Highlights & Tips from The State of Product Management Event

Thursday Feb 7, 2013 by Greg Rublev - Founder & CEO, LeanWagon

Last week, in a boisterous and packed room at the CIC, the heart of Boston's Kendall square startup epicenter, a group of 130+ product managers got together for a panel discussion on The State of Product Management

Having seen many sleep-inducing panels in the past, I was optimistic that VentureFizz and General Assembly could put together a dynamic group of product management experts, so I got a seat in the front row and paid close attention.

After a brief yet informative opening by the organizers, an energetic, thoughtful and clearly well prepared Rob Go of NextView Ventures kicked things off with some jokes and introductions of the panelists: Ravi Mehta of TripAdvisor, Sam Clemens of InsightSquared, Shereen Shermak of BuysideFX and Mike Putnam of Rue La La.  The ensuing discussion was insightful, spirited and thought provoking. 

Here are a few highlights and analysis based on my hastily taken scribbles:

What are the top product management trends?

Agile Development: fast, iterative development using scrum methodology. This is old news to many PMs, but not to everyone, especially in older and bigger companies that still use waterfall.  This makes it harder to hire a good PM in Boston.

Customer Development: fast, iterative learning about customer needs. This is a newer trend and is starting to be embraced in both B2C and B2B.  Product managers are spending less time building the product, e.g. wireframing, and more time getting feedback and planning user experiments.  

Design: emphasis on usability and design in both enterprise and consumer applications.  The bar is being set higher and higher, and product managers are expected to produce products that meet or exceed the rising standard of good design and usability. 

How do you get customer feedback?

The key is don't be in office!  Shereen suggested synchronous development - create wireframes, show to customers and modify them "in the van" before the next meeting.  Videotaping is important, as it can easily resolve any disagreements "back home."  Sam agreed "Sit on their lap!!!!", adding that after talking to 6 customers, you are likely to see major patterns and diminishing returns on your effort.  To be sure, stop at 12.  For consumer-facing sites, Ravi suggested using a tool like usertesting.com.  Rob summarized it well: "Insight from observation.  Magic."

What makes a great product manager?

  • Passion for the problem you are trying to solve.
  • Thick skin - you are the crucible where many opposing forces meet. 
  • Ability to achieve balance.  For example an MVP must be both "minimal" and "viable".
  • Creative.
  • Analytical.
  • Middle children.  Strike compromises.  Put themselves in people's shoes.

Highlighted Ideas

Mean Time to Fix

There is a shift from "mean time to failure" mindset to "mean time to fix".  As opposed to optimizing for overall development speed, the company is optimizing for getting the minimal viable product into the customer hands to get early feedback and make the first set of fixes.  Good product organizations are getting the product development and customer feedback loops to be as efficient and in sync as possible.

Prioritization

With multiple stakeholders and limited resources, a PM must balance competing priorities.  One tactic is to create separate feature queues for each stake holder, allocate fixed amount of resources to each one and allow them to prioritize within their own list.  This provides them with a sense of ownership of the priorities and the insight into what is getting worked on and when. 

Scaling Product Management

According to Ravi, it is quite possible!  The key is for the large company to act like a small one.  At TripAdvisor product development is done iteratively by small independent groups.   Every engineer is full stack and can implement a feature in its entirety.  There are weekly product spec reviews, which allows everyone to be in sync and an opportunity to offer feedback and raise concerns.  The nice thing about being in a big company is that new features can be rolled out to small audiences first to get initial data without hurting the bottom line.

Responsive Design

Tom talked about the importance of thinking through how the product you are creating will work on various platforms and designing an optimal experience for each without writing a lot of extra code.  This is possible with responsive design and careful planning on the part of the product manager. 

Mobile Business Models

In addition to design and technical challenges, mobile has very unique business model challenges.  You can't engage the consumer the same way you can on the web.  Acquisition opportunities are different.  App store success is key and positive user reviews are critical.  Monetization is also different.  Think thorough all the pieces of the model before you make the decision on your mobile strategy. 

Judging from the number of audience questions and the energy in the room after the event, most people in attendance got a ton of great ideas for how they could improve their own and their team performance.  This illustrates how product management is a fast-changing field and a powerful career choice.  It is challenging, exciting and rewarding to those that have a passion for a particular customer problem and have the audacity of using new ideas and technology to solve it. 

Greg Rublev is the founder and CEO of a LeanWagon, a health and wellness startup.  You can find additional content, on his blog IfYouBuild.  You can also follow Greg on Twitter (@grublev) by clicking here.

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