The beautiful thing with Product Management is that there isn’t just one way of doing it. Your company culture, your product space, your customers, your leadership…all of these factors and more might influence the way you build products. But, I have 5 lessons that serve me well through this fluid environment.
I left Zendesk in January 2017 after over 5 years. 1,800 employees, 1 IPO, 40 Product Managers, 13 offices, 2 acquisitions, 8 products, 58 Zendesk tee-shirts and 80,000 customers later…I learned a tonne and recently got around to talking about it. One of the biggest themes in questions I get is about taking the Zendesk product organisation and growing it from 5 Product Managers in one location to 40 in 7 locations.
This post is merely about sharing lessons learned while on the Zendesk journey, many of which I continue to hone and apply at Algolia, my new work family. It is by no means a definitive guide — simply what I have synthesised in a specific set of circumstances and at specific points of my career.
1. Long live the structured roadmap!
The roadmap is the tool used to plan, raise funds, close deals… but also organise, structure, execute, and even motivate and inspire. All those causes and motivations cannot be attended to at the same time. It is therefore important to lay out the roadmap in several stages.
The roadmaps my team and I build can be summed up into 3 timeframes:
- The upcoming quarter (we refer to it as Q+0). We plan this quarter very carefully. On the first day of the quarter we know exactly what we’ll deliver by the end of it. We don’t necessarily know exactly when, but we agree with engineering squads on shipping those items, which we call P1’s.
- The quarter after the upcoming quarter (we refer to it as Q+1). We talk about it quite a bit, we roughly think we know where we want to go, we talk about what problems we’re trying to solve, we write “specs” (PRD’s), we challenge our assumptions. It’s somewhat blurry, but we have a direction.
- The quarters after (Q+2/3/4 etc…). We force ourselves to not come up with answers. Rather, we ask lots of questions and raise problems. We dare to dream, we try to go “blank page” and move away from preconceived ideas.
2. Hire people not afraid to get their hands dirty
If you truly want to grow your Product team you must make hiring a priority and you must hire great people, but great people can mean a lot of things. Here are some concrete qualities to think about:
- For the first 10 to 20 Product Managers, hire people who embrace the idea that a modern Product Manager is also a Product Owner. Don’t hire people who think they are too good to write specs or build mockups.
- Hire Product Managers who are passionate about products and problem solving. Test them on their product sensitivity: ask them how they feel when opening a s***y app on their phone. Try to gauge if they’ll obsess over a super cool pattern or detail in a product they use every day.
- Give homework assignments. It’s fairly easy to bullshit your way through Product Management interviews, but you can’t get past a good homework assignment.
Last, remember that candidates are interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing them. A Product Management candidate will choose to work on a better product and for a better team over a better financial offer.
3. “Stop showing your a*& to the customer”
This one is a gem. Zendesk’s first employee, Michael Hansen, used to repeat it all the time. What it means is that every time you’re not thinking of the customer — every time you’re obsessing over decks, team organisation, squads politics, etc… you’re turning your back on the customer.
- Dedicate budget to doing so. Enable your Product Managers to fly, drive..whatever it takes to meet customers and prospects. Send them to quarterly or yearly Business Reviews with key accounts.
- Don’t only meet with the buyer or the decision maker and main point of contact, but go sit with the actual teams using your product. Watch how they use it. Try to identify their frustrations and pain points.
- Customers and prospects will often jump to the solution when talking to you. They’ll say “you need to build this thing that does this”. They’ll go as far as sending you mockups and half-baked specs. Your job is to move customers away from thinking about the solution as a feature. Instead, ask about the problem they are trying to solve.
- Some of the best memories of customer interviews were when we invited customers who had recently churned, or chosen our competition during a tough RFP — or even built their own homegrown solution after years on our software and just came to answer our questions. Put ego aside and learn from every experience.
4. Communicate your vision and objectives tirelessly
Don’t underestimate the value of communicating your company vision internally. Getting all employees and especially your entire Product team to be aligned on the company vision will result in more cohesive releases. Paul Adams, the VP of Product of Intercom has this amazing diagram where he clearly lays out the difference between your vision, your objectives and your releases. Focusing strictly on the releases isn’t healthy. As you grow, never cease to repeat the objectives and the mission of the company.
One last point on communication: it always surprised me how quickly work can become siloed between Product Managers. I remember when we would plan with five Product Managers: simply flipping our chairs around was enough to instantly know what everyone is working on. That changes really fast. Even with a team of 10 Product Mangers, it is hard to spontaneously know what everyone is working on. Keeping a lightweight process is important, but making sure that communication happens is more important. Otherwise, the day to day always takes precedent and you naturally fail to sync with fellow Product Managers.
5. Be an idea receiver rather than an idea giver
Our Chief Technology Officer and co-founder, Julien Lemoine at Algolia always says: “The next game changer idea for Algolia will not come from the leadership team but from someone in the company”.
As a Product organisation, you’re ultimately responsible to design the company’s decision making process for products. Put value and emphasis on making sure everyone can be heard, that everyone knows how to feed ideas to the Product teams, that everyone feels empowered to write a proposal for the next product you should build or even the next smallest feature you should launch.
If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear your feedback: @prades_maxime. Enjoy the Leading the Product Conference 2017. I look forward to hearing what other lessons are shared during these two, one-day events.