José Mota

Product & Coaching

The universality of problem solving and learning

A case study on my journey through learning and development.

Published on .

Around 7 min read.

What is the #1 component of the knowledge economy? Learning. It is a transversal element to every single human being, and it does not choose sex, race or creed. It speaks to our natural curiosity and our ambition to improve.

Ever since the beginning of times, mankind has witnessed their history unfolding: problem after problem, tribulation after tribulation, solution after solution. For thousands of years, humanity has grown: from tree picking to the incredible advances in technology, healthcare, quality of life and education. Learning continues to be the focal point of progress as a civilization.

The goal of this piece is to showcase how learning is present in my career history both as an individual contributor and as a leader, and how it is connected to problem solving.

The fundamentals of leadership

As with any leadership position, whether in a technical, operational or managerial position, there are fundamental values and principles that define a good leader, those being: vision, integrity, communication, conviction, emotional intelligence, accountability, adaptability, empowerment, collaboration and continuous learning, among many others.

While these are integral parts that an aspiring leader must develop for themselves, ultimately the end result is a magnetizing recognition on the part of their followers. This means that ultimately a leader is chosen as a sort of byproduct, not appointed.

Leveraging product management

Products typically do one of two things: add value or cut costs. There might be cases where the product is more of an innovative, blue-ocean offer which attracts the market into a novelty sector; this is typical value-add. Most of the time, products tend to problems that customers already have and wishes to solve in a way that benefits both parties. Materializing either a value-add or cost-cut vision into a product takes a considerable, diverse set of resources: time, money, energy, feedback, etc.

The role of a product manager is somewhat distinct. It’s often called a CEO of a product due to their involvement with everything concerning a product, from value creation to marketing to sales to development to operations and maintenance. Unlike other roles which are meant to require some sort of specialization, product requires a broad spectrum of disciplines. The three core ones are business acumen, user/customer experience and technical analysis. Every other skill is very much akin to a leadership position: influence, communication, strategic planning, problem solving, stakeholder engagement, etc.

Understanding the unique position of a product manager within an organization recognizes their advantage and positioning to undertake any strategic initiative and solve problems. Learning and development has almost the same contours as a digital product: (1) it changes over time; (2) it requires strategic thinking; (3) it requires clear outcomes and measures; (4) it requires significant people skills.

The components of learning strategy leadership

Fundamentally, learning in the context of the workplace is yet another problem to be solved. Instead of generating revenue directly through sales or offering a service to help others save time and money, the problem to be solved is to support people becoming better.

It always starts with the three key questions:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to go?
  3. How to get there?

#011 — The three questions by José Mota

In the context of learning, it looks like this:

  1. What is the current set of skills?
    • How to assess current skills?
  2. What are the outcomes to pursue?
    • How to assess learning needs?
    • What are the goals?
    • How to measure effectiveness?
    • How to sustain that effectiveness?
    • What’s in it for stakeholders?
  3. How to get there?
    • How to design and deliver learning?
    • How to develop an adequate talent development program?
    • How to engage with stakeholders?
    • What resources are available?
      • What technology is available that is appropriate?
    • What happens when something changes?

Combining product and learning

Ultimately, both a product manager and a learning specialist require a very similar, interchangeable set of skills, to name a few: (1) leadership; (2) vision and strategy; (3) clear goal and outcome setting; (4) measurement. There are, however, clear parallel distinctions to be made between each other, particularly the object of management: one manages a product and the other manages people’s learning. In the end, both converge towards the same outcome: to improve the quality of life of those affected.

Provided that my relationship with learning has a continuous and ongoing cadence, I feel confident that I can leverage my own learning experience and transpose the lessons I’ve acquired to the L&D realm, both in the perspective of a learner as well as a teacher. Furthermore, the discipline of product management lacks formal academic-level curricula and much of the learning is done on the job, with a substantial amount of trial and error, supported by good leadership.


Case study: Ruby learning path

To demonstrate my experience in training, I’m showcasing a couple of training experiences I’ve developed.

First, when I worked at Tuts+ in 2012, I was a medium-level software developer. Nonetheless, I had the ultimate motivation to share what I did know and others valued. I set out to conceive a strategic plan that would enable my customers to start their Ruby programming careers or increase their competencies so they would be fairly compensated in return.

