Interview with Victor Billette de Villemeur, Product Manager at L'Oréal
In our "Customer Obsessed" interview series profiling product leaders, we have some exciting news! This time, we had the chance to speak with Victor Billette de Villemeur, Product Manager at L'Oréal's Tech Accelerator (well-known in the French product community for his work in popularizing product management and Agility on LinkedIn).
How does one transition from an academic background in engineering (Polytechnique Paris) and Political Sciences to a career in product?
What is it like to work on product development in a century-old, giant corporation?
How does the "L'Oréal spirit" make things easier for him?
In his opinion, what are the main challenges faced by product organizations/teams?
And finally, his mission to share knowledge and some recommended resources and tips.
Thanks again, Victor, for sharing these insights with our team. It was truly a pleasure!
If you had to introduce yourself simply to someone who is not in the industry, what would you say?
I would say that I work in the digital world. I build applications and digital tools that help people to easily accomplish certain tasks and make positive changes in their daily lives.
Furthermore, I enjoy sharing knowledge about this work. I like to explain how we build these digital products, how we ensure their quality, and how we ensure they meet identified needs. I believe it's important to simplify complex topics and help people understand what they are working on.
This is a relatively new field, so building discussions around it can help people make better decisions, reduce anxiety, and help people move forward in the right direction.
You have an interesting academic background (Polytechnique and Sciences Po). How did you transition to product management?
In essence, a product manager navigates between three worlds: business, tech, and UX. If I had to position myself, I come primarily from the technical side. I am an engineer with an academic background that included mathematics and physics. I enjoyed solving complex problems, which is what I still feel like I am doing today - solving complex problems using theoretical tools, science, and empirical laws.
I am also influenced by the business side, particularly through my education at Sciences Po. I learned how to explain things well and highlight what's important.
I began my career in consulting and quickly became interested in topics related to software development and digital technology. It was through agility that I naturally gravitated toward product management.
I love that it allows me to continue to touch on a wide range of expertises. I think it would have eventually frustrated me if I had been limited only to the technical aspect of software development.
When we talk about product culture, we often think of big tech companies or the startup world. You work at L'Oréal, one of the largest international groups. What is it like to do product management in a very large enterprise?
Interesting question! There are some things that work well, and others that don't.
To start with the positives:
Historically, L'Oréal has been very marketing-driven. There are important parallels with agility, in the sense that the focus is on the user. There is a strong desire to create products that suit them well, all supported by research. In the company culture, there is a willingness to do things that really serve the customer and sell them in a smart way.
L'Oréal has grown a lot through acquisitions. The organization is quite decentralized, with entities working in parallel. In terms of IT, the decentralization phenomenon is also present. There is a strong culture of autonomy and "empowered" teams that is conveyed. Although it is a large, century-old group, these are values that are deeply rooted in the company culture. Internally, we refer to the "L'Oréal Spirit," which is a sort of organized chaos that aims to liberate energies and direct them in the right direction, while avoiding constraining people. Once again, we are very close to agility and values found in product management.
When you read Empowered fron Marty Cagan, he explains that it takes a very clear vision, with teams inspired by this vision and the company's mission. This is very true in a company like L'Oréal. From my experience, this is quite rare in large companies that are often very centralized with an all-powerful IT department.
On the other hand, a more challenging aspect is that we are extremely perfectionist. There is a very French and marketing-driven aspect to it. When you launch a product, you cannot take it back. This means that they are ultra-vigilant. In IT, we have the chance to release a product and have it evolve over time, but even though there has been progress in this area, it still goes somehow against L'Oréal's culture to admit that it is by failing that we learn.
And your role in all of this?
I work on developing "business" applications for L'Oréal employees to support the value chain that allows for the creation of a cosmetic product: research, operations, sales, marketing, finance, etc. There are several digital teams working on a multitude of products. These teams have different structures, levels of maturity, etc. I work around these teams to support them, help them strengthen their practices and operations, and be with them on the field.
You work with many product teams. Do you disrupt their ways of doing things? How is it perceived by the teams and management?
The good part is that product management is on the rise, so people are familiar with it and find it interesting. They generally want to learn how to do it. The problem, however, is that when they start applying product management principles, they obviously don’t do things very well at first, yet they have with very high expectations. So inevitably, if it doesn't work the first time, which is inevitable, it can generate big disappointments. So overall, the environment is enthusiastic, but things need to be rationalized and expectations must be managed.
You are well connected in the industry. Based on what you hear from your peers, what do you think are the main challenges faced by product organizations/teams?
There are three major challenges that I encounter most frequently:
Company culture: It's often hard to implement a "test & learn" approach, to disseminate information effectively across different departments, and to ensure that all parts of the organization work together efficiently. It varies a lot from one company to another, but it's a common issue.
Technical excellence and product design quality: This aspect is often underestimated, especially in France from my experience. The job of software developer is not valued enough here. They are typically not seen as crucial individuals in the company. In other parts of the world, it’s actually the opposite, especially in the United States. It's rare for a software developer to be paid a high salary in France. The tech players are often perceived as consumables, and I see this as a problem because technical conception is neglected, and at some point, agility is lost due to the accumulation of technical debts. All the great thinkers in product management state that 50% of your innovation ideas come from your developers. It's a real problem.
The third point is the lack of emphasis on the user experience. I'm not talking about having beautiful interfaces, but really focusing on the problem we want to solve, rather than the solution we want to build. And also, doing this throughout the product life cycle. It's challenging because the product design profession is not yet well-known or developed.
Are there any practices that are close to your heart? Any small things that you recommend that can make a difference?
Learning from failures. Failing is important, as it pushes us to ask the right questions, and allows to deliver value iteratively and progressively.
On the technical side, anything related to what we may call software craftsmanship, such as TDD (Test Driven Development), Domain Driven Design, and all DevOps practices. We may not always be able to implement them everywhere, but we should try to be inspired by them as much as possible.
In terms of UX, many invest in user research. Spending time observing your user, to have unbiased information and clearly identify the right problem to solve.
You invest a lot of time on LinkedIn to demystify and popularize a wide range of concepts related to product and teams. Do you have a specific mission or objective with this?
We have access to an incredible amount of knowledge thanks to the internet. I want to participate and contribute to it. I have personally learned a lot, so I also want to share. Firstly because I believe it can help people. But also because it allows me to build a network, improve my writing skills, reflect on substantive topics, and be challenged. But the goal is mainly to have an impact by sharing important things for people.
To finish, could you share with us a top 3 of the books that inspired you and that you recommend to everyone?
For a somewhat general book on product management, I would recommend "The Product Book: How to Become a Great Product Manager" by Josh Anon and Carlos González de Villaumbrosia, which is very good (available for free here via The Product School).
Next, "The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology Organizations" by Gene Kim, Jez Humble, Patrick Debois, and John Willis, on the topic of DevOps, but not at all technical, very accessible and really enjoyable.
And finally, "Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations" by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, and Gene Kim. It's a bit of an outlier in this list, but I think it will mark the history of tech.
Thank you again Victor for agreeing to share your experience with us! 🙏😃