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Meet Aaron: A Drilling & Fastening and Lighting & Lifestyle Product Owner


In the next installment of our employee spotlight series, we introduce Aaron Wenzel, a product owner responsible for coordinating new product development work among interdisciplinary collaborators across both the drilling & fastening and lighting & lifecycle segments of the business. 

On a virtual, Microsoft Teams meeting, Aaron Wenzel corrals a cross-functional group of UX and visual designers, product managers, marketing managers, and software engineers. He wears horn-rimmed glasses, amiable in his demeanor. Behind him, just barely in view, two cats lie napping in their preferred tree (a third is just out of view). He describes himself as “your stereotypical midwestern hipster.” He is well-liked in the ONE-KEY™ department. 

He commands the room through “servant leadership,” a management approach where individuals “achieve authority rather than power,” and use their presence to answer the needs of an organization and others by addressing stakeholder wants and requirements. 

Wenzel brings over 10 years of experience in software. Before working at Milwaukee Tool on the One-Key team, he was a product owner responsible for coordinating the development of employee timeclock software—used by employers to facilitate their employees punching in and out and tracking their worktime each day. He did this type of work for eight years when he became admittedly “burned out.”  

He describes his process of applying and being hired by Milwaukee Tool as serendipitous: “It was Super Bowl Sunday. I was sitting down, watching the game, and scrolling through LinkedIn, when I saw this [role].” Posted by one of Milwaukee Tool’s talent agency partners, Wenzel describes the job description as having “kind of spoke to me,” explaining, “They were looking for somebody who was a servant-led leader, somebody who leads the servant mentality.” “That is something I really try to do when I have a team or anything like that,” he explains. “At the end of the day, I like that [as a] PO.” 

Today, he’s shifted his focus to supporting new product development of One-Key compatible smart tools and accessories, particularly in the drilling & fastening (e.g., smart drill/drivers, impact wrenches) and lighting & lifestyle (e.g., One-Key compatible jobsite lights, towers, etc.) segments. 

What Is a Product Owner? 

In software development, companies use scrum, a framework that divides resources into executable tasks. Among the roles that fit into scrum are product owners, responsible for (among other things) owning a backlog of software features in development, holding meetings with stakeholders, and building scoping documentation and software requirements (known as “user stories,” the description of the features developers will build).  

Wenzel isn’t a software engineer (though he has experience as one earlier in his career), nor is he a product manager. He doesn’t physically build features himself, though he helps coordinate them. He describes his role as distinct from a product manager, too, the latter whose field of vision he describes as being “larger,” responsible for strategic road mapping.  

As a product owner, Wenzel tells me, his role is focused on “what is happening now and three months from now,” focusing on project coordination and execution. Whereas a product manager may contribute to a 3–5-year product roadmap, Wenzel may be handed these roadmaps and use his influence to lead a cross-functional team in executing on near-term roadmaps—translating business strategy into real-world deliverables. 

Not unlike a construction project manager coordinating project budgets, scheduling of specialty contractor work, and other important deliverables in the execution of a building project, Wenzel is responsible for heading up product launches, and lassoing interdisciplinary tacticians like user experience researchers needed to scope end user requirements for a given product and software engineers needed to build what these users are asking for. Like a project manager in a construction project, Wenzel holds kickoff meetings—he frequently schedules update meetings to identify, resolve potential risks, and facilitate collaboration between important stakeholders needed to get complicated IoT products across the finish line.  


Aaron Wenzel, Product Owner

"[As a product owner], you're really looking and becoming that voice to the customer and it is being diplomatic. You need to build up that equity with your developers and with your user experience designer—everybody you interact with, it is imperative that you have some form of equity with them. You want them to know that you're listening and taking their feedback as well as sharing the feedback you get from end users. You are being honest and candid and true [so they can understand] why you're thinking this way."

Aaron Wenzel, Product Owner·Milwaukee Tool

I had the opportunity to sit down with Wenzel, ask him what a day in his life looks like, explain differences between his work and the well-known product-focused “product manager” role at Milwaukee Tool, as well as understand the management principles that inform his work.  

Read on to hear this conversation and learn more about how a software product owner collaborates interdepartmentally to ensure that the software and hardware embedded in compatible smart tools and accessories efficiently communicate. 

A Conversation with Aaron Wenzel, Software Product Owner at Milwaukee Tool  



To start off, can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you first became a product owner?  


Yeah, absolutely. So, I started working at a really small software company about 10 years ago now, and this company does time and attendance software. 

So, basically, I actually started off just doing support stuff for them. I did that for about 3 months and then moved over to an engineering position. 

So, I started doing custom SQL scripts and stuff like that for them, for customers, and stuff like that. 

I did a lot of requirements gathering, lots of discussions with customers, understanding where their true needs [were]. I did that for about 3ish years and then, after that, they kind of spun off this new division inside this company that was basically going to bring agile and scrum to this company because it was an absolute waterfall style previously. 

Editorial Note: “Waterfall-style” is a model used in software development that focuses on breaking down project activities into sequential phases (i.e., one after another) as opposed to agile software development that prioritizes an iterative approach, where software releases are deployed more frequently, and features are tested and iterated on. 

I became more of like a release train engineer, basically [responsible for] everything from QA to writing up the developer stories, who would work on [what], and then also work on the actual release of the product as we've pushed things out every three weeks.  

I did that for a couple years and then they decided they wanted to move over into more of scheduling, and basically the idea there was we had a product owner that was standing over the time and attendance. 

So, that's more like punching and punching out, but they started this new offering for scheduling, and basically they needed a product owner over the new scheduling side and some of the stuff that I really loved, […] getting into the understanding the why and really driving that home and understanding the user need and pulling that out of people. 

I moved over to doing product in late 2019 until 2022. Last year, I realized I really loved the product owner aspect, but there just wasn't a lot of growth there either and [at that point] I had been doing time and attendance work for eight years. 

I was kind of burnt out on trying to figure out punches and benefits and stuff like that.  

So, then I made my way over to Milwaukee Tool, and I've been here since March 2022. 

That kind of makes me think of a second question I had, which is, how you transitioned to Milwaukee Tool and found your way here.  

Can you speak a little to that and how you first found out about the company and the position and the team you're now in? 

Yeah. So, that's a great question. 

So, I actually I had been applying for jobs since the beginning of that year, [the] beginning of 2022. It was Super Bowl Sunday. 

I was sitting down, watching the game, and I was scrolling through LinkedIn, and I saw this thing, and it wasn't even Milwaukee Tool.  

It was a kind of agency [posting on the behalf of Milwaukee Tool]. And I read it. There was one thing that really kind of spoke to me when I saw the job description. 

It was [that] they were looking for somebody who was a servant-led leader, like somebody who leads the servant mentality and that is something I really try to do, you know.  When I have a team or anything like that, at the end of the day, I like that aspect as the PO that you have a team that you build relationships with. 

As a PO I'm creating requirements and stuff like that, but I could be sitting there creating PBIs (product backlog items) all day and nothing gets done by me doing that, right? It's other people [who] are doing that work and are bringing that vision to life. So, I really do try to hammer that home when I'm working that while the work I am doing while necessary is more of the blueprint than the actual creation of it.   

But, basically, long story short: I applied on Sunday. I got my first interview Monday afternoon. Then, I had it my second interview on Wednesday with [the manager of product ownership]. Then, I had my third interview, which was with the what was then the MVMT team [a cross-functional software delivery team]. I actually met with five people: [a software engineer, two product owner, a product manager, and quality assurance (QA) manager]. And then, by that Friday, I had an offer letter. To be completely transparent, I was in the middle of a lot of interview processes [with other companies], but you know, honestly Milwaukee Tool [and] the speed in which [they’re] like, “Hey, we like you like; we're not going to mess around and [make you] wait. We're just going to come out and get you and be like, ‘Hey, we want you to be a part of One-Key.’ [I appreciated that]. 

The other thing that really drew me to Milwaukee Tool were some of the things people have talked about, how they live and breathe the culture.  

While I was interviewing, you could kind of see it, like everyone kind of has that same [passion]. I mean, most of the time, people don't talk about how bad a job is in an interview. But, in all honesty, it is one of those things where you could just tell people were generally excited to be there and wanted you know that.  

I got brought on to the MVMT team [a platform-based software delivery team], and then about six months in, we had a realignment, and from there I ended up getting moved over to what is now Vulcan [another delivery team focused on new product development]. 

Now, I'm doing NPD work with mainly our drilling and fastening side of the house as well as life lighting and lifestyle with heated gear.  

I have a question speaking more specifically to your day-to-day and responsibilities a little bit later, but first before I forget, I just want to ask. You mentioned servant leadership, right? 

Can you speak a little to that? For a layman, a potential end user, what that might mean? Even thinking of construction companies and how maybe that type of process may apply to business in general. What’s your “servant leader” pitch in a nutshell?   


So, servant leadership is more about how you interact with your team as somebody who, at the end of the day, as a product owner, [doesn’t] have any true authority over like the team. They have other people that they report to. 

The idea of servant leadership forces you to take a step back and bring in empathy. For me, that's the way I prefer, to lead. I don't lead through power rather through collaboration and built in personal equity. 

[Servant leadership is] essentially the idea like never putting [team members] out to take the bullets or the arrows if you will. You put yourself out there first and to serve them and for them to know you have their back. You put the needs of the team and the company before your own ambitions.   


Yeah, it seems like a type of concept that might be very helpful within construction when working with subcontractors. Construction can be a disjointed process. It's something that business owners could take away and apply, leading through empathy.  




Okay, can you speak like at a high level, describe the differences between product management and ownership for layperson and if there's any overlap, what collaboration looks like between a PO and a PM? 


Yeah, absolutely. 

So, I would say the terms “product owner” and “product manager,” at least in my mind, are more about where in the process you are with the idea of the product lifecycle, right? 

In my mind, a product manager is thinking about things that are, you know, one to three years down the road while staying informed on current work. They still have their eye on what is currently happening, but they have a much larger field of vision, right, that needs to happen because if you don't have that, you don't have the ideas pouring in that you can build on as a building block, right, you don't have the idea of what am I building towards if I don't have that North Star. I don't have the thing I need, to know that I am doing the right thing. 

Whereas for product owners, I feel like we are more [focused on] what is happening now and what is happening three to nine months from now. I need to be able to have my team focused on the things right now. But they also have to have the reason, the why behind it, if we want to true value created. And so, I think the biggest thing from my mindset is working hand-in-hand [with the PM who] has to assume or has to trust me enough to say, “Hey, I'm not going to be able to make every meeting around this new feature as it is getting built. I’m going to have to trust that you may make a decision that might affect something.”  

It isn’t practical to have to go to a PM and say, “Hey, there's this one small UI (user interface) thing that I feel, we can make a little better” after discussing something with a developer or a UXer, but I would have a discussion with them if there was a reason we needed to expand scope of a project.  

[My job is to be able to] make calls/facilitate things that make sure that the value we are putting out there matches that of the expectation of the product manager. The idea there is always knowing that the [PM is] thinking in the larger picture and being aligned to that; the biggest thing between a PO and a PM—that communication between the two of us has to be consistent and we both have to know what value we are trying to create. One thing scrum allows us to do is every sprint which is every two weeks we have a sprint review that acts like a show and tell to our PMs and our other stakeholders which allows for the PMs to ask questions and allows our team to show off the work.  

And so, for me, the biggest difference between PO and PM is field of vision and where that work is executed. 


You've you said that you work or you are working now on NPD, right?  



For me, taking a look back at your role as a product owner, especially being in like a lot of meetings with you regarding upcoming product launches, it seems to me your role within NPD is a lot like product coordination and project management.  

Would you agree that there's some similarities between a project manager and a product owner, and if so, how would you describe what you do as well as the similarities? If we’re looking to explain your role and compare it to the closest role within a construction business, for example, maybe a project owner or a product owner would be similar to a construction project coordinator or something like that.  


Yeah, yeah, absolutely. 

So, the one thing to really note is that even though we're running things as an agile scrum department, we interact with a waterfall company, right?  



Our NPD is completely waterfall. We are at the behest of them, moving down their steps. Right, because we're dealing with a physical product that has gears and things that could go wrong, right? And so, there's lots of steps. There's lots of things where we work in iterations, right? 

They do that to an extent, but it is done in a very much a stair stepping style where things have to be done in a certain order, right. While with agile there isn’t that, yes there are certain things that have to be done before you can do work but it is not as rigid.  

So, there are parts of my job as product owner and on the NPD side where I have what I would call or what you would kind of describe almost like a project manager, like I have a project—my project is X tool, right? That's a project that I'm working on, but the project side is more of the thing that is facing back towards the tool side of the company, where I'm delivering where we're at, what we're doing; [these are my delivery] dates. Where it comes back that product owner side is basically that creation of and the building of that iteration and lack of rigidity, working with user experience researchers (UXRs), user experience designers, and developers to build out that product. That’s where you’re working in a scrum and agile fashion.  

The thing that makes things tricky is we’re dealing with not solely software-based features but physical products, and all the things that go into that, you end up having to become more of a hybrid project manager/product owner.  

Can you speak a little more to what collaboration looks like between your role and UX as well as the rest of the business?  


I think the biggest thing that I try my best to do with UX is to give them the overall outline of what the tool needs to do [and not being overly prescriptive].  

These are the things that we are going to have either coming from the tool or we need to send to the tool, right. 

When working with brand the product marketing side, that is a that's a different beast altogether, right. So, generally speaking, when I'm working with them, I basically get the requirements and everything that way you know their expectation of the interaction between ONE-KEY and the tool. We will get things and we will have tool meetings where we will discuss what we are going to get from firmware that will inform me of what will influence our software side, right? 

I try to get that as soon as I can so we can get our UX to hop into that. The one thing that is interesting is working with people in product marketing or brand, they are more encapsulated in the real world like tangible things, right? So I'm, you know, when they write stuff, they write stuff like you would for a publication, right? They write copy for non-digital spaces.  

But when [working in the app], we have to be very cognizant of the amount of data we're giving, how we're giving that data and how it's going to look to that end user, right. And so sometimes there are a lot of tradeoffs, like we have to have that discussion where we're like, “Hey, you gave me something that is a paragraph and 1/2 it's going on under a button that's that big. And I need it to not be three times the size of the button because the end user is going look at that and say ‘I'm not going to read that.’” 

So, how can we get that that same message you know delivered to our end user in less words, right? How can we make sure that we don't go over these boundaries that we have, that we know about based on our research and everything like that. 


So, just as you were talking, a later question that I had came to mind. As I was listening to you, occurred to me: It seems like part of your job and one of the challenges you deal with is diplomacy and trying to navigate between like multiple teams. 

Would you agree with that? And what are some of the other challenges that you face in your role on how do you overcome them?  


Yeah, yeah, absolutely. 

I would say a lot of my role comes back to, you know, learning how to influence without holding any of the authority right, like I talked about earlier.  

I’m not the boss of anybody, right? So, I don't have that authority. So, the big thing with my job is learning and figuring out when you work with people. What is the thing that I can do to allow us to work successfully together and to make sure that we, you know, we are going to put out the best product you can? 

The one thing you'll probably hear a lot of product owners talk about is this idea, you know, at the end of the day, like when we are dealing with the developers and QA and UX, at the end of the day, we are the voice of the customer in the work we do, right? 

When you put yourself in that customer shoes, you have to be thinking, “Is this going to affect things?” or “Do we have data that shows which of these paths we should take?”  


You mentioned the voice of customer. At Milwaukee Tool, that's a big I part of how we approach building products doing user research. Can you speak to how you advocate for the customer? And in terms of research, what does collaboration with customers look like from your standpoint and in your role?  


So, I haven't done too much of it yet because I have been working on one tool that has kind of gone through the 1st iteration of customer research prior to me being brought on board. 

But the idea for a product owner is when we get into some place that is unknown territory, like our controlled torque impact wrenches, we're having them train this tool, right? It uses machine learning that needs to be trained. We'll talk with end users where basically we have to help them set it up, seeing any pain points they have, and running them through the process to see where we might alleviate that pressure.   

Another thing we’re doing with that tool is reporting where we're building out reports and creating reports from people. So getting visibility on what information really matters for this user and how should it be shown is huge in getting adoption. 

So, we actively try to understand if anything is missing for an end user, where future iterations we can roll out new features that address these users’ needs. 


I kind of ask a lot of One-Key leaders this question, but would you say that you have a One-Key elevator pitch that you have that you may share with either end users or coworkers in other departments when describing One-Key, and the benefits it brings, to someone fresh just learning about the platform? 

So, I don't really have an elevator pitch, but I can kind of give what I tell people when they ask me what I do for work. 

And so, generally speaking, when I talk about what I do, I'll definitely bring in the fact that I work on new product development, right? 

But what I really work on is software. What I'll end up talking about really is talking really about the fact that, you know, the things we have the ability to do, Bluetooth capability, we have the ways to change the way your tool interacts with things, we have the ability that if somebody steals your tool off your truck, you can lock it. If somebody's in range that has One-Key on their phone, it will lock that tool because you've owned that tool and now you know you have also have that ability to know where it's been pinged from. 

From there, there are so many wonderful things that this could do and help shape how people are working, especially in a construction side of things. 

And the one thing that I really like to hammer home is obviously an important thing for all companies at the end of the day, the real value that I see is being able to protect your investment.  


Are there any standout milestones that you've seen that either the platform and/or the company reach that have been in your mind particularly impactful and more than others, you know, just day in the life? 


I think some of the biggest things are being able to put machine learning on tools, which is just crazy, like the idea that we can build a tool where all I have to do is all my pull the trigger and it stops automatically when I'm doing metal to metal fastening using an impact driver and it automatically stops without stripping the metal, the sheet metal, or the screw.  


Yeah, that's a great point. think that that that's one of the things that I get excited about, too, and what I consider a much cooler application of machine learning – from the safety standpoint and productivity, the ability to protect against kickback, as opposed to just “I’m going to use this large language model (LLM) to not do work.”  

So, is there any project, product, or initiative that you've worked on specifically that you're proud of that you can put your name on? 


Yeah, yeah, absolutely.  

The compact impact wrench that's being released in October. I believe it’s been worked on for four or five years now, an insane amount of time and energy that's been spent into it. 

That being said, it's also one of the most complex and like crazy tools that we have. 

It got pushed out in pipeline these past couple weeks and it got huge reviews. There are people really wanting it. I've had people, even internally, who have reached out and said, “Hey, I have a customer who saw this in a demo video on YouTube.” There’s interest in solar and other industries. 

I had a slack message that came up and were like, “Hey, do we have something for this cause this person has pipe flanges they are really interested in seeing if this new mode would work for them?”  



You kind of hinted at this speaking of culture, but what would you say is your favorite part about working at Milwaukee Tool and on the One-Key team in particular? 


So, this is just going to be everyone's answer, but honestly, the people I work with, my coworkers generally, honestly. You know, I work remotely, as you know. 

So, you hear horror stories about people who work remotely. “Oh, I've never met any of the people that I work with so I feel disconnected.”   

Obviously because I’ve been to Milwaukee a handful of times, I have been able to meet people but the culture still permeates even as a remote employee.  

But the one thing I would just say is you know, at least for what like within One-Key, the camaraderie we have.  

There's always some jokes happening or whatever, and we have things that pop up where we get inside jokes and everything like it. I would say 100%, like for me, it’s my coworkers.  

I would also say, the things that I like really above about Milwaukee Tool in One-Key specifically would be they are constantly pushing you to be better and to push you to go further and you know putting you in spots that we'll get you further along in both your career and life.  


Same question, but like about being a PO. What would you say is your favorite part about your job as a PO? 


My favorite part of my job is the fact that, you know, I am a part of a team and that team creates something out of nothing other than an idea. I have always been someone who prefers collaboration over isolation.  


If you could give an end user one piece of advice, what would that be? 


My piece of advice would be when you are prompted to give feedback and you feel like you have something that would be valuable, give the feedback, doesn't matter the forum—that stuff gets looked at like. We will see it, take it, we will digest it and you might get reached out to by somebody because you left feedback and we might have questions that are like, “Hey, can you expand on this a little more?” 

And so that would be my one thing I would love is more feedback because more data is not bad and the one thing that you're thinking might be a good idea. Somebody else might be also having that same thing.  

And you know, we will take those ideas that come in and if we have similar ones, we're going to be like oh, “There's clearly a need for that thing.”  


Tell me about Aaron the person. Any hobbies? You mentioned that when you were applying for the job, you were watching football. Any other hobbies and what makes you tick? 


So, for hobbies, I play kickball during the fall. I play pickleball quite a bit.  

 I have a kid on the way, so that's coming down the pipe here shortly. We have three cats. 

Well, while I do work in software, I tend to gravitate towards older things, so I like old movies. We have a lot of vinyl stuff like that. I believe, when I met with Tom, my manager, the first time I met him that I was your stereotypical midwestern hipster, so you know, love to have a beer or some whiskey as well. 


OK, man, that's Aaron.  

OK, man, I think that wraps up everything that I wanted to ask. 

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