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!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Release Date

For me, this weekend marks the launch of two different things – one in personal life and one in my professional life.  Weird that the two things coincided in the same weekend.

We’ll start with personal. For the past eight weeks, I’ve spent 2-3 hours a week in Improv class practicing warm up games, short-form games and some basic scene work. We also spent time as a team out of class…Karaoke (yep I suck), Bocce Ball, Apples to Apples and possibly some drinking. The time out of class was all about instilling trust, collaboration and building the team.   This past Friday my class had to perform before the main cast went on stage.  It was terrifying.  All the practicing can’t prepare you for the random scenarios (i.e. the Sassy Underpants) that the audience comes up with but it did help us build confidence and the belief we could react to anything. Even if it didn’t go as we planned – there’s always the next scene. In the final performance we were all in 3 games.  We were all in Story Story Die, I was also in Buzz Debate and Touch Colab.  The first two went relatively well for me – but the third I just spaced out.  I couldn’t get any sort of mojo happening.  For the first hour or so after the show, I kept mentally replaying the third scene.  Later in the night I had the chance to hang out with friends with other cast members – who totally got my focusing on the positive. Why do many of us always replay with what could have gone better – rather then focusing on the good…

Similarly this weekend we deploy a major release of my company’s software, which made significant advancements in the area of the product I’m responsible for.  We spent a lot of time conducting user interviews, getting internal stakeholder input, understanding the root problem, usability studies, overcoming technical roadblocks etc.  I’ve done product management long enough to know that it won’t be perfect. As diligently as you work and research there are always that “why didn’t I think of that” item that comes up once its in the customers hands.  I also know that for every “oh crap” moment you have – there are significantly more “we nailed it” moments and made our customers jobs better.  As product managers we do need to celebrate those victories for tomorrow we’ll have a slew more product opportunities that we’ll be juggling and fires that we’re fighting. 

The other odd thing – is that while we can call it a release or a launch…both events also feel like an end.  In the case of Improv – I might move on to the level II class – but it won’t be with the all the same people nor quite the same experience. I’ve never jumped out of an airplane but I’m thinking the best way to describe the fundamentals Improv class experience is what it might feel like to jump out of an airplane for the first time. Level 2 will be more like a ferris wheel after this. 

In both cases I had the opportunity to work with great teams.  In Improv it brought together 9 people – most of whom had never met and are from all sorts of different backgrounds.  Special shout out to these peeps who were awesomely creative and supportive. I couldn’t have asked foe a better group of people to try and move the needle on my introverted status with. Thank you to Sara, Chelle, Lauren, Crosby, Matt, Clayton, Lukas and Byron.

Regarding my development peeps.  I am changing roles within Ultimate – moving to a different product area and additional responsibilities.  I’ve worked with the same development team for almost 4 years.  I came in working to learn the organization, the product and deepening my domain expertise (ok, getting some domain expertise).  My payroll peeps were remarkably patient with me and helped me learn and getter at my job. They pushed back on me when it was appropriate and looked for unique ways to solve the customer’s needs to help bring the product to another level.  This helped us deliver my most favorite release since I’ve part of Ultimate.

So in the end – the software release and Improv class ran along parallel tracks both coming to a brief stop at the same time.  Both experiences were about learning, listening, preparation, not being perfect, delivering the best you could, trust, teamwork, fun.,  and a great group of people.