Communicating when “fires” break out – “We are on it”

As software product managers, we often deal with cross-functional issues from time to time such as projects that fall behind schedule and now risk making a release, creative designs not ready for implementation, serious production issues that require immediate swats to be released etc. When such problems crop up, keeping your cross-functional team including your management team updated with the latest information is of paramount important. You can take two approaches to communication when such “fires” arise:

  1. Try to gather as much information as possible before you communicate so that you can include all the details of the problem and how you are going to fix it or
  2. Communicate immediately acknowledging there is a problem without revealing the seriousness of the problem and details of how you are going to fix it.

When substantial time is needed to gather data to understand the impact and quantify the size of the problem, I always prefer the latter. In an emergency, it is important to acknowledge that you are aware of the problem and to communicate the message “we are on top of it”. This way everyone (especially your senior management) know about the problem and can rest assured that folks are actively looking into it. Then, once you have gathered more information follow up with the details, options to fix the problem and the recommended solution. Instead, if you wait until you have all the information and good amount of time goes by, someone is going to find out, things get miscommunicated and you could spend more time trying to set things right.

Relate this to when tragedies strike – there is always a “first responder” team that appears on the scene immediately. Their job is to arrive first at the scene and take charge of the scene and start the data gathering process. As a product manager, you should be your team’s leader and part of the first responder team. On-time communication with the whole team is one way to gain respect and make you the go-to-person on your team.

Thoughts? Your experiences?

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Book Review: Cracking the Product Management Interview

If you are a product manager thinking about your next career move or someone looking to move into product management, this is THE book you should read and have as your reference.  I have been doing product management for many years and I found the book so resourceful. Gayle Laakmann McDowell and Jackie Bavaro have done a great job covering everything from the definition of a product manager role (remember that different companies have different definitions of what we do), how to transition from a non-PM role to a PM role, how to write a cover letter and resume that gets looked at to potential questions (behavioral, case studies, analytical problem solving) that you could be asked in a PM interview. They have interviewed product managers in companies such as Google, Twitter, Airbnb and Microsoft asking them about their day-day to activities and also senior Product Leaders as to how they have managed their careers.cracking the pm interview

It is written so well that it is a very easy read. The chapter I loved the most in the book was the one on “Estimation questions” where different examples such as “how many tennis balls can fit into an apartment” are worked out. The only chapter I have not read in the book is the one on “Coding questions”. This is only because I believe that Product Manager’s focus should be on the “Which” and “What” and not the “How”. It is our job to discover the customer problems, figure out “which” market problems are worth solving and “what” the solutions should look like from a User experience perspective. It is engineering’s job to figure out “how” they are going to develop the identified solution. But the chapter does not take anything away from the book.

I am confident that this book can end up to one of the best investments you could make if you are thinking about switching or finding a PM job. I strongly recommend it.

Here is a link to the book on Amazon: Cracking the PM Interview: How to Land a Product Manager Job in Technology

How do I become a product manager?

This is the most frequent question I get from readers of this blog. Folks who currently are developers, QA engineers, sales professionals, customer support specialists have all asked me this question. I have written how you could start making the move to product management.

But here is a course that is now available from udemy. It is a 33-Video Lecture Course called, “Skillsets to Shift Your Career to Product Management,” is intended for beginning technology entrepreneurs, and for technology professionals with no background in marketing and product management. The course is narrated by Raj Karamchedu, a Silicon Valley technology business executive with over 19 years of experience in the markets of wireless, mobile, semiconductors, software and hardware. He is currently a co-founder of a boootstrapped Silicon Valley-based startup. Previously he was at Legend Silicon (an Intel Capital-funded fabless startup) with two hats, Vice president of Product Management and Chief Operating Officer.

To get more information on the course and to get the 77% discount (offered to readers of this blog), click on the link below.

https://www.udemy.com/productmanagement/?couponCode=gopahshenoy

Product Manager Interview – 7 Cardinal Sins

So you have landed an interview for a software product manager position. You are excited! You show up for the interview and the interview is a bust. You do not get the job. Causes? Having interviewed many product managers, who looked very promising on the resume and ended up being disappointing during the interview, I have compiled the patterns I have seen as “7 Cardinal Sins”. This can also be considered as general tips for any position that you are interviewing for.

