Podcasts for Product Managers

2016 saw me really dive into the world of podcasts. I felt this urge of making my commute times more productive, so I turned to podcasts. With some advice from fellow podcast listening friends, I downloaded the Podcast Addict app (I now use Pocket Casts and it's 100x better) and I was off to the races!

Coincidentally, the period of 2016-17 was the time when I was sinking my teeth further into the field of product management. Here's a joke - "How does one know if a person is a Product Manager?". "S/he'll tell you about it, blog about it, podcast about it and create a PPT about it". Okay I made that up. But the point I'm trying to make here is that there's a lot of material on podcasts directed at new and experienced product managers alike.

Keeping my cynicism aside, I have learnt a lot from these podcasts. They give you a sense that the playing fields are levelled, you can up-skill hard and soft skills, and eventually, you feel at par with accomplished product managers in marquee companies. I'm going to use this opportunity to mention a bunch of podcasts that have helped me grow as a product manager over the past two years. Please note that the list is not in any order of preference. 

1. This is Product Management
This is arguably the most popular podcast for product managers out there. Their amazing catalog of podcasts covers every imaginable topic a product manager would want to listen to. TIPM is produced by the team at Alpha, a tool for generating user insights. While TIPM is vast, I find the tone of the podcasts fairly monotonous. It's less conversational and more of doling out advice or product experiences. Nevertheless, it's a great place to start or revisit for certain key topics. 
Listen: https://www.thisisproductmanagement.com/

2. Rocketship.fm
Rocketship.fm does a great job of creating stories for each of their topics, which makes it a very enjoyable podcast. They usually have a recurring theme across a series of podcasts. It's a podcast that helps a layman understand the goings-on in startup life. While the podcast covers general topics, of late, they have been talking a lot about product related topics. There's a very interesting episode on the origin of product management which talks about the 'Brand Men' at P&G (circa 1930s). For the compelling stories, structure and conversations, I rate this podcast highly.
Listen: http://rocketship.fm/

3. Inside Intercom
Intercom is a tool used for customer support and in-app customer engagement. While I'm not completely sold on their product, I must say that they're doing a fantastic job in getting inbound traffic via their website. They've created a blog and a podcast which comprises of a knowledge base spanning topics on product management and design. It's done well enough that it doesn't feel like "content for the sake of content". Des Traynor, the founder of Intercom, usually hosts the podcast and the show has had respectable guests from the startup/design/product world. There are some great conversations in the podcasts, especially the one on the Jobs-To-Be-Done framework. 
Listen: https://blog.intercom.com/category/podcast/

4. Exponent
It doesn't get more credible than Exponent when it comes to the people behind the podcast. Exponent is run by Ben Thompson, author/founder of Stratechery, and James Allworth, author and Harvard Business Review writer. Exponent isn't directed at product managers but they often talk about over-arching problems, trends, innovations in the technology space. Whether it's AI/ML/Bitcoin, Amazon's dominance or Facebook's newsfeed algorithms, there is always something useful for the listener. The hosts (and guests) pick each other's brains on several topics every week. Prepare yourself for some great analysis and deep-dives into interesting subjects on the Exponent.
Listen: http://exponent.fm/

5. Product Popcorn
Product Popcorn is the Aubrey Plaza of product podcasts. By that I mean, it's quirky and funny. Product Popcorn is hosted by Kimberly and Adam, who will give their light-hearted take on product management interspersed with elephant trumpet sounds. What I love about this podcast is that you'll feel like it's a roundtable discussion with friends. Another aspect of the podcast that I love is that the hosts share updates on their own professional lives, something like a stand-up meeting update. It helps you connect with the hosts and what they encounter on a daily/weekly basis while PMing. I would 12/10 recommend a listen. 
Listen: https://www.productpopcorn.com/

