Product management is an organisational life-cycle function within a company dealing with the planning, forecasting, and production, or marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product life-cycle….
Those three lines would be the opener to the most impactful summer of my professional career as a PM for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Over 4 months in 2019, I was given the opportunity to work at LCBO|next, taking on the challenge of working as a product manager for the first time in my career. Under my manager and mentor Danny Ho, I experienced a 4 month long crash course into the world of product management, learning step by step how to build, release and scale sustainable and innovative products.
Although I had a term of digital strategy at TD under my belt, as a rookie product manager and co-op student leading a team (for the first time!!) in the creation of a product was something far out of my realm of expertise. I recall my first few days on the job as one filled with doubt and impostor syndrome, with a background in UX and front-end development my scope of problem solving had always lay on user facing issues, now as a PM I would need to transition my mindset to understand business facing problems as well. A strong mentor and supporter, Danny provided me a framework for product management by teaching me the foundations of pragmatic marketing, encouraging me to take confidence in my decisions and empowering me to set my own goals working towards product strategy. Following a 2 week sprint where I focused on learning and equipping myself with the tools needed to succeed such as Product board, Azure Devops and Roadmunk, I was ready to lead a team of 3 other coop students to deliver on our first product, LCBO QuickRate.
At LCBO|next our ability to be nimble and agile meant that we would look for opportunities to develop and build over buying. With our lab building from our own ecosystem and untethered by any restraints politically or technically from the LCBO head office, as the Product Manager it was my responsibility to look for potential innovations to meet the LCBO’s goal of sustainability, responsibility and serving Ontarians the best we could. Drawing from this directive came the idea for a recommendations engine. Based off of collaborative filtering, a recommendations engine would cut down on search time for customers browsing the eCommerce site, in addition to intelligently suggesting products in a none invasive manner. From a business perspective this would reduce cart abandonment in cases where a user could not find a product, and also serve to market new additional products that a user might enjoy. With the business value validated the solutions design for the recommendations engine then came into play. In order for a recommendations engine to suggest products the machine learning model would first need to understand what types of products users would enjoy together; essentially we would need to feed parings and ratings data to train the model. This would prove to be the first roadblock in development, as ratings were not currently a feature supported by LCBO’s eCommerce site. A Friday afternoon brainstorming session would result in our answer to the problem, the application QuickRate.
Built as an internal application to quickly gather user rating data, QuickRate would serve as my team’s first challenge. With barely over two weeks to complete as the product manager I knew that we had to work fast. With experience working with Agile development in the past I sought to implement a bare-bones framework, Agile stripped to its core for the QuickRate project. Stripping down the fundamentals, we broke the Quickrate application into design, back-end and front-end utilizing azure dev-ops’ built in ticketing system to ensure we could keep on track for our tight release. Thankfully the team was more than capable to stand up to the challenge. Utilizing gamification theory learned in my undergrad, I worked with the designer Sharon to create an experience that would encourage users to “play” by rating drinks in an attempt to maintain points on a leader-board. With the support of Jay & Max, two fantastic developers the team was able to create a fully functional progressive web application in time for our release.
My experience managing QuickRate came down to understanding the dynamic between development and design in creating a product. As the product manager I had to ensure at the highest scope, that the project would be feasible; finding the balance between perpetuating the best user experience while building with zero technical debt; all while meeting a challenging time constraint. Although concessions had to be made in order for our product to meet its deadline, finding those concessions, those small functionalities that didn’t “matter” in the final picture was a lesson as a product manager I won’t soon forget, and I look forward to applying the same strategic decision making to many future projects to come.
Challenge and Refusal
Challenge and Refusal, was a project undertaken by the LCBO|next team as a directive from LCBO head office. It was a project that was conducted jointly by both the head office and the Lab’s development, security and product teams to digitize the LCBO agency store Challenge & Refusal process.
In compliance with the Integrity Shop Program and in tandem with Check 25, the Challenge Refusal process was a required process of LCBO’s social responsibility standards to restrict the access of alcohol to minors and maintain the integrity of the alcohol retail process. Agency stores were authorized retailers serving remote and rural communities across Ontario, meaning they were not LCBO stores but rather separate retailers. However these stores were still held to the same high standard to ensure that alcohol access would be restricted to minors. This meant recording instances of a challenge (asking for id) and refusal to serve alcohol. Due to the large variety of retailers authorized as agency stores, these stores did not have access to the same point of sale system offered in traditional LCBO stores. As such agency stores across Ontario would rely on a paper and pencil method to record cases of Challenge and Refusal. The proposed project was thus to develop a stand-alone Progressive Web Application to digitize the process of Challenge and Refusal in agency stores, providing them with an efficient way to track, store and submit cases of refusal in the purchase process. This project would prove to be a challenging one, requiring me to exercise organization and communication skills to a degree higher than of the past. As the Challenge and Refusal project was a join initiative, my role as product manager would entail speaking with stakeholders, organizing meetings with project managers from the head office and ensuring that design and development would meet the strategic outline set out by our product road map. Challenges I faced during this project involved receiving sign-off from stakeholders, finding feature concessions that everyone could agree on and building component diagrams for the very first time.
Furthermore although development would be handled by the LCBO|next team, integration with the main LCBO environment and rolling out an external application meant that vigorous security checks needed to be conducted before a release could be made. This added pressure meant that any last minute changes, be it bug fixes or features would be virtually impossible as new tests would be necessary every time code was pushed. With this hard deadline in mind managing the building process for C&R would prove to be one of the toughest challenges on my journey to product management. However I would not be deterred. Over the course of 3 sprints C&R would take shape as the zenith of my summer PM experience. Through the challenge and refusal initiative, I learned how invaluable communication and cohesion was for a team building a project, recalling having to work around multiple schedules to set up meetings and ensure goals were being met on time. I also learned how to push back, to work with a stakeholders rough vision and requirements and reign in when necessary if requirements morphed into out of scope features. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I learned that I as a PM had to always be learning; it wasn’t important that I didn’t know how to draw a component perfect technical diagram, or answer every question related to system security, what did matter was my ability to adapt and willingness to learn new things — a skill I will make sure to utilize as I continue to grow as a product manager.
All in all my experience at LCBO|next was truly career defining. In my exit interview with Danny I remember him mentioning that I wasn’t the strongest candidate. My grades were average and to say I had a wealth of experience wasn’t factual either. However the reason he took a chance on me was my hunger to learn and drive to grow. If I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to be a product manager prior to my internship I am a 110% now. It took me 22 years 5 different jobs and 5 years of school to do it but I’ve realized my passion for product, working to build fantastic digital experiences and turning scribbles on a white board into projects that make an impact and I look forward to a future doing just that.