Interviews / Product Managers

Balancing the Grind With Owen Wallis, Senior Product Manager at Atlassian

Owen Wallis is a Senior Product Manager at enterprise collaboration software company, Atlassian, where he works in the Platform group on the Media team.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

The LinkedIn version is: I have 7 years experience in Product Management starting as the first employee in a data driven e-commerce startup, and now I’m a Senior Product Manager at Atlassian.

Before that I spent 10 years managing three digital production studios. Creating multilingual advertising campaigns, games, experiential and live events.

The pub version is: I started in corporate comms as a designer and developer. Quickly realised people were much better at that than I was. I moved into team management. Moved to Australia. Worked at an Ad agency. Till a terrible job of managing a project using Waterfall methodologies.

Moved back to the UK. Made games and interactive floors for museums. Moved to London. Made games and interactive films for Ad agencies. Made a condom box designer with vibrating pencils.

Questioned my life choices. Moved with a new baby out of London to work on startups. Failed twice. Third time stayed at one company for 7 years. Raising £60m for charities and social enterprises. Looked after payments, GDPR, AML, fraud etc. Stressful but very fulfilling.

Always wanted to come back to Australia. So after Brexit decided to make the move back and was lucky enough to find Atlassian wanted me. Super happy to be back.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Every day is different. Roughly it starts like this. Woken up by son sitting on my head. Play LEGO together. Leave home just before 8am. Jump on the train and check Slack and Emails. We have many offices around the world at Atlassian.

I haven’t found there is an expectation to stay online 24/7 (unless you want to). So asynchronous communication is a big thing here. I get into the office and eat. Then try and clear out email and Slack before the ‘normal’ day starts at 9am. Usually I’ll start with team meetings to align on priorities.

Then I’ll carry out similar meetings with teams in the US. I’ll try and do some interviews with internal staff members. There is so much to learn from people here. Then I’ll do interviews with external customers. To build empathy and learn pain points. I have a standup with my tech leads and dev team to run over any blockers or issues we’re facing.

If I’m feeling a bit ‘peopled out’ I’ll grab lunch then defragment in a quiet room. In the afternoon I try and block time out to work on strategy and vision for my Product. I’ll usually finish the day with 1-1s with peers. I try and head out the office at 5pm. I aim for making sure all Slack messages and emails are dealt with before I go home.

Get home, play with child, glass of wine with wife and chat about the day. Then relax with a computer game or brainless TV. I’m ashamed to say I became addicted to a show called The Bachelor. Very happy Matt ended up with Chelsie, why am I writing this…

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Yes. I try and work from home a couple days a month. So I can experience taking my son to school, meeting my wife for lunch, and focussing on work tasks. In our department we have some individual contributors who are remote. Atlassian recently welcomed Trello into the family. Trello also operate remotely.

4) Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you manage your workload and schedule?

Learn how you learn, and how others learn. Are you Visual (by reading), Auditory (by listening), or Kinesthetic (by doing). This is especially important to know if you are managing people.

If your team member learns better by reading don’t give them verbal instructions, email them.

What kind of team member are you? Use the Belbin test. Are you a Completer Finisher or a Plant for example? A Plant should start projects or tasks, a Completer Finisher should finish them. A free (but less detailed) test is here.

Use the Pomodoro technique. Give yourself 25-50mins complete focus on one task. Don’t check Facebook or Slack. Then take a 5-10min break, repeat, be productive.

Focus times. Block out time in your calendar to work. Use the Slack/Calendar integration so people can see when you are busy. Respect other people’s focus times. Drop them an email or a Slack rather than interrupting in person. They will look at it when they are ready.

Make sure your inbox is always empty. I’m strict with this. I follow the following process:

Triage (review, response, file or delete) when an email comes in.

If filing, setup Action folders and follow up folders.

Once your action folder (i.e. deal with payment issues) becomes full add time in your calendar to focus on getting these issues sorted. See the Focus time tip above.

Do the same with your desktop – an empty mind can get in the flow, a busy mind cannot.

Task lists. Put the most important items at the top. Put everything you need to do on this list, so all meeting notes, ideas etc.

You can have an ‘Urgent list’, a ‘Non-Urgent list’ and a ‘For the future list’.

This list is so you don’t have to keep anything in your brain and can focus on the task at hand. Again, flow state is what you are looking for.

Unsubscribe from newsletters, Facebook alerts, Twitter alerts etc. Have set times and places where you go for news. It’s easy to be drowned in the noise of news so control it.

Turn off push emails on your personal email. Turn off notifications on your Apps for Facebook and Twitter.

Plan your meetings into a calendar and invite the attendees.

Block out time for yourself to complete tasks. Learn that your time is valuable. Use Calendly.

Set an hour aside each week to plan. Each day review your weekly tasks, re-prioritising as needed.

If you wake up with an idea at 3am in the morning, or if something comes to you when you are out walking then email it to yourself at your work email.

Sleep is important (get 8 hours if you can). Removing anything you are thinking of that is work related from your brain is perfect.

Be in control of your thoughts. Don’t have ‘made up’ conversations in your head about conversations you are going to have (i.e. this person will say this and then I will say that). A great book to learn more about this is Clarity by Jamie Smart. There are many other tips, but I’ll let you read the book.

Make agreements not assumptions.

5) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Being present in both areas. So not worrying about work when I am at home. And not worrying about home when I am at work.

Working to achieve the goal is hard. I’ve been working for almost 20 years. It wasn’t until 7 years ago (when my son was born) that I realised I really needed to work on this.

6) What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?

A growth mindset. Extreme ownership. Finding psychological safety in work. Active listening, my technique is repeating the words I’m hearing in my head.

7) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

  • As mentioned above Clarity by Jamie Smart is the first book I would turn to.
  • Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters by Richard P. Rumelt
  • High Output Management by Andrew Grove
  • The Art of War by Sun Tzu (in particular ‘Know your enemy’ – which I took to mean research companies and people as much as you can before you meet them)

I’ve found listening to podcasts to be more meaningful to help me improve. So I would recommend:

  • Jocko Podcast by Jocko Willink
  • Masters or Scale by Reid Hoffman
  • Also for learning more about the human condition; Martyr Made, History on Fire and the early Jordan Peterson lectures on the Bible are amazing listening.

8) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Learn something new. Grow a little each day. Compare myself to who I was yesterday not to other people. Not easy at Atlassian with so many talented people, I’m working on this.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

I struggle with staying in the present. So much of my life is spent living in the future, thinking of what life could be like. I sometimes miss out on what is going on around me.

So my thoughts on what I’m trying to do, and what I’d recommend you try and do are the following. So much of modern life is setup to steal your attention. Fight back. Take control. Take ownership of your life and your actions. Be present. Stay in the moment. Don’t live life through a screen. Write that letter you’ve always meant to.

Never walk out on an argument without making up. Don’t always win arguments with your partner. It may make you feel like the winner but it makes the other person a loser. Do you want to be married to a loser?

Always give the loved ones you live with a hug and a kiss when you leave in the morning, and the same when you come back home.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.