6. The Startup Chat
With close to 300 episodes, the Startup Chat is an important podcast for entrepreneurs and startup folk. It's hosted by Hiten Shah (founder of Kissmetrics) and Steli Efti (founder of close.io), who have been hustling for over 10 years. This podcast pretty much covers all the bases on advice related to starting a startup, the modalities of running one and the specifics on key topics like hiring, processes and more. The episodes usually don't run over 20-25min, which makes it very easily consumable and retainable. I also love how Hiten and Steli can be at loggerheads with each other during debates on "controversial" topics. This podcast becomes more relevant if you're a product manager at a startup because you see these different flavors play out around you. 
Listen: https://thestartupchat.com/

The Hard Thing About Hard Things - Book Review

If there's one feeling that you will be left with after reading Ben Horowitz's 'The Hard Thing About Hard Things' is that you'd be kicking yourself for not having read it earlier. In my opinion, it is the definitive guide to doing business whether you're an entrepreneur, a sales guy, a product manager or a team leader in any department. 

Image picked up from Google image search

Image picked up from Google image search

One of the primary motivations for me to pick up 'The Hard Thing about Hard Things' is the essay titled 'Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager'. This was first featured in the book and has been widely touted as a 101 reading for all aspiring product managers. And rightfully so. I had read that essay a couple of years ago and it outlines the qualities of good product managers and how most fall into the trap of certain bad habits. It's essentially a list of dos and don'ts. A good product manager makes a team a winning one, whereas a bad product manager creates negative value for the team. The essay can be read here.

But moving on to the book on the whole, it was an easy read. I suspect this would even be entertaining for a reader if s/he is not well versed with business jargon. Each chapter comprises of the choicest anecdotes from Ben's expansive career from Netscape to Loudcloud to Opsware to HP and finally a16z. All of these stories, if not relatable, will evoke a sense of empathy with Ben's narration. I love the honesty and the struggle behind each of the big decisions Ben, as an entrepreneur, had to make.

'The Hard Thing  About Hard Things' succeeds like no other business book because it embraces failures while instilling advice and leaving you with memorable takeaways. Sure, what you may face as a future entrepreneur may or may not mirror Ben's or Marc's (Andreessen) struggles but the learnings are timeless and many of them can be applied in different scenarios. For example, no matter what team you lead, your team members will have the base expectation of you not bullshitting them. Many team leads and CEOs fall prey to this. This is one of the basic principles that is hammered to the reader with many of the stories. Some of the other key lessons that Ben talks about is going against the grain of the executive management or board members. Important decisions often get swayed by group-think or risk-averseness. It's your job as a CEO/manager to champion the tough decisions especially when you have corroborating evidence of a positive hypothesis, whether data leads you that way or it's customer feedback or market research, what have you.

As you progress through the book, you will realize that Ben's narration pretty much covers the major events in the life cycle of a company. Some of those are:

  • Working in a startup and scaling it 
  • Product - Market fit
  • Fending off competition from incumbents
  • Excelling at sales
  • Knowing the true value of your company/product
  • People management as your company scales
  • Knowing when to go public with your company
  • Knowing when to get acquired

One criticism that this book faces is that most of the stories predate the current millennial-tech-ecosystem. Okay that's not really a thing (or is it?). But I hope you get my drift. The companies mentioned in examples by Ben aren't glamorous but they're hardcore businesses which survived the 2000 dot-com bubble, made hundreds of millions of dollars and one even being valued at $1.6 billion dollars in the mid 2000s. If those aren't great benchmarks, I don't know what are. Just because a Snapchat may have a completely different model, doesn't mean that their teams don't struggle with sales or people problems. A lot of the learning in this book stems from principles of doing business and handling situations.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is not an entrepreneur's playbook to success but it's a warning to that lot that...well...shit happens! And when you realize that you've been dealt a bad hand, Ben proves that there are still ways to maneuver through them and come out standing. It's a book to be re-read multiple times! 

I'm going to wrap this up by quoting some of my favorite lines from the book. There are many to choose from but these quotes were an instant home-run for me and they left me nodding profusely in agreement. 

