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MVP Conf Day 2: Daring Keynotes, Product Management Stress Relief, and Drink Recipes

I don’t know about you, but it’s easy for me to feel inspired and invigorated when my hanging out with the best and brightest.  Movers and managers responsible for delivering all sorts of awesomeness from PBS, Zappos, Travel Channel, and other companies surrounded me on all sides as I felt the innovative rush coming on in the Dome Theatre.

Capital One’s Toby Russell, formerly of Taxi Magic fame, started Day 2 with a lead off quote from Marc Andreesen, “In short, software is eating world.”  Toby set the tone with a call to disruption for the product managers in the audience, “MVP shouldn’t be about trying and failing, but trying and learning and then, failing and pivoting based upon your results.  You can fundamentally change the world by reinventing something old into something new and constantly iterating to build a great customer experience.”

Look at the core need.

Work back from the core need, then improve it.

Toby’s talk centered on three key ideas:

  • Take the technology of today
  • Work back from the core need
  • And improve the core need

For instance, the smartphone has innovated many industries.  At their respective times, wristwatches, point and shoot cameras, mapping technologies, and travel and booking were all performed using a myriad of devices, websites, and computers.  Now, the smartphone has turned any watch into a accessory, more photos are taken on iPhones than any camera, people use phones walking and driving directions, and the number of trips booked from a phone are dramatically increasing each year.

Toby asked us to consider how information products get started, take physical manifestation, and then become digitized.  Retail distribution used to be a competitive advantage, now it’s not entirely clear. If you wanted to watch a newly released movie at home, you would hop in the car and take a trip to Blockbuster.  Consumers wanted to watch movies, but not own them, and definitely didn’t want to go to a store.  Netflix informationalizes movie rental by shipping DVDs.  Ultimately, Netflix figures out that people don’t even want the actual disk, they only want to watch the movie.  Now, Netflix primarily distributes digitally over the Internet.  “Look at the core need,” Toby advises, “and work backward while applying technology to the need.”

Toby doesn’t want product managers to create the next self driving car, or Google Flu, but to use technologies that are coming down the pike to reinvent the problem set we are tackling.  Before closing his keynote, Toby gave us a recipe for disruptive innovation:

Emotional Need + Technical Insight = Novel Solution

And how to use this recipe to create disruptive success:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Andrew Nguyen of Zappos was the follow on act for Toby.  Formerly an engineer, Andrew is a man of my own heart, and is now a product manager.  Toby was here to share some ways to bridge better relationships with the engineers we depend on to build our products.

According to Andrew, there are 3 ways to building a great relationship with engineering corps.  First, build trust.  Engineers know what’s possible and know the impossible based upon the design.  The key to building trust is to clearly communicate that product management and engineering are peers working together to build a great product.  Second, is to be transparent and not spread juicy gossip.  Learn how to estimate well and communicate estimates with engineering.  When you pad estimates communicate to the engineer that you are padding it and ask if they can think through ways of building the product better.  Also, reduce your own technical debt.  Understand what it takes to build a solution properly.  Engineers are very proud of their work and if they don’t have time to properly implement a feature or function, then they’ll be less enthusiastic about building other features.

The door swings both ways on transparency, give engineers ownership.  Provide engineers with the tools they need to be successful and the people they need for information.  Recognize people when they have good ideas, and also give credit for bravely presenting bad ideas.  The engineering team owns how the product is built. Back them up on this.  If you transition from engineering into product management, contributing on the technical level is something you have to give up.  Your engineering team now has that responsibility.

Finally, say thank you.  Building a product is difficult and the cleverness solution determine the size of the thanks you give your engineering team.  Use data to back you up.  Use the number of users, revenue, and interactions.  Let them know how well they’ve done.  And finally evangelize your team.  It’s one think to continuously talk about your product, but take some time to tell the company how great your team implemented a great new feature.  Tell a story about what your team did, and add a little embellishment.

“Always bring the donuts,” Andrew said quoting Ken Norton.  Always feed the engineers.  It’s very important.  You can start with Chic Fil A, then you can migrate to something healthier like bagels, but make sure you get a variety of bagels. Finally, when you’ve become legit you can introduce alcoholic beverages. Based upon new Mild Inebriation = Great Ideas, mild intoxication aids creative problem solving.  Andrew shared his White Russian recipe:

  • Equal parts vodka and Kahlua
  • Finish off with cream

Equal parts vodka and Kahlua. Then, finish off with cream.

Finishing the morning off was Salman Suhail presenting a stress relieving presentation, Reducing Stress Around the Product Management Lifecycle.  Lots of quotes were being thrown around this morning and Salman recalled one from Ben Horowitz, “a good product manager is the CEO of the product”.  Most product management screeds focus on the building and shipping of products, but not what comes after.  Yeah, like the monitoring and monetizing of a product.  According to Salman, these are some of the biggest causes of stress product managers experience.

Salman Suhail, Opower Senior Product Manager

Salman Suhail, Opower Senior Product Manager

Salman’s stress relief process heavily relies on timing releases and pacing your team.  It involves  modifying the product lifecycle process to ship small release alphas, larger release betas, and a release candidate.  He also encourages product managers to  plan the deployment process before alpha release and craft go-to-market strategies before the beta release is created.  All the while encouraging, inspiring, and motivating.

Vox media’s Lauren Robaino took us into lunch and illustrated some ways to bring more experimentation into your business.  It’s always hard to balance experimenting with new tech and doing cool things versus keeping the lights on and meeting our business objectives.  Lauren presented three ways to bring experimentation into the culture.

  1. Be deliberate. Give time and space to your teams to experiment.  If you don’t record it or make it part of the culture it won’t happen.  We’re just too busy.  The 20% time rule doesn’t work.  Instead, make 20% of each project experimental.
  2. Restructure your company’s teams to consist of a core team that’s backed up with smaller, innovative teams that can experiment and build new things without having negative consequences if the experiments fail.
  3. Do real experiments and not random, fun crap.  Use the actual scientific method.  Make an observation, develop a hypothesis, craft the experiment, execute it, then analyze the results and draw conclusions from the experiment that can be worked in by the core team.
  4. Encourage a workplace of multi-team collaboration.  Companies can host hack-a-thons and tiger teams to encourage individuals with differing skillsets to work together.
  5. Craft adoption plans for ideas.  Unfortunately, hack-a-thons are places where ideas go to die.  Instead of allowing these ideas die, bring ideas from the hack-a-thon into the normal stream of business.
  6. Save time elsewhere.  Hack-a-thons take time an effort. So does experimentation.  Vox Media templatizes style guides and isolates other common elements in their business so that time can be spent experimenting instead of working on mundane tasks.

Vox is very transparent about its creative process and Lauren advised us to read their Product Blog for more ideas to bring experimentation into the workplace.

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