Continuously strive to improve – everything

So an engineering manager from a partner company mentioned to me he likes the way I think about product – end-to-end. He said he wondered if I could share my philosophy with him and his team at some point. So I thought I’d give it a go here first, to hear your feedback and thoughts as well.

I don’t know how to convey all the experience behind these building blocks, in just a few sentences, so take this short and stacked blog post for what it is. The key point to remember is that your product stretches beyond the code you deliver.

  • If your product is hard to market, work better with marketing and customers to define the pain points and the right key messages that resonates. Create a focus group to distill what the real perceived value is.
  • If your product is hard to debug for engineering, expect it to be even harder for support, field, and end consumers – focus on modularizing the codebase, transparency, and better insight tools
  • If your product is already causing high support loads, spend a few sprints focusing in on instability areas (increase test development) or ease of use (do user studies, customer interviews, improve docs and help), or increase tooling and visibility into whatever area drives the most support tickets to get better data insight into what the root causes may be
  • If your product is hard to integrate with, work on better APIs for partners, and reliable backwards compatibility designs. Again, why not create a focus group?
  • If your product is hard to sell, work on better defined use cases and more reference customers, or look into repackaging – maybe you got it wrong what the customer needs?
  • If your product is not rapidly adopted, do end-to-end usability studies, spend more investments in documentation, hire a UX designer, or create adpot-a-customer programs and let your engineers work closely with the customers using the product to figure out the UX gaps.

Points above are there to show a good product manager do not only focus on end customers, but every stakeholder touching the product lifecycle that affects the product’s long term success. And secondly, that the product stretches across many teams and organizations, and it is your job as a good product manager to also keep these teams in mind, as customers and stakeholders, in your continuous product feature prioritization process.

Also, did you know that paranoia is a positive thing to suffer from as a product manager? Expect the best, plan for the worst. Always always always have a plan B, C, D… And never never never commit, unless you are explicitly forced to by your CEO. Plans always change. Engineers always hit unknowns. The worst you can do is commit to a date and then disappoint your customer who plans around that date. Margin in any timeline will always be needed.

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What Makes a Good Product Manager?

This is a very tough question as good product managers come in many different forms. I’ll try to give you a list of skills that I think all good product managers possess to some extent, in unique combinations. Please note that if you don’t fit this proposed mold it does not mean you can’t be a good product manager.

You might have been born with talents in some areas, while other areas you need to grow. There is always room to grow and stretch yourself (i.e. strive for “uncomfort zone”). All things aside, what makes you a good product manager is the unique combinations of many skills and the fit of that combination to the product, teams, and market you play in.

The areas I look for when interviewing are most commonly (and generalized to):

