Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Always Do Whatever's Next

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted.  I took a new role within my organization within the product management group and it’s been keeping me pretty busy.  My new role and a recent post by another PM, friends don’t let friends become product managers, inspired this post.

A little background. I’ve been a product manager for 15 years and it’s the only job that I’ve wanted within a software company.  Like many folks, my start in product management was accidental and I was picked to be one based on my domain and product knowledge. The opportunities that I’ve taken since my initial job have not been in the same industry. I like to learn new geeky things.   I’ve also been up and down the food chain in the product management world. I’m a weeble – I bounce back :)

I’ve learned that there are many opportunities to grow as a product manager if you’re with the right organization.

You can continue and be a rock star product manager.  With that title be seen as a leader in the organization if you know your market, how to influence people and where to take the product.  If you get bored, you can take responsibility for a different product that has a different set of challenges like lifting a new one off the ground or reinvigorating one that’s more mature or one’s that in a different domain with different users.

My organization has a strategist role and is something I’ve been hearing more and more about lately (but with different titles).  This is typically more visionary and less execution as compared to a product manager.  You’re responsible for being an expert and setting the direction as it relates to one more market problems.  Typically these market problems cut across products.  You’re a big picture person and work with the product managers on execution.  This role gets everyone on the same page, doesn’t require everyone to become a SME and ensures execution of solving the problem correctly across product lines.

Then there is the traditional upward mobility path – director, VP, GM etc.  This is where you get into leading people and setting overall strategic direction.

I recently took the position of director of product management – responsible for leading a team of product/business analysts (not product managers).  I’m unsure if many organizations have this role and it will spark the debate of PM vs. PO. It’s been a new and fun challenge.  I recently met with someone who has a similar role in another company and it was great to get to learn from him since I don’t think there are many of us out there.

It’s been an interesting transition.  Getting out of the PM role and specifically letting go of old role had to be done for me to successful – its not easy but it can be accomplished (recently re-read the First 90 days to get my head straight).

Friends can let friends become Product managers – there are growth opportunities besides the traditional path. Also if there any of you out there that have a similar role to mine, please comment or tweet me – I would love to talk about it with you.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Start Anywhere.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I’ve been taking an Improv class - because I was dropped on my head as a small child. Not really, but you will need to read my initial post to find out why I signed up. A friend of mine recently sent me the book: Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson.

Recently I’ve accepted a new position within product management at my current company.  As any typical overly analytical person does, I decided to read some books in the area related to my new position.  I put the book my friend sent me on the back burner.

I started reading the Improv book last week and of course it was more relevant to my day job then the 2 leadership books I recently read.  I’m about halfway through the book and it has already made small impacts on my day-to-day, reminded me why I started taking Improv class and inspired me to write another post.

One concept it discusses is “start anywhere”. 

When dealing with a daunting task or one you just don’t want to do – just simply start anywhere.  The idea is that once you’ve started something, you will be in the middle of the problem/project and things will become clearer on where to go next.  Sitting there on the sidelines overanalyzing where to start doesn’t solve anything – you don’t have a good idea of what the issue is standing on the outside. (note: this approach does not apply to surgeons, pilots, etc.)

It doesn’t just apply to tasks/projects but our speech.  Typically when I’m in a meeting with many people, I’m constantly listening, thinking and trying to figure out the best place to jump in.  I over think it – by the time I figure out what I want to say – the conversation has moved on to another topic. I’ve also potentially filtered a good idea that others could have built upon.  Don’t hesitate – start anywhere and the ideas will start to build on themselves. 

I learned this very early in Improv  but somehow didn’t apply it to my day job.  In Improv someone yells out “parole officer” and in a split second I have to become a parole officer. I have to start – because what’s worse then saying something dorky is saying nothing at all while on stage.  When I do that in Improv – I’m starting anywhere and the juices start flowing as soon as I get out my initial ideas and words.

The other big take away so far is that I shouldn’t script things when doing presentations or speaking in front of a group.  Much to my dismay, I do end up speaking in front of groups all the time.  The idea is that when it’s scripted, what you’re communicating can come across forced or inauthentic and less engaging. Also when scripted, you’re likely to lose your train of thought and fumble if things change on the fly.   Rather then scripting, the idea is to formulate questions to help drive what you’re saying.  For example, if I’m presenting features/capabilities in a product roadmap presentation those questions I prepare might be:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What capability are we delivering?
  • Why is this feature important?
  • How does it help my audience?
  • When is the plan to deliver it?

When delivering the presentation, I’m simply answering the questions I made in my notes.  Try it – it flows relatively easy.

This is about trusting yourself and making the information engaging and relevant.

I’m off to Start Anywhere!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

*Head Desk* a Postscript

This post is an addendum to the *Head Desk* Post from a month ago.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to volunteer for a Girls Get IT event in Atlanta.  It promotes junior high school and high school girls getting involved in STEM related fields.  We went on a tour of Chamberlain College of Nursing.  This visit was awesome - I think I was more excited then the kids - I don't think I realized how much technology there was in Healthcare education.  

During the tour, there was a computer that allowed the nursing student to simulate the requesting of medicine pills for the patient.  She entered the drug name and the quantity needed.  As part of that process, the software had intelligence built in that detected drugs of similar names.  So if she requested Mombiely (yes, I made that up) - it would say did you mean Mombiely or Mobiely?  The risk of administering the wrong drug can be fatal.  This software is checking for the typical mistakes a person might make when requesting specific medication.   It was a timely experience after what had happened with my bank website.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Nope- I’m not talking about the testing term regression.  Yesterday was one of those days I took a step backwards (it's possible the month of August was one big regression).  One of the most basic rules you learn in Improv is to “yes and”.  There are no “no buts…” 

I’ve been taking Level 2 of Improv for the past several weeks. For the most part it’s taking what we learned in Level 1 and building upon those lessons.  It’s still scary…still fun…still 2 hours a week that I don’t think about anything but be in the moment. 

