Product Hero: Janna Bastow

by C. Todd Lombardo

Janna-Bastow

Janna Bastow has spent her career making product managers look like rockstars. She’s co-founder of the largest product management community in the world. Mind the Product runs local meet-up groups in over 70 cities and two annual flagship events of over 1,200 attendees each. If that’s not enough, she’s co-founder and CEO of ProdPad, a product management software company that helps craft product roadmaps. After college Janna began working as a customer service rep at a tech company. She was thrown into the world of product overnight because of her customer-centric attitude and technical promise. That strong ability to connect with customers and harness their insights is the common thread of why ProdPad and Mind the Product have seen great success and continue to grow. Janna is a real champion of the product world. She’s fearless, forward-thinking, community focused, and an intent listener. It’s those reasons why Janna Bastow is a Product Hero.

I had a chance to speak with Janna about her career journey so far, the product management community, and got some advice about building product roadmaps. Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.


C. Todd: I am here with Janna Bastow, the co-founder of ProdPad, also of the successful Mind the Product Conference. Janna, welcome!

Janna: Hi, thanks for having me.

C. Todd: Great. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about you, your background, and maybe some fun things about what makes you, you.

Janna: Sure, absolutely. You gave the high level there, that I’m co-founder of both ProdPad and Mind the Product. I can give a little bit of background on where they actually came from. It was myself and my co-founder, Simon. We were just friends, six years ago now, and we were lamenting about the fact that no one was building product management tools. I had this idea, I brought it to him and he said, “Well, that would be easy. I could do the backend for this.” I said, “Great, I could do the front end,” and it started off as a hack weekend project that we’re still working on. It’s still being put together. Around that same time, we were saying, “Where are all the meetups for product managers?” I wanted to meet other people like us and started something alongside Martin Erickson that was a tiny little get together of product people that’s just grown and grown since then.

C. Todd: Cool. ProdPad, tell me a little bit more about that. It sounded like it started as a hack weekend project for product managers, but as I look at what your site is and your product itself, it doesn’t seem like it’s a hack weekend project anymore.

Janna: Well, when it first started off, it didn’t even have a name, or it did have a name and it was terrible. We’re not going to get into that. It was something that we used internally only. We used the tool to help us do our own jobs and it was actually only after a couple of years of building it that we realized that what we had was worth getting out there. Basically it was a tool to gather ideas and feedback from customers, prioritize it to figure if you might have some quick wins in there or some big projects to chew on, as well as make a roadmap to outline where you are now and where you’re going, and then connect it with tools like JIRA and Trello and Pivotal Tracker and stuff like that.

Now, what it started off with was just a really basic version of that, but when we launched it out there to other product managers that’s when we really started learning the best practices and how people use tools like this. It’s really evolved since then.

C. Todd: Wonderful, wonderful. That’s cool. We’ll talk a little bit more about product roadmapping later on, but tell me, how did you make your way into product management?

Janna: I guess you could say I did it completely by accident, like most other product people. My backstory was that I’d always dabbled in a little bit of coding and whatnot as a kid. My first job out of college was as a customer support rep – basically on the phone helping out customers. It was for a tech platform, but this company never actually had product people. One day my boss pulled me to one side and said he liked the way that I reported bugs and that I was good with working with the customers and basically said, “We’d like to make you a junior product manager.” I was like, “That’s great. What is it?” I had no idea.

C. Todd: There weren’t any senior product managers in the company?

Janna: No, there weren’t. They actually talked to one of the senior developers, plucked him out, made him a senior product manager, and plucked me out of customer support and made me junior product manager. Put the two of us together and that was the first product team this company had seen. This was a ten-year-old, IPO’d tech company that had more than 300 people that never had an actual product person. It was quite the task to take over and a lot of it was just starting off by Googling stuff like, “What is a product manager” and “How do I do a product spec or a roadmap” or things like this.

C. Todd: What are some of the biggest challenges that you currently face working on and growing your product and navigating the landscape for your product?

Janna: We’ve got a really interesting product. Our users are awesome. They’re product managers and it does mean that anybody who does use ProdPad generally has a sense of humor in line with the product development process and are generally pretty good at giving feedback and understanding what sort of things we might be working on and why…but there’s always this increasing challenge of making sure that you’re building something that’s useful for the people who just joined up 30 seconds ago, as well as useful for the people who’ve been using ProdPad for several years now. A lot of the companies who are using ProdPad are a lot bigger, get a lot more use out of it, and are much more advanced than even we are at using ProdPad. We are trying to build something that makes sense for all of our types of users even as they change, in a product management field that is changing, while the minimal expectations for collaboration apps are changing. Nowadays everyone wants it to be real time, and offline mode, and translated to their language, and all these other minimum requirements. We’re just constantly trying to keep up with that and make sure that we’re building the right thing.

