Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Development Process and the Startup

Blog Post #2 - The Startup and Development Process
As a company grows from 10 people to 50 and then to 200, processes have to adapt and complexity grows. The reality is that product managers can get sucked into the whirlwind of trying and figuring out the best development process. Should you be agile? What about this form of agile or that form of agile, sprint lengths, etc. It's very easy to get sucked into this whirlwind of decision making at the expense of other duties.

The Problem
As a company grows rapidly, job responsibilities start to shift to newly hired specialists. Where once you were a project manager, developer, QA are now in your natural state as the roles get filled in with other "experts". The challenge comes from the fact that expectations and responsibility change at different paces, thus resulting in the need for process to overcome confusion. As a product manager who sits in the middle of many processes and departments (marketing, finance, sales, technology, etc.) you often have to fill in the gaps cause by the separation.

  • Tied at the Hip - First you must realize that as a product manager you are tied at the hip with the technology teams. Their success is your success and vice versa. Don't say "It doesn't matter what process they use as long as it gets done". Partner with technology teams try and understand their motivations and needs. Make sure that you are clear what the needs of the product management team and that those are communicated.
  • Mind the pendulum - Technology can have a tendency to dominate the development process discussion and thus creating a lot of burden on other teams. Sometimes those other teams won't be able to handle the weight of this new process and thus they become a constant bottleneck and have frustrated employees. Agile processes have altered a typical product manager's job quite a bit and so be aware of the impacts to roles/responsibilities. Just be aware that the pendulum of burden is equally shared so that there every group is stretching a little bit in order to fill in the gaps (hiring and change do not happen at the same rate). Otherwise, one group becomes a bottleneck and the target of blame...
  • Embrace change - Change is constant in startups and small companies. As a product manager, you have to embrace that change. Change is difficult for everyone. That disconnect between expectations and a changing reality combined with individual insecurities can result in a lot anxieties. Change has to become part of your job. Much like a great product manager has to embrace saying "No" to stakeholders, a great product manager must embrace change. 
  • Have a checkpoint - It is often the tendency to think one and done and once the process is set it will work for a while. That is never the case. Create a checkpoint meeting after 2 sprints (for example) to let folks know that we will not get it right and we should discuss. It also sends a signal to the team that they should be aware of pain points and jot them down so that they can bring it up at the checkpoint. It gives them an avenue for feedback and frustration rather than unhealthily venting to folks.
Just some initial thoughts on the subject...more to come in the blog post series...

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Stepping out of your comfort zone

I recently attended a user conference and hear Peter Shankman encourage the audience to step out of their comfort zone in order to grow. Peter's advice and encouragement really struck a chord with me and made me think of very few times that I have done something new in my career. Something that I  initially had some hesitation or concern, but then I just made a decision to do it. Here are a couple of examples and then a couple of thoughts:
  • Moderating a Panel - I had never moderated a panel at a conference before and when it was suggested that I do that. I quickly said yes (there is a reason for saying yes more about that in the thought section). Afterwards, I had some other things come up and I did want to back out a little bit. But my manager suggested that it would be a good experience for me and I decided to give it a shot. I did some research on moderating best practices. Took some notes about the speakers and questions to start the panel off. 
  • Speaking at a conference - I was offered the opportunity to speak at the Online Marketing Summit (OMS) on behalf of my employer on Email Marketing. I had never done that before so I wanted a day or so to think about it. I thought about all the extra work on top of the extra work I was already doing. My mind was racing about all the ways I could get out of it. But then I thought about the Oliver Wendell Holmes quotation "Man's mind, stretched by a new idea, never goes back to its original dimensions." I decided to give it a shot.
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare! - Whenever you do something new, preparation is always the key to success (even more so when you are doing something new). I would research online, take notes, memorize, and I would start my preparations early. For my talk at OMS, I took the slides and took notes on each one. I added additional information that was not presented on the slide (stories, other stats, etc.). Afterwards, I prepared by giving the presentation (I did it several times) to note the duration and got myself fairly comfortable with it. The practice also helped me come up with new ideas to make the presentation even better. When I gave the presentation, I was vey relaxed. I was walking around (not standing behind the podium) and I was interacting with the audience. It was actually a lot of fun. Being prepared is the key difference between mediocrity and excellence. 
  • Opportunity knocks - As I have progressed in my career, I've done a lot of reading in an attempt to learn. Most of what I read are business related magazines. I came to the realization that career growth happens for two reasons. First, its all about you and your decisions and your decision to take assignments and projects that force you out of your comfort zone. Say yes when asked. But here's the other part. In order to have the opportunity to say yes, you have to be given the opportunity by someone. Someone has to believe enough in you to give that assignment. It takes two to create a market :)
I hope you find this helpful and I wanted to thank Peter Shankman for serving as the catalyst for this blog post. You can learn more about him here:

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Thank You and a Goodbye

The past couple of months have seen quite a transition for me at my job. After the company I worked for was acquired by another company there were significant layoffs and for those who made it through it was a completely different culture and business model.

June 13th marks my last day at my current employer. It will be a sad day as I have worked with so many great people who have sacrificed to bring new products to market and support our customers. We have built, launched, and supported products together and it was fun! I have learned a lot about product management from them. But, the most important lesson I learned is a lesson of being aware of myself enough to begin to self-correct my own behaviors.

Being able to view myself through a lens that begins to match how others view me has been very helpful in that regard. I have my manager to thank for that. From that lesson, I learned that it is not all about me, but rather it is about others and their success. It is not about how I feel, it is about moving forward in a positive and healthy way for both me and the team. It is my hope that I take this lesson to heart.

