Ask Me Anything with a Panel of Product Leaders – September Wrap

If you could get access to a bunch of Product Leaders for one night, what would you ask them? 

Well, in September, we did just that!

We caught up with Tom Williamson (Common Code), Pearly Yee (Brainmates) and Brendan Marsh (Organa) for a special Ask Me Anything session.

What was your most embarrassing moment in product?

Pearly: I haven’t had many embarrassing moments… When you galvanise the team towards a direction. You’re bold, and push the boundaries. But then after you launch, things don’t work out as planned, and you need to acknowledge the fact with the team, and then try to pull them in a different direction. It can definitely feel embarrassing in the moment, but you also learn a lot from it too.

Tom: Early in his career, while working at a startup, Tom was encouraged by his Head of Experience to hit the street and interview people. After buying around $300 of prepaid coffees from a local cafe, and approaching people with a coffee for their thoughts, people were so preoccupied and busy, Tom couldn’t even give away the coffee cards.

Brendan: Similar to Tom, an early experience for Brendan involved canvassing a local university to survey students about healthy habits… for Breast Cancer Awareness week. 

Advice for Product Managers early in their career to accelerate their learning?

Tom: There is no perfect way to do product. Holding a (‘right’ way to do product) view usually does not lead to a productive outcome, and instead can prove divisive with your team and/or management. As an alternative, focus on how you can help the company fill the gaps that it may have.

Pearly: You can also create a capability map, plotting competencies from tactical to strategic, and skills from technical to sales and marketing. Then you can assess where you are, and identify which areas need development. 

Brendan: Find a mentor who can help you identify where you need to grow.

When should you seek a mentor, and what should you look for?

Liz: As soon as you start in product!

Brendan: Or even before you get into product. 

Tom: Tom approaches mentorship differently, more transactional rather than a relationship. He has around 15 mentors, who have different experiences and expertise. So depending on what specific advice Tom is after, he will access his most appropriate mentor. 

Are certifications such as CSPO or Pragmatic important?

Pearly & Tom: Can they make you better? Sure, they can help. Especially for interviews. However, are they essential? Probably not. They shouldn’t be definitive. They may, however become the new benchmark in future.

Tom: For individuals, you can mash up information from a variety of sources to get what’s needed. From a corporate (or team) perspective, it can also help to form a common language. 

Brendan: The less dogmatic about how you are certified, the better. If a recruiter has agile or product certification as requirements, then that in itself may be a red flag, as they may value the certification so much. 

What’s a reasonable 90 day plan for a Product Manager who just joined your team?

Pearly: It usually takes substantial time (eg, 6-12 months) before getting a return from a new product manager. You shouldn’t rush in to make changes. Spend the first month observing, and formulating your plans. Don’t fall into the trap of making decisions without any information.

Tom: The best product people are those who have good relationships with their co-workers, as there will be plenty of communication and negotiation ahead. So meet your co-workers.

Also, get closer to the product. Use the product. Sit in with the customer service team. Use the systems that your support team are using. 

Brendan: When you start a new product role, begin with a fact finding mission. What data is available. What are the strategies?

How do you convince senior execs or founders that not everything needs to be in JIRA?

Pearly: I had previously been really strong about not believing in templates. It’s not about templates, but the thinking behind it.

When people don’t know how to communicate effectively with each other, sometimes tooling can reduce collaboration, eg, I work on my tickets, and reassign them instead of communicating. However, standardisation can help create a shared understanding and common language.

Tom: Using Jira, and not fighting the structure can also be freeing. Instead of spending your energy on continuously striving for the perfect template, you can instead focus on actually making better software. 

Brendan: As an agile coach, I do not want people to blindly use the tool or follow a process, without understanding the intent behind it. 

When was a time you killed a product or initiative?

Brendan: Sometimes the strategy evolves, and products (which may have been loved) are no longer aligned with the new direction. Decommissioning can be necessary, and also freeing. It definitely made our developers happier, so they had one less thing to support. 

Tom: At one client, we explored a bill scanning feature – scan a bill, use OCR to read the details, and feed into a rules based engine to derive a comparison. What started as a two week block of development quickly became 6 months of trying to get it to work. But it never worked. There was 0% conversion. It was not only about the time and money spent on this feature, but also the opportunity cost of all the things we were not building, because we were focused on this feature. 

Pearly: When I worked in publishing, one of our products, the Business Review Weekly, was well regarded, however not making any money so we had to decommission the brand and product and created a new Leadership Section to the AFR. It was a great experience because of the amount of work required to decommission such a legacy. 

Why did you get into consulting?

Tom: For me it was about the scope of work, and exposure to so many different companies and industries. Lots of other varieties.

Pearly: I like change, and a way to learn different things. I have the opportunity to observe how product is practised in different ways across different organisations, but also see similar problems.

Brendan: Like the others have mentioned, the variety. But also, personally, it was a lifestyle choice. Being a contractor or permanent employee can sometimes be all encompassing. Whereas consulting allows the freedom to go off the grid and volunteer for a week. 

Where do you see the future of Product Management in 10-15 years?

Brendan: Hopefully there will be much more empowerment. What’s the point of people spending so much time and energy to get close to the problems, and get insights, but are then not empowered to make the decisions? They need to be trusted and empowered to make the decisions.

Pearly: Product Management will become more ingrained at the upper levels. More people will be able to recognise what good product management looks like, and understand the value of being product-led.

Thank you

Thank you to our panellists Tom, Brendan and Pearly for sharing their time and wisdom; to our volunteers, Nosh Darbari and Yau Hui Min; to our host MYOB and our zoom sponsor A Cloud Guru (Pluralsight).

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