Spotlight on the Product Track

Registration is now open for the sixth-annual Denver Startup Week, taking place September 25–29. With a huge schedule of events across six tracks of programming, putting together your own schedule can be daunting! To help break it all down, each week we’ll be taking a deep dive into one track with the chairs who put it together, exploring the themes and topics they’re focused on this year, and hear what events they’re most excited to see.

This week we’re wrapping up our series and delving into the Product Track with co-chairs Jay Zeschin and Conor Swanson. Jay and Conor also co-chair the Developer Track, which we featured a few weeks ago.

What is your approach to putting together the slate of sessions for the Product Track? Do you have a particular area of focus or theme?

Product management is a really interesting subject to put together a schedule of events around. It exists at the intersection of a number of other fields — software development, design, user experience, marketing, and more — so there’s a very broad array of potential topic areas to consider. Successful product managers must be highly entrepreneurial, acting as a “mini-CEO” for their product, which means they must be adaptable and knowledgeable about many different aspects of the product development process. They must also be very skilled at rallying teams and working effectively with others. Ultimately, being a product manager is a balancing act requiring a lot of skill and care to execute successfully!

Product is the youngest functional area of the six in the program, at least in terms of how long product management has been considered a formal discipline. As a result, there are fewer established techniques and tools than in some of the other areas, and much of the book on product management is still being written. For that same reason, knowledge gained from firsthand experience is a critical part of the necessary curriculum, and good storytelling is one of best ways to convey that kind knowledge to others, so we place a lot of emphasis on sessions that feature real-world experiences.

Keeping tabs on emerging technologies and how those may impact the products they work on is a critical activity for successful product managers, so we have a number of sessions that are focused around exploring some of those from a product-centric perspective. In general, we try to ensure that the sessions we pick have a good balance among concrete techniques, soft skills, and interesting stories from the field told by experienced product managers.

What are the “can’t-miss” sessions in the Product Track?

Technology-powered Innovation with Marty Cagan” (Monday 9/25 at 4:00pm, Basecamp) — We’re incredibly excited to have Marty Cagan keynoting the Product Track this year. He is, quite simply, a legend in the product space, having shaped products at some of the biggest companies in tech in the last 25 years, including HP, Netscape, and eBay. Through his work at the Silicon Valley Product Group, he has been critical in bringing the discipline of product management to the fore, and advancing the state of the art in this field with new approaches and practices. We can’t wait to hear his take on how technology and customer insight intersect to create truly innovative products. Many thanks to our friends at Colorado Product who did the legwork to make this event possible. If you come to only one session in the Product Track, make it this one!

Product Managers: Caffeinate, Collaborate & Learn” (Tuesday 9/26 at 8:00am, Basecamp) — To help everyone get up and going the morning after the opening party, we’re hosting a combination breakfast, social event, and panel discussion at Basecamp. It’ll be a great opportunity to meet and connect with other product managers, and the discussion will feature panelists from Techstars, iBotta, Havenly and Pendo, so it’s certain to be entertaining and enlightening. Free breakfast never hurts either!

Most Product Ideas Don’t Work: What Can We Do About It?” (Tuesday 9/26 at 12:00pm, iBotta) — Taking an empirical, results-driven approach to developing products is key to success, but managing the constant churn of positive and negative feedback from customers can be very difficult, especially when you’re trying to maintain a cohesive strategic product roadmap. This discussion features panelists from FullContact, Guild Education, and iBotta exploring the approaches that have been successful for each of them, and sharing techniques for applying those approaches in the real world.

“The Product Development Playbook for Startups” (Tuesday 9/26 at 2pm) — This session is a very tactical deep-dive on assembling and running a high-performing product development organization — from staffing to agile development to roadmap management to metrics and analysis. The two presenters represent the product management and software engineering viewpoints respectively, which ought to make for an insightful session with lots of actionable tools you can apply to your own organization, regardless of your own background or focus.

