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?

Earning Your Customer’s Trust: Act Like Their Butcher

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My grandfather, Antonio Affronti – known affectionately as Poppa Tony to my siblings and I – immigrated from Italy to the U.S. with his family when he was 19 years old. This was back in the late 1940’s when most of Brooklyn, NY, was empty lots, small shops, and a lot of immigrants from all over Europe living in tiny apartments with their families. In the early 1960’s my grandfather and his brothers, entrepreneurs in the truest sense, opened a small Italian-style butcher shop on Smith Street in Brooklyn called Los Paisanos Meat Market.

Paisanos started out simply: when the shop first opened they kept sawdust on the floor to absorb blood and liquids that dripped during butchering, and my grandfather would smoke Te-Amo cigars behind the counter while working (no joke). Like most entrepreneurs at the time they didn’t write down (or even think of) a policy for how to treat customers, they had no formal plans for how to grow the business, nor did they have to worry about Yelp reviews or complaints on Twitter.

A simple truth, however, was readily apparent to them: as a small retail business, your customers’ loyalty and trust in you and your product is the most important asset you can ever have. In 1965 they definitely did not have CRM tools, retention metrics, or even SendGrid (how did they get by?!). Instead they focused on having good conversations ‘over the counter’ as their customers ordered their food and shared a bit about their lives. Even when the store was packed and the line was outside the door, my grandfather and his staff always took the time to ask each customer questions like “How’s your family?”, “Did you take that trip?”, or “Is your son’s leg doing better?” These are not your “How’s the weather?” questions, these are the type of questions that demonstrate genuine caring and interest and ultimately increase loyalty and trust.

In the early ‘90s my father, Mike, took over Los Paisanos from my grandfather and has been running the business full-time ever since. His extensive background in retail shops, incredible attention to detail, and his love of meeting new people made him uniquely suited to run such a customer-driven business. Don’t worry, though, about Poppa Tony. He is 85 years old and still drives to the shop on Sundays to spend time behind the counter and to say hi to his favorite customers.

It’s 2015 and Paisanos Butcher Shop is still there now, standing proudly as one of the oldest family-owned business in Brooklyn and enjoying a loyal following of customers made up of local Brooklynites, Manhattanites who used to be Brooklynites, and even a few celebrities (who I believe are all Brooklynites). If you’re in town and around the neighborhood you should stop by; ask for the Paisanos Sandwich and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

My father has worked tirelessly to expand Paisanos over the years. It now includes a large wholesale operation that services many of the restaurants in Brooklyn and south Manhattan, and a new burger joint called “The Butcher Burger” that is inside the Barclay’s Center. This expansion and innovation has required some changes away from old habits, like the disappearance of the sawdust on the floor and the fact that the shop does not have a smoking section anymore. They have a computerized point of sale system, several accountants and bookkeepers, QuickBooks, and the requisite Yelp, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. Paisanos embraced technology in order to stay relevant, increase revenues, and grow its business.

I encourage you to walk into Paisanos sometime, lean against the wall, and just listen to the conversations that happen over the counter. I was there this week picking up some steaks and walked in on my father talking to a customer who, based on the conversation, had recently broken up with his girlfriend and was discussing the fallout with him. My father listened and shared some thoughts that were half “toughen up” and half “you’ll be okay” in their guidance, all while clearly showing they were friendly and that this customer trusted him. I reflected that this scene demonstrated my father’s Rolodex-like ability to remember almost every important personal fact and detail about the customers he talks with. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s not a salesman’s trick nor something he has to work that hard at; he genuinely cares and listens to his customers in every interaction he can. This level of conversation and caring has resulted in a strong 5-star rating on Yelp and glowing reviews of the staff at Paisanos. Along the way this slogan made its way onto the signage at Paisanos: “We treat you the way we want to be treated.”

I never went into the butcher business. Truth be told, the site of blood makes me kinda weak in the knees and I have focused my assistance on the technology and business sides of the house. Throughout my career in technology, whether at Microsoft during an Executive Briefing Session with a company, or at Klink when my CEO and I were hand-pitching our early customers, I have always remembered the examples my grandfather and father showed me time and time again: be genuine, get to know your customers, and you’ll earn their trust.

