How Promethean’s product chief adopted Amazon-inspired business practices at a Seattle startup

Steven Halliwell, Promethean Chief Product Officer, with his family in Carlsbad, California (photo courtesy of the Halliwell family)

Steven Halliwell, Promethean’s chief product officer, calls himself a change agent. In his current role during the COVID-19 pandemic, this has meant pushing for new approaches internally and with customers.

Halliwell joined Promethean in 2017 and joined the Chinese education technology company shortly after it made Seattle its new headquarters. Prior to that, he spent seven and a half years at Amazon, which he described as “finishing school” and providing an opportunity to focus on the system level. Before that, he was at Microsoft for 10 years, where he honed his product management skills and learned how to “fearlessly” take on new challenges.

When he arrived at Promethean, he was eager to implement some of Amazon’s legendary approaches to business, such as: B. the style of precise, targeted and ball-free communication. Start the meetings with an accurate document describing the focus of the conversation; and Amazon’s hiring and interviewing practices. Halliwell had been a salaried “bar raiser” who had participated in 750 Amazon employee interviews (the company kept a record).

“There is a push and a pull,” he said, when it comes to bringing these concepts into a new corporate culture. When people resisted some of the ideas and said Amazon was a whole different business, Halliwell had a strategy: “I’m trying to get to the point: ‘These are the things they do that make sense to everyone. ‘“

Over time he has also learned to recognize that sometimes an idea does not fit well. In this case, it is not the company that has to change;

Steven Halliwell. (Promethean photo)

“Somewhere the change will happen,” he said. “The worst part is when you tip over at the windmill and nothing is learned on either side.”

COVID presented an unexpected opportunity for Promethean to question and reevaluate its priorities. The edtech company that makes interactive screens and software for delivering lessons suddenly “was working with a group of users who were going through one of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the last century”.

The education sector tends to move more slowly, but the virus has caused teachers to rethink their approaches and move faster. Halliwell said his teams were given scratchy and repurposed technology to aid distance learning while working to get their technology integrated with other educational platforms. He predicts that many of the teachers will stay on a path that involves new technical tools.

“There are so many ways to change,” Halliwell said. “I’m very interested in this dynamic. Every year if you don’t change you fall behind. “

We met Halliwell for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Read on for his answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Seattle, with people on my team in Seattle, Atlanta, England, and China, as well as remote workers

Computer types: Dell laptop, iPad Pro and all the cloud services we need

Mobile devices: iPhone 11 with approx. 2,000 installed apps

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Slack, Miro and Trello for planning, Jira for ticketing / sprints, Figma for UX. We use AWS in multiple regions around the world for problems with low latency and data sovereignty. When I commuted to work, I used to use Speaking Email a lot, which reads your email for you and responds to voice commands.

Halliwell at work. (Courtesy photo of Halliwell)

Describe your work area. Why does it work for you? I have multiple monitors and a height-adjustable desk, accompanied by a 75-inch interactive flat screen (one of our products) that makes a great whiteboard. I usually have to move around when I speak, and I find that using a whiteboard tool helps clarify my thinking, whether I’m “architectural” or trying to come up with new approaches to products. I also have a couple of guitars on hand because I find switching to something creative or musical for just 10 minutes during the day re-energizes me.

Your best advice for managing work and life? Scheduled time! Explicitly make time to read emails and do your own independent work, or it will take up your family time. Have hobbies and give them their own time to make your work time more productive. I also use my personal hobbies to motivate myself at work. I find that if I achieve my goals in my personal life and feel successful there, it carries over to my professional life and I also focus on achieving it there.

Your favorite social network? How do you use it for business / professional purposes? I only use LinkedIn and Twitter and only in small amounts. Facebook just isn’t very convincing to me. I use LinkedIn for recruiting and networking and have come to appreciate the input from various experts. I’m always on the lookout for product ideas and I find that casting a wide network and reviewing everything is very stimulating and helps me come up with new ideas. I also keep in touch with a wide variety of colleagues and often call them to catch up on their challenges and ideas and to listen to them.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 18 just because it’s monday. It will go up and down but my goal is to have less than 10 unreads by the time I leave on Friday afternoon. One of my “superpowers” is that I can read with understanding faster than most, so I can quickly get through an email backlog.

