The Evolving Role of Product Managers

Why teams hire a PM in the first place and how the PM role evolves as the company grows and makes intentional decisions about its culture

A couple months ago I shared a tweet & LinkedIn post that caused a bit of a stir in the product management community:

Turns out this was a controversial thing to say!

Many responses followed. Some of these were summarized by a fellow PM at Facebook named Will Lawrence, along with his excellent overview about the execution muscle at FB, in his post Execution at FB (I recommend subscribing to Will’s newsletter if you’re into this topic). I won’t do a better job than Will in describing how we execute at FB.

That said, I do want share some more thoughts on this topic.


Before the First Product Manager

While there’s some debate about exactly when software product management became a dedicated role, it’s generally agreed today that product management existed as a shared responsibility within product teams for many years before the first full time “product manager” showed up on the scene.

A team can certainly operate without a dedicated Product Manager; I’ve seen it first-hand because I joined two different startups as the first PM. They were shipping and generating revenue before I showed up.

From my direct experience and that of friends who were in similar boats, before the first PM joins, teams generally build features that they see as “obvious” and “necessary”.

These features get identified by the team through one of five mechanisms:

  1. The founders are basing the next funding milestone on it

  2. Customers refuse to use the product without it

  3. Competitors have it so it’s needed for feature parity

  4. A team member has a personal desire to see it exist

  5. Business can’t operationally scale without it

In my experience, it’s rare to see a particular new feature check all of these boxes at once. Given scarce resources in a startup, not all the features can get built in parallel. So the team needs to prioritize!

Without dedicated product managers, a feature gets prioritized in one of four ways:

  1. Founders tell engineers what to build

  2. Engineers decide what to build

  3. Sales or ops bug engineers to build

  4. One-time prioritization session

This process is not disciplined and happens organically, with little predictability. It’s exciting, fun and chaotic. Every week is completely different.

To summarize:

Teams without a PM lack a clear and repeatable framework for prioritization

Before I talk about how the incoming PM crashes the party and ruins all the fun, I want to acknowledge that I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun myself in these chaotic situations. And it’s important to remember that the reason the company can even afford to bring in a PM is because the chaos was mostly working. Customers were paying, investors were funding it, and talented people joined before me. So clearly, a lot of things need to be working really well before a PM can even enter the picture.

At this point you might be wondering: why hire a PM at all if the team is already able to consistently ship products that customers want to pay for?

This question will bring us to the crux of the issue.

The reason companies hire PMs is because they recognize that the process that got them to the current stage will NOT get them to the next stage

Let’s break this down.

Imagine the chaotic 30-person startup I described above. This team has maybe 15 engineers, an engineering manager, 2 designers, 2 marketing people, 2 sales people, a finance person, a recruiter, and the founders. There might also be a QA engineer, a product marketing person, an HR person, a data analyst, etc.

This team has been able to delight customers and establish itself as a hot new company in its space. It raises a $15mm Series A at a $75mm valuation. The money will be used to scale the team and fuel growth. High fives go around and congratulatory messages flood the inboxes. The founders are now millionaires on paper.

With the money in the bank, the leadership team starts planning how to execute on the milestones for the Series B: grow revenue, get more customers, etc.

They realize that they’re at full capacity with the current development team. The company needs more engineers to hit the goals. Thus, hiring becomes a top priority. More engineers will create more capacity and then they’ll be able to build more features, which should:

  1. Accelerate next funding milestone

  2. Enable new customers to adopt the product

  3. Reach feature parity w/ competitors

  4. Keep current team members engaged & excited

  5. Allow business to scale operationally

So the company pours gas on hiring engineers.

The eng team doubles from 15 to 30 over the next six months. Onboarding engineers is challenging and time-consuming but the earlier team members did a stellar job preparing to plug new engineers in.

With the growing engineering team, the founders start making more ambitious plans and promising bigger and better features to customers and start hyping up investors for the next round.

A specific big feature starts emerging as a game changer. This one feature is going to sell new customers, bring the product into feature parity with the competition, and everyone’s excited about it.

Weeks go by and the feature is behind schedule. At first, it’s only a month late.

Then, it’s two months late.

Six months go by and it’s not ready. And it’s not just this one feature. A lot of the other projects in the pipeline hit roadblocks and begin falling behind.

