Why American Product Managers Should Live Overseas for a While
There are important things you can’t learn from Zoom meetings
Once your company reaches $50 million in revenue it probably has some international customers. Gartner Group estimates that the enterprise software market will grow by 8.5% to $466 billion in 2019. While North America accounts for almost 50% of the market, Europe accounts for 25% and Asia/Pacific is about 15%. As a company grows the relative share of international revenue rises. Product Management for a global product is more complex than one that just serves the United States. To be effective, American product managers should live overseas for a while to develop the necessary perspective, skills, and experience.
I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. In high school, I was fortunate enough to spend a summer as an exchange student living in a small town outside of Brussels, Belgium. It was quite a culture shock for me. I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Detroit — Grosse Pointe. I spoke ‘high school’ French. My Belgian family had hosted many American exchange students before me.
Belgium has two cultures — the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish-speaking Dutch. You could walk three blocks and be in a Flemish neighborhood and in another three blocks you would be in a Walloon neighborhood. After the first day my host family only spoke to me in French. I struggled at first, but by the end of the summer, I was semi-fluent and could read the newspaper with ease. I learned to appreciate Belgian food and a village lifestyle that I could never have experienced in the States. I still remember waking up to the smell of freshly baked bread from the neighborhood bakery three doors down from my house. At the age of 16, that summer was one of the most influential times of my life. I had an opportunity to learn how people in another culture worked and lived.
In the early 1990s, I was working for an enterprise software company in Atlanta. I was assigned to turn around a broken customer in Amsterdam. For one year I commuted between Amsterdam, Detroit, and Atlanta. I had an office and apartment in Utrecht, a university town 50 kilometers south of Amsterdam. I also worked on a sales team that covered Northern…