State of Product Management in India

It has been 20 years since I left India as a young graduate. Indian software industry was unheard of at that time or was in its infancy. But since then, India has become the global powerhouse in software services. Initially, the industry grew mainly through outsourced projects for clients in the United States. Big powerhouses such as Infosys and Wipro grew to what are now worldwide brands. Then, over the years, as companies worldwide realized the talent available in India, multi-national companies started arriving in droves. Microsoft, Intel, IBM, GE, Google,  you name it, started opening development offices in India.

But, will India be a one trick pony in software – delivering just services? This has been a common topic during dinner discussions with my friends as to whether Indian software industry will ever see product companies emerge that will become as well known as Infosys or Wipro. There have been some successes such as Zoho whose entire development group is based in Chennai. Then there is Tally that owns the ERP market in India. I have always wondered as to the state of product management in India. It was refreshing to see an Indian product management forum emerge on LinkedIn where very engaging discussions are now taking place.

Then, a few weeks back Pinkesh Shah, CEO of a Bangalore based  company called Adaptive Marketing reached out to me. Pinkesh was former VP of Product Management for McAFee here is the US and had now moved back to India. Pinkesh has now set up a product management training and consultancy company in India. Adaptive has also published the first product management and marketing survey – you can download the report for free. The survey has very useful information that is worth reading both for product companies in India (local or MNCs) or for those here in the US that are thinking of establishing offices in India.

The big question is what will product managers in India do – would they be working on products for the Indian market? Or for the Far East or Middle East that are all experiencing explosive growths? This would make logical sense given the proximity of Indian software product managers to these markets and also given their knowledge of the cultures in that part of the world compared to those of us in the Western World. One of the interesting tidbits I found in the report was how even professionals in the IT services companies were performing some of the product management tasks such as requirements management and competitive analysis under the titles of Business Analysts, Client Engagement Managers and Business Development Managers.

What do you think? I would love to hear from my blog readers based in India on their take on the state of product management in India.

Christmas Gifts for Software Product Managers for less than $100

It is that part of the year where everyone is thinking of gifts. If you are a software product manager and you are looking to improve your software product management skills by spending $100 on yourselves, here are three books I recommend for you (I have no association with any of these authors)

  1. Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan – $25.76
  2. Customer Visits: Building a Better Market Focus by Edward McQuarrie – $39.35
  3. Product Strategy for High Technology Companies by Michael E. McGrath – $32.76 (I am still reading this and so far I have found it to be an excellent book)

What do you think? Would you substitute any of the above with any other excellent books you have read? What else would you add to this list?

Product Cannibalization ….

Last week, I got mail from Netflix indicating that my subscription fees was going up by $3 a month from $20/month to $23/month. They suggested that I instead switch to $8/month internet streaming plan. They mentioned that they were fast expanding the library of movies available via instant play. I switched to the $8/month plan immediately – we were getting less and less DVDs by mail and were watching more and more movies via streaming using our Wii console plus we did not care if we had to wait to watch the latest movies. So it was a perfect solution for us and Netflix.

As a software product manager, of course it got me thinking more. What is happening at Netflix to me is product cannibalization, except that they were doing it to themselves. They were pushing their own customers from their bread and butter business of DVDs by mail to another product of theirs that costs 1/3rd less. Imagine that. And Netflix is a publicly traded company that has to live up to Wall Street’s expectations. I commend Netflix for doing what not many companies will dare to do.

I can count the following advantages for Netflix from pushing customers to streaming:

  1. Scalability – you do not have to increase buying DVDs, increase warehouse space to handle all of the DVDs and of course the increased shipping costs as your customer base grows. Internet streaming has no touch costs and no shipping costs involved.
  2. Possible international expansion – more and more people overseas have high speed internet connections. They are now a potential market – instant scalability again without having to worry about huge infrastructure and operational costs, import restrictions, fear of not getting DVDs back etc.
  3. Response to competitive threat – technology  for high speed streaming is here. This is a big threat to Netflix’s DVDs by mail business – if they don’t adapt, they could go Blockbuster’s way.