The tension is building up as customers who signed with the promise of a critical new feature being around the corner realize the new feature might never come.

Customers who championed the product internally are getting grilled by their teammates on their poor decision.

The leadership team comes to a crushing realization:

The engineering team doubled in size but somehow the team is now shipping half the features they used to ship.

They’ve slowed down when they were supposed to be accelerating.

The founders convene an emergency company all-hands to diagnose the issues.

At first, nobody speaks up. Finally, someone admits that things have become too chaotic. Engineers are getting stretched too thin and constantly switching context. Newly hired engineers need more hand-holding than expected.

As a result, 30 engineers are now producing about 7.5 engineers of productivity.

Engineering leadership is called to do whatever it takes to produce 30 engineers of productivity. They embark on a listening tour with the engineers on the team, asking what would help them be more productive.

A theme emerges with resounding consistency:

Engineers are spending too much time reacting to internal requests and don’t have enough time to write and review code.

A new rule is implemented: nobody is allowed to talk directly with engineers. Any engineering requests need to go through eng leadership.

Weeks go by, and engineers start reporting increased levels of focus and productivity. They have time to mentor the new engineers while getting their own work done. PRs are getting reviewed on time and merged in. Features start shipping again. The train is accelerating.

This rise in engineering productivity at the individual contributor level is accompanied by a barrage of feature requests to engineering leadership, who have now become the triage layer between stakeholders and engineers.

Engineering leaders are now in back-to-back meetings all day with their colleagues to talk about why new feature X and new feature Y are essential. Engineering leaders can’t find time to spend with engineers and the engineering culture starts to suffer.

The situation isn’t sustainable.

Desperate for ideas, engineering leaders start talking to their friends at other companies who have also reached this stage and ask for advice.

A theme emerges:

Engineering leaders have discovered they can offload the bulk of the internal discussions around which feature to build next to product managers.

Hiring product managers allows engineering leaders to focus on scaling the engineering organization and building a healthy culture while spending less time discussing features that might never even get built.

The next step becomes clear: the team must hire a product manager.

The First Product Manager

When deciding to build a product management org, the first decision is who to hire first: an individual contributor (IC) or a manager.

I’ve seen some companies hire their first PM as an IC who reports directly to a cofounder or CTO. I’ve also seen companies hire their first PM as a player/coach who steps into the role of manager as soon as they’ve onboarded and are ready to hire the first IC on their team.

I’ve joined a team as a first PM in each of these scenarios:

  • Once reporting to a Director of Product, Design and Eng (who was not the first dedicated PM hire)

  • Another time reporting to a Director of Product Management (who was the first dedicated PM hire)

Either way can work, but the decisions come with tradeoffs.

I recently caught up with a friend who is a cofounder of a Series A startup and sees his company hiring their first PM in the next 6-12 months. I told him it’s a huge decision and that the person they bring in can either really accelerate things in a positive direction or can genuinely bring the execution muscle of the team to a halt.

Who should you hire as your first PM?

In my experience, the answer comes from asking a couple key questions:

  • Which problems are you looking to offload to this person?

  • Are you looking for someone to solve execution problems or someone to drive strategic product direction?

Tasking a new PM with strategic direction-setting is very different than asking them to build a predictable execution cadence on the team within a well-defined direction. I think early-stage founders are mostly looking for the latter. The reason is that they’re not looking for someone to come in and question the strategy and direction for the product. They’re looking for someone to ship, ship, ship.

As a founder, it’s important to be honest with what you want. My sense is most founders should hire a first PM with 2-3 years of product management experience and a proven track record of setting up a team for execution.

Which brings us to the core of my controversial posts:

PMs at small startups need to be process-oriented execution machines

This is simply the “industry standard” play & play execution playbook. If you walk into a chaotic product org that consistently misses ship dates, a bit of process goes a very long way.

One misunderstood element of my posts is that I’m not condemning task creation and sprints as a responsibility of PMs. I’m simply saying that these are valuable parts of a PM’s job when the team is shifting from a chaotic environment into a predictable cadence.

That said, I think early stage startup PMs should still get out of task management and sprint planning as soon as possible. I’ve come to believe that the natural owner of day-to-day engineering execution should be the engineering manager for the team. The EM understands the capabilities of the individuals on their team and ultimately needs to be accountable for matching people with bugs/features that fit their strengths, interests and career goals.

