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What We Learned From 30 Top Product Professionals

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We often find ourselves surrounded by inspiring product and design leaders who are dedicated to delivering exceptional, user-centric products to the world. A little over a year ago we embarked on a bi-weekly journey to learn from and showcase some of these amazing leaders. We started a blog and podcast series called Product Hero.

After 30 interviews we decided it was time to press pause on the recorder and see what we’ve learned from their collective wisdom. Check it out on SlideShare below:


NOTE: You can check out all of our Product Heros here.

Background

We set out to line up conversations with a diverse group of product and design leaders. And that’s what we got – a broad cross section of backgrounds, years of experience, companies, and industries. Most are product leaders but some run design and user experience for their organizations.

While the level of education is pretty uniform, all with bachelor’s degrees and higher, the area of study differs significantly. There is no formal school, major or degree for product leaders, but most consider this a strength of the role as it brings in people from different backgrounds.

As is often the case, the two most common backgrounds are engineering/development and business/marketing. Many consider these backgrounds beneficial where problem-solving and analytical skills are concerned. Engineering backgrounds in particular can help product leaders establish credibility with development teams, especially for very technical products. But other areas of study can prove just as relevant. A biology degree, for example, teaches you to think of products scientifically, as systems that are comprised of a bunch of complex parts. Vocal performance was one of the more interesting and yet very relevant product leader backgrounds. More on that below. What’s common in all of these cases is that the leaders’ background fuels their capacity to have empathy for the user. Who better to understand and empathize with clinicians, for example, than a product manager with a clinical background?

Experience

Our cross section of product leaders have many years of experience with almost half more than ten years into their role. Companies pay recruiters handsomely to find that one unicorn with the right educational background, years of segment-specific experience, and excellent analytical and communication skills as a product leader. But it’s reasonable to ask whether this experience really matters? Even more specifically, does domain experience matter?

One product leader, David Cancel, doesn’t think so. And his point is a good one. Companies and products, especially in the digital realm, are changing faster than ever before. So it’s your capacity to learn and adapt as a product leader that matters more than years of experience. Indeed most of our Heroes highlight the importance of having a customer-focused mindset and extreme curiosity over domain-specific experience or technical ability/background. Why? Ask ten people for a definition of product management and you are likely to get ten different definitions. The role is very different from company-to-company. I myself have been responsible for many different functions and tasks over the years at different companies, all while holding the very same title of “product manager.”

Getting Started in Product

I once asked a “local” skier at Vail if he was from the area. His response, in a stereotypical laid back twang was  “Naw, dude. Nobody’s actually FROM Vail, man.”

The same (ok, similar) can be said of product leaders. None of them actually started in product. They ended up there, in some cases almost by accident, as a result of their curiosity, their focus on the user, and a relentless desire to ask more questions about not only how people were using products and why and the bigger business problem.

Some of the most unique paths to product include vocal performance, emergency medical technician and clinical social worker.

Vanessa Ferranto studied architecture and ultimately graduated with a degree in vocal performance. “The background in architecture gave me the mindset to continually think about form, function and the ways in which someone will experience a space. Music prepared me in a lot of ways for product management through character research, period analysis, and team collaboration. You have to be very aware of your music partners – listen carefully to one another, and know how each person is contributing to the performance. Between the two disciplines, there’s a natural correlation with user experience, product and technology.”

Nate Walkingshaw started out as an EMT, which allowed him to see and experience a problem in the field, as an end user, that he thought needed a solution. “All of these products have been invented for taking care of the patient, but we just forgot about the dude who’s actually taking care of other human beings.” He had a natural empathy for his patients, and he learned empathy for the end user.

Karen Tirozzi started as a clinical social worker who made the switch to product because her company “was looking for people that understood clinicians’ work flows, and since I was part of care team, that was the conduit for me to go over to this technology team.” As an end user herself, she understood the workflow, challenges, and needs.

The Skills Required

The notion that product managers are NOT the CEO of the product is finally gaining traction. While they may ultimately have responsibility for the success or failure of their product, they do not often have the final say. Further, they are typically not the expert. Instead, they are charged with coordinating, convincing, and leading a team of experts including engineers, designers, marketers, and sales to name a few. Product leaders must bridge the gap between these experts all while having influence without authority. The important skills highlighted by our Heroes included:

  • Empathy. It’s important to care about what you’re building and who it’s for; empathy needs to be present from the top, in designing the experience, through product management, and down to the developers.
  • Extreme curiosity. Product leaders must have the curiosity to ask the right questions, to discover their customers’ needs and how best to solve them.
  • Strategic thinking. Product leaders must balance the day-to-day with the strategic work to be done. Constant is the threat of being drowned by a sea of specifications and release management. But keeping an eye on the future of your product, one, three, and even five years out is critical.
  • The ability to listen. The ability to listen – to customers and product team members – with a very open mindset is important. Product leaders must be able to separate their own assumptions from the process.
  • Communication. Products leaders must be able to communicate not only across the product team but also up and down the organization. You are the one who needs to be able to communicate across these three audiences.
  • Technical aptitude. While a technical background or degree are certainly not required,  it helps to be technically adept enough to have a really high level of respect for engineering and the complexity of what it takes to deliver products, but also to know when to push back a little bit
  • Multitasking. Product leaders must manage product roadmaps (often for multiple products), communicate with many internal and external audiences, manage for near- and long-term priorities, and many other tasks all while being learning machines.
  • Humble. Product leaders need to get comfortable with the idea that they don’t have all the answers.