  1. You hardly know anything about the company – I have had at least two instances where the candidate told me that s/he was hoping that I would explain what we do, our business model etc during the phone screen. Surprised? Think it is not possible? I was too until I heard this. Good thing this happened on a phone screen.
  2. You do not know the job description/responsibilities in and out – If you don’t know the job description, why did you even apply? How did you figure out that your skills match what the company is looking for? The way a hiring manager can figure this out is by asking the question – “Why do you want to work for us?” or “Why should we hire you?” – These questions should be slam dunk for you if you are prepared, you can show case how much you know about the company, what you bring to the table that relates to the job description and your past successes and accomplishments that are relevant to the job. I have heard lame answers such as “Recruiter called me about this job and hence submitted my resume” or “You guys called me and wanted to talk to me.” Come on, while that may be true, you need to still do a sales job – you need to sell the product you have – “YOU”!Cardinal-Sin
  3. You do not have an elevator pitch - Same as the above, but if the interviewer asks the question – tell me about yourself, try to hit the ball out of the park. Relate your experiences that are relevant to the job. Sell, sell, sell! Your elevator pitch should be 2-3 min max. Give an overview that piques the interest of the interviewer that they want to know more.
  4. You don’t know anything about the people you are going to interview you - You need to ask for the interview schedule before you get there. Then do the research – where have these folks worked at? Use LinkedIn. Do you and them have common connections? What questions can you anticipate given their background?
  5. You do not have questions for the interviewers – when asked if you have any questions, you say No. It is quite possible that towards the tail end of an interview schedule that your questions may have been answered. But instead of a terse No, mention that you had many questions about X, Y and Z that you have asked the previous interviewers. Give everyone a window into your preparation. Ask questions that gives you a deeper understanding of the problems that they are looking to solve by making this hire, the organizational structure, decision making process etc. Ask the same question to multiple people and see if you get a consistent answer.
  6. You have not anticipated questions or prepped for the interview - Research sites such as glassdoor.com to see what questions get asked in interviews at the company. Ask your contact what a typical interview looks like? Do they have a problem solving round where you are asked to solve a given problem? Practice doing a problem solving round before hand to get your thoughts together. It is hard to think on your feet when you are under pressure at the interview. So play through such a session before hand so that you can come up with a strategy of tackling it in the real session.
  7. You lie on the resume - Believe it or not, this happens. If you get caught, not only will you not get the job but your reputation and integrity will be tarnished. In the world we live in, word travels fast. The tech world is highly networked, so don’t take a risk. I had one instance where a product manager claimed that he came up with a pricing strategy – when I asked him to explain it, I was told that he put it on the resume just to make it look well rounded. He admitted that he does not have experience with pricing. End of the interview, right there and then! I am not going to hire you as a PM and put you in front of customers if I cannot trust you. Never, ever lie on your resume.

Image: Courtesy of smallbusiness.yahoo.com

Building Rapport – “How” you say it vs. “What” you say

A large portion of software product manager’s working life is spent working with cross-functional teams – whether it is trying to meet everyone’s expectations (or to be more exact aligning them), or communicating to them (since they often tend to speak using their own terminology) such that everyone is singing off the same song book. When you are new and have not established the rapport or the relationships with your shipmates, it is not “what” you say that tends to be important, but “how” you say it. Everyone is looking for “What is in it for them?” and “Why they should listen to you”. You have not earned your stripes yet. This holds true, no matter whether you are the new product manager or the new CEO.rapport

But once people get to know you and a good working relationship gets established, magic happens. Now, “what” you say becomes more important than “how” you say it. You could even drop every other word and speak (not that I recommend you do this) and still your team magically knows where you are coming from and what you are trying to say. Once the rapport has been built, people start believing in you and you can move a mountain.

So I don’t care what social networks come and go, what technologies make it easier to communicate, nothing comes even close to the traditional “human” face-to-face connection in building relationships. So what have you as a software product manager done lately to build or strengthen existing relationships at work? If you are new at your job, what have you done so that the magic happens that switches the conversation from “how you say it” to “what you say”? After all, it is all about human relationships, not about products. Relationships – internal and external – will outlast any product you will ever build.

Agree? Comments?

Image: Courtesy of presentationmagazine.com

Other articles you may like:

Customer Visits – Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t be an “I” specialist

B2B vs B2C Product Management -16 Differences

What should keep a product manager awake?

Should it be the state of product development, the next release, the next sprint? Should it be what keeps the company executives awake? Should it be the competitors? While some of these should indeed keep a product manager awake, the most important thing that should keep him/her awake should be what keeps customers awake. Customers have problems today that are real pain points. They are struggling to solve them using current means and are hoping that someone will solve them. They are willing to pay someone to solve these problems for them. This is what product managers should focus on and spend most of their energies. If you do this, everything else should follow. If you do not do this, then all of the other things tend to happen – your execs tend to stay awake, you start worrying about competitors, your sales start to shrink, you start worrying about hitting the numbers etc. So focus on the only thing that really matters – understand better what keeps your customers awake and solve them via your products – existing or new.