The DVDs by mail business is expected to be around for a long time, but Netflix is seeing the writing on the wall and is positioning itself to take advantage of the new technologies and retain its leadership position in the industry. I am quite impressed by what they have done and will continue to remain a loyal customer of Netflix. I am sure it is fun to be a software product manager at such a company.

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Image: Courtesy of netflix

Field of dreams is not a product strategy

I have written in the past about how “if you build it, they will come” is not true when it comes to product management. So it is refreshing to read another product person Joe Johnson from High Start Group echo the same comments when he writes about “Field of dreams is not a product strategy“. Cannot agree more with him. Enjoy this very short and sweet post.

Requirements are ….

One of the blogs I read frequently is that of Marty Cagan, the author of “Inspired – How to create products customers love” (one of the books that I strongly recommend to product managers and executives). Often, I agree with Marty on his perspectives, having experienced the many pitfalls he writes about in his posts. A month back, he wrote a post titled “Requirements are not“. In this post, he writes about how different stakeholders such as customers and internal stakeholders mistakenly call some things requirements while they actually are not. No disagreements there. But then he compares defining and creating a product to cooking by saying “I find defining and designing product is more like cooking in this respect in that if an ingredient is unavailable, you can often get creative and substitute something else or a combination of things that aren’t quite the same but may be even better. It’s the result that matters, not our pre-conceptions.” He concludes by saying “Our only real requirement is to discover product solutions that work well for our users, our customers and our business.”. This is where I disagree with Marty or I am confused about what he is saying.

Here are points I completely agree with Marty on:

  1. Customers and other stakeholders often propose solutions and not articulate problems. I have written about this very thing before – the difference between customer pain points vs. requirements
  2. Requirements are unclear at the beginning and take shape as the understanding of the problem becomes more clear.

But saying that there are no absolute functional requirements is just plain wrong. Product Managers need to delve deep into the customer’s problem and at some point come up with a solution that will solve the problem in the most usable, technically feasible and cheapest way – this is all done during the product discovery process that Marty has championed in his book. Such a solution will have absolute functional requirements once it gels into a viable solution. These requirements have to be met when the solution is implemented. Trying to change the requirements as the solution is being built (like you could do in cooking) is costly even in an agile environment where there is utmost flexibility. Yes, you do discover new solutions during implementation, but functional requirements do not change. The functional requirements describe what the user expects to do when all is said and done. For example, the functional requirements of an “authentication mechanism” do not change even if engineers figure out a new way to engineer it. Users still expect to login using their username and password, they will forget their usernames and passwords, they will type in their usernames or passwords wrong.

So, while I agree that requirements are hazy at the beginning, they should be become absolute at some point in time during the development cycle, such that the solution can be built, tested and communicated to the customer. Saying that the only real requirement is to discover product solutions that work well for all involved, is a very generic statement, but not one that product managers and engineers can use to build the product solutions. The word “requirements” are probably misused, but throwing out the whole word from the product lexicon is unwise.

User Feedback vs. Behavior

When product managers interview customers to better understand their unmet needs, you will hear them explain their problems. If you ask them how they currently use your software, they will also explain in vivid detail how they use it. Unfortunately, often there is a distinct difference between what humans say and humans do. Let me illustrate with a simple example. If you ask users if they like to scroll to find information on a web page, they will say No. They would tell you that they would like all of the information above the foldline (think about it as the top section of your web page that can be completely viewed without scrolling). However, in numerous usability tests I have done, it has been consistently observed that the first thing users do when they land on a web page is to start scrolling.  So make sure that you mix in observed user behavior with what users tell you to truly understand their real problems. This is what the field of ethnography is all about.

Thoughts? Please share your perspective via comments.

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Customer Experience – What exactly is it?