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Crossfit & Startups Are Basically The Same Thing

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“Leave all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading. I will rather say more necessary because health is worth more than learning.” — Thomas Jefferson

I was recently at a startup event here in NYC and was having a great conversation with a random set of folks. We all started shaking hands in preparation of splitting up, ready to charge forward and continue networking with other people. I extend my hand to one of the woman to shake goodbye and instead she says, “Sorry, I can’t shake hands right now. I hurt mine this morning.” She turns her hand over and reveals a set of band-aids over the top part of her palm. I smile and ask “What was the workout?”, while quickly turning over my hands to show my chewed up palms and the scars of a few old but nasty tears.

We both laughed and spent a few more minutes talking about Crossfit; what our boxes (home gyms) were like, the communities there, and which movements we hated the most (her = burpees, me = rowing). It’s not the first time I’ve met a fellow Crossfitter at a startup event, and it made me reflect on the similarities between Crossfit and the actual experience of being in a startup.

Some context: I do love me some Crossfit. I can talk for hours about it because it’s something I’m passionate about and it makes me happy. I’ve been doing it for almost six years now, having worked out with Eric and Nadia at the awesome Crossfit Belltown in Seattle for many moons, then joining the very hip Crossfit South Brooklyn when we moved back to New York last year. I’ve always been an athlete through soccer, swimming, and generally being a gym rat for as long as I can remember. I love it so much I even became a personal trainer and group exercise instructor at Boston Sports Club while I was in college (I taught a pretty mean cardio kickboxing class).

So what, then, does the Venn diagram of Crossfit and a startup look like from my perspective? Here we go.

1. Efficiency and productivity.

Crossfit is intentionally intense. It’s based on the premise of high-intensity work done over short periods of time (“intervals”), meant to maximize the benefit of the exercise. I go for one hour a day, five days a week, and always feel great because I know I was as effective as possible in getting my workout in. The same set of folks go to my 6am class almost every morning and many of them are now good friends of mine. We cheer each other on while pushing each other to work as hard as possible. The unique “Workout of the Day” is always different than the prior day and never lets you feel like you’re being repetitive.

To me it feels exactly like working in a startup: every day at work is different than the last, I often work super hard for intense sprints of time, and I could never get anything done without the support of my team.

2. The right kind of competition.

My friends Peter, Brad, and I are always racing against each other in our 6am workouts. We know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, so when we’re planning out how to approach a workout we share tips and then a few taunts to push each other. The coolest part? You’re never really competing with your friends (unless you’re doing a competition), you’re pushing and competing with yourself. Whoa, #meta. Your community at Crossfit, like your team at work, are your support systems for setting personal goals and working super friggin’ hard (see point 4) to achieve them.

3. It’s all in the data.

We use an dizzying array of technology at Klink to monitor our products and users, making sure we know everything about their experience via the telemetry that gets reported to us. Combined with the fact that we are a big data company building customer intelligence solutions, and you would be correct in saying that my work is full of data. The goal is to always make measurable progress with our products and our customers.

We similarly track everything at Crossfit: how long it took to do a workout or how many reps you got, how much weight you squatted or how many pull-ups you did. There’s an important belief in the Crossfit system that you can’t improve if you don’t keep track of how you’re doing, so I use an app called MyWOD to monitor my progress and refer back to it each week as I’m planning my strategy for the different workouts.

4. It’s friggin hard.

I like to do things to the max. Crossfit workouts typically have a concept of a ‘prescribed weight’, meaning the maximum recommended weight to use. I almost always use that weight and almost always finish the workout in time (or with high reps, etc.). Yet every couple of workouts, like the 4x4x4 one from mid-January, I get completely crushed. For that one I had to lower the weight from the prescribed amount and still finished over 2min past the 10min time cap – it was one of the hardest workouts I’ve done in months. The thing that got me through it? My entire 6am class surrounded me as I pushed through the last set and cheered me when I finished (and promptly collapsed onto the floor).

