A Spotify PM reflects on his journey into tech
Why is it important to fix this? And how do we know we’ve solved the problem?
As a product manager, or PM, at Spotify, Blake Darling shines the light on the biggest problems and makes sure team members are in sync to get to the solution. Questions like these help guide the team to where they need to go. Darling may not be making all of the decisions, but he is the one “getting alignment from the entire team to prioritize the right things and build them in the right way.”
As a group PM, Darling manages a team of five other PMs, but usually, PMs don’t manage anyone directly. Telling teammates what to do isn’t an effective way of getting anything done. To him, it’s about using influence, data, communication, storytelling and leading teammates in the right direction.
“You have to be a chameleon and fill in all the different gaps and be flexible,” Darling said.
While Darling may be guiding team members at Spotify now, he recalls how he didn’t exactly choose this career. After studying comparative literature in college, he was keen on keeping the door open to explore his other interests like languages, film, anthropology and more. He described it as “the perfect major.”
He decided to pursue law school, noting how it made sense, even if he wasn’t sure if being a lawyer was the right direction. Although he applied and got into law school, Darling changed his mind after further questioning his intentions for law. He found himself thinking about the loans he would have to take out, and if law was what he truly wanted to do.
As a result, Darling took a year to teach English in China. Going abroad often gives the impression that you’ll be able to clear your mind and answer all of your questions. And while he had an incredible time, Darling admits he came back with far more questions than when he left. He flirted with the idea of finally attending law school, but for some reason, he still hesitated. Instead, he started working as a paralegal in New York to gain experience and hopefully push himself to commit to law.
“That ended up being an awesome decision because I very quickly realized this was a miserable career for me. I didn’t want to do that. And I was basically like, ‘Okay, what is the exact opposite of this environment?’”
His answer: a tech startup. Fast-paced, imaginative and full of potential, Darling was no longer hesitant in chasing his career.
“I just kept following my interests and then ended up doing it. I wasn't aware of this as a career. When I started out working in startups...I didn't know that this was a thing that you could do,” he said.
Darling applied to numerous entry-level jobs at startups in New York. Soon enough, he found himself sitting in front of a CEO of a small company he applied to. Much to his surprise, the CEO started the interview in Mandarin, as he had listed the language on his resumé due to his time abroad. While he was thrown off, Darling answered the questions and got the job. What mattered, Darling noted, was not the quality of his Mandarin, but the fact that he was honest and followed through with what was on his resumé.
During this job, Darling was constantly searching for solutions and corresponding with team members to get the product where it needed to be. Little did he know, this was product managing. Darling set out to understand the technical side of problems, think of hypotheses and test them out for the problems he faced. Not only was he enjoying himself, he realized he wanted to do this full time.
Since this epiphany, Darling has worked as a product manager for Adobe, Foursquare, Facebook and now, Spotify. He has thrived from constant learning and has found it to be his favorite part of being a product manager. Having a “growth mindset” in this environment pushes Darling to take on the challenge of learning anything he can and filling in any gaps he comes across. To him, learning is one of the most fascinating parts of his job.
“I like to know a little bit about everything and work with all different specialties,” he said. “There's no finish line. You're never like, ‘Okay, good. I know everything.’ It's infinite.”
“It's like the product manager is the glue to hold everything together and make sure that communication is flowing across the team, and also, across the company,” Darling said.
Darling describes his days as full of meetings, prioritizing and communicating. When he’s not checking in with his team, he’s usually talking with others about goals, blockers and ways to help one another reach project objectives.
One of his favorite products he has worked on at Spotify is a tool for podcasters. This tool would allow anyone to make a podcast and break down barriers for those who want to get started in making them.
“Our goal is to make it super easy for anyone to make a podcast no matter where they are, no matter whether they have a computer or a phone,” he said.
But during the pandemic, brainstorming on projects has taken a different look. With work being completely remote, Darling is finding ways to continue strong communication and connection over video calls and other mediums. While relationships tend to develop more organically in an office setting, Darling intends to recreate a remote version of that atmosphere. He’s found it helpful to carve out time for more one-on-one conversations and have an open atmosphere to talk about anything at the end of meetings.
“At the end of the day, we're humans, we’re people. Having a connection with someone, understanding who they are, what their interests are outside of work, being able to bond over common ground, makes it more fun to work together and more effective,” he said.
Empathy, Darling noted, is one of the main skills a PM needs, to understand the audience and create a strong work environment. With representation in the tech industry becoming a more public and pressing matter, diversity and empathy come hand in hand.
“It's super important to understand the challenges that different people have and to build the right thing for them,” Darling said.
Spotify emphasizes the lack of diversity in tech and has talked about how they want to create change, according to Darling. While it’s not perfect, Spotify hopes to make progress for the betterment of their company and user experiences.
“I think it's on the product managers to keep reminding people that we're not just building for ourselves, or we're not just building for this one type of person; we're building for all these different types of people.”
After looking back on his journey, Darling recalls the mentors, generosity and risks people took on him to get him where he is now. In addition to gratitude, he feels the responsibility of paying this guidance forward to those beyond his immediate network. With accessibility being a large barrier in the tech industry, Darling hopes to open up doors for those who don’t have access to as many opportunities.
“The only reason I'm in this position is because I was really fortunate to have amazing mentors that saw my interest and saw that I had some potential to do this,” he said.
Darling’s mind is always racing. So much so, he’s trained his subconscious to take on a habit of evaluating through a critical eye. Darling looks at everything with this critical eye and asks himself, what’s confusing about this? How can it be better?
Whether it’s an app or restaurant, he evaluates what’s around him to better understand his own work. It can be just one easy thing to improve the product, but being actively aware of opportunities to enhance products around him is incredibly useful as a product manager.
One particular way of being proactive is having side projects, especially work that shows this problem-solving mindset while developing skills you can use later on.
“In my experience, the best people I've worked with don't necessarily come from certain programs, degrees or companies. It’s people that have a passion and work on things outside of work, on the side, and can show that,” Darling said. “It doesn't need to be perfect or polished, but it shows someone that you have that interest and that ability.”
Since tech can feel rapid and intricate, Darling likes to contrast his career with spending time outdoors. Interacting with nature allows him to escape from the real world and become grounded. Whether it’s fishing, mountaineering or camping, he loves the tangibility of the world and balancing that with the abstractness of building software products and code.
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