Thoughts? Please share them via comments.

Power of “Breaking it down” – 10 minutes and NOW

It has been months since my last blog post. Call it laziness, lethargy, procrastination, sudden lack of confidence in my writing skills – every one of these had something to do with it. I used to tell myself that I had to do it. But never did it.

Last night, I was teaching my 9 nine year old daughter Navya how to compute the area of shapes. I was teaching her how to break the shape into rectangles and squares, calculate the area of each and then add them up. Suddenly, it dawned on me as to how I could break down this wall of not blogging.

Image

It is simple – “10 minutes” and “Now”. I even have this written down on my monitor at work. When something feels too big and I have trouble getting started, I try breaking it down into steps each of which would take 10 minutes. And then I start doing them NOW. Believe it or not, it has been working and a proof point is this blog post. I just opened WordPress and started writing.

Try it for yourself. Whether you are a software product manager procrastinating on starting a requirements doc for a complex feature or you are a painter wanting to start a painting, break it down into “10 minute” chunks and start on it “Now”.

10 minutes get over fast and before you realize you are 30 minutes into it. The sense of accomplishment suddenly carries you forward. Agile development methodology is built on this core principle of breaking things down, building fast and shipping often.

Do you agree? Thoughts, comments?

Image: Courtesy of digitalminimalism.com

Agile vs. Waterfall – what is the big deal?

I have been working in companies the last 5 years where we have followed the agile methodology in product development. Shorter sprints, faster releases as opposed to month long development cycles that were common in waterfall.

Here is a guest blog post written by Mike Cudemo of Sparta Systems that explains the differences between Agile and Waterfall product development methodologies in a very simple way. He also explains the benefits of doing agile as a way of increasing the success rate of IT projects.

Seeing is believing.  Agile methodologies are not perfect, but they are three times more successful than traditional waterfall methodologies (source: Standish Group).  Agile methodologies allow end users and stakeholders to visualize their requirements faster and catch errors earlier in the development process.

A waterfall process can be likened to building a house.  An architect translates your requirements into blueprints which only an architect can visualize.  Your first glimpse into reality occurs after the foundation is poured and the walls are erected.   While things can be changed, it is more expensive to change.  Most people struggle to catch problems until the drywall is up and the ductwork and plumbing are in place.  Again, you can make changes if there are issues, however, now it is even more expensive to address.  The waterfall process attempts to “freeze the requirements” after the blueprints are designed.   As you can imagine, this is not reality.  The later you catch a requirements problem (e.g. I want a larger master bedroom closet), the more expensive it is to fix.  In some cases, it is impossible to fix.  You can have the closet, but little Timmy needs to sleep on the roof!

The Agile Method does not attempt to “nail and freeze the requirements” all up front at one time.   It assumes that the requirements will evolve and change as the customer begins to visualize their own requirements.  The Agile Method attempts to build the house by first creating a visual 3D representation of the outside of the house.  This is how it is going to look when you come home from a long day at work.  After the outside look and feel is developed, you attempt to construct the house one to two rooms at a time.   The Agile Method attempts to focus the requirements, design, code and test into iterative smaller development phases.   Essentially, the Agile Method is a series of smaller contained waterfalls.  End users and business stakeholders get to see and experience the system as it unfolds.  Course corrections become more apparent and easier to navigate.

Waterfall processes attempt to minimize and control change.  Agile processes accept the inevitable need to accommodate learning about the real requirements.  End users think in broad strokes; however, we all know the devil truly lies in the details.   Skilled Agile development teams have a clear methodology to guide the process most effectively.  They will select the plot and then develop the look and feel of the outside of the house. Next, they will focus on the 1st floor, and then move to the second floor.  The finished basement will be last, because as we all know, we’ve run out of money by that time.

We find ourselves in the worst economy since the Great Depression.  Many CFOs find themselves in a complex juggling act of cutting operational costs and making technology investments.  CFOs are forcing their CIOs to come up with plans to leverage existing investments, yet develop the capabilities to rapidly respond to both economic growth and competitive changes. Project failure is really not an option, yet according to the statistics, waterfall approaches waste 60% of a company’s IT project budget.

