Product Owner Skills

We are now about five months into our transition to Scrum. Embarking on the experience as a Product Owner has been awesome. I recently came across a useful graphic that outlines the skills (and there are many) that make a good product owner.

Credit to http://williamgill.de/2012/10/01/the-product-owner-the-poster/

This is a good summary. I would add Authority to the chart (but that messes up the layout of the poster, so I’m sure the creator had to make some hard decisions).  Authority is a more nuanced form of leadership, in my opinion, but it is important to call it out on its own. Authority comes from your domain expertise, and the way you carry yourself with the dev team and the rest of the organization. You earn this, you don’t just ‘have it.’ It’s a hard thing to master, but it is instrumental to your success as a PO.

 

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It’s Complicated

It is very complicated.

It can be anything. It can be a program, a script, a process, an integration or any other situation, problem or context you may confront in your day.

Do not let someone trick you.  Do not confuse complicated with complex.  Things can be complex without being complicated.  When people try to complicate things, they are masking their root motivations.

Complicate – make something more difficult or confusing by causing it to be more complex

Complex – consisting of many different and connected parts

As a product manager, if you hear these words, or some variation of them, alarm bells should go off and you should proceed with caution.   Complexity is a weasel word that, in my experience, is too often used to put up blockers, protect one’s “turf,” or undermine collaboration.

At the most basic level, when you hear this, the person who is telling you all about how complex the issue is, is really just trying to prevent you from understanding what’s going on. There can be many reasons for not wanting you to understand what’s going on, but none of them are ultimately acceptable. The inability to understand is crippling to a PM. After hearing this, and since you’re the ultimate, truth-seeking PM, you need to roll up your sleeves and get to the bottom of the situation. The reality is that it’s going to be messy, but probably not for the reasons you are being told that “it’s complicated.”

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Needs, Features and Benefits – Uber

Uber is a new-ish app that has consumers falling in love with it and regulators hating it to the core. As a basic primer, Uber is a mobile app that allows a consumer to hail a hired car (towncar, SUV, or taxi) on-demand in a matter of minutes. Not only that, but it allows the consumer to track the car as it approaches, with estimates of how long it will take to arrive. Then, once a consumer is in the car, all payments are handled automatically, with an email receipt sent immediately after the trip is completed. No hassle with credit cards or digging in your pockets with cash.

When I first heard about Uber, I’ll admit that I was quite skeptical about the whole concept. After all, what was so difficult about calling the cab company and asking them for a cab, waiting for the cab and then paying like you always did once you were in the car. I’m skeptical about the “convenience” of mobile payments when the consumer has to pull something out of their pocket and process a payment; whether that is a credit card or a mobile phone, there’s really no difference.

However, since my initial skepticism, I’ve become a believer. Some of it probably has to do with my first experience with the app. My girlfriend and I were stranded in San Francisco after a wedding reception, fighting for a cab on the street corner with a bunch of other bar-goers and watching cab after cab pass us by. I remembered that this new service was available in San Francisco, so I whipped out my phone, downloaded the app, signed up and within literally two minutes, a nice black sedan pulled up, the driver got out and greeted me by name. We were back at our hotel within 10 minutes and we even to a nice bottle of water to enjoy on the ride home.

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A Matter of Time

There’s been a lot of consternation lately about the cost of higher education, skyrocketing student loans and the unfortunate masses of recent grads who only seem to be finding unemployment and financial dependency.  The complexity of the entire situation is sufficient to have me writing non-stop for years to come.  Everyone has their own opinion and only a small subset have bothered to try and provide a solution.  A recent article on Inside Higher Ed, normally a good source of opinion in the higher ed space, caught my attention.  It was written by the President of Drake University, David Maxwell.

The basic premise of the article is that college administrators need to play a good offensive attack in order to defend themselves against the negative onslaught brought upon them by the media with respect to college affordability, student outcomes and the true value of a college, specifically, liberal arts, degree.  Administrators need to re-shape the argument about college being excessively expensive and “making an increasingly broad sector of the public suspicious of our relevance, quality and integrity.”

Maxwell then calls for his colleagues to “find ways to collectively guide the national discourse back to a position of truth — of fact-based information that is relevant to the needs and aspirations of prospective students and their families — and then ensure that our institutions communicate our individual values, strengths and demonstrable outcomes in the context of an accurate and nuanced narrative.”

