Sunday, August 26, 2018

Line Product Management Process

Tweetise (thanks @djpiebob!)

I have some issues with the concept of “automating” or “scaling” product management, which I went into in this blog post: — what I haven’t written up is what I do use.

This is the process for directly running a product or multiple products; leading a team that runs products has a different set of tools required which I’ll go into some other time.

It’s pretty old school! I use whatever is available for shared documents,  [Confluence|Wiki|Google docs], to keep a freeform record of customer contacts. During a meeting I take notes on my phone (Apple Notes) or my laptop (BBEdit), depending on the need to avoid keyboard noise.

ASAP after the meeting I rewrite them into the shared doc and share the rewritten result with interested Slack teams. I’ve also tried SFDC call notes and direct to JIRA, but found it impossible to correlate and review across customers and projects.

The first raw notes document is a mess of shorthand, repetitions, action items and factoids for me, and acronyms that may only make sense to me. The second is still just notes, but more readable by other team members. This is the citations bibliography for everything else.

I might use it for competitive research as well, or I might put competitive notes in a separate document if they get too big. I‘ll also break the customer notes doc off into new docs every X pages or Y months, which can be useful for seeing changes in the market requirements.

I regularly re-read those notes and research items, looking for common threads, opportunities, and leverage points. I start copying these into a summary at the top of the shared notes document, and I use them to produce more structured requirements docs.

I need a Market Requirements Document (MRD): What is the problem, what industries are affected, how much money is available, what are the titles and responsibilities of the Champions, Gatekeepers, and Buyers?

I need a Product Requirements Document (PRD): What would we build for that market? What features would it need, and who would those features serve? I usually write up enough high level features for two or three major releases before I start trying to decide what might get done.

For a small project I‘ll combine the MRD and PRD. The PRD will be used to produce JIRA epics and stories. This means rewriting and converting from tool to tool, which means doing the creative work of refining, sifting, correlating, synthesizing, and sorting ideas.

The development team is introduced to these drafts as well, and we start to refine them together. Whiteboards, wireframes, and flowcharts start happening here. Maybe some prototype code.

I rewrite the epics and stories of the PRD in greater detail every time I touch them. I also clone them, move them from story to epic, throw them away and start over. Tickets are free, roadmaps are predictive estimates, and the backlog is a playground.

Change tracking, prioritization, progress reporting, workload sizing, and release estimation are driven from JIRA data, often processed in Splunk or Excel for presentation in [PowerPoint|Keynote].

Idea accountability and closing the loop with customers is not tracked in JIRA. That’s my responsibility to take care of, which I do by reviewing the customer notes document whenever I have contact with the customer or their sales team.

The system I suggest requires a lot of work. The PM must open themselves to as many sources of input as possible and work to reduce the firehose to sensible, high-leverage ideas for engineering to implement.

Centralization is critical so that the PM’s work is visible and can be taken over by another PM. Some sort of tool helps, but the specific tool chosen doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t get in the way. The more workflow a tool suggests, the more it’s going to get in the way.

Moving ideas from tool to tool at each stage is actually very helpful. Putting a technical barrier between input and output that requires human brainpower to push things through is analogous to transcribing from longhand notes to an essay in a text editor.

People are excellent at doing all sorts of creative work, but they’re also excellent at avoiding work and justifying results. Getting work done requires forming useful habits, and critically rewriting your own work is one of those.

There are a number of complaints that come up with this conversation, which I synthesize to “that process can’t scale!” As I understand the argument: “As a PM I want to offload portions of the workflow to an automatic system or a process that other teams do so that I can do more”.

Or the more pernicious: “As a PM I want to point other people at automated systems so that they don’t have to interact with me to get what they want”. As an introvert, I do sympathize with this position, but not very much, so let’s drop that one.

The work of doing product management is not automation friendly. Software is eating the world, and as product managers we are the chefs preparing that meal. It’s only natural to look at our own job, see a process and think “that can be automated too!”

It’s not true though, because software can only eat the things that are expressed in numbers without losing context. The computer can’t understand context. People have to do it, so the product opportunity is in personal productivity tools, not team aids.

Handling scale as a PM means managing the number and scope of projects, changing the balance of anecdata and metrics, and avoiding all the easy work that blocks this process with a false feeling of accomplishment.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

English degree, Tech Career

Also tweeted.

What is the career value of an English degree in a technology career? 

I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English Literature, focus on American poetry. My thesis was on Emily Dickinson. I’ve been working in information technology ever since. So I’m biased on this subject.

I’m hardly the only person with this kind of career path, and I realize how lucky I’ve been. I didn’t always, though. I faceplanted on an interview softball about my education several years ago.

I was interviewing with a rather prestigious company who was riding an amazing wave. They’d recruited me, so I was feeling good. Then: “Tell me about your English degree” and I started digging a hole. I had unwittingly internalized the view of humanities as useless.

Lesson 0: Have something positive to say about every word in your resume. Even if it’s something that your industry stereotypes.

Now hopefully less stupid, I have some thoughts about what the degree has done for me. The English degree taught me to read critically, synthesize information, and write clearly. I use these skills all day, every day.

In the classical education paradigm, this was called Logic and Rhetoric. ( @ckindel has posted an excellent update of this mental toolbox here (the linked articles are all worthwhile).

There are two power tools learned in the English degree that are not directly discussed in that: academic papers, and poetry.