Here are the steps I took:

  1. Assess the needs: back then, Ruby was growing at an unprecedented pace. Having joined the network then, I acknowledged that there was barely any professional grade content in Ruby software development. Customers provided feedback that acknowledged what I also did. Investing in solid content was key, one that would yield significant returns in the careers of customers. This information alone sustained my strategic initiative of a full-fledged learning path in all matters Ruby.
  2. Set goals: I proposed to the network that I build a learning path that would include all major significant milestones of a software developer. The ultimate outcome was that it would increase the network’s reputation through extensive content and increase the company’s monthly recurring revenue (MRR). Later it was proven that it paid off since I had a steady flow of content being pumped out for four years.
  3. Design and deliver a learning experience: after being given an initial rundown of the expectations for the content to be produced, I produced an initial 2:30 hour 13-lesson video course. It had clear expectations about the learning to occur, pre-requisites, the content itself and further reference material. My approach was very hands-on, in the sense that I would demonstrate different concepts through live examples, as if I was there with the students. The pilot was very successful and I was given free reign in all matters of instructional design moving forward.
  4. Talent development programming: while the format per course was properly appreciated back then, the macro aspect of the learning process was also considered. Specifically, the learning path I’ve designed would go from the very basic concepts of the programming language to highly advanced concepts of software design, code quality, maintainability, testing, etc.
  5. Follow-up: after content was consumed by customers, I offered them mentorship that would involve going through real life scenarios they were building. This led them to actively engage with the learning they went through in an applicable context, and my sessions with them would sustain that learning further.


Case study: Product management training

In 2022, I trained a class of 10 people of different functions in product management, as part of a bigger curriculum on agile methodologies. After assessing the contents of the training, I realized the gaps in the expected learning outcomes and the curriculum. Also, the learning approach was very passive, where a teacher would merely lecture students on the general concepts.

To mitigate this issue, I have reshaped the training in both substance and approach. I’ve designed a 4-stage program in a very active format, with a lot of practical exercises in different settings. Each exercise was followed with specific key questions that would lead students to think and develop a learning process of their own.

Here are the steps I took:

  • Set goals: understand the fundamental learning outcomes and reshape the program around them, so as to better educate students on the right learning.
  • Design and deliver the learning experience: take the time budget constraints imposed per the context of the entire training and ensure proper value add to students while still promoting active, social learning.
  • Leverage technology: through the use of Mural, a popular digital whiteboarding solution, I was able to plan the training materials beforehand, schedule the different activities, and engage with them efficiently during class time in a fun, interactive environment. Also, with the use of Zoom, I was able to connect with students easily and break them out in groups at will, so as to provide different levels of social learning.
  • Measure effectiveness: after the module was complete, I have sent students a satisfaction survey as well as giving them the opportunity to continue to connect and share ideas. I had a Slack channel open so they could post questions and interact with class even after it was done.

In the end, results were very positive. Students were very happy with the learning experience. Here’s what a student has said:

Well, I had the pleasure to know a lot of people with different visions and approach, José was really amazing, he put us thinking and doing with our hands and brain!

— Pedro Sousa

Lessons learned

  1. Follow-up mentoring and/or coaching plays a significant role in consolidating previous learning.
  2. It’s important to understand clearly what are the learning needs and how they satisfy certain outcomes.
  3. Measuring effectiveness of learning is tricky and requires a strong conviction about the goals set.
  4. Product management and learning, while parallel, are considerably close, if not overlapping in the slightest.
  5. Each student has their unique learning style. What works for some is not always the same for others.


Leading products and leading learning are two similar roads, and they both lead to the same destination: to solve problems for people. On the one hand, you have products that solves customer problems. On the other hand, you have learning initiatives that solve talent problems. They’re both challenges that require clear goals and outcomes, clear vision and strategy, kind and empowering leadership and attentiveness to potential change.

My experience as both a trainer and product manager informs my capacity to think strategically and aggregate and lead people to tread a path of success together. Knowing the starting point and the destination are key to then trace a journey. A proper vision guides everything necessary to be done. Strategy is but a manifestation of that vision and it is subject to constant review and feedback.

Despite having received little formal training on learning models, approaches and strategies, my success is empirical. I have developed my training skills through experimentation and feedback. I recognize the importance of values and principles such as social and emotional learning, coaching, practical application of concepts in and out of class, reflectiveness, growth mindset, proximal development, amongst many others; it is my ambition to become as competent in learning as I am when coaching.

I’m fortunate enough to have gone through both sides of the same coin. One develops technology, the other one develops people. It’s time to flip it.