So I say goodbye to my current coworkers and friends and thank you so much for the time and the lessons learned. They have made me a better person and hopefully, I made their hours at work more productive and fun!

Soon, I will start a new journey with a new company and I know that I still have a lot to learn and I'm excited to take the next step in my career. 

5 Tips for your Job Search & Interview

So over the past couple of months I have been exploring some new options for my career and I was and here are some of my lessons learned as I have navigated interviews and job offers.

So here are some of the tips I'd like to share that I learned and thought about:
  1. Don't get too caught up in titles - Titles vary greatly from company to company, depending on the size company and its culture. While a fancy title is great, I would recommend focusing on the learning, experience, and potential for growth. Titles are also something that is negotiable, but they are less important than your responsibility.
  2. Don't ask too many questions during the interview - It is always best to get a list of who will be interviewing me in order for me to list out questions ahead of time to ask them based on their role. However, be aware that asking too many questions about the company's business model, etc. may make it appear that you lack a depth of knowledge and that bringing you on may require a steeper learning curve that the company is looking for. At the end of the day,  just be aware that like many other things in life - quality is more important than quantity.
  3. Explore your network - This applies both pre-offer and post-offer. Use your network to inquire about potential opportunities and companies. Once you get an offer, leverage their inside knowledge and viewpoints to help you make the right decision. Job decisions are often inflection points in your career and shouldn't be taken likely. Seek advice.
  4. Take Your Time - Don't accept your job offer too quickly. Take some time to think about it. If a company is rushing you or you feel rushed don't move too quickly. Any company that really wants you will understand that and give you time. It also takes time to think about the advice and perspective you get in tip #3.
  5. Know Thyself - Ultimately the decision to accept an offer maybe very easy or it may be very difficult. Either way the decision lies with you. What is that you really want? Think about that answer and then keep asking why do you want that? Dig deeper. For example, if you want a fancy title, why do you want that? Is it that you prefer to manage people or get exposure to executives? Perhaps there are other ways to accomplish those goals, but you wouldn't even know that had you not dug a bit deeper. Just think about what you really want.
 And here's a quick bonus tip (since you have read down this far)

  • I like to ask for a tour of the office. This should be part of the interview anyway, but in case it is not, ask for it. I like to get a sense of the company's culture outside of the interview process. For example, is it really quiet or are there a lot of discussions happening? Does it look like folks are engaging with each other? Are the cubes/offices decorated? Are people smiling? It's just an intangible way to get a "feel" for the place. If you do get an offer and accept it, you'll at least have a picture in your head of what the place is like. 

Just some "off the cuff" thoughts....

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Startup CEO and Product Management

Product Management is a unique and challenging discipline, but working in product management at a startup is a bit of a different beast. I've always thought about writing a short book about product management at startups (or smaller companies), but instead I'll write some blog posts in an effort to see if I have enough strong content to aggregate into a book (let me know what you think).

Blog Post #1 - The Startup CEO
The Startup CEO - The startup CEO has sacrificed to build their company. This company is often times the embodiment of years of sacrifice and passion. This personal investment gives them a unique perspective as they have grown the company. The CEO role changes as a company grows from a single person who has to dig into the details across many details in the beginning, to a CEO that makes capital and investment allocation decisions at the product and strategic investment level.

The Challenge
I've seen startup CEO's get a little bit too full of themselves. I've seen them wear t-shirts that say things like "I'm the CEO, You shut up". As that new product manager trying to help your company create a more scalable development process (more on that in another blog post), you are also faced with a CEO who thinks they know everything and aren't afraid to talk directly to developers to get their request done.

Product Management is a fairly broad role. For some companies, it is simply writing requirements (or user stories) and then working with technology to implement. For others, product management is a broad role that drives the vision, roadmap, strategy, and business metrics for the product. The reality is that product management in a small company is all the former and very little of the latter. In fact, I've never been at a startup/small company where product management didn't initially report into the technology organization. You have to have developers to write software in order to launch your startup. Product managers are not required. Furthermore, the CEO isn't used to going through product management to get new features out the door, they are interested in making the current customers happy and attracting new ones.

The Tips
  • Realize and Accept - Trying to fight it and get frustrated will not help you. You have to realize and accept the fact that the CEO has invested a lot more time and effort in the company than you have. Try and figure out if there are other features that customers are looking for or the market is expecting. Perhaps there is a tweak or minor use case or feature that can be easily added to expand the CEO's request.
  • Understand the CEO's history - It is always helpful for me to understand the past experience of the CEO, just to try and get a better feel of how they may approach their work, etc. Do they have a strong marketing/sales background or is it more of a product/technology background? Understanding this will help you in communicating and influencing the CEO regarding features and roadmap.
  • Use Data and Testing - Hopefully your CEO is open to data and customer feedback. Try prototyping the feature and getting initial customer feedback to help shape your perspective and influence the CEO. For example, if your CEO insists that the tab that contains all of the analytics usage of your application is called "Dashboard", but your customers interpret the word "Dashboard" to mean something completely different than analytics usage, you may be able to convince the CEO that this would confuse your customers. CEOs should have a maniacal focus on the customer, so data from customers should increase your ability to influence your CEO.
This blog post is really just me sharing my thoughts on a spur of moment, but if you like it, then I'll continue with a series of blog posts of product management at startups/small companies. Feel free to share your advice, who knows it may show up in a book one day (with proper attribution!).