4 Things Every Product Person Should Do

Image by Flickr user 42614915@N00

Image by Flickr user 42614915@N00

It would be a shame if growing in your career took you further away from having an up-to-date perspective of what’s happening with your product.

You can quickly forget what life is like in the trenches. If you want to be an effective product manager, you need to actually work on the product. Some people estimate you should spend 30% of your time with hands-on work in engineering roles.

I would suggest that it’s paramount for product managers of all levels to be do-ers.

It’s crucial for managers in the Product space to:

  • Get out of meetings
  • Walk away from product roadmaps and strategy
  • And lead by example by consistently getting into the weeds

How to get your hands dirty

Write a Spec

Product Requirement Documents drive the efforts of the entire product team. Its hard to come by a more important, higher leverage piece of work for a company. Every quarter I make sure to take one project or feature and write the entire PRD and spec for it.

This includes writing up wireframes, mockups, business case, scenarios, technical discussion, and timeline. I also put it through the same process  my PM’s need to go through: review, iterations, sign-off, etc.

Teardown a Competitor

When I see a competitor that seems interesting or a technology that could be useful to our products, I will spend an hour on a Friday performing a teardown.

A good teardown will involve – where possible – getting hands on time with the tech or product in question, taking relevant screenshots, and writing up evaluative feedback. I then provide some ideas about how we can either beat the competitor or, failing that, integrate with them. I post these ideas into our wiki and share with the team. 

Triage Bugs

About once a week I will jump into JIRA, pick a product, and review the Priority 1 and 2 bugs. Do they match my expectation of priority? Great. If there are any questions, I will sit down with the individual PM and ask them about it.

Attend Individual Scrums

There are too many projects on my team to go to every scrum, so instead I pick one day each week to attend a different product’s meeting. I usually sit and listen quietly, then afterward will use my one-on-one with that PM to ask questions about what I heard. Theres a lot you can tell about a team just by occasionally showing up to their daily standup.

Why would you do this?

Respect

Students in my Product Management class at General Assembly this semester heard me start every lesson with some form of “This stuff is so cool! I love building products.” One of the first things I look for when hiring PM’s is their raw passion for wanting to build cool stuff.

Doing individual work like this shows your team, your peers, and your management that you are fired up about building products. You’ll earn their respect, which can be especially helpful when onboarding into a new team.

Improved efficiency

The first time you write a spec as a newly promoted manager (especially if you haven’t written one in a while), youll instantly discover what in the spec process needs improvement. Fixing these issues will make your entire team more efficient.

On our team, I realized that we had four different flavors of PRDs. I worked with Alex (one of our Directors of Product Management) to unify them into a single format. We then came up with a template for the new PRDs and put it into our wiki. That’s the spec process we use on all of our products today.

A Dose of Realism

It’s easy to think projects and products will execute extraordinarily well. As a manager in the Product organization, your goal is to balance your optimism for completing a project against your pessimism, your previous experience telling you how complex it is going to be.

Periodically writing a spec, attending a scrum, and triaging bugs can help you stay much closer to what’s actually happening inside your products and code.

Spend your time wisely.

Which will be more expensive: time spent on non-managerial work, or the risk of failure stemming from a knowledge gap between strategy and execution?

Back From Hiatus (a.k.a Being Flexible)

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When I am very passionate about something I find it hard to stop doing it, whether that being playing soccer in my Brooklyn Bridge Park league or mentoring startups here in NYC. Writing is one of those areas of passion for me and it’s why I really enjoy writing on my blog. I find it’s a great way to share concepts and ideas, and I love the feedback that I get from readers of all different industries and backgrounds.

I’ve talked in several previous posts about how I manage my time, like using “GSD” blocks on my calendar during the day or capturing early-morning time to blog and read the news. I also believe that you need to be flexible with you whatever systems you use for your personal productivity. The list of things you need to accomplish and the list of things your passionate about have to actually “fit” into your available time.

Earlier in my career I found I would get super stressed out when a significant change in my life threw a wrench in my personal productivity. I’m talking things like promotions, new jobs, giant new projects, or even new relationships. I would have to “change” my perfect email system or alter my by-the-minute fixed morning routine. Over time I’ve realized that the true productivity ninja is someone who can recognize when a big enough wrench is thrown into system and then react accordingly.