"Note to self: It’s a good idea to ask, “What am I not doing?"

"Take care of the People, the Products and the Profits - In that order."

"If you're going to eat shit, don't nibble!"

"A healthy company culture encourages people to share bad news. A company that discusses its problems freely and openly can quickly solve them. A company that covers up its problems frustrates everyone involved."

"Having dogs at work and yoga aren't culture!"


The 2nd and 3rd Ps of being a PM

I guess I’m ultimately calling this the 3Ps of being a PM. Very Kotler. Much jargon. In the off chance that you missed the first post where I talk about Prioritization being the first and foremost attribute of a product manager, you can read it here

At the outset, a product manager is required to have a very good understanding of the market, competition, business models, future trends apart from knowing the user thoroughly. The insights gained from the above and channelized into better decision making is what, I reckon, constitutes the second important P of being a product manager — Pulse

I may be oversimplifying it but with my limited experience and reading about product failures and successes, it is very important for the product manager to have her ears close to the ground. This enables you to not only understand the environment in which your product is being used/consumed but it also helps you predict/anticipate for the foreseeable future to a certain degree. 

  • Getting a pulse of your customers’ problems, needs, aspirations, behavior helps you build better products. Clearly, a no-brainer. 
  • Getting a pulse of your competition helps you identify your competitive advantage. Go a step further and talk to your competitor’s customers. It helps you beyond the realm of product management, say if, Company X is kick ass at marketing. Can those serve as inputs to your internal stakeholders? Or can there be possible synergies that can be explored to benefit you and the competitor? 
  • Getting a pulse on trends helps you build better products. Trends would encompass everything from market/economy to consumer/behavioral to technology. How would you incorporate these trends to make your product better? 
  • Acting on impulse helps you build products effectively and efficiently. Here’s a really neat graph published by Hacker Noon which hits the spot about what I’m trying to get at. This point transcends the scientific aspect of being a product manager and makes it seem like product management is also an art form. Unfortunately, this can be learnt only through experience, but here’s a heads up nonetheless. 

All in all, pulse, is a very fluffy word to describe what I just wrote but I believe the best product managers have this as an unsaid trait. It comes naturally to the curious and the ambitious. Personally, I’ve been trying to better myself at getting a pulse of the aforementioned things. I try to read more, I listen to relevant podcasts and I avoid any blinders restricting my vision lest I miss out on anything. 

So…great, you’ve nailed your product-market fit, you’ve validated your ideas, you’ve prioritized your backlog…what next? 

The third important P of being a product manager is Project Execution. Notice, how I don’t say project management. How a product manager brings design and technology together is what constitutes execution to me. Project execution would certainly vary from company to company. In more established companies like an Amazon or Facebook, a product manager isn’t alone in execution. One works with technical product managers, program managers, engineering managers, tech/dev leads and so on. But if you’re in a seed-funded or series A funded startup, product managers end up playing a larger role in execution. The scope of responsibilities vary, but I’m going to talk from my own personal experience. 

