Tag Archives: product making

Product Guy – hear your friends

basset shutterstock 600pxSome people hear but don’t really listen. That’s bad and can feel disrespectful. But for great product making, even bigger risk is a Product Guy that listens but doesn’t really hear.

Intelligent people blessed with great memorization skills, high career motivation and access to modern training courses can be trained to become extremely good ‘literal listeners’. Like the Stepford wives, they maintain eye contact, address you by your first name, bake in your words to their sentences, hold back from being negative or combative, suggest constructive actions, and make a great summary at the end. In short, they really make you feel like they ‘get’ you.

Except that absolutely nothing in their thinking, values, behaviors or actions really changes because of what you say.

That ‘sales push mode’ can be really dangerous. Because sometimes the only important takeaway from the customer feedback is that the consumer pretty much hates everything in the product, even if she never said those exact words, and even if only one (by the way, highly fixable) feature was transcripted as an epic fail.

All feedback matters, but some matters more. The Product Guy should especially hear out people with a vested interest with them. Those friends (Note: I am using the zuckerbergian definition of the word) can be voluntary pilot users, soulmate colleagues from other teams, or sales guys whose own success is dependent on the competitiveness of the product. Apart from the signs of Stockholm Syndrome in distressed times (“I am held hostage to loving this product, because it is my only way out of this mess”), it is these people who can be counted on to take the extra time to go beyond the quick & easy, anecdotal, literal comments, and tell how they truly feel.

And then, as counterintuitive as it sounds, sometimes three words (“I hear you”) and doing something differently is a better answer than a detailed, well-rehearsed point-by-point rebuttal.


Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – eat a lot of dogfood


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Product Guy – isolate the problem

fire shutterstock_76873309 600pxOne pilot consumer wrote into the free comments “old-fashioned colors”, and now the sales guys want to change everything in the industrial design. Some integration engineer, in the late afternoon hurry to go pick up his kids in time, accidentally configured the prototype build wrong. Now, instead of asking when the new build will be ready, people email Jerry Maguire type of pamphlets about how to re-engineer the whole development process. Also, the office cafeteria can become more cozy if the whole company is re-orged and all clueless Vice Presidents (read: many) are deported, at least according to the task force memo. And so on and so forth.

Does this kind of escalation sound familiar? Probably yes, if you work in any company that is no longer small.

The root cause for all that hoopla is that, by definition, product making is full of paradoxes.  People want the product to be elegant and sophisticated but yet affordable. Full of features and yet ready early. Edgy but still familiar. Yet great products don’t feel like compromises, because there’s a clear idea what user problems the product is supposed to solve and how. Developing, protecting and delivering that  “configuration”, ”definition” or “brokering between extremely important but conflicting goals” is what Product Guys do for living.

The uncontrollable escalation, or expansion, happens because the power balance between the opposite-pulling forces is never really stable. Ultimately, what looks like a peace is really just a truce that becomes the peace agreement only when the product is out. So throughout the whole development, there’s a lot of passionate energy bubbling under (that’s a good thing), which can burst into the wide open (that’s a bad thing), if a small change somewhere (no matter how unavoidable) is interpreted as the license to re-open any other issue too.

So with this type of self-inflicted crisis looming, the first order of business for Product Guy is to isolate the problem. If the problem was the color, let’s solve that problem. And not let discussion expand how the newly proposed shiny orange would work so much better, if the design and the materials were also changed, and the price made more youth-budget-level-friendly.

Now, narrowing the discussion to solving the actual problem requires logical, deductive thinking to establish the link between the fix and the problem. It requires detailed, precise questions and communication, and in certain cases certain level of “cut-the-crap” abruptness to. In very few cases, the problem may reveal that the whole plan was flawed to start with, but even then the panic pack of band-aid is not the solution, but a total restart is needed. Most often, however, there’s a simple solution that becomes apparent only when the problem is thoroughly understood.