At the beginning of the summer I took a new role inside of ThinkingPhones that made my responsibility and scope grow by what felt like 100x. I also took on an Instructor position at General Assembly (more on that soon) that added four hours of class and six hours of prep time per week to my schedule. This had the predictable effect of disrupting my time management system almost immediately.

What changed? On the work front, my new role caused me to have to learn and be responsible for a much larger portion of our product portfolio and in parallel increased the amount of people on my team. My need for time to just read material on my own and also the time needed to hire and coach increased several fold. Teaching was an incredible experience, but there I quickly realized that to effectively prepare my lessons for class I needed to spend significant time on the weekends creating the core material and then a few hours the morning of each class rehearsing.

Something had to give. I looked at my tasks and my calendar and realized that the time I spent writing and curating was about what I needed to prep for class. So I decided to take a break from writing and use that time to tackle my new role at work and my class at GA. It was stressful in the short term because I missed writing and don’t like stopping things I enjoy doing, but that feeling quickly switched to relief as the amount of effort I needed for both work and GA increased over the summer.

I’ve been looking forward to writing again and I’m glad I had this London-bound-no-internet-trans-atlantic flight to write this post and get back at it. Talk to you all soon.

Thanks!
-m

How To Improve Your Networking With Goal Setting (Video)

It was a blast to work with the folks at SkilledUp to put together this fun video on how to network more effectively using goal setting and a little bit of a system. Big kudos to my extremely talented movie-producing-and-entrepreneur-extraordinaire friend Rich Boehmcke for shooting, editing, and producing this video!

The original video on SkilledUp is here.

A Product Manager Should Be The Most Curious Person In The Room

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image (C) Tauntaunwampa

I was talking earlier this week with a new product manager on my team. It was our 1:1 and we were discussing his latest project. It’s the first big product area that this PM has taken on and it’s very important for our next release, so we were using our conversation to make sure everything was on-track. I was peppering him with questions after he shared his update:

“How do you feel the project is going?”
“What challenges have you hit working with your feature team?”
“Is the spec ready for review?”
“Okay, can you show me the diagram for the main use case that you’re stuck on?”
“What about this part of the lookup, can we also double-back with the phone number?”
“I just thought of these two uses cases, have you considered them?”
“What’s left between now and the spec review?”

Later that same day I was in a feature team meeting discussing the status of a new product offering. The lead developer was sharing his detailed update, which included a few specific areas that had risk and ambiguity.

“Why did you choose that implementation path?”
“Will this scale if we 10x the amount of users in a year?”
“Is there a faster way to do it?”
“What if we added more resources?”
“What are the biggest remaining risks?”

Folks who have worked with me before know that I love to ask questions. A lot of questions. 🙂 The questions I asked during the 1:1 with my PM (and their resulting answers) helped me quickly understand the status of the project and where he was blocked. It also set the stage for the type of information I’d want to hear in the next update I get about the project. He and I then spent a few minutes talking about questions, curiosity, and why they’re both so important for Product Managers to be effective in their careers.

Awesome Product Managers have an unrelenting sense of curiosity. They’re equally curious about the latest competitive apps, their own project statuses, industry news, how a piece of backend technology works, the reason a bug occurred, or why a partner team is late on delivering. A great PM should use precision questioning to drill into every conversation and problem to understand what is really going on and what they can do to move things forward. This can reveal gaps in use cases, technical knowledge, or even a partnership agreement that need to be addressed.

Checking for curiosity is critically important when evaluating a PM for a role on your team. Many parts of my PM interview process, from the “What’s your favorite app?” question all the way through the product design case study, are used to see how curious the candidate is. Do they start out the case study by immediately jumping into a solution on the whiteboard based on something they know, or do they open with a set of questions back to me to help understand what they don’t know.

Ultimately your use of precision questioning as a PM must be balanced with the amount of investigation and discovery you do on your own. You will also gain a lot of experience over time simply from being in more and more product cycles.

The simplest way I can frame this advice? Don’t wait if you’re curious about why something is. Get curious and ask the question.