  • People — The success of project execution solely depends on your team. It is important for the entire team (designers, engineers, QA testers) to be on the same page. But hey, you’re a product manager. You have no authority over everyone else. This is where as a product manager, you need to play your ‘people skills’ cards well. I strongly believing that motivating the team before and after the project, irrespective of the size of the release, is key to having the team stick together. You show them impact, the potential of a product they’re building and how important each of their contributions are. A product manager must in no way take credit away from the team, after all they’re doing all the heavy lifting. Sure, you “conceptualized” the idea but make no mistake about it — your team will lose faith in you. 
  • Timelines — You will need to approximate timelines pre-development while sprint planning. You will need to get finer timelines from design and development. You will need to give out timelines with additional buffer, wherever necessary, to your stakeholders. Timelines are sacrosanct. There will definitely be times where you don’t meet these deadlines but it’s crucial to inform your stakeholders about any delay and possible alternative timelines. 
  • Development — If you’re a non-technical product manager, you would be solely reliant on your engineer leads or senior engineers. Invariably, engineers do come back to product managers with doubts, cases missed, cases where they’re block. It’s your role as a product manager to ensure that any doubts/blockers are swiftly resolved. You gain the respect of an engineer if you clear her blockers promptly. 
  • Testing — One of my strengths as a product manager is that I’m very hands-on with my product during development and testing. The more rigorous the testing, the fewer chances of your product failing in the user’s hands. Once the engineer(s) hand over the product to the QA team for testing, I step in between to do a pre-UAT (user acceptance test) where I try to ensure that the product is behaving as it should for the users’ major cases. I say ‘major cases’ because you are generally constrained for time. The pre-UAT testing phase significantly reduces the back-and-forth exchanges between QA and engineers. Once the QA team gives a sign off on product testing, I usually perform a UAT thoroughly to ensure that the product is ready to be shipped. 
  • Shipping — Here you have it, your feature/product moved from a staging test bed to your production servers. I prefer to ship out new releases on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursdays or when the next day is not a holiday. That’s because in the slightest chance that there is a bug, you have the team available to quickly re-ship a bug-free version as soon as possible. 
  • Post-shipping — Is a product manager’s job done after shipping? Hell no. Sure you may have dusted your hands and got that awesome product released. While this doesn’t fall under the purview of ‘execution’, how else will you measure how successful it is? Are your users using the product as intended? Whether it’s a beta release or a full fledged roll-out, it is essential to choose the right metrics and have those metrics closely monitored either via data pulled from the database or analytics tools like Google Analytics or Mixpanel. A topic like measuring success metrics would require its own blog post. 

So there we have it — Pulse and Project Execution, the two remaining Ps in what makes my three essential Ps of being a product manager. While I can’t cover everything with this 3Ps post because, let’s face it, product management is a fluid field, part science and part art. 

I would love any feedback on this post. Do write in at me@vcent.in if you would like to talk further about product management. 

The first P of being a PM

The idea for this series of posts stemmed from a completely different discussion I had with a colleague on the differences between product management and program management. I won’t delve into that but what got my mind racing was me trying to introspect on a product manager’s role. After running through a whole host of responsibilities and attributes, I finally narrowed it down on Prioritization. I believe this is the first and foremost task a product manager has to be responsible for. I did cover this briefly in my introductory post of my first month as a Product Manager. 

Why is prioritization important?
As a product manager, you are measured against metrics related to your user’s goals. These metrics could range from Gross Margin Value (GMV) to Average Order Value (AOV) to Engagement (DAUs, Cohorts) and so on. There is absolutely no room for anything else if your features/releases aren’t impacting the metrics the most. It’s the holy grail. Intercom published a really informative read on prioritization. They subscribe to a model called the RICE framework — Reach, Impact, Confidence and Effort. Each of these parameters are scored and the overall RICE score determines the priority of a feature. Honestly, it cannot get simpler than this. But I personally also like to leave some room for judgement and intuition as well. What follows from prioritization is the product roadmap. 

Roadmap vs Ad hoc Requests
A product roadmap is created after you are done prioritizing tasks and features/releases. Depending on the stage of your company, you may have a roadmap for a quarter, a year or possibly even more than that. I’ve only worked for small to medium sized startups so my product roadmaps haven’t gone beyond 6 months. I believe that once you’ve gotten the items in your roadmap prioritized, half your job is done. But wait…

…and just when you’re mid-way feeling good about your roadmap going on as planned, someone from the marketing team makes a feature-request. Someone from Finance asks for alterations in certain dashboards. Long story short, it’s a balancing act between handling ad hoc requests and ensuring you’re still on course with the roadmap. On receiving an ad hoc request, I ask myself (and the stakeholder) these high-level questions:

  1. What is the impact on my user and the aforementioned metrics?
  2. Can I measure this impact? Short term gain or long term gain?
  3. How much of a pain point is it to the stakeholder/user? 
  4. Can I quantify or measure the pain point or criticality of #3? 
  5. Can it be resolved or shipped with a complementary feature which is already in the product roadmap?
  6. What is the effort (quantified by time) involved? 