Being the ‘voice of reason’ when everyone is jumping off the walls isn’t fun. Those times may make the Product Guy appear like an anti-consumer, rearview-mirror looking, non-responsive bureaucrat – all labels potentially detrimental to career prospects. But still the escalation must be stopped. The way to think is that great product makers – engineers, designers and so on – need stability to be able to do their best work. They may not thank Product Guy when she/he is taking all the hits to protect them from the panic and the vicious circle of changes. But after the successful project they surely will. And that matters more than anything else.


Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – hear your friends



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Product guy – review the unknown

shutterstock_117743374 - review - 600px

Running review meetings is a core Product Guy skill. Even if the trend of product-making is towards more iterative and short-cycle processes (Ed. note: I don’t use the word ‘agile’ on purpose, in order to avoid religious topics), after a certain operative scale, a holistic review process – which can be called milestone, gate, phase or whatever – is the only practical way to get a comprehensive snapshot of the progress.

Now, the corporate culture for product (or program, as some call it) reviews may vary greatly. Some are formal, some are informal. Some are dog & pony shows aimed at impressing the big chiefs, and some are checklist marathons between experts.

Yes, sometimes important decisions are done in the reviews, but not as often as people think. In real life, the engineering flow, not process chart, dictates the timing of many decisions. That, in turn, means that at the time of review, the “decision” ends up being just pretty much “take it or leave it”. (Ed. note: that too is important because ‘the power to pull the plug’ or ‘the power to change the goalposts’ gives an incentive for the engineering organization to listen to the Product Guy)

So if that’s how the world works, what’s the point of pulling those review preparation all-nighters?

First, there certainly is value in the journey. Through the journey of creating a common snapshot, more people get a better understanding how different pieces link to each other. And at best, the positive cross-team feedback increases energy and team bonding.

Second, an experienced Product Guy can add a lot of value to the review process by asking the right questions. There are times when Product Guy may need to provide the answer too, but most often the purpose is to broaden the thinking of the product team.

But what kind of questions are the ‘right questions’?

Now, some questions need to be “teed up”. They need to be like in the first few rounds in the Who Wants to be Millionaire, usually cleared with ease and growing confidence. Professionals who are properly prepared very rarely have embarrassing moments – like this and this Millionaire contestant – especially with the options of Phone-a-Friend or Ask-the-Audience readily available.

Now, it is a human temptation for the Product Guy to stay in the “nice guy” zone. But more is needed. As important as it is know the plans, it is to know what is not known. Because it is often the surprises coming from outside the plans that create the most problems. Maybe the consumer feedback sample wasn’t as representative of the whole target market as assumed. It could be that the competitors have something disruptive up their sleeves. Or the pricing assumptions on the component costs couldn’t foresee some natural disaster.

Finding out all those risks, and having a sense of the potential mitigation actions, calls for some tough questions, no matter how awesome the progress and plans are.

Now, it is hard to to tip toe that line of consciousness, like Kiefer Sutherland in Flatliners, without the line of questioning feeling arrogant and know-it-all.

There are different kind of techniques. Surely for some boneheaded project manager the Mickey Goldmill type of motivational speech could work:

Mickey: You can’t win, Rocky. This guy will kill you to death inside three rounds
Rocky: You’re crazy
Mickey: What else is new
Rocky: This guy is just another fighter
Mickey: No, he ain’t. This guy is a wrecking machine

In today’s work environment, however, I do suggest gentler methods. It is a lifelong mission to learn the skill of “soft, constructive tension”, and each Product Guy has to find their own way through using feedback and self-reflection.

At the end, however, the review objective of the Product Guy should be the same as Mickey’s – give credit for the progress so far, but more importantly, increase preparation for the next difficult things to come.


Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – isolate the problem


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Product guy – understand your levers

Archimedes_lever_(Small)Every decision Product Guy makes is important. So is every precious minute spent on any chosen topic, out of the many worthy of “Urgent!!” email header. However, some decisions are more important than others because of the leverage (interestingly, a concept invented by another theory guy, Archimedes)

Levers behave differently in different businesses and market contexts. And can be a little counterintuitive. But recognising the meaningful ones makes a world of difference.

