really depends on the company! At an early startup, I’d say you’re pretty much at minimum wage or less with equity. From what I’ve heard, at most big companies the entry level range is around 60-70k. However, it’s really hard to find entry level roles. I believe for someone looking to move into Product Management. A really good place to start that’s easy for people to add value is something like triaging bugs and reproducing them. You get to develop soft skills around managing customer-facing stakeholders but you also start learning the intricacies around your product’s architecture.
It’s something that no one wants to do but allows you to get a foot in the door and start flexing those product management muscles (even though you’re not a product manager… yet!).
Name a career highlight
For me, a highlight was building up the Mad Paws team from scratch. For me what that means is firing myself from all the things I used to do as the first full-time employee at Mad Paws. I’ve done everything, from customer support, project management, database
architecture (really poorly!!!), user experience design to due diligence for our Series A round. Since we’ve hired so many amazing people I no longer have to do all of that. That’s a really amazing feeling.
Nowadays, I’m finding the balance between “doing” and “delegating”. Constantly asking myself where can I add the most value, and when should I ask someone who’s better than me to do it.
What’s next for you?
For the foreseeable future, my focus is going to be on Mad Paws. When the day comes that I feel I’ve done everything I can to add value, when the product is touched by the millions of pet owners in Australia and abroad, I think that’s when I’ll do the ultimate deed and fire myself completely!
Beyond Mad Paws, I’d love to move back into the sustainability space. I’m super passionate about products that help us live happier, healthier lives and reduce our ecological footprint on this big space rock we call home.
Tell us a bit about yourself outside of the office…
I’ve been dancing hip hop for over 10 years! This year I’ve taken a new direction and started Latin Salsa dancing and I’m learning from an 8-time world champion! (Which by the way, is seriously the best way to learn anything in life!)
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Jenny found her way with words while interning during uni, since, she's produced articles on it all – from hair and beauty to homewares, travel, career advice and study tips. On a weekend you're most likely to find her lining up for a table at the latest cafe or restaurant.