  • Ability to speak engineering
    You may or may not have an engineering background, but it helps a lot if you can ask the right questions, at least understand some of the complexity involved in solution options. Have insight enough to see which option proposed will better meet the needs of the customer and/or time to market – whatever is the most important in your company at that point in time. My personal recommendations based on observations are to be open, curious, non-judging, clear, precise, and steer back to a very clear and focused goal driven by a very clear and exact use case. This helps most decisions and conflicts. Be kind and show empathy, but also be firm in representing the customer and your company’s strategy. It is the product manager’s job to translate all that is going on, priorities, and customers’ needs into engineering teams, so they can successfully execute. Hence you need to speak engineering.
  • A sense of value & sales skills
    If you ever are going to launch a product that someone will eagerly pay for, you need to have a sense for distilling value. Which of the customer’s problems is where there is money attached to solving it. Where can there be value shown in a confident and proven way? You need to be familiar with the sales cycle, and how different styles of selling impacts how you frame the value of your product. You will also need to know how to help your sales teams’ mission in the most opportunity building way. Some product managers are building their careers on sales skills, and use them both internally and externally. They are useful skills indeed, for any role, but I would argue that you can’t just have sales skills to be a good product manager.
  • A sense for the market
    You have to figure out your way of staying connected with the trends and where things are going, before everyone else are already going there. This is a skill, but performed in many different ways. Some product managers have a vast network of trusted industry thinkers and do the verbal train approach. Others spend hours during commute to listen to pod casts or read interesting articles in the right type of forums. Some spend hours talking to customers (100s of them) to distill patterns – and some of these customers for the attentive person will show early indications whereto the technology needs to go next. And some product managers create markets where there are none. So this is a very non-scientific area, but a very important one to have to be successful. You have to develop your own style of figuring out what is the next big thing that customers will eventually start asking about, and be on track / on target at that point in time.
  • Bigger picture / detail & quality oriented
    You can be either a big picture kind of product manager, and will develop more and more wider strategies. Often product suite wide or company wide. Or you may find it easier to go deep into details, in which case a deep technical product management career is ahead for you. This is again a personal characteristic, so it is not impossible to grow into the other type, but people tend to stay with what they are really good at (comfort zone) and you can make a great career utilizing either your focused skills or wide-thinking abilities. Both fits a product manager, just different types of them.
  • EQ – social skills
    A lot of product management involves influencing other people. You don’t have teams reporting to you. You need to convince engineering teams what is the highest priority. If you are good at explaining the ‘why’ it makes it easier, but you also need to win their trust, show integrity, and be a trusted stakeholder when important decisions are made (which sometimes shortcuts a product if not aligned with the end goal). You need to have a ton of EQ to read people’s ability to join your cause, to stick through tough times, and still encourage and fuel the team forward. You need to entice teams that do not believe in the direction of the company sometimes. You need to work with a lot of different types of people – finance, support, legal, sales, customers, executives, and different cultures (especially here in Silicon Valley). You need to be a leader, a role model, an ombudsman, and a negotiator. You need to understand the people you work with to create successful products, as the product is only as good as the team behind it.
  • Innovation / creativity
    Especially for startup environment you have to be a self-starter, a problem solver, and an innovator. You have to envision what hasn’t been done before – to win. You have to be able to see how you can change or create a market. You have to innovate technology that does not exist yet, and then discuss this with your engineers what is possible. You have to aim high, think outside the box, and creatively solve any type of problem coming your way. You have to take risks and be willing to fail. All traits that come with a true innovator / entrepreneur.
    There are things to do that doesn’t require a whole re-write from scratch. But you will need to take on a battle with innovative engineers. This will be easier if you show a well thought out strategy. If the ‘why’ is clear, there are much easier conversations to be held. E.g. can we reutilize some existing part to a lower cost, can we acquihire, can we drop something, can we refocus our mission, can we package things differently?
  • Passion for what you do
    You have to truly believe in what you do. You can never convince engineers, executives, customers, partners or others to spend the time a day if you don’t buy it yourself. You have to live breathe and feel your product and love/hate it in good and in bad times. It is what you are on a mission to educate others about that will change their world. If you don’t believe in the product, you will do it more harm than good. If so, do us all a favor and do the right thing: change jobs/product.
  • Strategic thinking & data driven
    Sometimes the sexiest technology isn’t the right thing to invest in. There is always going to be a new kid on the block, once you travelled down the path a bit. Think end to end and long term – I dare you, as this frightens many quarterly-based mind sets. It isn’t always about the technology, it is about the end game; and both fitting into a market as well as being able to disrupt it. But where and how do you do so, and when. These are the questions that should occupy your mind most often to realign the goals and mission to the strategy.
    No good strategy comes out of thin air. You need to study and study hard. And think. Take time to think. Only then you can do a data-backed and clearly thought through plan and execute with success.
  • Passion for helping customers
    If you don’t like working with customers (external, internal, demanding, global, all kinds…) you probably should strive for a different role. You need to have a passion for understanding (or trying to understand) the customers’ pain and helping them to a better state. You need to put yourself out there and make it your mission to represent them in your organization. They are the key to your product’s and company’s success. Your responsibility is to make the right decisions and priorities on their behalf, once back at the design table or in engineering deep dives. And when making important decisions:

Where to invest resources first?
What is aligned with our company mission and all other customers’ needs?

What pain is more significantly impacting to solve?

What builds customer loyalty, success, and satisfaction?

 

Also, be humble and stay hungry. You will probably very rarely get acknowledged for what you do. Engineers deliver the code and innovation in the end, so they get rewarded for the delivery. Sales close the deal, so they get rewarded for the revenue they bring. Product management is a very thankless job. Your best grade, reward, and thank you you’ll ever get as a product manager is when a customer is using your product, in production, renews their contract with you, and tells the world how much they love the product you’ve built. This should be your fuel. If this is the goal you have in mind whenever you make decisions, you will be a good (if not great) product manager.

Hence, you have to love and desire to talk to customers – a lot. Someone once told me (if I remember who I’d give them cred here) that you can’t create a good product or solution until you’ve talked to a 100 customers. I have followed that rule very often. I think there is a lot of truth in that. The more customers you listen to, the more the real problem will crystalize. The pattern to solve for. And the more sure you can be that the ROI fixing that problem will materialize.