C. Todd: How often does your team get out and talk to your end users?

Janna: We’ve got a few ways of talking to our customers. We’re always accessible through the app itself. One thing we’ve actually started, this is just a new thing that we started a few months ago, but we’ve actually now got a Slack group just for our customers. It’s called ProdPad Talk and anybody who’s one of our customers gets an invite. It’s 100 or so people right now and it just means that we’ve got a place to talk directly to our customers. They’ve got a direct line to us, but we also do things like throw links to some mock ups or some ideas in there or ask everybody in the group, say, “Hey could everybody take a screenshot of your settings page, we want to see what you did with it.” Then it gets people talking about how they’ve configured it and what their workflow is and what their best practices are with the tool itself. That’s really useful.

C. Todd: How do you, as ProdPad and a product owner there, how do you make a product roadmap for your team? You already talked a little bit about prioritization and matching up the vision, so walk me through how that works.

Janna: Yep, sure. Before we look at doing any changes to the roadmap, we always make sure that we’re completely aligned with the product vision itself. At that point in time, what we basically do is say, “Okay if we want to be the X of Y, then these are the big steps we’re going to have to take along the way to get there.” Sometimes they’ll be really nebulous things. We’ll know that we need to tackle X or Y and that may be something that we don’t see happening in the near future, but we definitely see it as being part of our story going forward.

Then the stuff that’s going to be much more defined, we already know what’s coming up next and so these will make it onto the roadmap as lower scope or smaller scope, more defined types of initiatives. Essentially, we try to outline them in terms of the problems we are going to be solving along the way. We’re not necessarily saying we’re going to do X or provide X functionality, but we are simply saying we know that this is an issue or it’s going to be an issue that we’re going to take away. Let’s outline that and set some sort of objective or KPI that’s important to our company.

C. Todd: Got it. Can you maybe provide an example: Here’s the vision for ProdPad, here’s the thing that’s the problem we want to solve next, and here’s how that ties to an objective, the company objective or product objective that you’re trying, or KPI?

Janna: Yep. Let’s take one, for example, we know that – and we’re already seeing this trend – we know that we’re going to be aiming for larger and larger companies and we’re seeing product functions in companies growing and maturing. We’re looking to build the product to continue to meet this new area for us. For example, we know that a lot of people have been asking for the ability to report upwards to their board and to their bosses. We’re seeing more people who are in the role of chief product officer, for example, and so we’re looking for these really high level reports and ways of cutting up the data.

Now, to us, we know that we’re going to have to provide some sort of custom reporting, some sort of way of cutting into the data and getting this information. That’s on our roadmap. That’s something that we know we’re going to have to tackle, but at the same time we haven’t really got down to the point of coming up with a list of things that those reports are definitely going to include. We’ve got some ideas. We’ve got some feedback we’ve tied to it, but we haven’t got to the point of spec’ing it out because, frankly, it could be months away before we even start looking at anything like that in detail.

C. Todd: That’s great, fantastic. Let’s talk a little bit about product managers. Where do they struggle in making a roadmap? Where do they fall down?

Janna: The biggest place where I see roadmaps falling down is when people start putting concrete dates on them. There’s a big misconception about what a roadmap is and isn’t. I see it as it’s an artifact that communicates the direction you’re going to be going to meet that product vision. It is a completely separate document, or it should be a completely separate document, from say the release plan which outlines what’s being launched and when and who’s working on what. They’re both valid documents, but when people try to combine them together, you end up with essentially a Gantt chart with a bunch of made up dates stretching out from not just the first one or two quarters that you probably can plan for, but beyond that, Q3, Q4, 2017. I always point out to people that you don’t know how big your company’s going to be by December, let alone how fast you’re going to be able to deliver.

C. Todd: Cool. Given that, how do you think that has also changed the product management community, and especially in your area, given that you’ve got some visibility with the products?