For example, I worked in the mass market mobile phone business of Nokia, which had a massive “volume lever”. Individual mobile phone product families designed could ship in tens, and sometimes in hundreds of Millions of units. Hence, for example, any cent, or sometimes fraction of a cent, unnecessary component cost eliminated would impact profitability way more than any impressive sounding one-time cost.

High price elasticity can also be a lever. The income pyramids in different countries are very different, and being able to move down a tier can multiply the size of the addressable market.

Sometimes the important lever has nothing to with the cost, but is about ‘being the best’ or ‘being the first’. People might remember that Buzz Aldrin was the second person to step on the moon, but that’s a rare exception for the runner-ups in the collective memory of the man-kind. We also know Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon were in Apollo 13 because it was the best almost-disaster. But very few remember who were in Apollo 12.

Speaking of “Houston, we have a problem” level of catch-phrases, “easy copy & pasteability” can also be a lever. Communications and marketing people hone their materials to reach the same level of virality. Consultants and lawyers try to template-ize their work up to only needing the change the company name.

Sometimes it is the ‘partner visibility lever’ that matters. For example, during the rise of Facebook or Angry Birds usage, any electronics product that was ahead of the curve providing those functionalities got free publicity, and something to build the product identity around. Until of course, every one had them

Sometimes certain leadership actions are perceived to have ‘symbolic lever’. Personally, I think today’s world is overly consumed by this myth of leadership. I get that Bill Pullman, as the U.S. President Whitmore, had to make a passionate speech in Independence Day. But did he really have to suit up and get in a jet to fight some aliens himself, even if he had been a fighter pilot pre-politics? Generally, handing CEO or EVP the keys to engine room is amongst the worst crisis management idea ever.

And so on and so forth. The list is endless when you really put your mind into it.

What I am saying is that the impact of leverage on different activities should be a key determining factor how Product Guy spends his/her time.

This understanding of contextual geometrics also separates the rookies from the veterans. Running after every idea or problem until exhaustion works only for the young and dumb who love the thrill of being in the middle of product making action. The more experienced ones remember that it takes a village to move a mountain.

The experienced ones also know that overly transactional behavior makes the world a cold and indifferent place. Sometimes you need to spend the time on what’s right, what’s interesting and what gets the energy up, even if the leverage was non-existent. And, at the end, it may make rational sense too. You never know who’s going to carry the big stick in the next project.


Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – review the unknown


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Product guy – dream living other people’s lives

shutterstock_95792512 dreaming 600pxDoes Product Guy need to be of the target audience? Can a bald guy sell shampoo? Does the baby food product manager need to wear a bib at breakfast? But on the other hand, should golf companies only hire lousy golfers as product managers to ensure they really know how their hacker customers feel after pulling two identical hooks to the wrong fairway?

Tough ones. No wonder that in the post-Steve Jobs era, there is no clear-cut answer to this eternal question that was perhaps the most asked one, when I collected input for this Product Guy series.

What matters is the passion for the product and the people who use it. That passion can come from within one’s own life, but interestingly, it can equally arise from having the imagination and the curiosity about other people’s lives (note: If this feels too creepy or outer space now, take a breather and read something tangible, like Facebook Graph API documentation)

So when the life is too short to develop a new skill – like a consistent golf swing – Product Guy should focus on trying to understand how it feels for those who have it.

The ultimate stage of dreaming to live other people’s lives is what happened to Jesse Eisenberg. He went to see basketball in London Olympics and was introduced in the TV broadcast as Mark Zuckerberg. And he probably can’t code at all.

For the record, I am so rooting for Ashton Kutcher to be able to pull off the same.


Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – understand your levers


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Man vs Machine

shutterstock_59344237 terminator_400pxEase of use is not only about great design and engineering. The product (category) also has to have a chance to somehow fit to the user’s daily habits and subconscious routines.

In the past 15 years I’ve adapted myself to the evolution of the items-previously-known-as-phone-and-PC-and-TV. My phone gear follows along as effortlessly as the wallet, the key-ring and the watch (the primary of purpose of which is to be the holder for my wedding ring during sports).  But adapting requires constant, proactive work. I’ve dropped chargers on my path like a hostage leaving breadcrumbs for the rescuers. I’ve bought new bags and clothes way before the old ones have worn out. I even invented a fun game in which my daughter gets to fetch the cable-TV smart card from the set-top-box upstairs (worked until she was about seven). And so on and so forth.