Last but not least, make sure you prioritize what the customers need over what they want. It has helped me deliver high ROI features and products. Which is the goal of any sustainable engineering: create a product that solves a problem that consumers are happy to spend money on to get solved and that is easy to support and cost-efficient to develop.

This doesn’t cover all aspects, but it is in big parts what I look for in a product management talent. In addition I look for people who complement my own weaker sides, so I know over time the team will be a really strong one. As I’ve mentioned before: winners hire different not the same.

Running towards the wall

One of my mentees asked me the other day if I ever burned out in my passed. She feels really stressed about finishing grad school and starting a new job. I shared with her a long story (too long to share here), but the gist of it I thought I was invincible and turns out I am only human. But it taught me the signals to look for and how I need to recharge and when.

Long story short, I basically thought “I can do this” when my first manager asked me to fill in for him, while he was on paternity leave for 6 months, during one of the busiest times of the startup I was working at, at the time. This was only four or five years into my full time engineering career and I was somewhat heading up project management by then.

I almost burned myself out, correction: I actually did burn myself out. By the end of it I was prescribed a four week (mandatory) vacation without access to email or work (I went to Brazil!), to recover from an exceptional high amount of stress. I did need the vacation and took it. I felt really low for the entire time. The doctor told me I was biologically depressed. This is apparently what happens after you experience an adrenaline is high, above normal, for an extended time. Your body thinks it gets depressed when your levels go back to normal, due to the diff.

We were a growing startup that suddenly was thrown into American Corporate culture shock. There was immediate room for growth. I had three hats and suffered from an incredible high bar for myself. I also thought failure wasn’t an option. So, I managed 25 people, lead 3 concurrent release projects, handled strategic partnerships, and tried to do process improvement and being the best manager ever at the same time. I did succeed on all fronts, in spite of my inadequate experience driving large teams at this early stage in my career, but to the price of getting so exhausted I needed time away.

I learned some interesting lessons from this, that I also shared with my mentee:

  • Saying no is not a failure. When stretched too thin you will fail, so better saying no and show success where you still have energy left at the end of day, than to get sick trying to deliver everything – and fail on all ends.
  • That what is important comes back to you. You don’t have to remember everything, nor walking around afraid of forgetting things. Most important things pop up again and it isn’t the end of the world if it takes an extra day to respond.
  • Start your day slow. I learned that I was a person who needed to gather my thoughts in the morning. Planning out my day. Thinking through priorities, before I even start my commute. Once I figured out to not rush the morning time, all things started to become much clearer and much more focused.
  • Taking a break is part of being great at what you do. The time away helped me refocus and come back much more motivated. I have since followed this pattern of working hard for a few years and then taking a longer vacation off, to refuel at the core. The work will still be there when I get back and the world will not have ended. But I will feel completely new and rejuvenated and actually looking forward to job tasks again. Extended time off brings perspective that I need to be a great product manager long term.

What are your best tips to stay away from the wall, be aware of your signals, and recharge? How do you reduce your stress levels?

Keeping Perspective

Not too long ago I was asked to hand over a project I had built from scratch with minimal investments. We had worked hard and long to get it implemented and into a shape that could scale big time. It was a cross-department project with lots of potential and many excited stakeholders. We were ready to launch for real, after a beta phase, when the company did some reorganization.

The project ended up under another product manager. A new peer on my team at the time. Logically it made a whole lot of sense to move this golden nugget project to this new employee, as the project was very much tied under the responsibilities and theme of this employee. Logically it was the right thing to do, and I would have done the same if it was my decision. Logically.

Emotionally however I was very sad to see it go. Not only was I proud of the yet to bloom project, seeing its full potential painted on the wall. I also loved the tiny team we had streamlined over time. This meant I would not have the chance to see them successful and help them get rewarded for all their hard work anymore. Also, I would no longer take part in the great journey ahead. I felt really sad about all that.

But here is the important lesson to all you aspiring techies, project managers, product managers, and other professionals out there: whatever you are hired to do is never yours to keep. No matter how you feel about some code, product, project, program or other successful piece of your deliverables, it is not truly yours. It is the company’s and the company will do (hopefully) what is best and most optimized for the company with it. Always keep this perspective and it will help you transition through any organization gracefully. Leaving some handy thoughts for you to use (or not):

  1. It is not yours to keep, so don’t act like it is – be graceful, always
  2. If you have created successful projects in the past, you can do it again
  3. Most organizational changes have nothing to do with you. No matter if it hits you and it feels like you are the target. In most cases a transition is probably just a natural step of growth of the company and not a reflection on your competence. Be confident, yet be observant too if it is a trend, in which case you might want to start some coaching.

