5 Minutes With Warren Wan, Product Czar, MyFitnessPal

Warren Wan is a Product Management and User Experience professional based in San Francisco, USA. Warren has been involved in Product Development since the early days of GeoCities. After its acquisition by Yahoo!, Warren went on to lead product on digital community products including Yahoo! Messenger.

Warren then joined eHarmony as one of their first Product Managers and guided the company’s conversion and retention roadmaps. After moving to New York, Warren held VP positions at Thumbplay (acquired by Clear Channel Radio), Dada Entertainment (a joint venture with Sony Music Entertainment), and ideeli (acquired by Groupon).

Warren now leads key product initiatives at MyFitnessPal, with the goal of making good health attainable and sustainable for everyone. He will be speaking at Brainmates’ upcoming Vivid Sydney Product Management Mini-Conference on the 6th June, 2014

What are some of the best Product Management highlights during your career?

When I first started at eHarmony, before a user was even allowed to register, they were shown a few screens explaining what the service did, how it worked, and how it was different from other dating sites on the market. One of the first things I tried was a splash screen that contained registration information up front along with a simple tagline. It was a great moment when I saw our visitor to registration conversion spike up on this new page because it signaled that eHarmony had arrived. We no longer had to explain who we were, people already knew through word of mouth, PR and our ad campaigns, so they were ready to jump right into the service.

I’m now at MyFitnessPal, and I’m getting a very similar “we’ve arrived” feeling, which is one of the best feelings you can have as a Product Leader. Getting our product in the hands of over 50 million users is an amazing feat, considering we’ve historically not spent money on acquisition. The audience has been built on a foundation of discovery on the web and through the app stores and by word of mouth. That’s a testament to the great product our founders have created and we get to iterate on.

Are there any Product Management failures that you have learnt from?

As cliche as it sounds, I think all “failures” are a learning opportunity. We’ve constantly have features that we launch, measure, and discover that they don’t move the needle in the way we thought they would. The key for us is to learn quickly with the least amount of investment possible. Instead of building highly elaborate features from the outset, we try to break down bigger tasks into bite sized, testable chunks to make sure we’re headed in the right direction. This lets us drop components that aren’t working well so we can invest in areas that show promise.

As Product Manager, what does a typical day look like for you?

Every day is little bit different, which is part of the appeal to the role. Since a Product Manager is essentially the glue between all of the other aspects of the company, translating business needs into user features, focus tends to shift on a daily basis within various areas, including:

  • Business strategy and vision
  • Product roadmapping
  • Partner discussions
  • Competitive research
  • Data analysis
  • Product design and user experience
  • Product specs and user stories
  • Customer surveys and feedback
  • Quality assurance
  • Product launch and evangelism

If I had to pin a number on it, I’d say about 30% of my time is spent on the strategy, research and planning side of the coin, and 70% is spent on the hands-on product side of delivering products.

How has implementing Agile Product Development been for MyFitnessPal?

MyFitnessPal was a bootstrapped company for many years, and because we had a smaller, geographically dispersed team, we were more waterfall in our approach. We decided on feature set and requirements to govern release timing, so some releases would take a couple months, others would take 4-5 months. This was efficient for a team our size, to help manage design, development and QA, but would lead to scope creep, as the release timing rarely had a hard target date.

As we grew, we began to adopt Agile methodology, and now are on a monthly release cycle. The benefits overall have been:

  • Building out the cadence of releasing new features to users on a regular basis, which helps us address market needs and bug fixes promptly
  • Internally developing the habit of making hard decisions to keep the release cycle moving forward – if features aren’t ready, we drop them into the next sprint and continue on the path of release vs. holding every other feature in a release for the sake of one or two projects
  • Minimising the scope creep vs our old methods
  • Becoming more conscious about good planning and investment of our resources

What sort of challenges have there been for MyFitnessPal transforming from a startup to a corporate business?

I think the biggest challenge thus far is scaling the organisation to be efficient as we grow. Quadrupling the headcount doesn’t lead to 4 times the output immediately.

With a small team, we were able to get by very well with a set of homegrown services and minimal process, since every single person was well versed in how they were developed and in how they should be maintained. As we grew, the process needed to expand and some of the proprietary systems we built became technical debt, as quick hacks needed to become productised to support ever growing numbers of users.

We’ve already updated our processes and teams several times as we’ve grown from 10 to 20 employees, again from 20 to 40, and again now that we’re topping 80 employees. There’s been some trial and error along to way to find things that not only worked for others, but work well in our culture, but we can already see the benefits in terms of the faster turnaround to get builds into market.

What trends have you seen during your time as Product Manager?

I think one of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the transition from web to mobile. GeoCities, Yahoo! and the early days of eHarmony focused primarily on the web, but now the world has connected devices on them at all times, which changes the way we think about building products.

Even MyFitnessPal began as a web only service when it was founded back in 2005. It’s amazing to think that the iPhone has only been around since 2007, and Android is even younger than that. For MyFitnessPal specifically, mobile was a huge game changer, as food logging makes all the more sense when you can enter your meals immediately from your table instead of waiting to get back to a computer to do so.

Being mobile first requires more disciplined development, as mobile clients require much more QA and planning than web sites, which can be updated frequently and relatively easily by comparison if issues arise. Being mobile first also requires more disciplined design thinking, as the limited real estate means focusing very clearly on optimising the user experience.

What is the most exciting thing about being a Product Manager?

I’ve always wanted to do something that could affect people’s lives on a daily basis in a way they would enjoy. When I was growing up, I dreamed of working in television production because at the time it was the most impactful form of media to help me accomplish this goal. Once the internet rolled around, I realised that there was a new avenue to reach folks, and being a Product Manager allows me to dream up new ways to improve their lives.

As I mentioned before, it’s only been 7 years since the iPhone was released, and look how far we’ve come in that short time in terms of redefining what’s possible. I continue to be excited by the evolution of technology and how that challenges me to grow as a Product Manager.