With the EM handling sprint planning and ticket creation with engineers, the PM can shift 50% of their focus to forward-looking strategy and ensuring the bigger picture isn’t being overlooked.

Let’s now fast-forward 15 years to contrast the role of the PM in these early days with the role of the PM in a big tech company like Facebook.

The 2000th Product Manager

The company now has sixty thousand employees and two thousand product managers, the role of the PM changes quite a bit. The PM culture of a company is shaped quite heavily by whether it’s a top-down strategy company or a bottom-up strategy company.

FB is a top-down company when it comes to priorities and org structure. However, when it comes to product strategy, it’s driven by the product managers at the ground level.

PMs at Facebook are expected to take full ownership of the most important problems in front of them rather than waiting for top-down guidance. There’s a saying at FB that “nothing is someone else’s problem”. The role of managers in this culture is to support the individual PMs and it’s the responsibility of the PM to ask for specific kinds of support.

While the PMs are carrying the strategic responsibility for the team’s 2-year investment plans and partnerships with the necessary teams to make it happen, the PM at FB still certainly contributes to execution. I encourage you to reference Will’s excellent post for more info on how we execute @ FB:

Read Will's post about execution @ FB

On my team, here’s how I’ve influenced execution:

  • Lead our 10-week roadmapping process, which includes everyone on the team

  • Prioritize the problems we’ll tackle the following half

  • Prioritize the projects we’ll tackle the following half to solve those problems

  • Ensure XFN staffing is secured where needed

  • Set the team target for the half based on these projects

  • Create the project briefs at the beginning of the half for each project and invite XFNs to chime in on respective sections (background, problem, opportunity, solution, audience, success criteria, metrics to monitor, experiment plan, etc)

  • Secure commitment from partner teams to support where needed

  • Block & tackle as challenges arise to keep the project moving forward

This operating model has allowed me to set the direction of the team’s investments while empowering the individuals on the team to drive their projects with very little involvement needed from me.

I’ve received a ton of feedback from the team that this is the healthiest team dynamic they’ve experienced and have enjoyed the results of this setup personally and professionally.

In Summary

I have nothing against tasks, sprints, backlogs, or Jira

These are essential for a team to shift from a chaotic team that consistently misses release dates to one that executes with a predictable and disciplined cadence.

Once a company establishes a predictable shipping DNA, it needs to make a very intentional decision choice from two paths about the role of PMs in their company:

  1. Keep PMs operating at the Jira level (tickets, backlogs, sprints) and put the strategic responsibility on leadership and management.

  2. Entrust these responsibilities to engineering managers, empowering the PM to drive team strategy while still supporting the execution muscle of the team.

The path that the company pursues will shape the product culture of the company for many years. Both paths can work, as long as the decision is made intentionally.


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#24 ⛰🏖🇺🇸 Summer 2021

July and August were a smorgasbord of my favorite things in life

Hey there! And welcome to the new readers who subscribed recently 👋 It’s been a couple months since my last post so I wanted to reflect a bit in this one.

Going Viral (Next Post)

I’m working on a separate post to share my thoughts on some recent controversy that I started with a LinkedIn post + tweet that got a lot of engagement.

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Friends, Mountains, Beach and Family

July and August were a smorgasbord of my favorite things in life.

🇫🇷 France (July)

In July, Carole and I spent a couple weeks together in France, doing a road trip through the French Alps, enjoying the French Riviera, village-hopping in French Wine Country, and making our way back up to Carole’s hometown where we spent a long weekend with friends and family.

As you might imagine given you’re reading this newsletter, I rely heavily on language to express myself and get through life. Two weeks in a country where I don’t speak the language can be challenging but healthy for me to confront some of my own internal insecurities. The quality time with Carole, mixed with warm French summer vibes, beautiful landscape, and delicious food was exactly what we needed from the vacation.

We spent dozens of hours in the car over the course of the trip, with Carole driving the whole time (she didn’t trust me driving her mom’s stick shift car on European roads 😂). Aside from giving me a lot of time to nap, the long drives forced me to sit with my own thoughts and reflect. I didn’t have any big “aha” moments, but it was healthy for me to take a step back from my daily life and think about it almost like an outside observer.

