My 2018 Product retrospective
What I’ve done and learned in Product in the past year…and what’s coming in 2019
Winding down for the New Year in a remote village in Alentejo (Portugal), I thought I might give it a try at being radically open about how 2018 went for me as a human being doing Product, and what I’m expecting for 2019. Regarding 2018 I’m not only showcasing achievements, but also being open about what I’ve struggled with and what I’ve learned anew — in the hope you can also benefit from that.
A look back into 2018
The year 2018 began with the aftermath of two crucial projects in the product line I was responsible for at Onfido. Both had deadlines around the turn of the year, and one of them:
- was not a typical arbitrary deadline, rather a do-or-die one,
- involved cross-functional efforts (from legal aspects to client comms and service changes), and
- would have had significant revenue impact if gone wrong.
Despite not being new to this and having a track record of delivering on time, Impostor Syndrome kicks in. At the same time, it was the first Christmas in the lifetime of my first child, so the pressure I imposed myself was double—I didn’t want to screw up at work and I didn’t want to screw up such a special Christmas in the process.
It all turned out okay, but this meant I began 2018 significantly worn out with respect to my mental health. I discovered dark corners of my mind that I would gladly not have. That’s when I gave another go at coaching—first with Eva, and then by taking advantage of the Sanctus coaching that I’m fortunate to have for free as a perk for working at Onfido. Coupled with other ways in which Onfido supports work–life balance and bringing your whole self to work, the (more or less) monthly sessions with Shayan (all but one done remotely with him in London and me in Lisbon) were fundamental in regaining my balance and the trust in my abilities.
In the second half of 2018, on the back of both some strategic moves and a fellow product person leaving the company, the perfect change opportunity materialised—after about 1½ year with the same product area and team (a personal record). I am now (since beginning of Q4) the product manager for Onfido’s Service Platform — the set of user-facing tools and back-end mechanisms powering the manual aspects of Onfido’s hybrid approach to online identity verification. Despite not being a customer-facing area of the product, it plays a key role and has really exciting problems to solve. Shortly after joining the new team full-time(ish), we’ve embarked on a (literal) trip to be on the floor with our tools’ users for almost a week. The experience was humbling, and made wonders in creating product sense and customer (user) empathy in all of us.
As an interesting bonus, I get to apply some of the stuff I’ve learned and created when I was doing my PhD thesis on real-time scheduling — more than four years after leaving academia (and the real-time scheduling topic) to become software engineer and later product manager. Who would have known?
In my career as a product manager, I’ve learned a lot from reading ideas and points of view shared by fellow product people—who are kind enough to share them with the community. As such, I find myself with the moral duty of giving that back by sharing my experience, learnings, etc., through articles and talks (more on the latter below).
In 2018 I’ve published three stories on Medium:
- “A Product is a Product: product management is not just software!” — on the back of my combination of Martin Eriksson’s and Marty Cagan’s definitions, I show how these essential principles of product management can be applied beyond software, despite being heavily biased thereto.
- “These frameworks are big pluses. Literally.” — an overview on two quadrant-based frameworks: Urgent–Important matrix, and Merrill & Reid’s Social Styles. Not super proud of this one (it was supposed to be part 1 of 2 but I’ve lost the mojo to carry on).
- “Constraints are cool” — a bit of fun after seeing a writing prompt on Reddit. I took the constrained writing challenge one step further, so the story not only obeys a constraint but also is about constraints (with a focus on how to take advantage of them in product management). Spoiler alert: the constraint I’ve imposed was having all sentences begin with the letter C (while still trying to make a coherent point).
Furthermore, my late 2017 story “Marty meets Martin” has gained some renewed popularity throughout 2018, being repeatedly shared in social networks and cited as “an interesting view on how these [product decision-driving] professions, roles and remits overlap” and “a helpful model to refer to”.
In 2018, I’ve delivered two talks at meetups.
- “Scrum in agencies: where is the Product Owner?” at Agile Connect (Lisbon, March 2018), based on my article with the same name. This talk highlights some specifics of doing Scrum in an agency setting (i.e. where product development is hired as a service for a client, rather than being for the own company’s product(s)). It builds both on my previous experience as a PM at Premium Minds (in an agency setting) and on the differences (and also similarities) I found in a product company like Onfido. You can check the video recording on YouTube.
- “Marty meets Martin: connecting the two triads of product management” at Productized Talks (Lisbon, November 2018), based on my article with the same name. You can check the slides here.
I’ve also repeated in April the experience of delivering “What the heck is a product manager?” to undergrad students at my alma mater.
Events / talks attended
For the second year in a row, I’ve attended Mind the Product London. Of the messages delivered there, I was particularly inspired by Martin Eriksson’s keynote on impostor syndrome (something which I related with), and by Kim Goodwin’s strong reminder about the human beings using our product. Coming from being the PM for a product line that helps people get verified in order to apply for a job, and now picking up on a set of tools that help identity verification analysts do their job efficiently but also competently, Kim’s point on values-guided with the people’s needs in mind really struck a chord. You get head over to Vimeo to check both Martin’s keynote “Embrace Your Inner Impostor” and Kim’s “Human Centred Products”.