In other words, in order to make my every day easier, I have trained myself to do certain things in a certain order or to react to certain visual cues. Making the brain useless, like any worthy goal, is not easy. But it can be done.

However, there is one task that naggingly keeps on reminding me how far I still am from becoming The Terminator.

Having the Bluetooth headset charged when you need it.

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Intro to Product Guy series

In the quest of becoming a product guy – *) see definition later – there is little substitute for learning by doing. Surely, education and training will always matter, but some things are really only learned in the trenches.

I had the privilege of working in the product making of Nokia for many years, both in the high- and low-end as well as with just software as well as device product (hardware and software).

Those years and the people I worked with, or role modeled after, resulted in a certain way I think innovative, focused and results-oriented product management should be – or at least could be, as there is no one truth – run.

I plan to write up those ‘rules of thumb’ in this blog in the next month or so. Doing so was actually requested by at least one friend who reads this blog (so I have an audience and I could have written “people asked me to”…) but my main motivation is my own reflection for the benefit of my own learning. So expect a lot of sports, movie and popular culture analogies…

Now, ex-colleagues and ex-fellow product makers, if you want to direct my journey on where to focus, please comment in. You can also do it privately via my personal email, LinkedIn messaging, the Facebook page or the email jp(at)realboxscore.com

*) Definitions: Different companies use different terminologies for the roles at the intersection of marketing, strategy and engineering. What Nokia people usually call Product Manager is in some companies (such as Microsoft) called Program Manager. Some less “tech capability-constrained” companies (such as some FMCG, fast moving consumer goods, companies) may call the same role Product Marketing. Anyhow, I am talking of the person and the team who figures out what customers/consumers want and guides the organization in the journey to make that happen, sometimes from ‘cradle to grave’. Wanting to avoid the attention-diverting definition rat holes, I will just call the role ‘product guy’. Also as the topic is complex enough already, I will just simplify it to ‘guy’ instead of ‘guy or gal’.

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Viva la Vida and the Office

One of my all-time favorite bands is Coldplay (yes, I know).  It is not only their unique sound and stadium-hugging presence that I find appealing, but also the lyrics that have depth and meaning.

Yesterday I wrote about the executive changes at Apple, only to wake up this morning to read that also Steve Sinofsky, the Windows Chief, is going out. Add to the equation all the executive suite drama of Nokia and Motorola in the past five years, and it does seem Google and Samsung are the stable ones, despite their reputation of autonomous groups, fast pace and hard turns.

It seems there is a common ending to the saga of people responsible for delivering products. But why is that? Maybe Chris Martin of Coldplay has the answers in the lyrics of Viva La Vida

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

That’s probably how the departing execs feel. One bearded dude can perhaps part the seas, but it takes masters of technology to make them rise.

I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
“Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!”

The engineering ranks are always sad to see their ferocious leader go. For about a minute. Or slightly less if one has already signed in to LinkedIn. Then it’s time to figure out how to get stuff done under the new leaders.

One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

The chief responsible for the product delivery has access everywhere and the world revolves around his/her calendar. Until the product is out. Then the empire gets way smaller.

I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field

Truth to be told, I never got the meaning of this paragraph. I presume every song needs a catchy chorus. Hereby this slot is for the marketing department.

For some reason I can’t explain
Once you go there was never
Never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world

The product kings are surrounded with other noble people in the transparent, fact-based debate about the future of the mission. Only later on might one find that some people were pawns or jokers.

It was the wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn’t believe what I’d become

Who cares if there were some mistreated souls, bad blood and collateral damage in the mission of getting the stuff out, right? Well, many people do. And their time to speak is after the delivery date.

Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh who would ever want to be king?

Yes, why indeed. With so many nice and easy posts available for capable people, why take the one in the front line with most bullets coming from the front and knives from the back.

Because of the thrill.

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