One thing that kept coming up for me is gratitude. I’m starting to see thankfulness less as a feeling I get and more of a “mode of travel”. This makes sense in my head at least. I’m just lucky to be excited about my daily life while also being able to take a leisurely two weeks off to enjoy nature, wine, cheese and real summer.

⛰ Asheville (August)

For each of the last eight years, I’ve met up with some of my best friends from college for a weekend of hiking and catching up on life somewhere beautiful.

For the first three years, we did real camping in Joshua Tree NP, Pinnacles NP, and Big Sur SP. Thus, the trip became known as the “camping trip”.

Over the last handful of years, we’ve grown to appreciate more comfort for these weekends so it’s become more of an “Airbnb and hike” kind of weekend. We’ve been to the Georgia mountains, Rocky Mountain NP, Yosemite NP, and Sequoia NP. This year all five of us were able to make it to Asheville, North Carolina where we hiked in the Appalachian Mountains.

I’ll call out a few things: excellent food, a ton of unique breweries, and an endless number of trails. It’s a small hippie town in the NC mountains. If you’re intrigued, check it out!

🏖 Florida (August)

From Asheville I took a flight down to south Florida where I stayed with my mom and grandma for a week. My sister flew in from Israel with my brother in law, nieces, and brand new nephew who I hadn’t met yet. Carole also joined for a few days which made it even better.

I spent a lot of time with the kids, played games, went swimming, cooked and just enjoyed being with each other. Living on the opposite side of the planet from my sister and her family is really hard for me so I jump on every chance I get to see them. It’s unclear when I’ll be able to visit them in Israel next time (COVID travel restrictions are pretty intense for Israel at the moment, requiring a lengthy quarantine) so this was much needed after I had to cancel my trip to Israel last year due to COVID.


🇺🇸 Carole’s American Dream

A few days after returning to SF from Florida, Carole had her long-awaited naturalization interview. If you’re not familiar with it, a naturalization interview is a test where a candidate for citizenship is asked questions about the US system of government, US history, and key figures in our country’s past. It’s a check to ensure people know enough about the country before becoming citizens. For Carole, this was the final step at the end of an eight year immigration journey that started with a student visa for a program at Berkeley before we met.

I’ve been playing a small supporting role for Carole since we got married in 2016 and had a front row seat to the green card and citizenship process. It’s involved a daunting amount of paperwork, requiring perseverance, optimism, and lots of patience. I’ve been so impressed with Carole’s ability to work through the system and get to this stage.

A couple weeks ago, after rigorously studying the questions, Carole aced the test and is now officially a citizen of the U.S. 🇺🇸🎉🇺🇸🎉🇺🇸🎉

It’s so cool to be part of a real American dream of someone I love so much. Congrats, chouch! 🇺🇸🎉🇺🇸🎉🇺🇸🎉

🥳 Bottle Rock in Napa Valley

To celebrate Carole’s citizenship, her upcoming birthday, and what feels like the early signs of a post-COVID world, we spent this past Saturday with a group of friends in Napa for the Bottle Rock music festival. I discovered a band I didn’t know called Milky Chance and we got a full 90 minute performance from Miley Cyrus which was better than expected. It felt like all the artists were super happy to be able to perform after 1.5 years of COVID. The energy was great and the food was delicious.

Also, everyone at the event needed to show proof of vaccination so we should be ok ✅

🗽Upcoming Travel

We’re heading to NYC mid September to scout out a potential move (more on that in the coming weeks/months) and then heading to Detroit for our friends’ wedding in October.

Entertainment

I have some recs to share based on what I’ve been reading & watching!

📚 Books

📺 TV

  • I’ve been loving Ted Lasso on Apple TV+

  • Carole & I have gotten very into Nine Perfect Strangers on Hulu

  • I binged Hit & Run, an Israeli-American production on Netflix in August, which was entertaining but nothing too brainy.

  • Mare of Easttown on HBO, starring Kate Winslet was super fucking good.

🎞 Movies

  • I love the new generation of Disney films and Raya and the Last Dragon didn’t disappoint.

  • A Quiet Place Part I was incredibly good so I was naturally drawn to the sequel, A Quiet Place Part II. It shared the same eery apocalyptic vibes with a healthy dose of scary jump moments. Definitely enjoyed it.