How I Grew My Network By 142 People Last Month

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I’ve always loved meeting new people. My mother will recall that when I was a child I would walk around the play area at my kindergarten school, offering up whatever toy I had in my hand to other kids in an attempt to get them to share and play with me back. It’s been 30 years of meeting new people since those days back in kindergarten, and I can honestly trace all of the internships and jobs I’ve ever had directly back to a specific person in my network. I actually share the story of those connections during a talk I give annually to my old high school, “Shaking Hands: How I Networked My Way To A Career I Love”.

I also love using systems and processes to help make my work and life more productive. Over the years I have evolved the way I network to try and make it as efficient and fun as possible. A friend recently asked me how many new people I met last month, and I think I startled him when I said very quickly and specifically “142”. Yes, I track how many new people I meet each month, thanks to a few tags in LinkedIn and, of course, a process. 🙂

Here’s the thing, though: you don’t have to be an extreme social extrovert to grow and benefit from a great network. I believe with a little process, a few funny nametags, and a touch confidence, anyone can grow a great network.

I believe there are three parts to building and nurturing a great network:

  1. Set goals.
  2. Make a plan, get prepared.
  3. Be diligent, follow-up.

1. Set Goals

What are you networking for? Having crisp goals makes it so that you maximize the time and effort you spend growing your network. It’s okay to have multiple goals, but don’t have too many or you will lose focus. These goals will then help you plan out the content, people, and events you need to be most effective. My current networking goals are:

  1. Hire a new Product Manager at ThinkingPhones.
  2. Find new business partners for a specific product at ThinkingPhones.
  3. Find new business partners for Perspyre.
  4. Grow my network in the NYC startup community.

For each of my goals, I write down a 2-sentence “opener” that I can use when talking to someone about them. For my goal of hiring a new PM at ThinkingPhones, I use:

“I’m looking to hire a PM with five or more years of experience to join our NYC team and focus on building our new UC and big data clients. I’d ideally like them to have experience building mobile apps and working with remote teams.”

Now whenever I bump into someone at an event I have these quickly queued up in my head and ready to go.

2. Make A Plan, Get Prepared

Once I’ve set my goals for the quarter I then create an action plan to actually get me in front of the people that I need to meet. I have been using this plan for my “Grow my network in the NYC startup community” goal:

  1. Attend 2-3 Meetups each month.
  2. Connect with 5 new people at any Meetup or event I go to.
  3. Have coffee with one new person from the NYC startup community each week.

As part of my early morning routine, I check the Meetups each day to see if there are any interesting events to go to. There’s also a decent amount of sponsored parties by larger tech companies that serve as great networking events, like the recent customer party that Mixpanel held in Tribeca. There are lots of articles and tips on how to network effectively at these types of events, and one of my personal favorites is to put a second nametag on (when they let you write your own on those “Hi, my name is” ones). I put the second one underneath the first and usually write “Ask me about PM jobs” or “I like bacon”, as they usually elicit a more direct opening and give the other person a reason to come over.

#1 and #2 are really in service of #3, helping me get those individual “purple” meetings setup. I prepare for an individual networking meeting (usually at coffee at Ground Support Cafe, love those almond milk lattes) by thinking about the following and writing them down in LinkedIn on that person’s profile (in the Notes tab):

  • What’s an interesting news event, blog, or other fact that’s relevant to that person?
  • What do I hope to get from this person?
  • What can I offer them in return?
  • Is there anyone I know who would make sense to introduce to this person?

3. Be Diligent, Follow-up 

I’ve gone through all of this trouble to find, setup and prepare for these great conversations with new and interesting people – but what’s the point of doing it if you don’t follow-up?! I believe that following-up is one of the most crucial parts of any effective networking strategy, and it takes dedication and a system to do so well. I use LinkedIn as my personal CRM system, so after every networking meeting I write down the following either immediately (if possible) or that evening into that person’s LinkedIn profile:

  • Where we met
  • What we talked about
  • What I said I would give/send/share with them
  • What they said they would give/send/share with me
  • If and when we’re meeting up next (set a reminder)
  • Tag them with the month I met them (how I calculated 142 people last month)

After I write all that down I then send them an email following up and thanking them. Boomerang lets me schedule that message to return later.