So my tip to you, allow yourself to mope a bit if you need to. On your own time. But then quickly let go (use the above thoughts to help you do that quicker) and move on to your next project. Choose the high road and keep your grace at work and it will pay off in the end.

Tech for Good

Drones. Most people I meet get scared about the future when talking about drones. Others get excited about quick home delivery of purchased items, remote any-angle selfies, etc. They get excited about the self-centered convenience new technology may bring them.

Very few realize the genuinly good technology can do for man and womankind. It isnt their first thought, unfortunately. 

I met this amazing co-founder of a startup in the Drone space the other day. The passion was undefiable. Passion to help people. 

As a kid the thought had planted itself to help change the world for the better. Fortunate enough to have a family who could afford investing in education of their children in an otherwise developing area: a great journey started within law. Political law to be exact. As the idea and drive were to improve the circumstances for less fortunate through political change.

The fall of this beautiful vision reflected on the CEO’s face as the story was further told about how that dream was slowly but surely crushed by the selfishness of politics in our era.

So how can you change the world without politics? The search lead to technology. Nothing has changed the world as technology has. So tech it was. The answer.

The company is a startup in Silicon Valley. It builds drones for good purposes – such as brining medicine to hazardous or remote areas. Safely.

The CEO’s passion stayed with me. For weeks. I know that feeling. I have worked on many good projects. It helps you breathe lighter, stand up straighter, and it makes you love what you do. 

The CEO was outstanding. 

A few summary thoughts:

  • Why fear technology when it has helped the world become a better place for so many decades?
  • We need more good startups!
  • Oh and did I happen to mention that the CEO and co-founder was a woman, born and raised in Latin America? (No, I intentionally did not). Just sayin she “outstanded” quite a few other CEOs I’ve met in my days. I want to see many more like her! #diversityiskeytoabetterworld

A Speech to my Past Self

I am speaking to a high school class of girls next week. It is kind of daunting. Why? I have spoken to audiences of 100s of people before. I have given key notes. I have been in media and I have lots to say to these  young ladies. So why the clinch? 

I think it is so important what and how you say things to young adults. You never know what sentens will follow them through life and shape them.

I think I aldo identify with these kids. Lost in options, with ambitions, confused, smart, new, and brilliant. And then the world is still unknown to them. Still without shape. What should I share with them? What will help them and not be tainted of my generation’s limitations? What will be the best for them forward?

I was there. That was me. What would I have liked someone to tell me? Back then…

I have a hunch this will be one of my toughest speeches ever. The speech of encouragement and promise and opportunity – to my younger self – but when knowing better…

Waiting for a Rainy Europe

I might have said it before but I love traveling. In writing moment I am sitting in the Global First Lounge at SFO and casually observing people in transit. It intrigues my mind to ponder for a few moments where they come from, where they are going, and what made them who they are. 

Sometimes I make an effort interacting, but most often I prefer my own observation bubble where I can see the world as a moving piece of art and drama.

I am trying to categorize and extract patterns. The brain relies on reinforcing stereotypes, so am not trying to fight it.

Everyone here are keeping busy in their own ways. 

The suit people are reading magazines, or they are on their phones, or their computers. Almost always with a glass of wine to keep them company – no matter time of day. Perhaps they live in their own global time zone? Perhaps the wine gives them warmth in anotherwise cold and shallow environment?

Then we have the polo and jeans males. Yes only males as women in here dress travel-fancy or all-in-comfy. Often the polo males are multi-tasking: watching the TV stream, and their phone, and being on a phone call, and eating. Busy body language, never at ease. A bit ego-pushy mixed with hyper-alert. Do they ever sleep? Do they ever smile an uncalculated smile? Are they actually happy or just high on adrenaline?

The couple in the corner is very composed, low voice conversation with a lot of pause. Companions traveling in style? Either way a couple is a rarity here this time of day. Mostly this room hosts business men, traveling alone. But I like the refreshing existance of the couple. The lady is drinking Champagne.

Of the twenty or so individuals I see, there is only me and one other woman traveling alone. This is the usual ratio give or take a few. I wish there were more of us, but you can only change the world by setting example and by changing yourself. So for the time being I choose to enjoy being unique.