The Art of Product Management

View from Product SF

Many start up Product Managers are lone wolf types. They work alone, part of a team, but the only one in that team doing what they do. Shuttling between engineering, design, sales, marketing, management and other constituents, they are the glue that ties the team together, the universal joint making sure all the momentum in one group transmits cleanly to the next so all the pieces move in unison and things get done.

Because they work alone, Product Managers have developed their own set of tools that work for them and their company. Tips and tricks on how to organize teams and set priorities are passed around like folklore on blogs and Quora posts but it’s rare to find an event that gets a room full of PMs sharing what works in real-time.

Perhaps it’s a sign of a maturing industry legitimizing a role but over the past several weeks, I have had the good fortune to attend three (!) events specifically for the modern Product Managers.

Each of these events were great in their own right but it was this past Friday’s How to Build Great Products hosted by Ty Ahmad-Taylor of Samsung and Josh Elman of Greylock Partners really knocked it out of the park.

 

What I Learned

Many PMs fell into their role before they realized that they were doing it. Especially at small start ups on a hyper growth trajectory, the PM is the first to jump in to rally and organize and bring teams together and ends up creating their job.

PMs need to have a singular focus on what needs to get done to make their product successful. This means sometimes going against corporate objectives. Hunter Walk, when he was a PM at YouTube, put priority on supporting Facebook login over Google’s own competitive Open Social login initiative. You need to look at the market as a consumer and make the choice based on what’s right for the customer, even if it sometimes goes against larger corporate initiatives.

PMs need to be entrepreneurs. Faced with a limited amount of resources, you need do whatever it takes to get things done. This often means you need to think creatively. Hunter also mentioned “learning to draft ascending ecosystems” – take an objective look at the market and if there is a way for you to bundle or integrate your product into another product on the rise. By focusing on getting the YouTube icon added to the default iPhone deck, all other conversations with carriers turned from YouTube chasing them to the carriers calling YouTube. Picking the ascending leader early was a bet that paid off.

Trust Your Strategy. Allen Blue, the co-founder of LinkedIn, described the first year of nominal growth (2,100 users after one week, 80,000 after 7 months). They reserved a bottle of whiskey for when they hit 1 million users but ended up drinking at 500,000.

PMs are problem solvers, give them meaty problems to chew on. Like Allen, many PMs come from varied backgrounds. Allen came from the theatre. Because of their non-traditional training (Hunter Walk too, was one of the few PMs at Google without a CS degree), a PMs can be the source of a unique perspective and often solution. One useful technique to use when drilling down to the essence of a problem is by using the 5 Hows which is a derivative of the 5 Whys, designed to lead you to a solution, not causality.

Srikanth Rajagopalan on building the Chrome Browser

“Speed is a feature.” This is often ignored when prioritizing tasks. Do not forget that simplicity, and it’s cousin, speed, are silent feature requests that should always be potentials for any roadmap discussion.

Build for the average user but do not ignore your super fans by hiding power user features. Chrome has a number of geeky features (Keyboard shortcuts that one could only appreciate if you, “grew up with vi”) but they are tucked away and do not get in the way of the basic user’s core experience. Deciding how to add an advanced feature is difficult. Putting it into Settings and letting the user choose is lazy. Did you know  Chrome has a detailed Site Info box?

Chrome Site Info

There was a panel discussion about user growth where I unfortunately had to step out for a bit but I did catch Elliot Shmukler talk about the power of shared metrics. During his days at LinkedIn, he pulled together the most important metrics into an information radiator so that everyone gets a realtime view of these metrics with just a glance. But one must not forget to focus on the right metrics. Too often a dashboard is swamped with metrics where it’s too easy to drown in data. Pick 3-5 metrics and use those to test intuition. Be careful which metrics you chose because those will be the ones you optimize for.

A funny anecdote Elliot shared was coming in one morning to find, “Belgium on fire.” User acquisition spiked overnight because an engineer, after looking at these shared metrics, fiddled with some of the contact importing settings for users in that country to see if it would move the needle. It did. That is the power of shared metrics.

Dan Olsen gave an entertaining talk about his time at Friendster during their meltdown and subsequent loss to MySpace. See slide 21 which shows how he came up with the concept of the viral loop (no one was doing this kind of stuff then) and how different points in that loop have different amplification values.