In the software world, all vendors love to talk about how their product is easy to use, how user friendly it is and other combinations of words to describe product usability. But, does product usability equate to customer experience? No. Product usability is necessary but not sufficient for a good customer experience. In fact, good products can still deliver awful customer experience. Read about Apple below.

Customer experience encompasses every interaction your customer has with your product AND your company. Everything from the initial sales call, product evaluation, buying process, product packaging, product usage, calling your customer support, product upgrade and everything else the user experiences as long as he is a customer of your company. It starts from the very first phone conversation and never ends as long as the user remains your customer.

What this means is that there is a lot more to customer experience than just your product. It is a lot more emotional than physical. If your customer support person does not solve the customer’s problem, it equates to bad customer experience. If your product does not work as intended, it is bad customer experience. If you try to charge unjustifiable fees to allow the customer to upgrade, it is bad customer experience. If your install is complicated, it is bad customer experience. Surprising the customer with hidden charges (example, high shipping costs on eCommerce site) equates to bad customer experience. If your customer has to deal with long hold times when they try to reach your customer support, it is bad customer experience. And bad customer experience is what makes customers bolt to your competitor’s products.

Thus, it is very obvious that customer experience is a cross functional effort and to do this right, you need executive mandate. Such a mandate should come right from the top – from  the CEO of the company. It should permeate across the organization. To get this right, it needs to be part of the employee training, it should be drilled into new employees. I would go as far as saying that you should not hire a candidate if you feel that he does not have the personality or will not be able to commit to delivering good experience to your customers. This is easier said than done. It takes a lot of effort and just talk is not going to work.

Now, what companies deliver such great customer experience? Southwest Airlines comes to mind because of all the positive things I have read about them. Their ads about bags fly free resonates so much with me. Does Apple deliver a good customer experience? NO! They deliver an awesome product experience for sure with their awesome products. But have you worked with their customer support? You will feel that you are dealing with a different company that is arrogant and does not care about you.

I try my best to keep my employer out of my blog posts. But in this particular post, I am going to break this rule. I work at Gazelle.com and to deliver what we call “crazy awesome experience” is our core value #1. We track and watch NPS scores like hawks. We measure everything related to customer touch points. We are paranoid about it. We have an executive level position whose title is Vice President of Customer Experience.  Are we perfect? Absolutely not. We still have a long way to go. Do we work hard at it – absolutely. Believe it or not, our NPS scores are comparable to some of the well established eCommerce giants that are considered standards for their customer experience. But we want our customers to keep us honest. We do occasionally screw up, but we expect our customers to call us on it so that we can continue to improve what we do.

What do you think about customer experience? Do you agree with my definition? Please share your perspective via comments.

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Image: Courtesy of SmartFinds Internet Marketing

Related Posts:

  1. Apple is all about sales. Customer Service Sucks!
  2. Love the customers who hate you
  3. Passion vs. decibels – How to listen to vociferous customers

6 ways Software Product Managers can use LinkedIn

LinkedIn is one of the largest social networks. LinkedIn’s website has the following stats:

  • Over 75 million members in over 200 countries.
  • A new member joins LinkedIn approximately every second, and about half of our members are outside the U.S.
  • Executives from all Fortune 500 companies are LinkedIn members.

I am sure all of you are on LinkedIn (and if you are not, what have you been waiting for?). It is the one of the three social networks that I engage in. Others being Facebook and Twitter. So how do we as software product managers effectively use LinkedIn. Here are 6 ways that I personally use LinkedIn.

1) Network with customers, friends, colleagues – Of course, this is obvious because this is what LinkedIn is all about. Needs no further explanation.

2) Find prospective customers – Doing market research and competitive analysis are primary job functions of software product managers. Not only should we be talking to existing customers, but also be talking to those who don’t use our products. But how do we find people who use competitor’s products? Simple. Start with a LinkedIn search. For example, let us say you are the product manager for Company X’s CRM solution and you want to talk to Salesforce.com administrators. Do a search on LinkedIn and see who comes up? Are any of these people connected to you? Can one of your connections make an introduction for you so that you are not cold calling people?