Number of appointments / meetings on your calendar this week? Let’s see … 32 at this point between Monday and Friday. My meetings start at 6 or 6:30 a.m. most days and last until 5 or 6 p.m. My goal is to have 20 or fewer a week and I have a few key attitudes that help in this regard.

How do you conduct meetings? I am unfortunately a very literal person. That is, in order for me to really understand something, I have to hear or read it without slang or exaggeration. So we have to start with a very clear statement of what we want the call to achieve, in very simple language. As people get used to it, I think it actually makes us faster and more focused.

I learned to ask for input and jot down people who don’t comment and try to pull them out to see if we are missing anything. I try very hard to make the atmosphere open and inclusive and to do everything possible to accept the difficult topics and to be uncomplicated.

I always value options and recommendations in any discussion, as in “Here are the options we were considering and of them we / I believe Option B is the one we recommend for these reasons.” With no options and Recommendations, you can’t be sure that due diligence is done at the right level and we have to go back.

Everyday work uniform? Jeans, long-sleeved cotton T-shirt or button-down, a pair of Chuck’s.

How do you make time for the family? I’m pretty busy with homework and the evening routine, which includes a short family activity for us every night – Jenga or card games, always something. Part of the reason I work early is so I can get up and do hours of work in front of my family, then finish up in the evening and hang out with them.

Best Stress Reliever? How do you pull out the plug? I have several: running, cycling, a heavy bag in the garage, and I’ve learned to play the guitar. I’ve found that I love doing carpentry around the house, building decks or stairs, etc. It’s great to build something in the real physical world after working in the virtual world all day. I could go a little overboard – I built a tree house on a lot we just rented …

Halliwell paddles with a buddy. (Courtesy photo of Halliwell)

What are you listening to right now? Blues, classic rock from the 70s and 80s, an alternative and everything I want to learn on the guitar.

Reads every day? Favorite pages and newsletters? Washington Post, Google News, LinkedIn Posts, Flipboard. I am constantly looking for connections or patterns between business and technology to update my mindset, so I subscribe to a very different set of topics.

Are you booking on your bedside table (or e-reader)? I balance reading business / tech books against fiction novels and typically go through two books a week, so my Kindle bill is uncomfortably high. Right now I’m in the middle of David Epstein’s “Range” and enjoying the concepts.

Night owl or early bird? Early riser! I love to get up early and spend productive time in the quiet of the morning. During my studies, I worked in various areas in the transport and trucking sector and was always at the start between 4 and 5 a.m. I love the quiet and calm of the early morning hours and the feeling of having a head start. It’s also important that I stay away from messaging apps or email for the first 45 minutes so that I can capture my own thoughts and get organized.

Where do you get your best ideas from? Whenever I move: walking up and down the office, cycling, running. I always have a number of topics on my mind and keep looking for more data points to see how they are synthesized. Most of this is about design principles looking for the right thinking that captures a particular customer workflow or process. Then I try to rethink the architecture, which generally takes me back to the basic ideas when I’m missing something. It’s very iterative, probably not as efficient at all as I would like it to be.

Whose working style would you like to get to know or imitate? I was very fortunate to have worked with and watched some great technology leaders: Andy Jassy, ​​Charlie Bell, Matt Garman and Deepak Singh from AWS; Gene Farrell of Smartsheet; Jay Heglar at Domo and many others. They all have an open curiosity and willingness to learn and to challenge their thinking, which I am trying to emulate. While it means juggling opposing viewpoints all the time, you are really looking for the mental model or the way forward that matches all of the data points.

They’re all still hungry for new data points and clearer, more precise communication, and they share this expectation of raising the bar with all of their teams. There is the “magic” for me – and the hard work. The point is to reduce these ideas to a written communication that includes everything you need to know … and nothing you don’t know on a particular subject. When you get information at this level (I think it’s “clean” – no distractions or unfinished thoughts), not only can you make good decisions, but you can make more of them in less time.

Leave a Comment