User data isn’t enough. You need a framework, too.

I was asked recently the following question: “What’s a skill that you’re seeing as increasingly important in product management?”

When I started in product 20 years ago, a lot of user data was locked away because of the way software was being used. People spent hours every day working on client tools like Office and Adobe on their desktop computers that still weren’t Internet-connected. Companies had on-premise servers managing emails and document storage that didn’t relay information outside the company. The web was still a small part of people’s lives, and tools like Google Docs and Slack were years away. Getting qualitative user feedback took weeks of identifying users and hosting in-person focus groups or interviews.

Fast forward 20 years, and we now have a wealth of user data. People are spending most of their lives on cloud-connected devices and services for work and play, making it easier to receive large amounts of anonymized user behavior data. But also, the tools have gotten better. For example, there’s FullStory to review user sessions, Heap Analytics to do ad-hoc customer journey analytics, and UserTesting to get qualitative feedback from participants in a matter of hours.

This wealth of data creates a new challenge: synthesis. Product managers can get buried in all of this data, spending hours sifting through it trying to decide what’s important. The problem worsens if there’s conflicting data, such as user surveys or sessions disagreeing with web metrics. This can paralyze decision-making as product managers try to rationalize all of the conflicting data points.

The way through this problem, and the skill that will differentiate good product managers from great ones moving forward, is having a framework that enables one to decide what data is important and synthesize it into a cogent product plan quickly. A framework can quantify user feedback so one can understand what’s being heard most often. It can create a scaling system so a product manager understands what is most severe. It can minimize recency or familiarity biases that steer someone to overweight some data over others. It can guide someone to spend more time analyzing data if the resulting product decision is not easily reversible, or move more quickly if it is. 

20 years ago, we wish we had the data we have now. Today, the key is to use a framework to make sense of data quickly and make better product decisions as a result. 

Tips for Dealing With Remote Video Meetings

Note: This is an extension of a LinkedIn post from August 21, 2021.

With many of us working from home these days, the remove video meeting is king. Calendars are filled with back-to-back Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams appointments. And after a day full of them, you may be feeling mentally drained. Here are some things to try to keep you centered and maintain your sanity:

  1. Take a meeting via phone instead of screen. Not every meeting needs faces in boxes and screen sharing.
  2. Schedule your meetings for 25 or 50 minutes. Use the extra time in between to stand up, stretch, and look outside a window for a few moments.
  3. Schedule yourself for lunch. Don’t bring a screen to lunch. Actually eat some lunch.
  4. Schedule yourself for a short walk around your neighborhood or head to a park and take a quick stroll.
  5. Schedule yourself for solo work time. Pick the time of day you are most productive solo.
  6. Stick to your plan. Reschedule meetings that conflict with it.

37 Years an Immigrant

Note: This was originally a LinkedIn post on August 1, 2021.

Today, August 1, is the 37th anniversary of my family moving to the United States from Athens, Greece.

Picking up and moving to a new country is such a big change. As an adult now, I can hardly imagine doing it! And while I know it wasn’t an easy transition, I’m grateful to my parents for deciding to go ahead with it, given the opportunities that were made available to us all.

Thanks to that move 37 years ago, I’ve met countless friends and colleagues and made hundreds of memories. The educational and professional opportunities have been unmatched. And about 20 years ago I became a naturalized citizen so I could vote.

I firmly believe our country is stronger thanks to immigrants. From the migrant farmer who picks your produce to the medical researcher finding a cure for your disease, immigrants have been a cornerstone of the development of the United States.

I’ve yet to meet an immigrant who doesn’t want to leave this country in a state better than they found it. They’re bought into this country, warts and all, and they don’t want to take what is here for granted.

Next time you see someone with an unusual last name or an interesting accent, politely ask them where they or their families hail from. And remember that, regardless of citizenship, if that person is choosing to be here, at some level they’re American, too.

Hiring managers: don’t ghost candidates you speak to

I’m actively hiring to fill a role on my team, which means I’m talking to a lot of candidates in informationals and initial interviews. All of this has reminded me of one important thing: do not ghost candidates that you have spoken to.

Let’s say you take 30 minutes or longer out of your day and a candidate’s day to meet with them, learn about them, and discuss your role. Let’s also say that after the chat you decide that the candidate isn’t a good fit. You should at least send them a quick email letting them know you’re moving ahead with other candidates.

I make it a point to followup with everyone I’ve spoken with. I know that’s how I would want to be treated if I were on the job hunt.

Also, the world is small. It’s quite possible you’ll interact with the candidate you’re ghosting down the road. How awkward!

You’re not too busy. Take just one minute to let the candidate know where they stand. They’ll appreciate it.

What product management taught me about releasing an album

Last Tuesday, I released an album of music. It’s something I’ve worked on part-time for almost a year. Each track is inspired by a natural phenomenon.

I initially thought of this as a creative venture fairly different from my day job. Surely nothing from my day job would carry over, right?

Wrong.

While the end product is music someone listens to and not software someone uses, it turns out product management skills and techniques were very much in play as I went from early idea to published work. Here are a few that I used along the way:

Working backward

Product visions illustrate what changes in the world when the product exists, and what success looks like when the product is released and adopted. Some, like Amazon, write this vision down in the form of a future press release.

While I didn’t write a press release for my album, I did think ahead to what a release it would look like, and anticipated the things I would need to figure out:

  1. I knew I wanted an album that combined electronic with acoustic and electric instruments, so I had to research the best ways to get the sounds that I wanted.
  2. I knew I had a fair bit to compose, so I knew I had to research MIDI controllers and other input mechanisms for my setup.
  3. I wanted it to be released on streaming services, which meant I had to figure out what my options were for self-publishing through a distributor.
  4. I knew I wanted it to be listened to, so I had to come up with a plan for how to get the word out.

Defining a schedule

Work often fills available time, and for my album I had no hard deadline. To avoid working on it indefinitely, I set a personal goal of releasing it before end of 2020. This artificial deadline helped motivate me to spend time working on my music. It also ensured I wasn’t spending too much time tinkering, rethinking, or dwelling on parts of the work that were effectively done.

Making hard cuts

Early on, I had desires to have fifteen or even more tracks to my album. I had dreams of doing field recordings, and maybe even collaborating with other musicians. All of this takes time. That, combined with the reality that the last 10% of a project often takes the most time, made me cut back to something that was more reasonable: a 10-track solo album created in my home studio.

Beta testing

Often customers are asked to use a product in advance of it being released, to help the development team find and fix issues. As I was nearing completion of my album and doing final mixing and mastering, I listened to the music on various speakers including earbuds, car stereos, smartphones, and cheap monophonic Bluetooth speakers. I also shared the music with a few people to listen in advance. This all helped me uncover and fix small issues that I otherwise wouldn’t have uncovered.

– – – – –

While there are many differences between shipping software and making music, my day job doing the former certainly helped me figure out the latter.

I welcome your thoughts on how your day job may have helped you with a creative side venture. And, if you’re interested, take a listen to my work.