Key skills behind a great product manager

As a daily Medium.com customer, there are days when I read (or listen) to posts/articles which make me think more about how I operate, think or shape myself in my professional and personal life. You know…when you read something that just hits the spot at the right time and makes you go ‘wow, that is so timely’.

I had one of those this morning on my way into the office on the bus, which articulated the nexus of what makes a great product manager.

This is a tricky one to shape as the role has many guises in many businesses. But, as this role has shaped a large degree of my thinking and how I operate, I look at this role in the context of digital product management, which is the role that has been changing the world over the past 15-20 years (yes, these are the people behind email, messaging, social media, smartphones, search …I could go on).

So, I wanted to share the article from Jack Moore (https://medium.com/@jacknotjohn), which hit the spot with me:

https://productcoalition.com/product-managements-most-important-lessons-2fd74c1b69b2

Product Management’s Most Important Lessons

The lessons that the best product people teach over and over again

When people ask how I got into product management, I like to say that I “fell into it”. That may not exactly be true, when I look back on my path, but either way I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve discovered this field. Building products that solve peoples’ problems, and that do it in a measurable way, is an incredibly rewarding vocation.

The biggest thing that I can stress about great product managers, and probably great professionals in general, is that the continuous learners are the ones who succeed. The great PM’s out there who follow the axiom of “firm beliefs, loosely held”, and follow up by seeking out opinions that challenge their beliefs, are the ones that I seek out and attempt to emulate.

As I’ve struggled to live as a constantly learning PM, here are the lessons that I find myself learning on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, from the greatest minds in product.

There is no one path to product

A product manager is one that challenges themselves to treat every problem in the world as a solution waiting to happen. That empathy is core to what makes a product manager different, and it’s the core value that one must have in order to succeed in this field. It’s also not something you can learn while getting a CS degree.

When product management first burst forth into the early world of agile software development — a world of floppy discs and post-it notes and manifestos — software engineering was the common path towards the uncommon field of product managers.

As the field has grown, all walks of life have lent some of their most empathetic and technologically curious to product management.

Ask any product manager worth their salt and they’ll tell you that there’s no one route to this line of work. Yes, familiarity with the software that you’re asking your team to develop is a plus, and so good product managers sometimes come from software development backgrounds, but as we’ve asserted, this is not the PM’s most important quality.

If you survey the field, you’ll find history majors, math majors, and electrical engineering majors. You’ll see ex-real estate agents building the software that they have learned is needed through their years in industry, and doing it better than product managers with years of experience elsewhere.

…But the most successful PM’s work to know the tech

Though I’ve learned that there is no single path to success as a product manager, as I continue to learn what it means to be a good PM, I often hear …

You don’t need to be technical, but it sure as hell helps

Being on the less technical end of the spectrum, especially when I started, this was an uncomfortable thing to hear, but I heard it from the most successful PM’s out there. Over and over again.

In his book InspiredMarty Cagan says that there are 2 classes every product manager should take, one of which is an introductory programming class (the other is an introductory accounting or finance class). Cagan says in his book

You may love it, you may hate it, but either way it will fundamentally expand your technology horizons and enable you to have much richer discussions with your engineers and designers. It will also give you a better appreciation for the power of enabling technology. — Marty Cagan, Inspired

but you’ll find that the successful ones can at least talk shop with engineers.

This isn’t a skill you need to pick up in college, but it is something you should strive to cultivate. A working knowledge of the technology allows a PM to:

  • More easily explain to others what you’re building. Analogy is a product manager’s second language, after all
  • Develop more of a rapport with your engineers
  • Understand the horizons of what is possible in your architecture

One of a PM’s core responsibilities is that of a bridge between the customer, engineering, and the line of business. As such, being able to communicate the day-to-day of your engineering team is right behind the ability to communicate the needs of your customers, in terms of importance.

Once you understand the problem, knowing the tech allows you to understand the solution.

The unofficial official motto of the product manager

Product managers are responsible for the success of the products that they manage, but the teams that develop those solutions do not report to the product manager. In fact, most product managers are actually individual contributors.

The most important challenge a product manager faces is how to get your team to build the right product, when they don’t actually work for you?

The product manager is in a position where they have to inspire engineers to build products which inspire change.

As such, product managers are responsible for creating a compelling case for why any particular piece of work is what their team should be dedicating their time towards. The best engineering teams want to understand the impact of their work, and it’s the product manager’s job to impart that understanding…

The WHY of product is where great product managers make their cheddar. A good PM can guess at WHAT a customer needs in order to be reach a given outcome, and a good engineering team will tell you HOW to get there.

Great engineering teams, on the other hand, want to understand the WHY their product is important.

A product manager who is not responsible for the impact of the solutions they’re building is not a product manager.

Developing a shared knowledge with your team regarding their mission can be done in a number of ways. Engineers respond to users in pain (another Marty Cagan-ism), and so qualitative analysis like user interviews are often key to developing your team’s empathy of a particular user.