Super-hard challenges requiring a ton of personal effort and the support of a team to finish? See “Working at the office until 2am on a financial model due the next morning”, or the always fun “Dogfooding a hotfix all-day on a Sunday so you can fix an urgent customer bug”.  Every week at work there’s always a day or two that feels like that 4x4x4 workout: it requires an all-out effort from everyone on the team, everyone works past the clock, and no one does it alone.

Are you a Crossfitter? What’s your favorite workout?

Dressing The Part

“People still make assumptions about us based on irrelevant things like clothing and mannerisms… and height and weight and age and gender and ethnicity and tons of other qualities and attributes that have absolutely no bearing on a person’s performance.”

I read this great post by Jeff Haden on LinkedIn, “Does How You Dress and Look Impact Your Career? Sadly, Yes“, and wanted to share my own thoughts and a classic pic, thanks Mom for finding it:

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Junior high school prom, circa 1999

I remember it clearly: It was my first year at Microsoft right out of college and I was still rockin’ my blond spiked hair, earrings, and goatee. I went to my first customer event where we were meeting with C-level execs and wound up sitting down next to my VP. He turns to me and says “Wow, two earrings, huh?” Almost immediately I went to the restroom, took out the earrings, and have not worn them since.

I’m a proud supporter of individualism at work across every domain, from personality to attire to organizational styles. Working with such broadly different personalities over the years has given me some of the most rewarding experiences as a leader and contributed immensely to my personal growth.

I love working in technology for a number of reasons, one of them being its support of individualism across so many of those important domains. For me, it’s great to be able to rock flip-flops and shorts at work on a lava-hot day in NYC. At the same time, I agree with the author’s point that you have sometimes have to dress the part: either for a role you aspire to have, or for a customer you’re talking to. Today we’re meeting with a client in the financial services industry, so I’m sans flip-flops and am ready in my corporate gear (slacks + button down + blazer) to ensure my attire doesn’t get in the way of our conversation.

Book Thoughts: “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” by Peter Thiel

“A definite view, by contrast, favors firm convictions. Instead of pursuing many -sided mediocrity and calling it “well-roundedness,” a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it.” 

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Thiel, Peter; Masters, Blake (2014-09-16). Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Last week I read Peter Thiel’s book “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” (Amazon link). It was a surprisingly easy but very engaging read. It’s sometimes difficult to find inspiration in business books, but Thiel’s background and stories are clear, understandable, and inspiring (at least for me).

Amy and I don’t have kids and neither of us are in school, but I am eternally fascinated by how the U.S. education system is evolving (or not, depending on your perspective), and how it impacts the U.S.’s ability to innovate. Thiel’s hypothesis that our education systems somewhat systematic production of “generalists” feeds our overall corporate and government cultures’ aversion to risk. Having a broad-based education is important to encourage and drive critical thinking, but I wonder if parents (and schools) encourage their students enough to pick one area they love and to go super deep in them, relative to all possible ‘broad’ areas.

I also really enjoyed the depth of his analysis about the cleantech bubble, and how he used it to support his points about building scalable, defensible business that also have a chance to make a lasting, global impact.

4/5 stars.

Link

I remember it clearly: It was my first year at Microsoft right out of college and I was still rockin’ my blond spiked hair, earrings, and goatee. I went to my first customer event where we were meeting with C-level execs and wound up sitting down next to my VP. He turns to me and says “Wow, two earrings, huh?” Almost immediately I went to the restroom, took out the earrings, and have not worn them since.

I’m a proud supporter of individualism at work across every domain, from personality to attire to organization styles. Working with such broadly different personalities over the years has given me some of the most rewarding experiences as a leader and contributed immensely to my personal growth.

I love working in technology for a number of reasons, one of them being its support of individualism across so many of those important domains. For me, it’s great to be able to rock flip-flops and shorts at work on a lava-hot day in NYC. At the same time, I agree with the author’s point that you have sometimes have to dress the part: either for a role you aspire to have, or for a customer you’re talking to. Today we’re meeting with a client in the financial services industry, so I’m sans flip-flops and am ready in my corporate gear (slacks+button down+blazer) to ensure my attire doesn’t get in the way of our conversation.

Does How You Dress and Look Impact Your Career? Sadly, Yes