  • I’m a big Bob Odenkirk fan from his work in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul so when I heard he made an action movie it was only a question of when to watch it, not if. I have to admit, Nobody was a super fun movie. If you’re into John Wick, imagine that kind of movie but with Bob Odenkirk. Eagerly waiting for another bloody sequel.

  • I originally put Vivo on for my nephew in FL but he went to sleep in the first 10 minutes so I got drawn into the story instead. Lin Manual Miranda has a way of pulling me into his stories with music so I ended up watching the whole thing. Not the best movie but certainly entertaining.

Recent Purchases

  • Navaris Wood Monitor Stand Riser. This helped me clear up my desk a lot while maintaining a clean wood look.

  • Samsonite Centric 2 Hardside Luggage. I had never ordered a new luggage online but this has already proven to be a solid purchase.

  • Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones. The last over-the ear headphones I bought lasted me ~5 years and broke recently so I replaced them and am loving the Sony headset. Especially useful during travel and when I want to focus (wearing right now).

  • INIU Portable Charter. I went camping earlier this year with some friends who brought a power bank and I decided it was time for me to stop running out of battery. This thing charges super fast and holds 3-4 full iPhone charges. Excellent buy for $20.


Going Viral

I’m working on a separate post to share my thoughts on some recent controversy that I started with a LinkedIn post + tweet that got a lot of engagement.

Subscribe to receive the next post with my thoughts on going viral directly to your inbox 👇

#23 🇺🇸🇫🇷 Zigging, Zagging and Golden Nuggets

Airport lounge thoughts over bubbles as I wait for my flight to France

🇺🇸 Happy 4th of July to those of you in the US and happy normal Sunday to the rest of you.

I’m at the airport lounge in SF sipping on some bubbles while waiting for my flight to France. Carole flew there a week ago to spend time with her family before our 10-day road trip to the south of France. We’ll stop in Annecy, Lyon, Sainte-Maxime, Gorges du Verdon, and Luberon. We went to Annecy a few years ago and the charming town on a lake nestled into the French Alps was absolutely beautiful. The rest of the destinations on this tour will be new for me.

This trip is coming after a week of quality time with George, watching Euro 2020 games, and working on my 1000-piece puzzle while listening to audiobooks and podcasts. In other words, lots of “me time”. I ambitiously started the puzzle a few days ago and scrambled to finish it before the trip because I really didn’t want to come home to an unfinished puzzle. A couple late nights got the job done.

I’m ready for this vacation. It’s been hectic getting some big things over the finish line at work. My team had a massive win a month ago so the last few weeks have been a mix of celebrating and leveraging the momentum to set things up for when I’m back.

Overall, I’m entering the holiday feeling proud of my team and grateful for the group’s ability and willingness to cover for me while I’m offline. Nothing will break without me, which is exactly how I like to set things up. I configure my teams to always have some slack in the system as well as redundancies so that no single person feels like they can’t take time off. I believe it’s critical that people feel that it’s not only okay to take time off, but it’s even expected.

I’m happy to lead by example with my 2 week holiday. Who said leadership is easy?! 😜

I’ll repeat something here that I tell people at work all the time: take time off! I hope you’re all taking the time off that you need to stay excited and engaged about what you’re doing. Burning yourself out is the most damaging thing you can do to those around you. If you burn yourself out, you’ll eventually need to quit and you’ll most likely be awful to those around you. Either way, your team will be more screwed if you don’t take time off than if you do. If you like your teammates, do the best thing for them and take time off. Just do it.

Alright, on to some other things I’ve been thinking about…


Zigging and Zagging for Gold Nuggets

Optimists and pessimists occupy the exact same reality with diverging perspectives about how the future will play out. Optimists tend to assume things will go well. Pessimists believe things will generally not work out.

As a result of their outlook, optimists and pessimists have different ways of approaching new systems of ideas.

An optimist who stumbles upon a new system of ideas will look for what works. A pessimist encountering a new system of ideas will look for what breaks.

To evaluate new ideas in a balanced way, we need to use both optimism and pessimism. Optimism and pessimism are tools that allow us to filter away the dirt to end up with the ✨golden nugget.

A ✨golden nugget is a new idea that we can integrate into our belief system in a way that improves our ability to engage with the world in a productive way.

We assemble our philosophy in life one golden nugget at a time.

