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Great Product Managers are not experts on the product, but on the customer

I found two great quotes from Abhishek at Freshdesk's excellent article. Thought I'd share. The article feels like a sales piece towards the end for their product Hotline (which my company uses), but the main points are very valid.

  1. "At it’s core, the fundamental responsibility of a product manager is not to be the company’s leading expert on the product but to be the company’s leading expert on the customer. At a fundamental level, product management deals with the most difficult problem in human experience: how to see things from other people’s point of view."
  2. "A company isn’t a product-creating and product-enhancing establishment, but rather a customer-creating and customer-retaining establishment."

Agile is a mindset not a methodology

"Agile is a mindset not a technology.' That's what the head of a 500 person org at SAS said to me once. I had the pleasure to meet her along with 50 other software leaders at the EXO Software Leadership Summit this month where we discussed how companies large and small experience Agile and Cloud transformations.  Attendees include CTO of Cloud Platform Business at VMWare, Head of UX at WebMD,  Managing Director at Schwab and Directors for engineering and product from Uber.  I also had the pleasure to meet Tarah Wheeler van Vlack, author of Women in Tech and CEO of Fizzmint. Here’s my picture of her autographed book:

Unlike a conference with scheduled talks and a zombie audience, we sat UN style and had frank discussions about the topics du jour. This year the conversation tended towards Engineering leadership, the structure of engineering teams, and the realities of adopting Agile and Cloud into a company.  In general, there are three strong factors that correlate heavily with a company that runs Agile:
  1. Being in Cloud and having a strong micro services architecture
  2. Having a new codebase, usually hosted in the Cloud and less than 5 years old
  3. Having a large number of customers that each have weaker voices on the product roadmap, as opposed to a handful of very large customers that are on long contracts and strongly influences the roadmap
We also had a discussion on OKRs, and since we are still early in our adoption curve, I thought I’d share some bullets on what I learned: 

How other companies experience OKRs
  • Generally takes a few quarters for the organization to adopt
  • Not all implementations are across company, at two of the attending companies only one division is using it fully, but full company adoption is best.
  • O = Objectives and KR = Key Results, both can carry over across quarters, though objectives are more likely to be across-quarters. 
  • There should be no more than 3-4 objectives and key results per level
  • OKRs should be measured by business value, instead of technical accomplishment
  • This 1+ hour video about OKRs is highly recommended
  • BetterWorks is a product used at one attending company to track OKRs.

Thanks for the Feedback by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone

This is the best book I’ve read this year. It has already given me lots of growth ideas both personally and professionally.  I recommend this book to anyone who wants to get better at listening, and especially to Product Managers where listening is an essential job function. Here are my key takeaways:

  1. Understand what’s beneath the label.  Our brains put order to the world by slapping a label on incoming data.  The feedback you get will come in the form of a label. Get under the label to understand 1) what the data is, and 2) where the feedback is coming from. A salesperson being told by the boss “you’re too laid back when you sell” is actually saying that the customer is interpreting the salesperson's gestures and language as a lack of care. “Laid back” was the label chosen here. The boss might have some experience with losing deals when customers feel this way, and that’s good information to find out.  Keep in mind that all feedback are autobiographical; it stems from the feedback-giver’s personal experience. So ask questions to uncover what’s beneath the label.
  2. Ask "What do you see me doing or failing to do that is getting in my own way?” Look for consistent feedback. Look for the same data with different interpretations.  Keep in mind that feedback is autobiographical, it is important to look under the label and uncover the data, which provides the patterns.
  3. Emotions distort the feedback.  Our feelings color the story we tell.  If we are frustrated we tell a frustrated story. If we are sad we tell a dark story. When we Google ourselves while in a good mood, we focus on all the great press; but when in a bad mood, we focus on the bad press. So the facts or thoughts we focus on will vary with our emotion.  This go both ways. Sometimes the thoughts cause emotion instead.  For example, I am running late to organize an event and start imagining all the possible disasters (thoughts).  this causes me to feel panicked that the event will fall apart without me (emotion). Now when I arrive and the tables are not delivered yet, I might jump to the conclusion that I have failed my clients and label myself a loser, all before checking the actual status of the missing tables.  There are multiple ways to counter this tendency:
    • Be prepared if you can.  Get into the feedback state of mind and dial your emotions to neutral.
    • Know your feedback reactions, notice what is happening
    • Separate the stands, in every feedback situation there are four strands:
      • The feeling, the story you tell yourself, the threat, the actual feedback
    • Right size your feedback, here are some ways to keep the feedback in perspective
      • Create a feedback containment chart.  Create 2 columns: (1) what is the feedback about, (2) what is the feedback not about.   Stay balanced, not everything, and not always.
      • Be aware of distortion. 2 categories, that do happen and things that might happen. Don’t overestimate negatives that might happen.
      • Chance your vantage point; imagine that the feedback was directed at someone else
      • Look back from the future 
      • Cast the comedy
      • Accept you can't control how others see you
      • Have compassion for the feedback giver
      • Note for parents: If your child was told they are stupid by another, don't just say 'you are not stupid,' help your child separate the feedback using this technique so she can realize for herself that she is not stupid
  4. People cannot hear their own tones. A part of our brain specializes in interpreting tone, but our own voice bypasses this part of our brain.  That means I can’t hear my own tone when giving feedback to others, nor can my feedback giver hear his own tone. Knowing this helps you realize that your message may be mis-construed by your listener, and vice versa.  Always check that the message was received as intended.  
  5. Intentions vs impact
    • People don't see your intentions only your impacts. You tend to self evaluate based on intention. This is a disconnect.
  6. Corporations need to have feedback systems that separate appreciation, coaching and evaluation
  7. All feedback are autobiographical. It tells more about the feedback giver than then feedback receiver. The experiences of the feedback giver strongly colors the feedback.
  8. People have two main, in-born tendencies towards feedback. These two tendencies are:
    1. Recovery time from negative feedback
    2. Sustain time of positive feedback

  • I drew the graph below to show how the different ends on each tendency will affect how the person perceives feedback.  

  • If the feedback giver and the feedback receiver have different tendencies, then the communication can be skewed. For example, if a 'Hates Feedback' person is given a direct negative feedback, she is likely to take the feedback very hard. On the contrary, if the 'Loves Feedback' person is given a direct negative feedback, it will 'roll right off her back.' Her fast recovery from negative feedback means she will likely fail to take action from the feedback. It is necessary in this scenario to repeat feedback for the second person, and lighten the feedback for the first person.
  • People tend to be a ratio of 50/40/10 corresponding to in-born tendencies/ personal interpretation of feedback /situation. This means everyone can self-influence up to 40% of the feedback message.
There is so much more than what I've listed here. Get the book already!

Obama’s Female Staffers Came Up With a Genius Strategy to Make Sure Their Voices Were Heard

A fellow female manager at work shared this article with me that was brilliant. Use 'amplification' to make sure female voices are heard in a group dominated by men.  Both men and women can get in on amplification to help build gender equality.

How do I become a Product Manager?

Lately I’ve been pinged by roughly 3 people a week on how to transition into PM.  Usually there are two main questions:
  1. What does a typical day look like for a Product Manager?
  2. What do interviewers look for when they hire?