What if you don’t know who is using your competitor’s products? Where do you start? Competitor’s website of course. Do they have a list of clients or do they have press releases that announce new customer wins? Get that information and then start the LinkedIn search. You will be amazed on what you can find, provided you have a good network.

3) Find Usability testing participants – You have this brand new product/website that you have created to solve an unmet need in the marketplace. Before launch, you want your team to do usability testing with customers, prospects etc. But where do you find them? I find LinkedIn to be very useful in finding people who fit personas I need when doing usability tests. I have a network of 650+ connections. I am quite confident that I can find almost any type of persona for the work that I do, among my network or their connections.

4) References while recruiting – It is very typical for employers to ask for references from prospective employees. But does anyone expect candidates to provide references who would say anything but stellar things about them? Of course, not. What LinkedIn has allowed people to do, is find people who may not be on the candidate’s reference list but someone who has worked with the candidate in previous jobs. This reference may be valuable in helping the employer get an impartial reference on the employee – especially if you personally know the person you are talking to. I have been approached multiple times by my past colleagues asking for my opinion on people that I have worked with. I have done the same when I am looking to hire someone. But one word of caution – you absolutely should NOT talk to anyone at the candidate’s current employer without the candidate’s permission. You could risk the candidate’s current job and this is absolutely NOT acceptable.

5) Doing reference checks on your future employers – This is the other side of the same coin described in step #4. You are applying for this new job at this great company. You have interviewed with your peers, your future boss, some in the upper management and they are so upbeat. But are you sure this is the true story? What would it be to work with your future boss? How qualified is the management? What is the real story? As a candidate, you need to do your research. You will never be sorry. Trust me, based on my experience, there are many companies out there that just put on a show on how great they are with employees, but very few walk the talk. You can get the real deal using LinkedIn by talking to past employees, even current employees someone in your network may know very well – ask your connection to make an introduction. If the employer finds out about this and has an issue, you should walk – No good employer should have an issue with their future employees doing research on the company as part of their job hunting efforts. To me, when a new employee walks in through the front door to start a new job, I want him/her to be absolutely confident that they are taking the right move. Confident employees perform better in the long run and buy into the mission of the company much better.

6) Continuing education – Are you stumped with a software product management problem and would like to see how other software product managers would solve it? Looking to share your software product management expertise with others? Want to keep a pulse on what other software product managers are up to and keep reading more about software product management? Look no further than LinkedIn Groups. There are so many software product management groups on LinkedIn that are worth joining. I am a member of many of them and read through them as time permits. I participate in some of the threads (but no where close to how much I would like to). Participating in these discussion groups helps build your expertise in product management community as well. And all of this advise and continuing education costs you nothing – it is FREE!

What other ways do you use LinkedIn? Your thoughts on the above?

One closing word of caution – Give more to your network than you ask. Just because you have a network does not mean that you can exploit it by asking people for favors. Make sure you give more in kind than you ask of your network.

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Managing stakeholder expectations via Product Council

From time to time, when I talk to other software product managers about their biggest challenge, they often say that managing internal stakeholder expectations is their biggest challenge. Yes, of course. After all, product management is like herding cats. Sales goes and makes promises to customers without asking the product group, marketing wants their projects done first, your development team has their own pet projects, customer support wants customer’s burning issues fixed first, professional services want projects that will make them do implementations faster. And all of this needs to be done in a short time with limited engineering resources.

So is there a way to manage these expectations and make sure there is a clear product direction? I have been using Product Council meetings to successfully do this. Product council is a concept I picked up from Marty Cagan’s Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love book. I strongly recommend this book to all product managers.

So what exactly is a product council meeting and how do you run it?