Janna: The product community in my area – I guess I could talk about two different cities here. I’m actually based just outside of London, but the main product community I’m part of is, of course, the Mind the Product community which started off in London. Five, six years ago when we started this thing, we weren’t sure if there were even 30 product managers in London, let alone whether we could get them all in the same room. Little did we know, they were coming out of the woodwork. We now know that there’s thousands of them in the city. London’s got a really developed, really mature product community and a really close-knit community as well.

I’m actually based in Brighton which is due south of London, directly on the south coast of the UK, about an hour outside of the city. It’s actually got its own community itself. We’ve got a small product tank here and we get about a hundred people there every month, but it’s really a unique city because there’s more digital companies here per capita than anywhere else in the UK. There’s more people who are self-employed and it’s got one of the best front end design, UX, marketing, writing, and artistic communities that we’ve ever seen. We’re famous for it. It’s really great to be among this community because we know that the product people here all have this appreciation for great products, great design, that sort of thing.

C. Todd: What are some of your thoughts about how to start measuring a product manager’s efficacy? What are some of the things you’d start thinking about trying to do?

Janna: That’s actually a really tough one and I’m listening and learning as much as I can on this because I actually don’t know the answer. One of the problems with measuring a product manager, and how it differs from other functions, is that … Sales, it’s easy to measure. You can see the dollar return and you can incentivize based on that. With development, you can measure how long it takes to build stuff. You’ve got standard quantities like story points and there’s certain ways of cutting things down to understand what’s working and what’s not working. With marketing, you can measure based on return on campaigns and things like that.

With product, because product is playing in between all these different roles and they’re in the middle of everything, but not necessarily accountable for any one thing, it’s hard to say that you are a good product manager or a bad product manager because your product failed. It might be that the pricing was entirely wrong and the sales people weren’t selling it right or it was built quite badly or whatever else. Likewise with a good product, you don’t necessarily know that a good product had a good single product manager behind it. It could have been that the development team was able to build something great without the direction. It’s really hard to pin any sort of measurable outcome directly on the product manager that they’re not dependent on somebody else for.

C. Todd: Tell me a story about when you completely fell flat on your face as product manager. What are the biggest mistakes that you’ve made, whether at your current company or former company? You can change the names to protect the innocent.

Janna: So many, so many. I guess one. I can harp back to some of the really early days of ProdPad. It was built by myself and my co-founder. We were both product managers and so we figured that what we were building was going to be useful for us and, therefore, it must be useful for other product managers because they’re just like us. Our biggest mistake was assuming that we knew our market and that we were our market. Now, what we realized was that we were just two people with our specific way of working, and that our way of working did not gel with how other people worked.

We ended up throwing out months and months of work. We built an entire roadmap module that was based on the wrong premise. We ended up having to throw the whole thing out and start again from scratch. It was only once we started actually listening to our customers and realized that they’ve all got their takes, they’ve all got different ways of working, that’s when we actually started getting some attention and some traction with the product.

C. Todd: Got it. Alright, so last question for the day. Obviously, you’re talking about learning and growing and so if there’s one thing that you could learn at the snap of a finger and you’d suddenly have this particular knowledge, what would that be? It could be how to cook a great steak or how to make a great Shepard’s pie. It could be anything.

Janna: Okay, that’s a good one. If I could learn one thing right now, I’d probably go for something really left field, because a lot of stuff you can just learn online and continually work at. If I could snap my fingers, it would be awesome to be a pro athlete or a pro musician or something like and just earn that skill instantly because I know that takes decades and I just don’t have time for that.

C. Todd: Which sport or which instrument?

Janna: Oh god, I don’t know. I did try guitar. I did have a guitar for a few years and I got good enough to not get booed off the stage, but not to any sort of level that I’d happily take it out and show my skills to people. That’s for sure. If I’m looking for more applicable skills, I’ve got a good design eye, I can see nice design, but I can’t for the life of me make good design. You see some people put together beautiful pieces and you’re like, “How you do know to do that?” I’d love to be able to pick up on that. Even to just have good handwriting would be useful.

C. Todd: Cool. Well, Janna Bastow, this has been a fantastic session and you are a product hero. Thank you for spending some time with us here at Fresh Tilled Soil. We appreciate it.

Janna: Thanks. Thanks so much for having me. Take care.

C. Todd: Alright, take care.

Interview notes:

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About C. Todd Lombardo

C. Todd is a leader who wears many hats, all at once: Author, designer, scientist, professor, and visualizer.  After originally beginning his career...