Another fantastic talk I’ve had the pleasure of attending live was Neha Datt’s “5 things I learnt last year as a product manager and coach” at Agile Connect Lisbon (of which I’m a co-organiser). She shared her views on sustainability, learning safely, and being creative, and also her take on taking the user’s social and emotional needs in product discovery. You can check the talk on Youtube.
2018 has been a good reading year (too bad I no longer track that too closely on Goodreads like I used to). From the several books I’ve read this year, here are some I recommend.
- Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most — About three years ago in a conversation with Ricardo Fiel (then at RUPEAL) he put the issue of communication in a way I never forgot: communicating with each other is what we most often need to do to be successful, and yet we learn jackshit about it in school/uni. While this is still the case, Difficult Conversations is a must-read to bridge that gap.
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: a Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life — I’ve read it twice. Beyond the bait title and its categorisation as “self-help”, it’s really a fruitful read. The backbone of the book is a set of five principles which, despite not ground-breaking, are presented by the author in a really thought-provoking way.
- It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work—I actually read two books on time management that came out more or less at the same time this one, and Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. I found It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work to provide more generalisable (hence useful) advice, whereas Make Time felt too focused on specific techniques used by the authors that start to fall flat as soon as your context differs even slightly from theirs (a bit the same way I feel about David Allen’s Getting Things Done).
- Lateral Leadership: a Practical Guide for Agile Product Managers — Product Managers permanently live in this conundrum of responsibility without authority (hence the lateral leadership: we need to take the helm of a ship of peers, not reports). Tim Herbig provides practical advice on how to get around this by creating strategic alignment and empathy and by wisely using conflict escalation.
I’ve also learned a lot reading stories on Medium, but it would be a daunting task to highlight those here. For an idea of what caught my interest around this neck of the woods, you can check the stories I applauded.
It’s only been three months since I’m full-time(ish) in my new product team, so there is still a lot to do and I’m very excited about what’s to come. In this first quarter (Q4) I’ve led the team to deliver on ongoing epics and to focus on an outcome-focused roadmap, and I can’t wait for us to bring it to life.
In Q1 the remnants of my previous responsibilities will subside, so I’ll be able to scratch that “(ish)” and consider myself focused on Onfido’s Service Platform team full-time. Besides driving the strategy and roadmap for the Service Platform, I expect to support splitting the responsibility for non-customer facing tools other than the Service Platform out of the team and into a new one — by the way, we’re hiring a PM exactly for that.
Stories in the making
In no particular order, here are the stories that I have lined up (in varying stages of maturity, to be honest):
- A follow-up to my “Marty meets Martin” article (and to the respective Productized Talks presentation), explaining how to use my proposed approach to also assess product organisations, and use that to inform stakeholder management and communication.
- My personal story of mental health challenges as a product person (which I briefly mentioned above in the year in review), and how I overcame them (and keep striving to keep them in check).
- Rules for healthy arguments — some patterns I started to pick up from (un)healthy arguments (both in my personal and professional contexts). I created the draft here on Medium in August, with the rules as headings, and before I got the time to write it up I found some echo of what I felt when reading Difficult Conversations.
- Cross-functional OKRs—a real story about how I’ve used OKRs driven by outcomes (and not outputs) at Onfido to ensure alignment between functions with different ways of contributing to a shared goal.
Talks to deliver
Right now the only talk I have lined up is a proposal for Pixels Camp entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Product Managers*(*But Were Afraid To Ask Yours)”. Thinking about the event’s audience, this talk is not for product managers—but rather for people working with product managers (especially development team members).
Though still in baby steps, I’m also exploring an idea to give in 2019 a first go at holding a product-related workshop.
Books to read
Here’s what’s in my Kindle queue right now— in alphabetical order (so no preference or priority implied). I haven’t bought all of them yet (I’ve been using “Download Sample” as a tool to curb the impulse buying that Amazon ever so smartly makes so damn easy), so I might end up not reading the ones marked with (?) — but at least you get an idea of what I’m considering reading.
- 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos (? — this book is so not-me, but I’m tempted to read it just to know what the fuss is all about; as we say in Portuguese, “o saber não ocupa lugar”)
- Atomic Habits: an Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (?)
- Competing Against Luck: the Story of Innovation and Customer Choice (?)
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
- Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value (?)
- Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (?)
- Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results (?)
- Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
Fell free to comment if you have related book recommendations, or if you have anything to add about the books I’ve listed.
I hope you have enjoyed this personal look back at 2018 and forward into 2019. It’s somewhat “me me me” but, well, I’m not notable enough to have someone write my memoir. 😉 I wish you a Happy and Prosper New Year!
This post represents my individual professional opinion on this subject, not that of any company I work (or have worked) at/for on this subject area.