There are more questions but I’ll stick to the above six. Based on these, I take a hard call on whether to pursue ad hoc requests at that time or post-pone working on it or shoot it down all together. 

What certainly helps is organizing your engineering team into developers who can work on long term features and shorter term features separately. I have seen this through experience as I’ve faced resource crunch working with small teams of about 5–6 developers. I may have groups of 2 or 3 developers working on the big ticket items which typically have a development effort of more than 1-2 weeks. On the side, I will reserve one developer who will work on relatively smaller features (development effort of ~3 days or less). If you can draw up a mental picture of a Gantt chart, you will realize that I am constantly shipping small features and/or bug fixes on a regular basis without having the major chunk of my roadmap affected. In light of this segregation of resource, I would then assign the ad hoc requests (post scrutinizing on whether to take them up, of course) to the developer working on short term features. In the worst case scenario, I would be able to get to those ad-hoc requests in a few days. There you have it, my approach on handling a roadmap with ad hoc requests. (Vincent’s secret sauce much?)

Dealing with stake-holders
By nature of the PM role, you will be dealing with multiple stakeholders and inevitably, everyone wants their requests as soon as possible. To be specific, I’m talking about internal stakeholders of the company such as marketing, finance, sales, operations and others. Prioritization becomes important more than any where else. As I had described earlier, there will be times you have to shoot down proposals or feature requests by nature of failing the ad hoc test. I wish there was a surefire way of coming out with a win-win outcome. It’s subjective and depends on the context of the discussion. I have learnt though, that being empathetic with your fellow peers is a step in the right direction. Back up your reasons with data, guesstimates or strong hypothesis to ensure that your stance defensible. Without these, it’s all about people management skills. On the flip side, do take into account that these stakeholders are equally important to you and the success of your product roadmap. One such example would be at the time of product launch, you’d have to coordinate with the sales and marketing teams to conduct demos with customers/sales representatives. I guess you get my drift, right? Product managers need to develop people skills to handle such situations. 

If there was a punk rock song about product management, it would be ‘Prioritization Über Alles which translates to ‘prioritization above everything else’. It determines the success or failure of your product. 

Stay tune for the next post — The second P of being a PM.

My first month as a Product Manager

This post has been long overdue. I had been wanting to write about my experiences during my first month as a product manager but alas, it has already been close to four months now. That said, I refuse to change the title of this post because 'My first four months as a product manager' has lower search volumes on Google, so boo! On a serious note though, I am quite enjoying this new role.

Here's a little background on how this came about. In the recent past, I've been enamored by product managers steering products from conception to shipping their final avatars. Yay, boat puns. Let's cruise along shall we? I was envious of the, for lack of a better word, complete ownership they possessed over products. Product managers are mini-CEOs in a way. Also, if you've spent enough time on Medium, you cannot escape reading an article that isn't remotely product-centric. That further fueled my curiosity to learn more about this specific function. Apart from that, I have been an ardent follower of certain non-traditional product guys like Justin Jackson and Pieter Levels. They are independent product makers and they're prolific to say the least. It amazes me how they get things done efficiently. Please follow them on Twitter, you won't regret it. Anyway, sometime in February this year, I was asked by my CEO if I would like to work in product management (since he knew where my interests were). I latched onto this opportunity instantly and the rest is history. 

Four months down the line and all I have to say is that this journey has given me immense learning and it's been both challenging and rewarding. I'll try to give my own perspective on this by listing down some of my key takeaways and observations below. 