You may note that these skills highlighted by our Heroes are mostly considered “soft skills.” That’s not to say that “hard skills” aren’t required or useful, but generally the soft skills are the hardest and most important for product leaders.

Gathering User Feedback

You can never talk to users enough. On this point, most all product leaders agree. Where product companies seem to fail the most is on WHEN they talk to users. Often companies wait until their product is “live” or in the market to gather user feedback. At that point, product (especially engineering) resources have already been spent, and your ability to pivot and make changes is all the more difficult. Leaders should begin testing and validating product-market fit as soon as possible. Product concepts and early designs should be prototyped and shown to users before committing significant development resources.

Emily Rawitsch describes her approach to testing throughout the product development lifecycle.  “We do lots of user research in lots of different ways. Sometimes we’re testing a concept before it’s being developed. Other times we’re testing a concept while it’s being developed, and then sometimes we’re doing research after it’s been in the wild.”

Product Heroes also believe in the importance of combining qualitative with quantitative data. Marco Marandiz believes “Quantitative data on its own isn’t helpful without qualitative research. You need to ask the right questions. You need to really understand who’s using it and what you are not fulfilling as much as what you are fulfilling.”

Measuring Effectiveness

Measuring product manager effectiveness is one of the hardest things to do according to leaders. Product managers don’t actually produce anything themselves – unless you count product specifications, roadmaps, etc. They are not writing the code, designing the user experiences, or selling the product. The organizations that are measuring effectiveness well are associating success with supporting and achieving business goals. To Nate Walkingshaw, it’s about making sure your teams are focused on achieving outcomes rather than delivering outputs. Ultimately, it’s about aligning around measuring success by asking whether your customers are happy, and do they find value in our product?

If We Haven’t Failed, We Haven’t Learned.

Product management is about taking small, calculated risks and then refining the product and process based on what we learn. Our Heroes highlighted many impactful failures.

  • Solving for your users’ #2+ problem. Always seek to address their #1 problem.
  • Assuming product-market fit. Make sure you are asking the right questions to design the product and experience that users are drooling over.
  • Designing for me and not for we. Make sure you do the proper discovery work to know the difference.
  • Prioritizing feature/functionality over (or to the exclusion of) experience. If the experience is poor, your users will never see or use your features.
  • Making or unknowingly following assumptions. You must be really cognizant of where your own opinion is informing something, versus truly listening to the feedback from users (and others) that you’re getting.
  • Letting go of the ego. Be careful not to believe that your idea is the best one without enough testing or validation.
  • Putting concrete dates on a roadmap. Your roadmap will always be changing. Don’t confuse it with a release schedule.

Advice and What’s Missing From the Conversation

Product leaders are a very connected group with much advice to offer to those who might be looking to break into the roll.

  • Assume you don’t have the answers and revel in that
  • Learn how to ask questions
  • Learn how to communicate up, across, and down the organization. You are the person that has to communicate across all of those verticals
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously
  • Become BFFs with your team
  • You’re not the product god. You’re just one person in the machine that has a specific role to do.
  • Talk to other product managers. Find different ways of working with it. Experiment until you get it right. Find a process that works for you, master it, then make it better. Start questioning, “Can we do this better? Can we do that better? What if I try that?”

Product Heroes get really excited when you ask them about what is missing from the conversation. For Brian Brackeen, it’s about love and humility. “I would love to see people talking more about love when it comes to product. People also need to be a little more humble as well. Even in product design, I see a lack of humility. Instead of continuously listening, designers will only talk to a few people, come up with a solution, and that’s it. While it certainly might work, the sample size wasn’t large enough and you’re not getting the best testing results. I’ve also seen dominant personalities outweigh the quieter personalities in testing. We need to think about how to account for these personalities differences.”

Hill Ferguson, as if on cue, believes there’s not enough discussion about product leadership. “A big part of the product manager’s job is really about leadership, being able to inspire teams, and being able to arm doers with information around why it’s important to solve this problem. The times where I’ve had the most fun and have had the best results have been times where I felt like everybody from the team really understood the problem we were trying to solve. It felt like they were really motivated and had the freedom to participate in determining how to solve the problem. It wasn’t about giving them a spec for my genius product and telling them to do something. That rarely works.”

So there you have it – the collective wisdom of 30 Product Heroes!

Are YOU a Product Hero, or do you know one that we should be talking to? Let’s talk.

Incidentally, a lot of what our Heroes have to say is reinforced by what’s contained in the book Product Leadership. In it, you’ll find insights and experiences from almost one hundred product leaders!Product Leadership book

Author Heath Umbach

Heath is an avid cyclist and runner who brings athletic rigor to everything he touches. With over 15 years of experience building and marketing digital products, he has a deep passion for solving our clients’ greatest challenges.

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