YES! FINALLY!  Someone wants to bring fact-based information to the table to help the families and students find the best, most effective schools that enable the best outcomes.  I can’t believe a school administrator has said something like this.  In print, no less.  For people to see!  No hiding from it now, Mr. Maxwell.

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Productivity Hack

I came across a very interesting article yesterday about a cool productivity hack, from none other than Jerry Seinfeld. The basic principle is to visualize your progress. No tech, no complex system. All you have to do is take a big calendar that contains all of the days of the year. When you complete your stated goal (i.e. study a language, complete a coding excercise, stop smoking, etc), you make a big red “X” on that day.

As with all attempts to reinforce good behavior or get away from bad ones, the first week is critical. In that first week, your goal is to have a big red “X” in each day. After that, all you have to do is keep the chain going. See how long you can do it and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to the behavior you want.

Seinfeld used it for writing. He believed that the only way to be a good comic was to keep developing better jokes. Writing was his way to do that and he wanted to write every day.

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Theories Applied

It has now officially been two months since I started work.  I have no idea where the time has gone, but it has gone faster than I ever expected.  As I reflected on the first two months this past weekend, I thought a lot about the things that I have learned since I started.

Coming from the world of theory, frameworks and supposition (business school), I have found the transition equal parts exciting and frustrating.  Most of the frustration stems from the fact that the real world never quite plays out the way the theories suggest they will.  This is a pretty obvious statement, but it is still something I took for granted coming back to the real world of a startup and being responsible for developing, marketing and launching a new product in just two months.  In that light, a few key takeaways so far…

1. Don’t assume people understand, but build it so they can — Communicating with users, even if they are early beta testers (often friends), requires crisp communication.  People are so inundated with new things, particularly on the web, with new products and services, that it is critical to refine how you articulate the product and its benefits in as clear and concise a manner as possible.  Don’t assume people will “get it,” but then do everything you can to make the product simple, intuitive and of clear value to the user.

2. Minimally Viable Products (MVPs) doesn’t mean it’s easy — A lot of chatter is out there about lean startup methodology (@LsmFatso) and Eric Ries (@ericries) is doing great work in creating a movement around capitally efficient, user-focused companies.  A crucial part of the theory is the idea of the MVP.  The name is a bit of a misnomer and can lull first time entrepreneurs into a sense of comfort.  Just because it is minimally viable does not mean it is easy!  In fact, building a product that is engaging and useful for users is still really, really hard and it is important to put a great product out at the start.  A product is not an MVP based on how much work or effort you put into getting it ready for launch to users.  It is Minimally Viable because once you launch, you MUST continue to iterate and improve based on user feedback and rigorous analytical testing, so by default the first product should be the worst version (i.e. least viable) that you ever have.  Don’t get tricked by the name! Continue reading “Theories Applied”

Due Your Diligence

As we continue to endure this frigid winter, we have been teased with glimpses of better weather here and there.  The hope of spring is usually just enough to get people through the last wretched throes of winter, because they know there is something much more promising at the end of this struggle: spring.

MBAs interested in joining a startup after school go through a personal winter throughout the entire school year as they watch most of their classmates scurry around campus in their suits to various interviews attempting to secure jobs in consulting, finance, non-profits or big industry.  Then they watch those same classmates plan crazy vacations and exotic weekend trips throughout the rest of the year.  Those interested in startups are mostly on the sidelines.  The reality of the hiring cycle at small, high growth tech companies is that there is insufficient certainty about the business to reliably predict the hiring needs more than a month or two ahead of time, at most.  For MBAs interested in startups, the personal winter is only manageable because with the emergence of spring means they can finally start making headway in the job search process.

Charlie O’Donnell from First Round Capital (@ceonyc) has a great post for MBAs who want to work in startups that has gotten a lot of buzz and rightfully so.  It is a very well thought out post that is useful for both MBAs.  I personally am very appreciative of the post and have used it in my search.  For those not familiar, he points out that most MBAs approach to finding that great startup job.  Instead of meeting with a bunch of VCs and “asking what opportunities there are for you, you should be telling me what opportunities you are going to create for the startups I know.”  I am assuming that anyone really interested in working in a startup has read that post and taken Charlie’s advice to heart.

Now assume that you were successful in your approach and found a cool startup that bought your pitch and is excited to bring you on their team.

STOP.  Take a step back.  Breathe.  You are not done.  Despite your desire to immediately jump on that offer, you still have more work to do.

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