Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned leading product at Octane AI and RebelMouse:
1. Start With Why
This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but it’s amazing how often the “why” gets left behind in the quest for “we need to get this live now.” Even though it’s such a core component of how we think about product, there are still times where in our rush we don’t share it well enough.
If you hire smart engineers and you just ask them to do things without explaining why you:
- Risk demotivation because they don’t understand the value of the feature they’re working on.
- Lose time because they might have had a better (quicker) way to solve the same problem you had taken the time to explain it to them.
- Potentially have a misunderstanding in a nuance (or even a bigger part) of the product flow that could have been figured out earlier had you all realized the common goal you were working towards.
2. Be Open to Feedback and Changes
When you’re in a startup you are constantly searching for the quick wins. That search cannot be done from product alone, it has to be a collaboration with the engineers spending day in and day out on the codebase you’re changing. The same problem can always be solved a number of different ways — having a discussion with the engineering team who will work on it allows you to find the best solution for your customers AND your team’s time.
3. Use Designs as a Tool for Mutual Understanding, Not Something Set in Stone
We have a global team so this is incredibly important to us, but I think is underutilized even in places where you all sit around the same table. Don’t just do designs that are finished and locked in place, use designs as a way to explain a possible solution that you can all talk through. If you’re rarely tweaking designs after you show them to engineering, you’re probably not doing it right.
4. Test, Test, Test
All the best product managers I’ve seen are the ones who think QA is an important part of their job. Obviously we have an (amazing) QA team and product cannot replace that, but it’s important that the work of testing not be something you just leave for others. A critical part of testing is deciding if the thing you built will work for your customers. That is a vital part of your job.
5. Your Highest Priority Task is Anything Engineering is Waiting For
As a product team, we interface with clients and account management to get direct feedback on the product, the sales team to understand what we need to close more deals, marketing team to help them know what’s coming, and have to stay abreast of what’s happening in the industry.
But my product team knows that engineers come first. Nothing has higher priority than answering an engineer’s question on the task they’re working on or helping them test it if they think it’s ready. With that, we also try to make sure that whenever we are asking engineers to go above and beyond for a deadline we are right there with them, ready to test, answer a question, or tell the client when the feature goes live.
6. Be the Voice of Your Customers
Everyone wants to make customers happy. That’s why you’re in this business together. Always come to meetings with information on how the client thinks about things, their goals and ideas to make their lives better. If the engineering team sees you have valuable insight, they will be more willing to listen to you. We’re all here for the customers, after all.
7. When You Succeed, Thank Them. When You Fail, Look to Yourself First.
As a product lead you should make sure you send a million shout outs, love and credit to the engineering team who actually did the thing. Thank God for them, right? With failures though, you should think about what you can change first. Try not to let it get to you but you also think about what you can learn from it to make things better the next time. Almost always there is something for you to learn.
Also, when things go well, send a GIF high five. No one has ever had enough GIF high fives.
8. It’s Business but it’s Also Personal
We can’t pretend to separate out our personal and professional lives so rigidly. People go through good and bad times and to work together as a team in the best possible way you need to acknowledge the personal struggles and triumphs in addition to the professional ones. Ask how their weekend was before you get into work stuff. Send a birthday GIF. Listen. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Make sure everyone takes the time off they need to be healthy and happy. It makes us all better in the end.
9. End with Why
Really if the only thing you take home from this is to start sharing more of the “why” behind product decisions and plan with the engineering team, I’ll sleep well at night.