I’ve also found that data often tells a powerful story as well, and as such developing a foundational knowledge of the data surrounding a problem is important.

Ultimately though, qualitative and quantitative analysis are most powerful when used in combination.

  • Quantitative analysis can answer a lot of questions, but it doesn’t easily tell you which questions to ask.
  • Qualitative analysis is fantastic at uncovering important questions and assumptions, but the plural of anecdote is not data.

This combination of qual and quant make for a powerful 1–2 punch that engineering teams respond to, and product managers that maintain this sort of benchmark are the ones that can truly communicate whether their products accomplish the goals that they’ve set out to accomplish.

Podcasts and reading list

I was asked to share with my new team at IAG what I listen to and read. Here is the list of podcasts and ‘go to’ books from me:

Podcasts

a16z: (Andreessen Horowitz): Software is eating the world: https://a16z.com/podcasts/ – great episode with Tim O’Reilly and Benedict Evans on Platforming the Future: https://a16z.com/2017/10/12/a16z-podcast-platforming-the-future/
TwiT: (This Week in Tech): Leo Laporte’s podcast network gathering together technology thinkers: https://twit.tv/ – great shows on here: The Tech Guy: https://twit.tv/shows/the-tech-guy, This Week in Tech: https://twit.tv/shows/this-week-in-tech and Triangulation: https://twit.tv/shows/triangulation
NPR TED radio hourhttp://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/ – podcast based on the best TED Talks
NPR All Tech Consideredhttp://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/ – episodes of the great radio show covering tech, ideas and innovation
It’s a monkeyhttps://itsamonkey.com/podcasts – produced on George St, Sydney it covers Australian Tech and has some good interviews with some good thinkers
This Week in Startupshttp://thisweekinstartups.com/ – from Jason Calacanis an opinionated from thorough view of startup world
Note to Selfhttp://www.wnyc.org/shows/notetoself – quirky podcast reminding us to always to be curious in life
The Anthillhttps://theconversation.com/uk/podcasts/the-anthill – monthly view of the academia world from The Conversation

Books

Business Model Generation and others from Alex Osterwalder: https://www.amazon.com/Alexander-Osterwalder/e/B0037M2W0E/ (now formed into a business, Strategyzer – https://strategyzer.com/)
Hooked: How to build habit-forming products from Nir Eyal: https://www.amazon.com/Hooked-How-Build-Habit-Forming-Products/dp/1591847788/
The Hard Thing About Hard Things from Ben Horowitz: https://www.amazon.com/Hard-Thing-About-Things-Building/dp/0062273205/
High Output Management from Andrew Grove: https://www.amazon.com/High-Output-Management-Andrew-Grove/

Operating Principles: what rules do you operate by?

What is it that I have learnt working in digital for over 20 years? What are the things in my career which have made the most impact on myself & those who have worked with me over that time?

I regularly get asked to provide insight, guidance & direction on how to approach customer, business & organisational problems, and every time the answer is the same;

What are your operational principles? Does the business, team, customer know what you, your team or your products stand for in the eyes of the consumer (internal & external)?

In my current role at News Corp Australia this is very much the focus of the team, as we hit against the 7 most expensive word in business daily;

We have always done it that way

So, I thought it was time to share my 13 operating principles that I try to build across my teams & those who work with then. My career to date has run through Waterfall, Agile, Lean, Kanban, #hacklife, Essentialism etc. and these still remain current & have true value everyday.

You can take this as a personal charter, a foundation to how you need to operate in today’s connected world & also those rules to keep true in all that you endeavour to achieve.

1/ There are no sacred cows

If there is a different way of doing something, look into it and test it. Take a step back & observe ‘is there a better way?’

2/ Ask for forgiveness not permission

It is OK to break the rules or processes, as long as you are able to recognize why they are there in the first place, and your approach is less but better.

3/ Less > more

Simple, effective and quick always trumps comprehensive, complex and late. Simplicity trumps complexity in everything, every time.

4/ Increment by default

Less features, less people involved, less time, less money. Start small, then scale, focused on the customer ‘jobs to be done’ at every increment.

5/ Embrace and be inspired by constraints

Creativity happens when people are solving problems and have constraints placed on them. Fix time, scope or resources, as this will aid creativity. The cost is the same to think 10% or 10x, so focus the team or your thinking on the biggest impact.

6/ Think big picture

Work from the top down: big picture/customer proposition first, then move into details. Focus on the solution too quickly means you will miss the patterns.

7/ Make decisions quickly and then move on

You are empowered. Always make lots of little decisions, and are prepared to kill things if they’re not working. Fail to learn as fast as possible.

8/ Everything is a work in progress & fluid

Iterate by default & build hypothesis to test & learn from for future iterations. Fluidity of teams & decisions means you are able to move quickly, respond to change & focus on the core need. Think & operate like a flock of birds or shoal of fish.