Over 20 years ago, 90% of IT projects failed or under-delivered on functionality. Today, depending on your source for statistics, IT projects fail or under-deliver between 30-70% of the time.   It is better, but far from perfect.  It is clear, that Agile methodologies are at least 3x more likely to succeed.

Agile methodologies are iterative. Understanding is paramount to containing change.  Systems unfold one functional area and set of screens at a time.  An Agile Methodology will not fix a bad project vision, an impossible task, or a lack of skilled personnel.  Properly applied, an Agile approach will catch the poor vision, unattainable goals, or lack of resources early.  IT and application departments must learn that cancelling a project early is actually a win.   Broken processes should be fixed first before they become institutionalized with software or a system.

Companies that employ Agile methodologies and cancel unattainable projects early will thrive.  Their IT success rates will exceed 85%.  Most importantly, they will have more working capital to drive growth, innovate, and increase productivity.

About Mike Cudemo

Mike Cudemo runs the Customer Success Program at Sparta Systems.  The program accelerates knowledge transfer of best practices to our customers to enhance overall business performance.  Mike spent over 12 years integrating manufacturing operations with ERP and value chain systems at Fortune 100 clients, utilizing his expertise in value chain, quality, manufacturing execution and process automation systems. Trained as a systems engineer to analyze and simplify computer systems, Mike has spent a career helping clients understand their core business drivers, simplify the underlying processes, and automate the repetitive, non-value-added tasks which introduce defects and waste.

Importance of sprint demos

In an agile development process, you typically launch new features into production every 2-3 weeks. Before launch, it is important to ensure that all stakeholders get to know about the new features to be released. It is especially important for Customer Support, Training, Translators, Sales etc. to get to know these new features before customers get their hands on them. I have found the best way to do this is via a sprint demo. When I have organized these demos, here are three guidelines I have followed:

  1. All key stakeholders have been invited – marketing, sales, product, customer support, qa, …..
  2. The demo is held a couple of days before the release – stakeholders should have some time to react to the new features and also engineering – in case there are small changes that need to be made (textual changes or other very minor changes).
  3. The demo is done by engineering. This is very key for me. Engineers toil hard to get everything done and it is their work that is being shown in the demo. Given this, they are the best ones to show case what they have built. It also ensures that everything to be released is completed before these demoes.

What are your experiences? How do you do your sprint demos?

 

Understanding Constraints

In the past, I have written what a new software product manager should plan do in the first 30 days on a new job to be successful. If you are planning to start on the right foot at a new job, a key thing you need to understand is constraints. Especially in a startup, during early days when things are move lightening fast, shortcuts are the norm because of constraints. There is not enough money, people and most importantly time. You are trying to put your MVP (minimum viable product) out there, get early success to build upon that there are not enough hours in the day to do things better than you are doing now. 

So if you are a new product manager who walks into such an environment, the last thing you want to do is to criticize the way things are. Instead, spend the time to understand the reasons why things are the way they are. 9 times out of 10, the folks that have been there are not stupid to have done what they have done. The team will be very appreciative if someone takes the time to appreciate what they have done under the constraints they had. I am not suggesting that you be disingenuous and praise something when everyone around you knows it is a pile of shiitake. You have been hired for a reason. If you are hired as a VP of Product, it is probably because things have not been rosy and the company needs a direction. But before you start to rock the cart, first find the reason for the current madness.

Another occasion where understanding constraints becomes valuable is when you are making a business case for something. Sell the idea first (before you ask for resources), make sure there is buy-in and then outline the constraints that will need to be resolved if the idea needs to succeed. This could be asking for more people or funding.

Thoughts? Do you agree? What can you share from your experiences?

Image: Courtesy of scmep.org

3 mistakes to avoid in a Product Manager Resume

I have been reviewing tens of resumes lately as I have been looking to hire a product manager in my group at Care.com. Here are some patterns that I have noticed that makes me to quickly move on to the next resume:

  1. Buzzwords: When I read “Builds and manages relationship with customers to smooth transition from legacy, fragmented business processes and systems to streamlined global product development processes enabled by enterprise technology implementation that improve efficiency of new product delivery and sustaining engineering“, I have no idea what you are talking about and I move on very quickly to the next resume.
  2. No quantitative metrics: If I see no metrics or results achieved based on what you have done, I get no sense of whether your efforts were successful or not. Instead of saying “Launched a customer visit program for direct reports”, add more meat and metrics. Tell me what happened as a result. Instead, it is more useful to read something along the lines of “Developed an on-site customer visit program for direct reports that resulted in 200 visits/year. Improved understanding of customer product design needs resulted in launch of 5 new products in 2 years for the machine design and consumer design vertical segments.” It gives me context and also a better understanding of your accomplishments. However, never make things up, hiring managers will be able to sniff things out very easily. Trust me, I have seen candidates lie on their resume and it has come out within 5 minutes into the interview.
  3. No white space: Your resume is so full of text with minimal spacing, I as a reader have trouble focusing on something in your resume. It becomes a lot harder to read your resume. Presentation matters, readability matters. You want to stand out, make it easier for the hiring manager to read. Ask yourself this question – “Does my resume highlight my key achievements that will make the hiring manager want to pick up the phone and call me?” You do not have to put in everything you have ever done in your resume, what you want are your key achievements. The nitty gritty details can come in during the interview (if you think it is relevant to mention them). A good friend of mine, who has been a VP of marketing at many companies gave me a good rule of thumb – “1 page of resume for every decade of your experience”.

Thoughts? Comments? What are your experiences as a hiring manager?

Related articles:

  1. 10 job hunting tips for a product manager
  2. 8 traits of good managers
  3. 7 tips to survive a layoff

Customer Visits – Do’s and Don’ts

I attended the Product Camp Boston over the weekend and shared what I have learnt doing over 300 Customer Visits in 10 countries (US, Canada, Japan, UK, Germany, Netherlands, India, China, South Korea, Taiwan).

Customer visits can be the best qualitative method to learn the most about your customers/prospects – stuff you will not learn from surveying them. But this is only if you do them right. Based on experience doing 300 of them in 10 different countries, I would like to share what has worked and what has not.

Here are the slides I used.

I am looking to hire a Product Manager

I am looking to hire a Product Manager who has minimum 4 years of experience doing software product management (mostly consumer) to join my team doing product management for International products at Care.com. Details below. You MUST have 4+ years of experience to be considered. If you or anyone you know is interested, please send me your resume to gshenoy (at} care [d o t) com. 

The international group is small (total of 7), follows an agile development process and is very fast paced. We launched in the UK last month and will be launching in other countries very soon.

Product Manager based in Waltham, MA

Care.com is seeking a highly motivated individual to join its International Product Management team in the position of Product Manager. The individual will be responsible for defining, prioritizing, and overseeing the implementation of features and functionality of Care.com‘s international websites. The ideal candidate must have previous experience developing product requirements for an online, consumer service. In addition, the candidate must be able to effectively manage cross-functional teams of stakeholders throughout the organization.

Specific Duties/Responsibilities:

  • Ownership of product requirements for Care.com’s online product offerings for international markets. This includes the requirements gathering process, requirements documentation, and the ongoing maintenance of requirements as the business context evolves.
  • Working directly with stakeholders throughout the company to ensure that a successful product is delivered.
  • Working with business owners to understand and document the product requirements.
  • Working with engineers to communicate product requirements, make trade-offs, and oversee the product implementation and testing process.
  • Working with marketing to understand marketing plans and strategy and ensure the site and reporting platform support those plans.
  • Working with the member care team to ensure that product support concerns are addressed in the product requirements.
  • Working with the finance team to ensure that any revenue generated from the product is accounted for correctly.
  • Driving cross-functional teams to deliver a product which is on-time and in compliance with the product requirements.
  • Assist Director of Product Management in creation of product roadmap for international products.

Skills/Experience Requirements:

  • 4+ years of product management experience REQUIRED.
  • Experience working for a company/organization that develops and runs an online service, preferably a consumer-oriented service.
  • Experience working directly with customers in doing market research and usability testing.
  • Experience writing product requirements documents and functional requirements documents. This includes experience developing wireframes using tools such as Balsamiq or other similar tools.
  • An understanding of Information Architecture and a passion for defining a highly-usable online experience.
  • Demonstrated ability to manage cross-functional teams, solve complex problems, and produce high-quality results.
  • Knowledge of and experience with reporting requirements of an online product.
  • Experience working in an agile development environment.
  • Ability to roll up the sleeves and work in a fast-paced, start-up environment.
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills.
  • Ability to work independently and in a team environment.
  • Willing to travel internationally as required to meet with customers (travel expected to be less than 5%)

Education/Other Pre-Requisites:

  • BA/BS degree in engineering or related field.
  • Knowledge of German, French or any other languages considered a plus.

 

Market Sizing – Quick and Dirty Techniques

This post is a guest blog post by Ilya Mirman, former VP of Marketing at VMTurbo, CilkArts (acquired by Intel), Interactive SuperComputing (acquired by Microsoft) and SolidWorks Corporation. Ilya is currently an advisor to many startups in the Boston area.