Business Impact & Prioritization
Every function in a company needs to impact the business positively. That's pretty obvious, yeah? But in the wake of prioritizing various aspects of building a product or prioritizing development efforts on different products, that's where things can get tricky! This dilemma can be solved easily by asking yourself few simple questions like "What value does this create for the user?" or "How does this feature/product translate to revenue directly or indirectly?" Before you call me out on being a capitalist, let me clarify. Say you introduce a feature which improves customer experience, it could directly lead to higher NPS scores (feedback scores), increase in number of active users (DAUs, WAUs, MAUs), positive word of mouth and many other such things. All these eventually could translate to cross-selling (if your business has that), repeat purchases and customer referrals, in turn contributing to your top line. On the flip side, it goes without saying that bad product decisions can be disastrous, leading to resource wastage, losing time and the opportunity cost of building something else. While I'm only scratching the surface of how a small product decision can have a butterfly effect in a business, it is imperative that there's enough thought put in to prioritization of tasks. At the same time, product managers are also required to make impromptu decisions while juggling resource utilization, stakeholders' expectations, managing detours in plans, staying the course with earlier commitments...oh the list is endless. This role will probably bring out the best in you as a manager. 

Speak To Your Customers / Stakeholders Regularly
I would actually rate this as the first point because everything revolves around your customer or stakeholder. Instead of elaborating further, I'll pose a few questions. Who are your building your app/website/software for? What problems are you solving for your users? Who is your core audience? What are their behavioral patterns? Do behavioral patterns differ across the spectrum? Can you segment your users into different user-personas (a popular technique)? Have you tested your beta-product with your users? What feedback have you gotten from them? Can you predict what users would like in your product? Users may not be proactive in providing feedback. More often than not, feedback is synonymous with negativity. To get to the point, a product manager must talk to users regularly. You need to know what works and what doesn't work. That is the only way you'll get an inkling on what to prioritize and build. 

Read Constantly
Product management is as much about being technically sound as it is about being creative and knowledgeable. The only way to ensure that you are on top of the latest trends, product-related news, principles, methodologies, new technological advancements and more is to read constantly. To get a primer on product management, I started off by reading Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen. There is no dearth of material on the interwebs on these topics. Personally, I like my information consumed blog by blog. Among the many blogs and newsletters that I follow, I have found Intercom's and Invision's to be great resources. Their blogs are fantastic and cover a lot of ground on product, startups, design and customer success. For everything else, follow ProductHunt - a brilliant resource that showcases new products, podcasts and articles. 

Tools, Tools, Tools!
One of the perks of being a Product Manager is that you get to immerse yourself in other people's products. These could be tools on analytics, heat-maps, customer support, roadmaps, productivity, bug-tracking, wire-framing, design and so on. You gain a certain appreciation on how these have been built. If there's one tool that I adore the most, it's Balsamiq. I feel it's the perfect tool for creating wireframes and low-fidelity prototypes for your ideas. The flexibility that Balsamiq gives you will make you forget drawing rough mockups with pen and paper. You can flesh out your product concepts and create navigation flows with ease. In this way, you save a lot of time by creating mockups quickly, getting feedback on the same, making any necessary revisions and eventually getting high-fidelity prototypes out for the development to commence. Using the right tool that one is comfortable with and one that gets the job done is important. Here's a pretty cool resource which lists some pretty nifty tools that product managers would find useful. Czech it out here - http://softwareproductmanagement.co/

There's this really popular post on Quora which talks about 'What distinguishes a top 1% product manager from the top 10% product managers'. You have the who's who in product-management give their two cents on this topic. I reckon it's a really good read and I recommend you to check it out. There are times when I go back to that post myself, to have a self-assessment of sorts because every time I re-read those Quora responses, I'll find something new that I can improve myself on or do differently. I'm sure it'll resonate with anyone who's just venturing out into a product management role. On a personal front, it's still early days for me but I feel I'm confident of landing up somewhere around the top 5-10% product managers in the coming months. There's plenty more that I'd like to talk about but I'll reserve that for a follow up post on my progress. So until next time, let this popular Venn diagram percolate your senses till you attain product manager zen.