This is part of our ongoing series profiling some of our community members at Product Makers. If you’re interested in reading others, check out our previous Featured Makers.
This week we’re featuring
Starting in Product Management
How'd you get started making products that matter?
My first roles in the digital domain were 'business analyst' roles for a financial institution and in various implementation projects. After that, I became 'the product guy' at my own startup (this was my first real PM role and I loved it ever since!), then joined Proxyclick.
What's one piece of advice you wish you'd had when you started working in product?
Don't productize until you've walked a few miles in your customers' shoes. It's so tempting to fall in love with your first - abstract and technically beautiful - solution. Don't build it right away. There's no shame in acting like a service company until you've mastered the problem. Be a human solution first before engineering one. I guess this corresponds to Ries' fail fast mantra or some of Ash Maurya's teachings. A starting PM should look closely at those works.
Product management today
What do you like the most about your work?
Depends on which half of my brain you're asking!
My left-side brain loves the iterative aspect of modern product development. To make something grow from the tiniest of changes to a highly sophisticated system. And with each iteration, the impact is immediate: a switch is thrown somewhere and all over the world, your users' experience something new. You stare at your analytics dashboard to see what's going on. Is it working? You anxiously await news from CS about what customers are saying. You learn, rinse, and repeat.
My right-side brain does it for the stories. The down-to-earth telling of day-to-day activities of your customers. What are they actually up to? What's going on in those companies? What are these people looking to achieve? What do they need? ... It's almost like following a TV show. But you can actually intervene and influence the plot!
The best times are when you've been working on a problem space for some time and it's just spiralling all over the place. Everything is connected and nothing is connected. So many great ideas but none that really stand out. Then, you have that one conversation. That one customer story that makes you *see it*. You feel the energy and stay up all night re-organizing the insights and ideas. It just makes sense now. The next day, you video call your colleagues and share what you've done. They clearly see your enthusiasm but also wonder why your eyes are all red.
What do you like the least about your work?
The firefighting. PMs are seen as having the deepest product knowledge. And since we maintain close ties with engineering and manage the backlog, PMs can get stuff executed swiftly right?! The combination of these things means that we get pulled in to fight fires when customer grievances have escalated.
I hate it when that happens. Not because of the colleagues who pulled me in and surely not because of the customer. I hate it because it's a sign of PM failure.
As a PM, I failed to capture that grievance early on and weigh it properly.
As a PM, I failed to empower CS colleagues with enough product insight to deal with the situation and build their 'trusted advisor' status.
As a PM, I failed to empower sales colleagues with enough product details to properly manage the expectations of the customer.
What has you excited about the year ahead and your product?
The great 'work from home' experiment will leave its mark on so many aspects of our lives: work/life balance, use of company resources like offices, where we live etc.
The product I work on is directly impacted by this. So the old adage "the only constant is change" will count double for me.
Tell us about something you shipped/launched recently…
We recently shipped a browser variant of our mobile app. There was a ton of user feedback supporting this. So I got to work with beta testers who validated the solution.
Who do you most often collaborate with when planning, executing and bringing new things to market?
Planning typically happens through OKRs set by the (product) leadership team. So that's mainly by discussing with the CPO, VP Product & VP Engineering.
Execution or delivery happens on a squad level where I mainly work with a Product Designer and our Product Researcher to prepare. Relatively quickly, an initiative is brought to the entire squad of engineers and QA specialists. We try to stick to Scrum rituals like backlog refinements and sprint plannings for this. But lately, we've stepped out of this cadence a bit and address new initiatives with their own 'kick off' sessions instead of having them be agenda points of a ritual.
When it's GTM time, the focus shifts to other collaborators.
With CS: identify potential alpha testers to validate a solution
With (product) marketing: deliver use cases so they can craft a story
With CS & sales: train them on upcoming changes so they can spread the gospel
How does Productboard help you in your role?
Productboard helps me in a few different ways:
Organize ideas. The flexible component/feature/subfeature hierarchy allows me to quickly re-organize ideas whenever I want to try out a new angle or some organizational change happens. I also make several views that are tweaked to help me prepare for a specific task or ritual (e.g. squad planning, ‘top ideas’ in my scope etc).
‘Linked insights’ help me trace back the origin of feedback & stories. I recruited alpha testers this way. I also use this to prepare use cases to discuss with product marketing.
Through the comments feature, communicate about the product with sales (and thereby reducing the number of Slack threads and questions about product)
A bit about Pieter outside of product management
I do my best thinking when…
Wandering aimlessly through my city — Antwerp, Belgium.
💃 "Let's do this thing. With pazzazz!" It brings a lighter yet motivational tone to async communication. I find that important now that we lose out on so much non-verbal communication.
What product would you absolutely love to work on?
A 'clean B2C' product where the end-user is the (paying) customer. Preferably something in the areas of housing, wellbeing or personal finance.
I’m intrigued by the challenge of making consumers part with their money for a digital product that isn't an entertainment service. I rarely do it myself! And the B2C space is so different from B2B. For example:
When 5 enterprise customers ask for the same thing, you're probably on to something. That tactic doesn't scale to the consumer level. I believe it's actually much more difficult to build a great consumer product than an enterprise one. It needs to address a need that probably goes unvoiced or clouded in so much noise. What is really that important so people are willing to trade some of their hard-earned cash for it?
You need to double down on analytics too. Quarterly success meetings with key customers aren't going to work. Measuring and understanding product usage becomes a condition for survival, not just a best practice.
What's a product you'd love to fix and make better?
Three that would get my attention:
Travel passports: clunky, costly, painful to obtain (seriously, who makes you go to a photo booth these days?)
Any government platform dealing with health data
UI navigation on the Apple TV
Who's a person that you most admire and why?
One of my friends who 'weaponized' his own learning disability and is now:
a teacher at a school for children with learning disabilities, achieving better learning outcomes than regular schools with regular children (think about that for a moment 😳)
training other teachers how to reach better learning outcomes
building innovative digital education products providing personalized learning paths to children
Apart from that, he's also a talented musical performer and great at DIY stuff. Because of course he is.
Outside of work you'll find me…
In a (movie) theatre, at a comedy club or out in the streets with the world's cutest dog.
Insights on the Product Makers Community
How has the Product Makers community helped you thus far?
I’ve discovered countless great resources like the Fearless Product Leadership podcast. Got in touch with fellow PMs with whom I could have a call about a problem I'm facing. Feeling less 'alone' and getting confirmation that I'm not the only one struggling with a certain topic.
What do you get the most value from in the community?
Product Makers helps me feel more at ease when I read other product teams are facing similar struggles as my own.
Is there anything you would like to see happen next in the community?
I’m excited to see more opportunities to connect with one another like the new Meet a Maker program and Roundtables. The idea of office hours and a way to exchange knowledge with one another is very interesting to me. I’d also be interested in ways we could co-create more content and leverage and put the spotlight on the wider community.
And if all else fails, we could work together on a pilot script for TV show about PM-ship. I'm thinking something like 'Silicon Valley' meets 'Succession' meets 'Last Week Tonight'. Then go pitch it to HBO.
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