9 best pieces of advice from Tencent’s ex-CTO on how to build a perfect product

Tencent’s founding member, ex-CTO and now Lifetime Honorary Advisor Tony Zhang

How do you build a perfect product? An interview on product development with one of Tencent’s founding members, ex-CTO Tony Zhang, triggered wide discussion recently. Zhang retired as Tencent’s CTO in 2014 but he’s still actively engaged with Tencent’s product development as a consultant.

Before he left the office, Zhang was known as an outspoken and stubborn leader, a person with strong logic and insightful views who was also a workaholic.

In this interview, Zhang again explicitly discussed his thoughts on Tencent’s current products as a retired high executive, inspiring advice for product managers as well as independent developers.

What follows are nine insightful views on how to build a good product from Tony Zhang. Let’s get started:

1. Face criticism with courage

When I founded Lewen (Tencent’s internal BBS, which means Love to Ask in Chinese), I had two goals: one was to provide a platform for employees to tell the truth rather than following a formula; the other one was to make full use of our fragmented time.

There’s no denying that there’s been lots of criticism of our products on Lewen. Some teams don’t like to have their products discussed on this platform. However, as the leader, you cannot turn a blind eye to these critiques. These complaints won’t disappear even if you pretend you never saw them. It’s much better to have constructive conversations and seek solutions rather than letting all these problems escalate on anonymous forums.

Note: Lewen is Tencent’s internal Q&A platform, on which Tencent employees have open discussions about Tencent’s products and services. According to an interview with Zhang, sometimes the criticisms of product teams can get really harsh.

2. Don’t be fooled by self-satisfaction

I always believe that a high-quality product will be able to prove itself over time. If you want to know more about a new product, you just need to experience it instead of depending on hearsay. I sometimes learn about how our company is doing from the media but occasionally I find that the articles don’t really have a point and are more for PR purposes. Also, to advertise their products, some leaders demand that their team members share promotional articles on social media to make an illusive impact online.

I think it’s meaningless. Who will even read that stuff? Whether a product is good depends on what users think rather than what your own team thinks of it, no matter how much you promote it.

3. Always be at ease with quarrels and disagreements

I’m a really stubborn person. Many product managers are really strong-minded because they are all persistent with their own product principles. Quarrels and disagreements make a good team. I think team members should have mutual trust and tolerance that allow collision, error and argument. As long as you can accept different views, you will be able to bring out the full potential of the team.

4. Do what you like

Young people always face a lot of challenges, especially at their first job. My advice is to engage yourself in what you like. The relationship between the collective and the individual should be mutual promotion and common progress. It’s very common to feel anxious but essentially it’s about whether you like your job. If you have no interest in what you do, just make a change. Going for second best is not a good option.

5. KPI is just a number

Always ask yourself what you want. KPI (Key Performance Indicator) is just a number in most cases. Market share can only represent your achievements in the past. But when the next trend comes along, your products and services may go out of date. Therefore, if leaders only focus on annual performance and bonuses, it will be too boring. You should also focus on things beyond KPI and keep up with the times.

Photo from Mydrivers.com.

6. Accept reality with serenity

When asked about the relationship between WeChat and QQ, Zhang said: each product has its own life cycle. With no history in the PC era, WeChat represents a totally different concept. As the new pattern of communication, it attracted a lot of new users who have never used IM (Instant Messaging) before. Consequently, many middle-aged men who seldom make purchases online have learned to use WeChat Pay.

Considering this, it is normal for QQ to undergo challenges. If your product is replaced one day, please accept this reality calmly because the world is always changing.

Note: Before WeChat was launched in 2011, QQ, also developed by Tencent, was the most popular IM app in China. But QQ’s mobile version didn’t achieve the same success as its desktop version. When WeChat was launched, the new team outperformed QQ and started an internal competition, which later came to be regarded as a tradition at Tencent.

7. Good opponents are precious

When asked about Tencent’s competition with NetEase, Zhang said: Netease is a rival worthy of respect. Their products like Youdao dictionary, NetEase Cloud Music, and Cloud Notes are taken seriously and receive good reviews from users. Used like a mirror, good opponents can promote our development.

Note: Recently, Tencent’s mobile games income on iOS was surpassed by Netease, one of the leading gaming companies in China, which caused widespread concern about Tencent’s products on Lewen.

8. Make products with social value

For my colleagues at the Interactive Entertainment Group (IEG), I hope they can have a more open mindset about things beyond selling our products. There’s a game called Minecraft which is very popular with kids overseas. Though it’s not highly commercialized, it gives kids the opportunity to create a world. This kind of game may not be able to generate a lot of profit, but its social value is enormous. I hope IEG will also launch products with social value like this one day.

9. Create a more flexible way of working

It goes without saying that we need to work hard, but if your team always works overtime, and is always tired from an overwhelming workload, maybe it is the signal you need to optimize the workflow and platform for your team. For example, when upgrading a service, if the mechanisms for monitoring and distribution were well-designed, only two or three engineers will need to be on duty; if these mechanisms were poorly designed, you may need to keep dozens of people on standby, which will make everyone’s life worse. Thus, as a good leader, you should create a more flexible way for the team to work.

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