February 6, 2013

Highlights & Tips from The State of Product Management Event

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
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

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

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  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

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


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. 

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.


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

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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