I was 9 years old when my father taught me how to estimate the height of a building using my thumb and simple geometry.  As engineers we are taught estimating techniques – in school, and by colleagues and mentors.  Quick-and-dirty assessments are indispensable as we engineer new products, and they’re just as critical for product managers exploring new markets and products.

Being able to quickly size a market is quite handy at several points in a product’s life cycle.  I am not talking about achieving the third decimal point of accuracy at a 95% confidence level; rather, I am talking about being able to know within, say, a factor of two or four what the opportunity might be.  Here’s just a few of the situations I’ve seen where roughly sizing an opportunity helped lead to a better decision:

  • What is the market opportunity for Product X?  This is useful not just for go/no-go decisions, but also for what might be the right way to bring a product to market.  For example, a line extension that can appeal to 15% of your existing user base might be a very attractive new add-on for your company to introduce; though it may not, for example, warrant a spin-out or significant engineering diversion.
  • What is the right funding and development path for New Idea X?  A new idea may be worthwhile, regardless of whether the opportunity it represents is $5M, $50M, or $500M.  But it sure might be helpful to have a clue as to which it might be!  If it’s $5M, it might be an interesting lifestyle business; if it’s $50M, it might be an interesting company for a couple angel investors to help get off the ground; whereas at $500M and up, it may be worthy of a venture capital investment and more aggressive development and go-to-market plans.
  • Which user persona to target for the first release of Product X?  Often, a product might appeal to a couple different user types.  But rather than engineering the “gray sneaker” (when half the users actually want black, and the other half want white), it may be better to figure out which segment represents a better opportunity, and really optimize the product for them.

There’s no one “right” way to do market sizing, and in fact it’s often useful to triangulate using multiple approaches, to increase your confidence that you’re in the ballpark.  Here’s a couple examples.

Top-Down: The Filter Approach

The approach here is to identify a key metric that’s driving the opportunity, and the key assumptions / reduction filters to zero in on your addressable market. One of my start-ups was Interactive Supercomputing (a venture-backed MIT spin-off acquired by Microsoft).  Our software connected engineering desktop applications – such as MATLAB® or Python – and parallel servers, to solve large and complex numerical problems that can’t be solved with a desktop computer.

The market for high performance computers (also known as “HPC servers,” or “parallel servers”) was large and reasonably well-known – hundreds of thousands of servers sold annually.  There is a broad set of diverse applications and usage scenarios for HPCs, so the big question for us was, how many of them could benefit from our software?  Here are the three primary filters we identified:

  1. Fraction of servers to run custom applications: The software running on these servers falls into 2 categories: it is either an existing software application; OR it is a newly developed application, currently being prototyped on a desktop tool.  Our software was suited for the latter scenario (enabling a much quicker path going from desktop prototype to deployment on a server).  Our research suggested that roughly half the servers purchased every year were for running existing apps, and half were for custom apps.  This 50% was therefore a constant filter in our model.
  2. Desktop Language Support:  The first filter helps us identify the servers running new custom apps.  But that would be an overestimate, because our software was not able to help every one of the custom app developers.  Turns out that a second important filter is: which desktop tool or language is used to prototype the application.  Our initial product supported MATLAB, which according to our research was used to prototype ~25% of the custom HPC apps.  Over the following 3 years, we planned on introducing support for Python and R, expanding the addressable market to 50% of the custom HPC apps.
  3. Product fit: The third and final filter was product fit.  Our software did not support all domains and applications equally well – for example, we were great for signal processing, but not genetic algorithms.  We broke down the numerical methods into about 10 domains, identified our sweet spots, guesstimated which ones we’ll strengthen over time, and felt that a reasonable model might be to grow this filter from 25% to 40% over 4 years.

Here’s the resulting model – we start from the universe of servers sold in the HPC space, and zero in on the footprint of ones we can address well.  Because two of the filters grow over time, as does the absolute number of servers shipped, the market grows rapidly:
(Note: I’m glossing over a couple details here, for clarity.  First is the connection between number of servers and the dollars spent.  And second, the fact that in addition to new servers modeled here, there is an installed base which is approximately 3 times larger, though less of them are available for new custom applications, and are typically not being sold to by the channel we were betting on.)