Economic expression of ideas in standard persuasive forms is key to good writing. An academic paper’s standard form provides two leverage points. It helps you write. Writer’s block is defeated by words on paper, and the form gives you words, showing the gaps that remain. 

Form helps the reader accelerate. Look at the humble 5 paragraph essay. Thesis, three arguments, conclusion. Tell ‘em, show ‘em, tell ‘em again. A skilled reader processes this in seconds, while a less structured rant is a more challenging experience. 

Academic papers also ask the author to focus on quality. Because each sentence will be questioned, each sentence must carry its weight. The Twitter editor adds a similar value to one’s writing.

In a 10 page thesis or a 100 page dissertation, a product requirements document, or an engineering design discussion, writing has a job and every word is in service to that job.

When you take an English degree, you’re writing several 10 page papers a week, and working on longer papers at the same time. This is quite similar to the workload for product managers.

Economic expression of emotion via poetry is the second power tool of the English major. A strictly rational approach to the requirements above is acceptable or even desirable in some contexts, but overall insufficient. 

@brenebrown writes, "We want to believe that we are thinking, rational people and on occasion tangle with emotion, flick it out of the way, and go back to thinking. That is not the truth. The truth is we are emotional beings who on occasion think."

Because a PM must communicate with humans, we need to be able to engage emotions with our language. “Maximizing emotional load of each word through musical awareness” is a rather soulless description of poetry, but it’ll do for function.

Like the mental habits of engineering for scale... these are part of a toolbox that the English degree provides. Reading thousands of pages per week has turned out to be useful in modern life as well.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Merger & Acquisition Failures

Also available on Twitter.

Sometimes when two companies love each other very much... Companies buy other companies. Maybe it’s to pump marketshare or shut down competition. Sounds like a boring transaction as long as regulators don’t mind. Or maybe it’s to get technology and people.

Those are exciting projects, full of hope and dreams. And yet, so much of the time the technology is shelved and the people quit. Why is that? Because acquisition alters the delicate chemistry of teamwork and product-market-fit.

Maybe the acquired company continues to operate as a wholly own subsidiary and little changes for a long time. Or maybe the acquired company is quickly integrated into the mother ship so that all that goodness can be utilized ASAP.

I’m no expert on corporate acquisition, but I’ve had a front row seat for some of these. A few of them could even be called successful. Let’s generalize heavily from after-hours conversations that clearly have nothing to do with any of my previous employers.

The fateful day has come! Papers are signed, the Tent of Secrecy is taken down, and the press release is out. Acquiring teams are answering questions and testing defenses. They’ve got to retain key team members, integrate technology, and align the sales teams before blood spills.

At the same time, they’ve drawn political attention and are certainly facing some negative buzz. In a really challenging environment, they’re also facing coup attempts. M&A is as hard as launching companies, so it’s easy for others to snipe at.

Meanwhile, acquired teams are all over the emotional map. Excited, sad, suddenly rich, furious at how little they’re getting. Are friends now redundant, immediately or “soon”? Who's reviewing retention plans on a key team members list, and who's not: it won’t be private for long.

After an acquisition one might assume headhunter attention. When better to check in on someone’s emotional state and promise greener grass? Churn commences. The network starts to buzz, people are distracted, and some leave.  Of course, lots stay!

And maybe the folks that stay for retention bonus are a little more conservative. Bird in the hand, part of a bigger safer company, and there’s so much opportunity because everyone else in the big company is beat down and burned out. Sour like old pickles.

It seems that there’s more engineers and salespeople that make it through the acquisition. The acquired executives disappear into other projects or out of the company. Resting and vesting, pivoted into something new, but unlikely they’re still guiding their old team. Who is?

The middle managers who stay all drift up to fill recently vacated executive slots, where they either grow or flame out. Their attention is diffused into new teams and new problems. PMO steps in heavily, since the acquired company didn’t have one. Devs are largely on their own.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and someone steps in to fill this one. With luck they maintain product-market-fit and mesh with internal requirements. Or they fail and introduce interpersonal conflict to boot. Is this is the end of the acquisition road? Or does engineering lead itself?

There’s bugs to fix, and everyone knows what the old company was planning. The acquiring company has lots of new requirements too, like ADA compliance and Asian language support. Who needs customer and market input anyway? After a while the old roadmap is consumed.

There’s layoffs of course, and new requirements keep coming. “Please replace these old frameworks with a more modern workalike.” “Please rescue this customer with a technical fix for their social problems.” “Please do something about our new global vaporware initiative.”

The challenge of doing more with less is sort of fun. There’s some friends left. And the acquired person feels big. They talk with important customers and executives and they can spend more time on their home life. More folks have left, the remaining acquirees are authorities.

But the recruiter calls stopped. A temporary market slowdown, or is it personal? Can they get a job outside of the big company anymore? So they reach out and do a few interviews, pass up on some lower-paying opportunities, get shot down by something cool.

Better take more projects in the big company. By now the tech they came in with has lost its shine. Put a cucumber in brine long enough and it’s just another pickle. They’re helping new engineers with weird tools and pursuing new hobbies.

The street cred of being from an acquisition is gone, and they’re neck deep in big dull projects. “Lipstick this pig until it looks fashionable.” “Squeeze more revenue from the customer base.” “Tie yourself into the latest silly vaporware.”

Or even “Propose an acquisition to enter a new market with.” If this is success, who needs competition? When the game is no fun but you have to keep playing, people will change the rules — and that is whycome politics suck. Good luck out there, but don't stay too safe.
Updated with link: