Black box of PM Podcast: Season 01, Episode 01

tap tap tap… is this thing on?

It’s been three years since I’ve last written, and I’m happy to share that I’m going to be — slowly at first — writing and creating again. For my first “post”, I have a little surprise — I’ll be trying something new: a podcast with Craig Miller, the former CPO of Shopify.

A special thank you to Craig, who not only was an amazing guest, but hilariously helped me with post-processing for the video (for fun, he says…). Craig’s personal touch on the episode makes this extra special for me and hopefully you.

Mental models are simple expressions of complex processes or relationships. These models are accumulated over time by an individual and used to make faster and better decisions.

Here’s an example: the Pareto Principle states that roughly 80% of all outputs comes from 20% of the effort.

In the context of product management, the model suggests that instead of trying to create 100% of the customer opportunity, you may want to look for how to do 20% of the effort and solve 80% of the opportunity. …

If the craft of Product Management is often mired in ambiguity, managing product managers is ambiguity².

When you start managing PMs for the first time, you are forced up a steeper managerial learning curve than in other functions. This is because the average PM you may manage is already quite experienced, due to the fact that PMs typically start the role after success in other disciplines or entrepreneurship. That’s in contrast to disciplines like engineering or design, where initial management responsibilities start much earlier in a career due to the more established entry pipeline from schools.

I’ve directly managed over…

Some of the best PMs I know make their decisions based on first principles. A first principle is a “basic, foundational proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption.”.

An example of one that we use for our developer platform team are that “all platform features should be like Lego blocks”, meaning that developers should be able to use any combination of features when building an app. Features should be interoperable, just like Legos.

First principle thinking helps PMs because as companies scale, communicating the rationale behind historical, current, and future decisions can be simplified…

A sea of information at a public library in Toronto, c/o

While product managers may not build the actual product, they do produce something very tangible for a team: decisions.

July 23 update: in retrospect and from feedback, this framework applies to any role, not just product management.

These decisions can be about anything: small ones like a line of copy in the docs, to big ones like what the MVP of a new feature should be.

The decisions PMs make are the ones that unblock their team so they can continue to build. …

For as long as I’ve been working in tech I’ve heard this oscillating debate about the use of deadlines in projects, with particularly strong opinions from those against them:

“I don’t believe in deadlines. They are bullshit created by (predominantly business) people who don’t understand how hard it is to design and build great products. You cannot rush great [design, software, etc.]”

I disagree, I believe in deadlines. Not because the date matters, but because they’re a powerful way to influence the behaviour of a team.

At the time of this writing, our team at Shopify is busy preparing for…

All high functioning teams must prioritize. Not once a month, not once a week — but rigorously, and ruthlessly.

Prioritization means doing the things that are most important first. If you build products, it means doing the things that create the most customer value first.

In my experience, the craft of making prioritization decisions is one of the most difficult skills to impart on teams because of how complex those decisions can become, and while it’s usually a core responsibility of product managers, I’ve found that the best teams are the ones where everyone is maniacally prioritizing towards the same goal, and doing so in a way that’s consistent with each other.

This post is about a framework to…

I get every new PM I manage to read (or re-read) High Output Management by Andy Grove within the first month of joining my team. It’s a timeless, no bullshit overview of what a manager is and how to think about being one. Most PMs do not have people reporting into them, but in all cases they are still managing outcomes that are executed through a team.

There are two critical concepts in that book that I aspire for PMs on my team to internalize: the first is how to measure managerial output, and the second is the idea of…

We just enabled 325,000 merchants to sell in messaging, without building a bot.

Our team at Shopify has been working on “conversational commerce” for about year now. On Oct 5th, we launched the ability for hundreds of thousands of Shopify merchants to get their products into chat threads and sell directly to their customers through Facebook Messenger. Check it out:

I often wonder if I should have been fired for it

I find that so little is shared by product managers about their failures, which sucks for newbies because it perpetuates the illusion that all these other PMs execute flawlessly, when in fact most are making mistakes all the time.

This is a story about a really bad product decision I made early on in my career as PM at FreshBooks.

It isn’t about an epic company failure, like the un-relatable biographies of famous founders, rather it’s a “run of the mill” screw up on a product. …

Brandon Chu

GM, Platform @shopify. Still a PM at ❤️.

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