9/ Make it real as quickly as possible

Customers should play with and respond to real things, prototypes, as quickly as possible, instead of hypothetical concepts or mockups. Focus effort on the real. Move the powerpoint after you have conceived the proposition & experiments you want to test.

10/ Everything starts & ends with the customer

Conceive & design & develop with a customer fixation- solve customers’ problems & needs, then we get out of their way. The core needs of the customer will remain consistent, but you need to have empathy with their lives.

11/ Learn from customers

Look for patterns in real signals from the customer, be flexible and open to change tack. Everything is a system, so connect the dots for the customer.

12/ Think & operate like a network

Integrate everything — weave features, products and services across and into every offering. What you do should be easily found by, understood & delight the customer. Everything is a system or network, so look for the dots & connect them.

13/ Celebrate success and learn from failure

It’s ok to get things wrong, as long as we learn from the experience. Not everything will succeed: that’s why we back multiple horses. What you celebrate will form the culture of your team/business & also reflect on how you succeed.

Take these, evolve them for your teams & yourself, but what I have found from across multiple years working in digital, it is key to remain true to your principles & to have these foundational principles there to reference regularly.

Everything around you will change, extinction is the rule, so having your foundations clear makes everything clearer, increases focus, drives purpose and everything else is ‘upside’.

Onwards & upwards.

Google’s growing problem: 50% of people do zero searches per day on mobile

Great piece on the challenges that Google has in relation to time and user interaction models on mobile. Search provided consumers with simplicity of discovery and pathing on desktop, but on mobile the user journey is more fragmented and also a single tap to discover (and with voice interfaces even easier) so the number of searches per day, per user is dramatically less on mobile than desktop. This is creating an exponential challenge for Google, as Apple integrates search into the core iOS, Android is an open OS, so is not one flavour on all mobiles and also the tap/app/tap/app model means that consumers have the information they are interested in right there …no need to use the Google box to navigate to it.

The Overspill: when there's more that I want to say


Amit Singhal in 2011 showing a comparison of search volumes from mobile and “early desktop years”. Photo by Niall Kennedy on Flickr.

Amit Singhal, Google’s head of search, let slip a couple of interesting statistics at the Re/Code conference – none more so than that more than half of all searches incoming to Google each month are from mobile. (That excludes tablets.)

This averages out to less than one search per smartphone per day. We’ll see why in a bit.

First let’s throw in some more publicly available numbers.
• more than 100bn searches made per month to Google (total of desktop/ tablet/ mobile).
• about 1.4bn monthly active Google Android devices. (Source: Sundar Pichai, Nexus launch.)
• about 1 billion monthly active Google Play users. (Source: Sundar Pichai, Nexus launch.)
• about 1.5bn PCs in use worldwide.
• about 400m iPhones in use worldwide. Probably about 100m…

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The future power of newsrooms is in understanding the platform world

I have bumped into this ‘challenge’ over & over again throughout my 20+ year career in digital media. What platform are we creating our content for? How do we make sure our process, tools & technologies are able to adapt & respond to new platforms?

Sadly, there are a number of large businesses who are still not able to answer this question or who have bet the house on a platform which is no longer the most relevant to it’s customers. Storytelling is key to the human race, it has been occurring since the cavemen shared stories around a fire, but they moved to tell stories via cave paintings as they wanted to tell a wider audience, and the rock face was the platform. This has been the evolutionary case over time, with print presses, radio, TV & now digital (and the internet).

As we are now in a world where the mobile internet is THE primary habit for keeping connected, therefore those who are telling stories need to evolve their output and processes to these connected, mobile platforms.

The platform is eating the world (well, mobile video is actually), so therefore media organisation or those who want to tell stories needs to accept this, acknowledge it and then change their newsroom processes and outputs to meet the needs of the customers/readers …well, this will be connected viewers really, but you get what I mean.

This posting on Medium also outlines this challenge, so have a read:

Building platform agnostic newsrooms and platform perfect content

Embrace your constraints & drive innovation: the value of the hackathon

Having worked at a number of digital businesses who have internal ‘hackathons’ I have always seen the great value of getting diverse teams together, constraining them with either key problems to be solved or time & resources constraints …and then amazed by the creativity & execution which is possible under these conditions. At Yahoo! the Yahoo! Weather app, a number of key features within Flickr, Mail & Sport came from the EMEA or Global hackathons, and even in AOL (back in the day) the ability to set diverse teams against a customer problem generated a number of new approaches using technology (in those days there FDO and Rainman!!)

These events allow all employees critically to ‘fail safe’ and also to come at a business or customer need from multiple angles, connect the dots between how to answer the ‘job to be done’ using technology & then execute.
We have instilled this within News Corp Australia through our NewsFoundry initiative (next one end of the month) & all the teams across the business are now using this approach from the startup/digital world to enable innovation.

To understand more the value of these ‘hackathons’ read the following from Pedram Keyani from @Uber but formerly @Facebook, as it articulates the value this organised events can have on the culture, execution focus & employee engagement within a business.

Hacking Company Culture