Bottom-Up Estimate

In the bottom-up approach, rather than starting with some total and filtering it to the relevant fraction, we do a bit of the opposite: identify the segments, to build up the total market opportunity.
At my next start-up Cilk Arts (a venture-backed MIT spin-off acquired by Intel), our mission was to provide the easiest, quickest, and most reliable way to optimize application performance on multicore processors.  Our software consisted of developer tools, and a runtime system.  We had hundreds of conversations with a broad set of organizations looking to make their applications run faster on the new generation of microprocessors from Intel and AMD.  We saw a large variety in terms of product fit, how many applications they develop, size of their user base, and what they may spend.

So to size the market, we identified the key segments, and estimated the key variables:

  • Number of firms in each segment: through web searches and other data we actually compiled a list of many of these;
  • Number of apps developed per year;
  • Product fit:  Fraction of their apps we could accelerate (we had better performance in some sectors, and less of a fit for others);
  • Estimate of value for each app based on conversations with hundreds of prospects.


My sense is that it was less important to know whether $480M was “right” and more important to quickly figure out that it was neither a billion-dollar opportunity, nor merely a $100M market (where the leader might garner a ~20% share).

Conclusion

Because there is no one source of info is that reliable or complete, it’s better to use multiple approaches to zero in on a good estimate.  Try to identify metrics that correlate with usage or size of the problem – possible sources of data include government databases, relevant publications’ reader studies, commercial databases, competitors.

What approaches have YOU used to estimate market opportunity?  We’d love to hear from you.

Product Manager’s friend: Momentum

What a product manager needs to succeed is momentum. Momentum in product development, in product sales, in customer adoption, …. – you name it. Lack of momentum is akin to death. If your company is not willing to make necessary investments in your product, it will die. If enough engineering resources are not dedicated to your product, it will die. If there is not enough marketing muscle put behind your product to create awareness and interest, it will likely fail. So what can you as a software product manager do, to get this “momentum”?

  1. Earn customer capital: If you can show that you talked to real customers who are likely to buy your product as opposed to holding on to internal opinions, you stand a chance to gain momentum. Even if you don’t talk to customers, but instead have data that proves user behavior (for example web analytics data), you are likely to gain momentum.
  2. Political capital: If you can make a business case on why the company cannot ignore the opportunity you have identified based on the “customer capital” you have earned, you are likely to gain momentum. If you can get buy-ins from individual stakeholders and get their backing, you are likely to gain momentum.
  3. Early market success: If you can build a minimum viable product, launch it into the market and get early market success, you will likely win over the last standing doubters and build momentum.

If all you have are your opinions, you will lose to the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s opinion). Instead if you have data to back up what you are saying, you are likely to gain momentum that will make you successful.

And in spite of all this, if you don’t, it may be time for you to move on. Trust me, I have been in this situation, where no matter how much data I brought in to prove my case, it fell on deaf ears and the organization was more concerned addressing what appeared as the “next big deal” that the product which was bringing in the bacon was left to languish. All you can do then, is know that you put the best foot forward and hope for the best.

What do you think? Do you agree?

Focus is about saying “NO”

It has been a while since I have been in blogging and a lot has happened in the world during that timeframe. My idol Steve Jobs has passed, iPhone 4S is out, Gaddafi is dead, Greece has been in turmoil sending the financial markets on a dizzing roller coaster and the list could go on.

After Steve Jobs death, I have gone through many of his well known presentations of introducing the iPhone and the iPad and many other videos available on Youtube. There have been two videos that are my favorites – one of them is where he speaks about “Focus is about saying NO”. 3 minutes of your life spent watching it would be worthwhile. Watch it once, watch it twice, watch it until you keep repeating “Focus is about saying NO”.

As software product managers, every one of us is faced with the hundreds of things we could do and what others in the company want to do. But what will allow us to succeed is not by building something that does a half assed job for everyone (you will hear this being argued for under the name of flexibility) but by focusing on building something that does a kick ass job doing a few things very well. To do this however, you need organizational support – it needs to come all the way from the top – the CEO.

Thoughts? Do you agree? What have your experiences been?

Where should product management report to?

In an organization, where should product management report to? Sales? Marketing? Engineering? CEO? Customer Support? All of this is possible but where can it be the most effective?

Before we answer this question, let us make sure we are aligned on the role of a product manager.

In my opinion, the best spot for product management is to have it report directly to the CEO. Product is one of the most important functions in an organization because getting the right product/market fit is what brings in the revenues. So I would argue that this needs to be have a direct line to the CEO so that it is not only looked upon as a strategic function but also that it is held accountable for the company results.

Is there a second best place for product management? Every successful organization that I have worked for (B2B or B2C) has had product management report to Marketing. Marketing naturally is an external facing function that is responsible for identifying the target market, figuring out the product positioning and figuring out what will make prospects buy. There is a slight danger here of product management becoming “marketing” driven than “market” driven, but I think with the right leadership this can be avoided.

