Land, Ho! How A Product Team Can Steer Your Company In The Right Direction
The one immutable law of the tech world, so immutable it’s almost cliche, is this: technology moves quickly. Even though I have only been at TextNow for just over two years, it’s still long enough to make me a bit of a veteran at TextNow, and it also means I have seen a lot of change and progress in my short time.
TextNow is currently catapulting me, along with a couple of my colleagues, into the exciting new role of Associate Product Manager. I’ve noticed some things in taking on this new challenge that I’d like to take some time to talk about here, as it may be helpful to other budding product managers and/or tech start-ups creating their own product team.
So… what’s the product we manage?
One of the first things I noticed (and liked!) about TextNow as a product is that it is multi-platform: we have Android, iOS, desktop for both Mac and PC, and a web version. While this is an awesome advantage TextNow has over our competitors, it also presents additional challenges from a product perspective.
Essentially, we have one product — TextNow — split into multiple mini-products, resulting in multiple specialized teams. Then, just to add a little more complexity, we have different flavours of our TextNow app and service: the free, ad supported tier called TextNow Free; the premium app version called TextNow Premium ($2.99/month); and our wireless mobile called TextNow Wireless (with unlimited data plans starting at $19.99/month). Having multiple versions of your product can make vetting and releasing a new feature time consuming, as the team needed to launch is larger and more diverse, and each team operates slightly differently.
Establishing a Product Team
TextNow has never had a product team before, or at least not one that has been identified and isolated from other work. Previously, this work was done by a number of people on a part-time basis, across the organization. That’s fine if you’re a small start up working on one product across one or maybe two platforms, but TextNow has grown significantly in the past couple of years, with two offices in Waterloo and San Francisco that house multiple teams each working on their own slice of the TextNow pie.
Having people do the job of a product team in a pick-up, ad-hoc basis is simply not possible when your organization levels-up in size like ours has. Since starting the product team, TextNow as a whole has been quick to see the value of properly scoping out a feature before starting the work. We’re demonstrating the value of separating out a product team focused on communicating between development teams and leadership, and the buy-in that is beginning to occur is palpable. The product council meetings get progressively better as more individuals are tuning into what is important, and learning how to ask and identify meaningful questions that can provide new perspective on a product idea. Going forward this will allow TextNow to more effectively deal with technical debt, identify and tackle low-hanging fruit, start a project with most of the answers already in place, and develop meaningful experiments to ensure what we are building is valuable and backed by data.
How does the Product Team make things happen?
As a product manager at TextNow I do three main things: ask the right questions, help deliver end-to-end support (i.e. help the company go from an idea to an implemented solution) and act as a bridge between the work in progress and the potential end-user. Let’s look at these three things in more detail.
1. Asking the right questions
Product managers need to consider a new project or idea from multiple angles: the user’s perspective, the development and design team’s perspective, and the business perspective. I personally find it useful to think through things systematically and analytically, and one process that really helps me do this is to look at the proposed solution or feature and ask: “What problem this is supposed to solve?” Then, I pull back and consider other possible solutions and their respective impact on the user, business resources, etc. Currently, our backlog is filled with ideas, and not necessarily concrete problems and the associated well-vetted solution, which is where the product team comes in to provide direction. (One article I have found incredibly helpful for visualizing problems is Why This Opportunity Solution Tree is Changing the Way Product Teams Work by Teresa Torres.)
2. Delivering end-to-end support
One of the major responsibilities I have is to help the company deliver and release new solutions to problems facing our customers. To do this the product team has a few different workflows through which ideas can, errrr, flow. Part of my job is to help manage these workflows by moving items, vetting items, presenting items to senior leadership if they need staffing in the near future, and then supporting the project once it gets assigned a team and the execution phase begins. It’s not exactly a roadmap for the project, because it’s a living, breathing, always-shifting document — more like a snapshot of where we are, and where we need to go.
3. Being a Bridge
In order to create a product your customer wants, you need to understand the ins and outs of your customer. User personas are one tool that product managers can create to help members of the development team empathize with the end user, allowing devs to foster various perspectives and considerations on how to solve a problem given different types of users. (A user persona is a composite case study of a given user type, based on available data.) After all, we are building the product for our customers, so it needs to work for them. Seems sensible, right? For TextNow this is especially critical, as an app with literally millions of users has quite a diverse user base as you can probably imagine, and TextNow can be used in remarkably different ways by these different end-user types.
From the conception of an idea, all the way to the realization of that idea in its final form, product managers need to be constantly aware of all the moving parts to ensure all the teams are on the same page, to corral the answers to pressing questions, and raise concerns if needed. The product team runs almost as an inter-company liaison, connecting the stakeholders of the area under my purview, and as product manager, I need to make myself available to answer questions, arrange quick meetings or stand-ups between different team members, and communicate the progress of the work between business and development. Of course, sometimes I might not have the ALL the answers, which feeds right back into needing to ask the right questions before getting back to a stakeholder.
Here’s a quick analogy that will help our blog editor find some good images to go along with this article: If app development is a ship (stay with me here) then the Product Team is the compass. While the rest of the sailors keep the engine going, the compass is making sure the ship is heading in the right direction, along the most efficient path. In this metaphor, I’m gonna say the discovery of a new world is… profitability? Accolades? Whatever, the Product Team will get you there.