Here’s what I usually say:
  1. There is no typical day for a Product Manager, and that’s why most PMs like their jobs. Your product is your baby and it’s up to you to lead your team to take care of all aspects.   You are the catch-all for any problems that arise. On a most basic level, you are talking to customers around 20% of the time, roadmapping and delivering features with your development and design team 50% of the time and doing catch-all work 30% of the time.  The catch-all can be anything from marketing and strategy discussions, handling contract issues, changing pricing, handling sales and billing issues, handling product quality issues, launching new programs, or figuring out what to do after your product factory burned down last night.  Your problem solving skills, adaptability and resourcefulness are very important in this job.  
  2. Different PMs roles and teams will value a different combination of skills.  I suggest choosing a few job descriptions that you are interested in, and chatting with PMs in those companies to get a sense of that they’re hiring for.  Typically, roles in established products will have e a higher project management and delivery aspect.  Roles in brand new products will have a higher market analysis aspect. In addition to skills, there are 5 qualities that I look for which are uniquely necessary for Product Management success.   

If you are new to Product Management, get an understanding of the role by taking some classes or reading articles online. Here are some classes that are worth checking out:
Many new PM classes have popped up of late. I have not attended any personally but here are some I’ve heard about:

What do managers look for when hiring PMs?

Throughout my PM career I’ve interviewed hundreds of PM candidates. Friends switching to a PM career have asked what managers look for in PMs.  So I thought I’d share my perspective here. Hopefully it helps you assess whether you’re a good fit for PM land and how to prepare for an interview. 

Integrity and open-mindedness are basic human qualities that are must haves for anyone I collaborate with regardless of role. Specifically for PM hiring however, here are the top 5 qualities that I hire for:
  1. Passion.  Strong candidates have an unreasonable amount of passion for solving the problem your product is trying to solve. As a result they’ve been thinking about the problem, a LOT.  They understand the ins and outs of the market, the competition, the solutions, the failed solutions, the customer’s perspective, the various customer personas, the list goes on. Really strong candidates teach me a thing or two about my product. They can break down my product into components, and talk about the strength of each of those components compared to existing and competing solutions. 
  2. Smarts. There is no typical day for a Product Manager.  Creative problem solving, resourcefulness, and ability to connect the dots are instrumental to success. I look for candidates who can think of 5 uses for any item in the room, can tell me what to use as IV fluid on an island, and talk me through their rationale for why drip-irrigation isn’t taking off in perpetually droughty California.  Strong candidates give me great examples of how they navigated tough situations in the past, and give me thoughtful, well structured answers on how to navigate hypothetical situations. I know the interview is going well if we get a great brainstorm going and I don’t want to leave.
  3. Judgement. Product Managers are hired to make decisions. So judgement will play a role every. single. day. Strong candidates can tell me which decisions they made were wrong decisions, and what they learned from it. In an assortment of options, they can walk me through the rationale for choosing one over others. 
  4. Communication. Product Managers spend 80% of their time communicating with somebody, whether with the team, with the customer, or with management. Often it’s written communication, such as specs or roadmaps, with an oral presentation component. Candidates that take 10 minutes to get to the point are red flags. Great candidates know that communication is two-way. They start at the right part of the story by first knowing their audience.  They write well and walk people through the story in a compelling way.   
  5. Empathy. Customers won’t buy products that aren’t right for them. Any product is rarely just right for everyone.  But the one product that is just right for a specific audience will win their undying loyalty. Empathy is about stepping outside one's own world and into that of the customer.  It’s about crouching down to find out that the source of cobwebs on my one year old is under the backyard table. Great candidates crouch down. Great candidates crawl around the crawlspace with a GoPro to capture a different perspective on their house. Great candidates chat up the wait staff or flight attendants to understand why the service was so bad today. No matter the approach, the underlying desire to learn the others perspective is crucial. Interestingly enough, 80% of the PMs at my currently company are introverts. Introverts are good listeners, which contribute positively to both good communication and high empathy. 

You may notice that PM experience is not on the list.  Experience is a means to an end.  Experience cultivates Smarts, good Judgement, good Communication and at times, Empathy.  Depending on the role, industry experience would be necessary. But I find that great PMs come from many walks of life. While some experience in the workplace is necessary, I’ve hired PMs with non PM titles in the past who have been successful in their role. So if you are looking to switch into product and don’t have any direct experience, you might find yourself uniquely suitable as a PM regardless.