I’ve stumbled upon treasure troves of golden nuggets and have also experienced long droughts free of golden nuggets. For me, long periods without finding new golden nuggets are challenging because it feels like I’m stagnating.

Big life changes — e.g. moving to a new city, changing jobs, etc — allow us to audit our golden nugget set and upgrade our collection.

There’s no guarantee that big life changes will bring new golden nuggets but like the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play.

Big life changes are risks that can pay off in major ways for personal growth.

A big life change is like a vaccine against stagnation; it won’t guarantee personal growth but it’ll dramatically reduce the odds of experiencing a sense of stagnation.

In hindsight, my life has been a series of big life changes, with lots of zigging and zagging. I haven’t allowed myself to stagnate. I zig in one direction while the golden nuggets are aplenty. Once the golden nuggets run dry on a certain path, I zag toward a new direction (aka big life change).

I don’t know what my life will be like in five years. But I‘ll continue to zig and zag my way there. And I’m lucky to have a great zigzag partner in Carole ❤️


Paperbacks

  • I finished the last War God book in a historical fiction series about the Spanish conquest of Mexico written by one of my favorite authors and thinkers, Graham Hancock. It’s bloody, action-packed and infused with psychedelic and spiritual storyline catalysts.

  • I read the first book in the Foundation series and was honestly disappointed by the slow pace and fast-forward style episodic storytelling with a new set of characters each chapter, many years in the future after the former chapter. There are many more books in this series and I haven’t decided yet whether to keep going. If any of you are fans of the Foundation series, lmk why it’s worth sticking with it : )

  • I read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, which was quite interesting. While it’s a self-pronounced feminist manifesto of sorts, I still found it insightful and relevant.

  • I’m a couple hundred pages into the first book in the Mistborn saga by Brandon Sanderson. I loved Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series and a couple friends have told me they like Mistborn even more so I finally decided to check it out and I’m really digging it so far. Excellent fantasy with deep characters, intriguing magic, and a plot that advances one interesting scene at a time.

Watching

  • I binged the latest seasons of The Kominsky Method and Master of None on Netflix. Both were superb with strong writing and acting that made me laugh and cry.

  • I finally watched two Rob Reiner classics I’ve never seen before: When Harry Met Sally and The Princess Bride. Completely different genres of movie but each was excellent in its own way and neither seems to have aged at all. Highly recommend both.

  • Quentin Tarantino went on JRE podcast recently and any Tarantino fans will probably love the long-form interview with the filmmaking genius.

Audiobooks

  • I just finished the audiobook of The Everything Store about Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s inception and the company’s growth. Lots of interesting stories in this one that help make sense of Amazon’s dominance.

  • I’m listening to The Immortality Key by Brian Muraresku, which outlines in fascinating detail a multi-year investigation into “the secret history of the religion with no name”. I’m loving it so far and Brian reads it himself which makes it even better.

  • Started listening to a classic, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, which is already getting me to experience less worry one story at a time.


That’s all for now, see you soon!

#22 🎯 How to influence people

I was asked recently, "how do you influence people?" and my answer is pretty simple.

In general, I've observed two main ways to influence people: (1) through fear or (2) through helping them hit their goals.

While (1) is certainly a path I've seen people take, it's simply not sustainable. Nobody wants to follow a leader who influences them with fear (e.g. if you don't do this, something bad will happen).

IMO influencing through (2) is the most sustainable solution. To get people excited, you need to UNDERSTAND WHAT THEY WANT. Get to know them and their goals. Once you know what someone wants, you can frame the ask in a mutually beneficial way.

Understanding people is a pre-req for influencing them. If people feel that you will help them reach their own goals, not only will they feel better about working with you, but the quality of their contribution will be higher as a result.

At Facebook, anyone looking to influence someone else needs to look no further than one's ambitions for the half. If you know what someone needs to accomplish in order to set themselves up for a better rating or promo, and you can help them get there by working together, they'll be extremely open to exploring your idea.

To summarize: effective leadership is about motivating people to follow you because it's the most direct path to hitting their own goals.


Fun Travel Stuff

Carole and I drove down to Southern California with George last weekend for the long Memorial Day holiday and spent a couple days near Solvang and a couple days in Los Angeles. One highlight from Solvang was a visit to an OstrichLand and another from LA was our touristy 6 mile loop hike up to the Hollywood sign.