The slides shown below are my opinions on why it should not report into sales or engineering or customer support.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this via comments. Do you agree?

Product Management Career Tip – Don’t be an “I” or “they” specialist

On Friday, I had to complete my self evaluation of my Q2 performance review. As I was reviewing myself, I noticed that I had to continously mention how “I” got this and that done. Too many “I’s” were making me uncomfortable that I had to pause and think about it, but was soon to realize that it was appropriate because this was my self evaluation – a self reflection on my performance/accomplishments/mistakes and not the group performance.

However, in the normal working life as a software product manager, there is typically no “I”, there is no “they”, it is always “We”. I get quite irritated when I meet such “I” specialists for whom everything is “I said this”, “I did this”. As a software product manager, there is very little that you can do which is not a group effort. Whether it

is working with your development team, your marketing team or your finance team or your product management team, your accomplishments are primarily achieved by working with others. Hence, it is typically “We” did this or “We” should do this or “I” recommend that “we” do this.

Then there are the “they” specialists – folks who refer to their employers as “they”. For example, “I” recommended this, but “they” don’t want to do it. You are far better off pitching this as – “I” am recommending this because “we” can get to X,Y and Z. You come across as a true team player in your internal and external conversations. If you do this well and if you had a primary lead on some of these accomplishments, the right people should notice the leadership role you had to play. That recognition is far better than having to promote oneselves at every possible opportunity.

This is especially important when it comes to job interviews. You want to come across as a team player and “we” is the way to go. If all you do is become an “I” specialist or “they” specialist, it does not come across well. Of course, there are instances where you have to talk about what you have accomplished, but you will still be better off if you refer to some of these with a “We”. “They” when referring to an employer is best avoided.

Agree? Let me know.

Humans crave for predictability, are you providing it?

Last week, Gazelle moved its office from Allston to downtown Boston. No move is easy – new desk, new neighborhood, new commute, everything to get adapted to. My commute to the new office is now 1 hour 45 minutes each way. I have to drive to the train station for 20 minutes, take the train that takes an hour and then walk to the office. Sounds like an awful lot and it is – 15% of my day is now spend commuting. My previous commute was anywhere from 50 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes. But I enjoy my new commute a whole lot more even though it takes a whole lot longer. For a very simple reason – predictability! I now know that as long as I get to the train station on time, my commute time is going to be 1 hour 45 minutes (barring any train breakdowns of course). Of this time, the 1 hour of the time on the train is actually spent relaxing – whether it is typing this blog post or taking a nap or reading. I enjoy the 10 minute walk from South Station to the office – free exercise. It is 2 hours that I get for myself everyday. Humans crave predictability and are likely to give up things for it.

The same applies for products. Some choose to

  1. Work in larger companies instead of startups because of the predictable hours and also job safety.
  2. Become full time employees than being consultants because of the predictable income.
  3. Buy products from established vendors than fledging startups because it is a safer bet.
  4. Have caps on pay-as-you-go software packages so that they can have predictable expenses for budgetary purposes.
  5. Buy software packages that have more features than they want now, because it is a safer bet to make now.
  6. Buy extended product warranties because it adds predictability that if anything goes wrong during this time, they do not have to spend money.
  7. Pay bills on the same day every month because it allows one to have a predictable cash flow.

In most cases, products are expected to have predictable outputs to given inputs. So, in our lives as software product managers, adding predictability to our customer’s business or personal lives could be a dimension used to enhance our products. And once you do, make sure that this is pitched to your customers – because they may not tell you that they are looking for more predictability, but I will bet you that unknowingly they do.

Makes sense? Let me know.

When does a startup stop being one?

When does a startup stop being one? Is it when:

  • It gets funded – no, can’t be because vast majority of them get seed funding.
  • It gets customers – no, that can’t be it either
  • It gets revenues – no, because customers could be paying for the service
  • It becomes profitable – no, because even profitable companies are sometimes called startups.
So it was something that had been bothering me for a while. I have asked others but never got a satisfactory answer. Then couple of weeks back I attended the simulcast of Lean Startup held in San Francisco – beamed to the Microsoft offices in Cambridge. There I heard the definition of a startup from Steve Blank which makes a whole lot of sense – “Startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model“. That to me gives a very easy criteria to determine when a startup stops being one.
Thoughts? Kindly share your thoughts via comments.
Image: Courtesy of freeclipartnow.com
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