Lastly, in order not to let my new contacts go cold, I spend time every Monday morning reviewing the connections I made that month and looking for opportunities to help them. This could be an introduction to a colleague or friend, sharing a cool article that’s relevant to them, or asking how an event went that they told me was coming up. Sometimes I don’t have anything to share with a particular connection and that’s okay – I try to be as genuine as possible and only reach out when I think it’s worth it. If you use the Reminders feature in LinkedIn this is super easy since you’ll get an email each morning with a summary of your tasks.

This is just what works for me. The methods and tools that I use in service of my networking goals are just that: methods and tools. Effective networking is really about the goals: if you have good goals, you can use any smattering of tools from my list or others to help accomplish them.

I’d love to hear what tips, tricks, and tools you all use to network effectively. And if you want to meet for an almond milk latter, hit me up!

Thanks!

-m

How I Actually Get Work Done At Work

It’s here.

One of those miraculous days where you only have a few meetings, no travel, and there are some open spots on your calendar. Incredible! You can almost feel the productivity you’ll achieve during those open blocks of time: writing that PRD, reviewing that crazy long marketing deck, or finally taking that one-hour training course you’ve been pushing off for two months. You settle into that first open spot and get ready to rock.

But then the inevitable happens.

Your new email notification dings. You switch to Gmail to check it and, what the hell, while you’re there you’ll answer two more real quick. You see Skype bouncing in the doc, so you check it to see who you hit you up. A quick pit stop to check Facebook and Twitter, and before you know it’s 33 minutes later, you’re four articles into a click hole on Buzzfeed learning useless but hysterical facts about falconry*, and the open hour on your calendar just lost 50% of it’s potential productivity. You might as well write off the rest of the hour if you work in an open office or co-working space, since you’ll inevitably be asked a question from a colleague that turns into an impromptu meeting. You turn back to you computer and realize you’ll have to finish whatever you were working on at 8pm that night when you get home.

What the hell happened?

In the words of the infinitely-wise Sir Arnold Schwarzenegger, “You lack discipline!”** It’s not your fault; our entire digital condition is designed to alert us in real-time about almost everything, making it so we can barely keep focused on a single task, project, or document. For a while I thought I could pull off multi-tasking like a boss but then realized that I definitely couldn’t (and science says neither can most people).

A few weeks back I shared a post about why I wake up at 4:22am. Through the use of a few goals and a basic structure for my morning time, I made it easier to be more disciplined about how I spend that time – so I don’t get up early and just waste it browsing Twitter. I use the same concepts planning my day that I do in my morning routine: set some goals, block off the time, and setup my tools to help me be productive. Using these concepts I feel like I can (usually) get work done, at work, and not feel like I wasted too much time being randomized.

I firmly believe that you need to allocate the appropriate time to every task or else you’ll never get them any of them done during the day. I also believe that you can’t let notifications define how you spend your time. So, to start, here are my tactical goals for each workday:

  1. Output high-quality deliverables (can be written and verbal)
  2. Support my team (employees and co-workers)
  3. Support my management
  4. Learn something new

How I structure my day

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7:30am – 8:00am :: Triage and Prep
While eating breakfast at home I read through my inbox, scanning for emails requiring significant work and creating tasks for them in Asana. If the email needs long response I will Boomerang it for 9:30am. If it’s quick, I shoot off an answer. This is the basic “Getting Things Done” methodology that I’ve followed for years. The last step is crucial: for everything in Asana that is due today, I make sure it is has the appropriate time blocked off on my calendar – as an actual appointment.

9:30am – 10:00am :: Email
All of the emails that need a thoughtful response but no other work go into this time.

10:00am – 12:00pm :: PWT (Personal Work Time)
I keep the mornings blocked off to crank out large deliverables, like PRDs, contracts, or competitive reviews. During PWT I “go dark” (I’m a spy movie junkie) by eliminating all notifications. More on this later.

12:00pm – 12:45pm :: Lunch
I try as hard as I can to eat lunch away from my desk and with the team. With the amount of meetings I have this is often the best time during the day to catch up with the team, chat socially, and hopefully laugh a bit at some bad geek jokes.