Despite succeeding in rolling out several new features that helped in user growth, we all know the story about poor database optimization that ultimately ruined the experience on Friendster so that the more users joined, the slower the site became. Dan’s learnings were that, for social networks, a large user base is a feature. People used MySpace because that was where the majority of their friends were which lead to, um, a majority of their friends being on MySpace.

 

Fred Sigman, an Art Historian & Photographer, gave an thoughtful talk about the influence of nearby atomic bomb testing on the neon signs of early Las Vegas. As a post-lunch talk, professor Sigman’s talk was perfect as the, “palette cleanser” talk before we got to the. . .

Ignite talks. These are lightning round, Pechakucha-style presentations where the slides self-advance. Highlights for me were Ken Norton’s How (not) to work with Engineers and Ian McAllister’s talk about the User-Driven Development which I’ve written about before.

Ian Mcallister

Joe Zadeh from AirBnB spoke about the hiring process at his company. Forgive the fuzzy resolution but it’s the nut of his talk which explained that all PMs that are interviewed are invited in to present on a topic given to candidates in advance. This allows them to evaluate all the candidate along a baseline for a number of things simultaneously,

  • Can they communicate effectively?
  • What’s their design skill like? Do they understand spacing, fonts, color, use of graphics?
  • Are they nervous presenting? How do they respond to questions, pressure?
  • Did they have a fresh approach? Are they an original thinker?

If the interview is for a Product Manager, they may make it about a specific problem they are trying to solve. When they were looking into adding a payments processor in South America, they asked prospects to speak that topic. By the end of the interviews, they had not only a good sense of who knew what, they also got six different approaches to integrating payments processors.

Joe Zadeh

James Buckhouse from Twitter gave an great talk about storytelling. @buckhouse came from Dreamworks and tells stories for twitter and shared his formula for how to tell a good story. It’s all about the journey to a transformation. He writes about writing on Medium at Design Story.

James Buckhouse on Story Telling

The final talk of the day was with Tom Conrad at Pandora. No slides, just a simple discussion between Josh Elman and Tom about the early days of Pandora and it’s inspiration (“I loved to recommend music to people. Building a service was a lot easier than inviting people to my dorm room.”) but also included a varient of the “let’s go shopping” style of roadmap prioritization.

  1. Every 90 days, wipe your roadmap clean.
  2. Ask everyone in the company what things the company would be crazy not to do. This includes projects that used to be on the roadmap but are now off it.
  3. Summarize each idea on one slide. Work with engineering to come up with a thumbnail estimate for how many days it’ll take for each project. If a project will take one weeks’ development by two developers, that’s a $10 project.
  4. Print out each slide and stick them up on a wall.
  5. Sit with Engineering and decide how many developer man-days you have for the next 90 days. If it’s 60 working days and you have 2 developers, and you need to reserve 10 days for maintenance, that means you have 110 developer man-days. This would equal $120.
  6. Invite a cross-representative group of people to a product prioritization meeting. At Pandora, this included someone from HR. Give each person a different colored post-it note with equal amounts that they can allocate towards projects. If there are 5 people in the room, then that’s $24 each.
  7. It will be a long meeting but, by the end, you’ll clearly see which projects are “fully funded” and those will be the ones that you take on for the next 90 days.

Everyone leaving that room will have a clear view of what engineering is going to be working on better than any Roadmap document could tell them. There will be no need to brief people on what each project is because they will have heard the description of each project in that meeting.

I hope you found this post useful. I’m gathering these tips and tricks into a collection. If there are some that you feel should be included, let me know.

Friendster Ruins Uncovered – The Onion

The Onion takes a crack at what future “internet archaeologists” from the “Friendster Excavation Project” discover when they run across the ruins of the ancient online civilization, Friendster.”

One day users were posting a seemingly endless stream of bulletins about “awesome parties” and “cool shows” and then, nothing. Total silence. . . Their lives come to a complete stop, live flies trapped in amber.

Friendster Ruins Uncovered

I rarely delete any of my social networking profiles but I deleted my Friendster profile just last week after reading the news of it’s sale to a company in Malaysia. Truthfully, I never really used the service and was only reminded of it when one of my contact’s birthdays was coming up.