Learning #1: Ostriches are insanely aggressive, have terrifying dinosaur feet and are way taller than I expected.

Learning #2: George doesn’t like ostriches.

Thinking ahead to this summer, we booked our flights to France and I’m hoping I’ll be able to enter the country without any problems due to COVID restrictions (I’m arriving a week after Carole). We’ll see how it goes!🤞

#21 🛠 Should startup PMs focus on internal tools?

With limited PM capacity in a startup, it's not always clear how to prioritize internal tools relative to customer-facing tools. Here's my take.

Should startup PMs focus on internal tools?

I got a question from a friend who is a cofounder/CPO of a fast growing startup last week and figured this thread might be interesting for people because I don’t see internal tooling get discussed often enough in PM circles.

Note: I considered writing it out as a post but the Q&A format seems to capture the thought process well so let’s just go with it.


Friend:

Would love your opinion. Do you proactively PM internal products/admin panels, etc?

Me:

Depends on how critical it is for the business!

Also, depends how clear the need is: if the necessary functionality is clear and you can trust an engineer to build what's needed, I wouldn't spend time on it.

My first full time PM role was at Breeze (before Ford acquired us and we became Canvas) where I spent the first six months PMing an internal fleet management tool from scratch. The CEO later told me that without this fleet management tool he doesn't think we would have been acquired.

For a business like ours in the car space, having a fleet management tool (even if internal) demonstrated thought leadership around how to manage a very operationally complex business with software.

If you think you can differentiate yourself in the space by investing in better internal tools to solve operational issues, then you probably want to active PM internal tools to make sure they're solving the most important problems with the right long-term vision in mind.

Friend:

That makes a lot of sense - sounds like those decisions are intentional and strategic. I wonder though. Do you proportion development energy between different backlogs or weave other team priorities into a single backlog? For example: if you team advocates for development of finance reporting tools, how do you determine priority between that and product team priorities?

Me:

That’s the crux of prioritization. This is also why companies end up splitting up the product team into two teams so that each one focuses on a different strategic area. At Breeze, my team was not only separate from the rest of the eng team, we even got our own apartment for the seven of us that we used as a separate office. If the internal tooling is of strategic importance you should incentivize an entire team to focus on it without needing to evaluate how it compares to other priorities.

If you don’t see the internal tooling as of strategic importance, then you can strike a goal of having x% of the monthly effort/bandwidth dedicated to internal tooling. Something like 20% sounds reasonable (1 FT engineer out of a team of 5).

Prioritization ultimately comes down to impact. It’s not about the feature/project. It’s about what the feature/project enables.

Friend:

100% makes sense. We do a percent on internal needs managed via separate backlogs but I ultimately wave them into a single backlog to make priority decisions between them. But yeah curious other ways to do it. Sounds like you dedicate a percentage or make priorities compete. I feel like in general, you can make more optimal decisions doing so rather than always targeting a %. But others on my team disagree. There is strategic importance with some but not all items.

Also, teams right now manage the priority of their backlogs. Team leaders are not PMs. Any thoughts on that?

Me:

If team leaders who manage the priority of their backlogs are not PMs,

1) what are they?

2) do you trust their ability to make the right prioritization decisions?

Friend:

Head of ops manages ops priorities, for example, operations includes account management, support, etc. and we colab in it and are generally aligned, but still, priorities of that backlog are ultimately made by them and the PM (me) help out.

We target some percentage of ops work since we leverage ops and internal tools to reach service levels for contracts, but I general am starting to think I need to much more rigorously PM that backlog because I think we can get a higher bang/buck. Basically thinking I should proactively do “user research” on the internal members to understand their problems and where I can better empower them/save time rather then waiting till they realize theirs issues. Thoughts?

And to your second question - I generally trust prioritization decisions, yes, but I still don’t think they are as optimal as possible because there isn’t PMing with quite the same level of rigor that a PM might bring.

Me:

Yeah, doing internal research to identify the biggest problem you might be able to solve with software is exactly how we went about figuring out what a fleet management tool should be at Breeze. So that approach has certainly worked for me!

Friend:

^^ That's awesome. Been bouncing these ideas around and I think I have a much better understanding of it now, and it definitely seems like as internal needs become of strategic importance, it certainly makes sense to proactively solve and prioritize those problems as you did at Breeze. Thanks for the help here.

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