Steven Halliwell, chief product officer for Promethean, calls himself a change agent. in his current role during the COVID-19 pandemic, that has meant pushing for new approaches internally and with customers.
Halliwell came to Promethean in 2017, joining the Chinese-owned education technology company shortly after it made Seattle its new headquarters. He was previously at Amazon for 7-and-a-half years, which he called “finishing school” and a chance to steep in systems-level thinking. Before that, he was at Microsoft for 10 years where he honed his product management skills and learned to “step fearlessly” into new challenges.
Arriving at Promethean, he was eager to implement some of Amazon’s iconic business approaches, such as its style of concise, targeted, bullets-free communication; starting meetings with a precise document describing the focus of the conversation; and Amazon’s hiring and interviewing practices. Halliwell had been a hiring “bar-raiser,” participating in 750 Amazon employee interviews (the company kept a tally).
“There is a push and a pull there,” he said, when it comes to bringing these concepts to a new corporate culture. When people resisted some of the ideas, saying Amazon is a much different business, Halliwell had a strategy: “I try to boil it back to, ‘these are the things they do that make sense for anyone.’”
He has also learned over time to recognize that sometimes an idea is not a good fit. In that case, it’s not the company that needs to shift, but him.
“Somewhere the change will happen,” he said. “The worst part of it is if you tilt at the windmill and nothing is learned on either side.”
COVID created an unexpected opportunity for Promethean to question and re-evaluate its priorities. The edtech company, which builds interactive screens and software for delivering lessons, was suddenly “working with a user group going through one of the biggest transformational changes we’ve seen in the past century.”
The education sector tends to be slower moving in making big shifts, but the virus has caused teachers to rethink their approaches and move more quickly. Halliwell said his teams got scrappy and repurposed technology to support remote learning while also working to make sure their tech integrated with other education platforms. He predicts many of the teachers will stay on a path that incorporates new tech tools.
“There is so much opportunity to change,” Halliwell said. “For me, I’m very interested in that dynamic. Every year, if you’re not changing, you’re getting behind.”
We caught up with Halliwell for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Current location: Seattle, with folks 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 about 2,000 apps installed
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Slack, Miro and Trello for planning, Jira for ticketing/sprints, Figma for UX. We use AWS in several regions around the world for low latency and data sovereignty issues. Back when I was commuting to work, I heavily used “Speaking Email,” which reads your email to you and responds to voice commands.
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I have multiple monitors and an adjustable height desk, accompanied by a 75-inch interactive flat panel (one of our products) that is a great whiteboard. I usually need to move around when I am talking, and I find that using a whiteboard tool clarifies my thinking whether I am “architecting” or trying to create new product approaches. I also have a couple of guitars handy, because I find that switching over to something creative or musical for even 10 minutes re-energizes me during the day.
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Schedule time! Make explicit time for reading emails and your own independent work, otherwise that will run into your time with family. Have hobbies and give them their own time, so that your work time is more productive. I also use my personal hobbies to motivate me at work. I find that if I am achieving my goals in my personal life and feeling successful there, that rolls over into my professional life and makes me focus on achieving there, too.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I only use LinkedIn and Twitter, and only in small amounts. Facebook just isn’t very compelling for me. I use LinkedIn for recruiting and networking, and have come to appreciate the posts from various experts. I am always looking for product ideas, and find that casting a wide net and reviewing a bit of everything is very stimulating and helps me find new ideas. I also keep in touch with a wide array of colleagues and often will dial them up to catch up and listen to their challenges and ideas.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 18, only because it’s Monday. It will go up and down but my goal is to have less than 10 unread when I exit Friday afternoon. One “superpower” of mine is that I can read with comprehension faster than most others, so I can burn through an email backlog quickly.
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. on most days and go through 5 or 6 p.m. My goal is to have 20 or less per week, and I have some key hires coming on that will help in that regard.
How do you run meetings? I am unfortunately a very literal person. That means in order for me to truly understand something, I need to hear it or read it without slang or hyperbole. So we have to start with a very clear statement of what we’re trying to get done on the call, using very simple language. As people have gotten used to it, I think it actually makes us faster and more focused.
I have learned to ask for input and to make note of people who are not commenting, and to try to draw them out to see if we’re missing something. I try hard to make the atmosphere open and inclusive and all about taking on the hard issues and being straightforward.
I always value options and recommendations in every discussion, as in “here are the options that we considered, and of them we/I believe that option B is the one we recommend for these reasons.” Without options and recommendations, you can’t be sure the due diligence is done at the right level, and we need to go back.
Everyday work uniform? Jeans, long sleeve cotton t-shirt or button-down, a pair of Chuck’s.
How do you make time for family? I am pretty involved in homework and the evening routine, which for us includes some sort of brief family activity every evening — Jenga or card games, always something. Part of why I work early is so I can get up and get hours of work done before my family, and then finish in the evening and spend time with them.
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? I have several: running, cycling, a heavy bag in the garage, and I have been learning guitar. I have found that I love doing carpentry jobs 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 might go a little overboard on that — I did build a treehouse on a property we were only renting…
What are you listening to? Blues, classic rock from the ’70s and ’80s, some alternative, and anything I am trying to learn on guitar.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Washington Post, Google News, LinkedIn posts, Flipboard. I constantly look for connections or patterns across business and technology to update my way of thinking, so I subscribe to a very diverse set of topics.
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? I balance reading business/tech books against fiction novels and generally get through two books a week so my Kindle invoice is uncomfortably high. Right now I am in the middle of “Range” by David Epstein and am enjoying the concepts.
Night owl or early riser? Early riser! I love to be up early and carve out productive time in the quiet of the morning. Going through university, I worked several jobs in transportation and trucking, and I was always on the 4 to 5 a.m. start schedule. I love the stillness and quiet of the early morning hours, and the sense that I am getting a head start. It’s also critical that I stay off news 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? Always when I am moving: pacing in the office, cycling, running. I always have a bunch of topics going on in my head, and am constantly looking for more data points to see how they synthesize. Most of it is about design principles, looking for the right thinking that captures a particular customer workflow or process. Then I try to think out the architecture, which generally leads me back to the root ideas when I find something missing. It’s very iterative, probably not at all as efficient as I want it to be.
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? I have been extremely lucky to have worked with and observed some great tech leaders: Andy Jassy, Charlie Bell, Matt Garman, Deepak Singh of AWS; Gene Farrell of Smartsheet; Jay Heglar at Domo and many others. They all have an open curiosity and willingness to learn and challenge their thinking that I try to emulate. It does mean mentally juggling opposing viewpoints all the time, but you’re really searching for the mental model or path forward that matches all the data points.
They all still have a hunger for new data points and clear, concise communications and share that expectation for “raising the bar” with their whole teams. That’s where the “magic” is for me — and the hard work. It’s in reducing those ideas down into a written communication that has everything you need to know… and nothing you don’t on a particular topic. When you are receiving information at that level (I think of it as “clean” — no distractions or unfinished thoughts), then you can not only make good decisions, but you can make more of them in a shorter time.