12:45pm – 1:00pm :: Break
I hate going right back to work after I eat, so if it’s not terrible outside I will go take a lap or two around the block. I usually leave my phone in the office and try to do nothing but soak up a little of the city, clear my head, and get ready for the afternoon.

1:30pm – 2:00pm :: Work Email, Skype, Personal Email
Quick check on work email following the same methodology from the morning spot. I think take the remaining time to check my personal email and various social network accounts.

2:00pm – 5:00pm :: Meetings
This is where I focus on supporting my team and my management. I put all of my 1:1’s with my directs into this time period (once a week), plus any brainstorming or sync up meetings with our various teams and offices.

5:00pm – 6:00pm :: PWT
I usually get a spurt of creative energy later in the day, so I keep a PWT blocked off during this hour to crank through more meaty tasks from Asana. If I don’t have the creative energy that day I use this time to do a bunch of smaller tasks that have queued up in Asana (checking in with customers, investors, etc.).

6:00pm – 6:30pm :: Learning
I use this time to review internal wiki articles, trainings, or other work-related information that I want to read and review.

6:30pm – 7:00pm :: Email and Cleanup
A last pass through emails, creating Asana tasks and moving unfinished time blocks around the next few days.

This doesn’t hold true for every single day given that meetings, travel, and other natural causes can introduce unavoidable change, but I keep to it about 90% of the month. The change that most often happens is I have to slide stuff around during the day to accommodate last-minute meetings. The key here is to be disciplined but flexible. Just because you can’t accomplish something in the time you originally scheduled doesn’t mean that you just hope you’ll find the time later: grab the blocked off time and move it to a new spot where you know you can get it done.

How I setup my machine to get work done

In my “What I Use 2015” post I covered a few of the awesome tools and apps that help me be productive. Here’s a few setup-style tricks and hacks that I use to help me stay focused, especially during PWT.

Calendars
I use color coding as though my life depended on it. I find that it helps to make my calendar glance-able, and also let’s me visually audit my time to see if I’m spending it in the right places. I use colors for 1:1’s, working sessions, etc., but the most important are Red for Customer Interaction and Blue for PWT.

Multiple Chrome users
I have three user accounts on Chrome on my work laptop: Work, Personal, and Demo. We can ignore Demo since it is for demo’ing our product. In Work, I have all of my work accounts for ThinkingPhones, my Gmail, JIRA, and other accounts are all logged in here. I do not have Facebook or Twitter logged in to this user. In Personal I have, well, all my personal stuff like email, Twitter, FB, etc. I do not have my work stuff logged in there. This makes it so that when I’m cranking on work tasks in the Work persona I won’t easily open a Facebook tab and get lost in the feed.

Multiple Mac desktops
I have multiple Mac desktops setup for, you guessed it, Work, Personal, Demo, and an extra one for Tools. On Work is my Chrome persona for Work, Personal gets the Personal persona, etc. Tools contains our VPN client and terminal windows that I don’t want taking up space in the Work desktop. I have also setup certain programs so their windows open on certain desktops, so iMessage, Spotify, etc. all open on Personal while Evernote and Skype open on Work. This means that I have to make a fairly conscious effort to switch desktops just to check Facebook, Twitter, or iMessage. It sounds annoying to deal with but this has been the single biggest productivity hack I’ve had since the creation of MEATS (my version of GTD).

Skype
For all group chats, I turn off notifications and set it to alert me only if my name is mentioned.

Chrome notifications
I turn off all notifications for Gmail’s inboxes.

Mac DND
Whenever I’m in PWT, I flip the Mac Control Panel setting to ‘Do Not Disturb’. I will usually turn it off afterwards, but sometimes I like the quiet and I leave it off for the rest of the day. 🙂

Mac Clock
I set the system clock to announce the time at the top of every hour. I find it a helpful metronome to make sure I haven’t drifted focus, and also to stop and take a break for a minute to shake my legs out and stretch.

For You

Much like with my 4:22am morning routine, this style of working is definitely not for everyone and you can (and should!) come up with the hacks, tweaks, and structure unique to you that will make your days more productive. I’d love to hear any thoughts, feedback, or tricks you have in the comments, thanks!

-m

*As an aside, falconry is pretty legit (link) and someday I’d love to try it.
** Bonus points if you know what movie that’s from.