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.

Why I’m Teaching

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It was 10th grade in high school and I was taking a class called “College Marketing.” It was a college-level course being taught as a part of a business program our school was piloting. The teacher, Mrs. Stein, pushed our class to explore potential career paths through cool projects and presentations. Mrs. Stein was always encouraging me to explore fun side projects and to network with everyone that I met. She eventually gave me advice when I started “MicFlash Enterprises” that fall (my 1-person desktop publishing ‘company’), and through our conversations that year she helped me understand what a career in business and technology could be. Mrs. Stein later introduced me to her husband at a class field trip to his office at Viacom in NYC, and some follow-up conversations with him led to my first internship at Viacom headquarters in Times Square. I can trace almost every job (and a best friend) since then back to the people I met at that first internship.

Mrs. Stein played a seminal role in my life. As an educator she taught me skills about business and professionalism that I still remember and use today, and as a mentor she gave me guidance about my career and connected me to my first job. I can never thank her enough for the path she showed me.

Twice a year for the last nine years, I have been going back to my old high school on Long Island and giving a talk to the students in Mrs. Stein’s classes. I call the talk “You Don’t Have To Be The Valedictorian To Have A Career You Love,” and it’s my attempt to show them how important the experiences, people, and relationships they make will be to their life. I do this by walking the students through a bit of my career journey: building web pages at a leather gun holster manufacturer in New Hyde Park when I was 14, DJ’ing, building web apps for Viacom, being a personal fitness trainer, then mainframe programming for insurance companies, eventually going to Microsoft, then Contactive, and now ThinkingPhones. I share how every opportunity, every job, and every success (or failure) was the result of a relationship I had made with a key person in my life.

Throughout my career I have continued to look for ways to coach and mentor others. As a manager at Microsoft I quickly realized and embraced that much of my role was teaching and coaching my team so they could grow and perform as quickly as possible. Working in the NYC startup scene at Contactive was a big change since our team size made it so I had a very tiny team and almost no time to manage. That wound up being a great impetus to jump into mentoring and advising other companies, and it’s something I continue in earnest now at ThinkingPhones.

Recently a mutual connection introduced me to one of the founders of General Assembly, Matt, at an event in NYC. He told me about GA and their mission, and almost immediately I said “Sign me up!” I loved the idea of working with a set of industry veterans to teach and coach others who were passionate about Product Management and design.

I’m now extremely excited to be joining the General Assembly family as an Instructor for their part-time Introduction to Product Management course. You can check out the details here on the GA site.

I can’t wait for the summer. I look forward to learning as much from the students as they (hopefully) learn from me.

Thanks!

The Friday List at #neato – 2015.06.05

A few interesting articles I’ve bumped into this week, curated from my Pocket and shared for your enjoyment. Some cool finds this week about the *giant* market for wearables in the enterprise, autonomous cars and the destruction of our car economy, Google I/O, and real-life drug fiction.

Augmate“Smart glasses begin to take hold in the enterprise”

My fascination with what wearables will do in the enterprise is increasing every day that I wear my Apple Watch to work. There are some cool contextual scenarios that can be improved by having a device as present as a Watch. I think that as the glasses form factor shrinks to something that IWs would wear (and not just folks in manufacturing), there will be all sorts of new productivity scenarios – my fav idea is what remote whiteboarding would look like.

“Autonomous cars will destroy millions of jobs and reshape the US economy by 2025”

Yes, they caught my eye with the title. But the article has some astonishing data points in it, like the average car owner only drives there car for 4% of the year. Talk about wasted capacity.

“Google I/O 2015 Recap”

I’m not sure if I’m going to switch to the new photos storage system just yet, but that announcement plus Android M made this a good set of releases from Google.

“The Untold Story of Silk Road, Part I”

Part of me wishes I had at least seen Silk Road live just once. Every time I read a story like this I can’t believe how big and significant Silk Road was without almost ever being known outside of those who used it.

The Friday List at #neato – 2015.05.22

A few interesting articles I’ve bumped into this week, curated from my Pocket and shared for your enjoyment. I read some cool stuff this week around new use cases for the Apple Watch, real-life startup soap operas, and Slack’s product/market fit. Happy Friday!

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“How the Apple Watch is opening up new ways to communicate”

There have lots of back-and-forth commentary on how hard the Apple Watch is to use, how the interface is weird and non-standard, etc. It’s great to see a more expansive look at how wearables will impact different groups of users.

“731 Slack Users Reveal Why It’s So Addictive”

A good look at what users find so compelling about Slack, and a set of analysis that highlights how important product/market fit is.

“Clinkle Implodes As Employees Quit In Protest Of CEO”

I learned about Clinkle and its storied past a few months ago and find the saga super interesting. Massive early funding, unclear product direction and a discerning amount of secrecy have caused this to be what sounds like a terrible experience for their team.

“Workflow Hints At The Future Of The Watch As A Computing Platform”

Another post about the Apple Watch, can you tell I’m getting mine soon? I think it’s fascinating to see lightweight workflow scenarios that could really change how we use mobile and wearable computing. IFTTT changed how I used my Android when I first got it and apps like Workflow could open up similar scenarios for the watch platform.

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.

The Friday List at #neato

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A few interesting articles I’ve bumped into this week, curated from my Pocket and shared for your enjoyment. This week was full of good reads on growth strategies, the health benefits of standing desks in elementary schools, and why some men lie about working so much. Happy Friday!

Should Your Kids’ School Have Standing Desks? These CrossFitters Think So

I’ve had a standing desk for eight years and love it. My back, legs, and overall body has felt better compared to when I sat in a chair. Have you ever tried it?

“Why Some Men Pretend to Work 80-Hour Weeks”

This was a really interesting study. I often feel compelled to work as much as possible (read = I enjoy working), but it needs to be my choice. Corporate cultures that prevent you from making that choice can be really damning to overall employee health and productivity.

Google will reportedly let Android developers A/B test apps on Google Play

At Contactive we tried to test our Google Play descriptions but had to do it manually (and sequentially). This will be really helpful for app developers as they can quickly test pricing or description content.

A Founder of Secret, the Anonymous Social App, Is Shutting It Down

I don’t think it’s wrong that the founders took $3M each and bounced out. Isn’t that better than running a company into the ground?