My favorite profile was Andy’s but with the redesign my old link no longer works.

Is it cool to be accessible?

Two posts that came together on the same riff but from different angles. Do communities scale?

First Danah Boyd on “coolness”

“Coolness” is about structural barriers, about the lack of universal accessibility or parsability. Structural hurdles mean people put in more effort to participate. It’s kinda like the adventure of tracking down the right parking lot to get the bus to go to the rave. The effort matters. Sure, it weeds some people out, but it makes those who participate feel all the more validated. Finding the easter egg, the cool little feature that no one knows about is exciting. Learning all of the nooks and crannies in a complex system is exhilarating. Figuring out how to hack things, having the “inside knowledge” is fabu.

– from Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?

Then today I read Seth Godin on “authenticity”

Here’s the problem: The moment you take your special, authentic, limited-edition product and leverage it, make it widely available and normal, the very people who loved it inevitably rebel. “Starbucks isn’t what it used to be,” they tell you. The tastemakers who made you successful in the first place turn on their heels when they smell that you’re not authentic anymore.

When a product is everywhere, when it’s hyped in the media and advertised on the sides of buses, sometimes it seems as if the product exists and succeeds because it is everywhere. Before ubiquity, when it seemed as if the product (or its creator) wasn’t in it just for the money, somehow that felt more real, more wonderful, more authentic.

– from Tom Chappell sell out

It’s a trick to get this balance right. The quote from Seth was spurred by the news that Tom of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste sold to Colgate for $100 million. News that struck a similar chord are last week’s announcement that L’Oreal bought the Body Shop for over $1 billion, Six Apart’s acquisition of LiveJournal, and the buyout of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream by Unilever back in 2000.

In each case, the story was painted as a faceless corporation trying to usurp the community built up around a product to serve it’s short term commercial objectives. Yahoo has sailed through these rough waters as well when it acquired flickr, upcoming, and delicious. The point often missed in the hysteria is there is absolutely no benefit to a large company coming in and sucking the life out of a young and vibrant community. Why bother to set aside capital for an acquisition only to quash it and rob it of it’s value?

I think Yahoo has shown that it can take a community such as flickr and give it a good home (servers, bandwidth, and other resources) and also learn from that community and internalize the best things about it (tags, open apis, ui design).

There’s lots of talk about scaling an application to serve a larger audience. The one sold out session at the recent eTech conference was Flickr developer Cal Henderson’s tutorial, “Scaling Fast and Cheap – How we built Flickr” One thing that is not discussed as often is the other side of growing which is scaling the community. What are some of the best practices around taking a small, home grown community and scaling it out to serve millions?

The posts above identify the problem. Are there any examples of successful communities that have managed to retain their “coolness” and “authenticity” while at the same time becoming “universally accessible” and “ubiquitous” or are the two mutually exclusive? Religion comes to mind – are there others?

The end of media as we know it

The creepy tone of the background music sets the stage for this look back at the demise of traditional media as we know it from the perspective of 2014. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Friendster and the trend towards personalized and automated filters to help manage information flow pull down the Fourth Estate.

The New York Times becomes a print-only newsletter for the elderly and elite.”

The ending leaves me cold. Watch the developments over at Pegasus News as they build an alternative to this algorithmic nightmare.

Friendster Andy

UPDATE: I have learned that this was an actual college essay written by someone named Hugh Gallagher in 1998. Hugh is now a writer.

A friend of mine sent me a link to a freaky picture of a sad man’s face photoshopped onto a sad looking dog which gives new meaning to the phrase “puppy dog eyes.” This profile was posted on Friendster so I logged in and clicked on another profile of a guy named “Andy” and was in tears when I read the over-the-top description of himself in the “About Me” section – it’s worth posting in its entirety:

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice with my bare hands. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for 3 days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and god-like saxophone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines at unflagging speed, I cook 30 minute brownies in 20 minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran of love, and an outlaw in Peru. Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single- handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesday afternoons I repair electrical appliances free of charge. I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number 9 and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every item at the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations with the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me. I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic and all my bills are paid. On the weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago, I discovered the meaning of life but I forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prize-winning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet; I have performed open-heart surgery, and have spoken to Elvis. But I have not yet been to Australia.