Last night I made a basic mistake in several scenes.  Instead of ‘yes anding’ my scene partner I sort of ‘no butted’.  If your partner tells you that you’re a cheerleader on a field, you shouldn’t tell her that she’s mistaken and that you flunked out of cheerleading.  Improv is about building on one another – I should have taken her statement as fact and brought it to the next level.  I need to remember to yes and…yes I’m a cheerleader on a field; I’m on a golf course cheering on miniature golfers at the park and got this cut on my forehead because I was too close to the windmill. Building on your partner allows the scene to grow and become interesting. Negating your partner can take it to a stand still.

It was a good mistake to make, because I’m able to learn from it.  Not only did I do this in Improv class, I think lately I’ve been making the same mistake in work too.

We’re in the middle of our 2014 planning.  We’ve established our strategic initiatives and goals; we’re in the process of mapping out how we’re going to get there (realizing that the path could will change during the course of the year).  This is the time of year that I hear the most from a variety of internal constituencies on the best ways to get there. J  It’s awesome to have this level of engagement from the folks you work with.  It also starts to get draining.  I realized tonight that I’ve been saying “no but” more then I should be on some of the ideas that have been funneling through. 

As product managers we know it’s about investing in the right ideas that create the greatest value that aligns to our markets.  We don’t have time to investigate all of them, but we need to make sure we’re listening so that we understand which ones to pursue.  To do that, we need to be open to all ideas and approach them as if they could be a reality so we’re able to determine their true potential. I’m taking a step back and remembering to “yes and” more in my day job.

If you read this post and are thinking "yep, got it, I'm good".  I thought the same thing. Try saying "yes and" to things for an entire week - this will be a good test to ensure you're there.  If you're reading this post thinking it won't work for me because I've got too much on my plate and I've got the experience to tell good ideas from ones that won't work - you are essentially saying "no but" - just try yes and for a week...what harm could that be?

Monday, August 5, 2013

*Head Desk*: A Lesson in Humility

Two week ago I received an email from my bank that my checking account fell below my low balance threshold.  “Low balance” was defined by me. I set it up to get notified when something unexpected was happening with my bank account.  This email meant something unexpected happened.  I logged in to discover that I had a negative balance.  I’ve been balancing my checkbook before the Internet existed...I have an accounting degree…this should not be happening to me. 

I reviewed the transactions and immediately saw the problem.  The bill I paid to a department store was 100x bigger then it should have been.  Apparently I didn’t type in the decimal.  *Head Desk*  I called the bank (yelled representative many times at the automated phone system) and found the money was already in flight and there was nothing I can do about it. 

I’m still unwinding this, but I put my product management hat on and started thinking about usability.  My bill for this department store is delivered to my bank and the bank knows the amount due to the biller.  The bill pay system not only allowed me to overpay without a warning but also allowed me to overpay by exactly 100x the bill amount.  On the flip side there is a confirmation page when you pay a bill that I apparently didn’t review.  But seriously – who looks at that any more – I see confirmation pages so many times that I don’t review them – I simply click submit.

The right answer is to have greater intelligence around these types of transactions.  If I pay my water bill two times within a day of each payment and for the same amount – should it warn me?  Maybe.  Is that answer different if instead of my water bill its my mortgage payment?  Probably. But the more of these messages I receive- the more likely I am to ignore those messages too.  The product manager in me also knows it’s a trade-off – introducing this type of checking reduces value that can be delivered in other areas. 

I think the right answer is this level of error checking should be commensurate with the level of risk, confidence level that it’s a mistake and knowing that risk is going to be different based on the user persona.  As sucky as this experience has been – it would have been much worse for the 25-year-old version of me. 

In any case, this also is a good lesson in humility. I've been using computers for 75% of my life and made the most basic mistake.  While I’m not my product’s user, it is still good experience to have in the back of my head when making product decisions and building requirements.    

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bat Crap Crazy Product Manager: In the Wild

As a part of my responsibilities as a product manager, I’m able to visit customers in their native habitats.  In the past, I’ve gone onsite with a handful of our customers and was able to see a glimpse of my product users in the following cities: Delray Beach, San Diego, Charleston, Miami, and Chattanooga.  OK maybe these places are not exactly a place one would visit on a safari and it may sound like I pick my visits based on location – but the fact that they are all warm and beautiful is just a happy coincidence. 

The primary purpose of my visits is to observe our customers do a portion of their job and learn about their common business problems and challenges.  This helps me as a product manager in several different ways.  It allows me to identify challenges that are not given to me via typical feedback channels.  While on site, a customer may communicate 4-5 different items that are top priorities for them, but what I observe is 20+ different opportunities where we can make their job easier through product improvements. 

Not only that, it gives me context into what our customers days are like and all the different hats that they wear.  Just like in the wild, a users job is filled with the workplace version of mosquitos.  I get insight into what it's like for them to do their job with the constant chime of the Outlook inbox, the ringing of the phone or with a drive-by from their favorite co-worker. These visits allow me to understand underutilized areas of the solution as well as ways we can improve training and service.

On some of my more recent visits I’ve had members of our development team onsite with me.  This gives the team first hand information on the impact of what they deliver to our customers.  Additionally we record the notes from these trips and share it with other team members that are unable to attend.  This connects the folks who are solving the problems with the customers associated with them. Understanding the value of your job helps employees feel more engaged.

I’m fortunate in that I’m supported organizationally, so it makes these customer visits easy to schedule.  This type of interaction is critical to putting people first at my company.

Now back to researching where my next expedition will be…I hear Boston is nice this time of year!