Vision Technology and the Death of Data Entry” (Tuesday 9/26 at 2:00pm, Denver Place), “Building something in AR/VR? Here’s what you need to know” (Thursday 9/28 at 2:00pm, Woods Boss Brewing) and “Demystifying the Hype: Understanding Blockchains and Cryptocurrencies with an Expert Panel” (Thursday 9/28 at 10:00am, CSU — Denver) — Each of these three sessions is an in-depth exploration of a particular emerging technology, with an emphasis on the product implications associated with it. Computer vision, VR/AR, and blockchain are all transformational technologies that will likely have major impacts on the ways we build and use products in the future, and these sessions are a great way to get a primer on those technologies from the people working most directly with them. For the blockchain session in particular, we’ve got some really heavy hitters including Erik Vorhees from ShapeShift (the leading cryptocurrency exchange platform), and representatives from the Ethereum Foundation and ConsenSys.

BB8 and Creating Magic” (Wednesday 9/27 at 10:00am, Larimer Social) — Delivering a product with a truly magical user experience is the holy grail of product development, and it’s the reason underlying the success of some of the best-known companies today. Sphero found success with this approach when it released an interactive version of the BB8 robot as a tie-in with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in 2015, resulting in a smash hit Christmas toy. This session is an inside look at the process of designing and launching that product, with a particular focus on pieces necessary to create that extra magic touch.

Learning to Launch: How to Start Your Career in Product Management” (Wednesday 9/27 at 10:00am, Jake Jabs Center at CU Denver) — One of the challenges of product management being a relatively young and wide-ranging discipline is that just getting started in the field can be highly overwhelming. There’s an incredible amount to learn across many different areas, and those new to the field may not yet have enough background to prioritize what they need to learn, further compounding the issue. This session aims to provide the missing onramp for new product managers, with actionable advice from a set of panelists who have made that journey successfully, and not just adapted but thrived in the field of product management.

Sprint: Solve your product and experience design challenges in 5 days” (Thursday 9/28 at 12:00pm, WeWork LoHi) — Google Ventures’ five-day “Design Sprint” process has gotten a lot of attention recently as one of the premier ways to quickly iterate on product and feature ideas in a way that maximizes customer feedback while minimizing cost. This session will introduce you to the concepts and benefits of the process, and leave you with the tools to conduct your own design sprints, gaining the “superpower” of seeing your finished product and the customer reactions to it without making expensive commitments to get there.

Adventure in the Information Age” (Thursday 9/28 at 2:00pm, WeWork Union Station) — One of the most attractive parts of the Denver as both a city and an entrepreneurial ecosystem is that it has both tremendous depth in technology and easy access to outdoor recreation. For the companies working in the space where those two overlap, a major challenge is building products that use technology to enhance the outdoor experience without spoiling it. Matt Doyle, North American GM for mapping application FATMAP, will lead a panel of outdoor tech companies and athletes discussing the pluses and minuses of technology in the outdoors, and exploring the ways in which product managers can leverage technology to enhance the outdoor experience while preserving the spirit of adventure that makes it so alluring in the first place.

Pendo is sponsoring the Product Track this year. How has it been working with them?

It’s been really fun to have a track sponsor who lives and breathes the challenges that product managers face every day. Pendo’s product is oriented around providing insights to product managers so they’re in tune with what’s interesting and insightful to our audience. Brian Crofts, Pendo’s CPO, will be a panelist on the Tuesday morning breakfast session at Basecamp, and we’re excited to have him to share his advice and insight. A number of other Pendo folks will be out and about during the week as well, so if you see bright pink shirts, be sure to say hi!

Is there anything else that you really want Denver Startup Week attendees to know about the Product Track?

You don’t have to have “product manager” in your job title to get value out of the product track — whatever role you play in your company, chances are good that there’s an aspect of product management to it. Many of the sessions we have in the the track will offer tools and techniques to help you become better at those aspects, and we’re proud to have a slate of really engaging presenters who will help bring these valuable topics to life in memorable ways.