Product council is a meeting with the executive management (including the CEO) once a month to review the product strategy and the product roadmap and resolve any conflicting product priorities that are currently in play. You as the product manager or head of product management should run this. This way, everything is presented in an impartial way and the whole group is presented with the projects that the product and engineering team is currently working on and need to work on in the future. If there are conflicting priorities, you present the pros and cons of the priorities and ask for a resolution from the product council. Make sure that the stakeholders whose priorities are creating the conflict are in the meeting. Be clear that you want a resolution at the end of the meeting (not afterwards) because the product team needs to start working on the right project(s) based on the decision. Force a decision by the end of the meeting.

I often hold these meetings once a month for an hour. It is a standing meeting that is on every stakeholder’s calendar. The agenda is typically the following:

  1. Review the product strategy
  2. Update since the last product council (what have we done since then)
  3. What are we currently working on?
  4. What is ahead of us?
  5. Review product roadmap
  6. Presentation of any conflicting priorities
  7. Final decision on prioritization

It is important that you as the product manager or as head of product management help the executive management see the conflicts and lead them through a prioritization exercise. Once a decision is reached, there should be consensus from all stakeholders because it is an educated decision made based on review of pros and cons of each priority and more importantly facts (instead of someone’s opinion or support for pet projects).

So are you done after product council? No. You have to make sure that you keep the product council abreast of progress being made on the new priorities. If the project hits a bottleneck because of some unforeseen technical or business related reason, you need to immediately raise it to the product council rather than waiting till the next meeting. Communication is key to managing stakeholder expectations. If you do this well, you should be able to effectively reduce your stress level as a product manager.

Thoughts? How are you as a software product manager managing stakeholder expectations?

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Watered down products typically fail ….

A company has success with its enterprise product. But the company wants to accelerate sales and increase the number of customers.

Someone says – how about small businesses? Of course, that is a large market. Why did we not think of them? We already have the enterprise product in the market – so building the small business version should be easy.

The CEO says “Get rolling, I want to ship a small business version next month.”

Everything is fast tracked – product management starts with the enterprise product, cherry picks features to turn off and voila, small business product definition is done. That was too easy. What about pricing? Hummm, let us see, how about 60% of the enterprise product? Done. Product ships, everyone is excited on launch. There is a party, the CEO is thrilled – the team delivered.

Roll forward 30 days – the small business product is not getting traction. Sales comes back to product management with requests for one-offs – “hey, I was talking to this company – they love the small business version, except they want this one more thing that is in enterprise version – do you think we can turn it on? After all it is there, should’nt it be just easy to turn that switch back on.” Sales applies pressure because they have to meet their numbers for the quarter and it is so enticing to do this because no new feature has to be developed – it is already in the product!.

Unfortunately, this is a common story and I have personally lived through months of the above. Welcome to the world of customization hell. It is worse than the enterprise product because what the company has essentially done is allowed customers to demand the enterprise product functionality at steep discounts, now that you have two products – the enterprise version and the small business versions. This is not limited just to small businesses. Enterprise customers get wind of the small business product and want the small business version but with feature X, Y and Z and at the small business price.

When building products for new market segments such as small businesses, companies often make the mistake of creating a product by turning off a bunch of features from their enterprise version and slapping “for small business” on this watered down product.

This fails for one of two reasons:

  1. The product even with some features turned off is still considered too complex by the small business users because the needs are different and also the persona of the target user in small business are different.
  2. Small businesses have the same needs as larger businesses and hence they find that the watered down product does not satisfy their needs.

Let us examine these two issues in more detail by considering two examples.

1) IT network monitoring product: Large businesses tend to have an IT staff in hand to set up their networks. These highly qualified staff typically are geeks and take pride in the fact that they have to use DOS prompts and unix like interfaces to get their job done. Now consider a small business which has to set up a similar network. Very often, in a small business, it is probably the owner that may be setting up the network – he is not an expert at networking, wants to quickly set up his network and get back to business and has no time or expertise to deal with DOS prompts and Unix like interfaces or to understand networking terminology to set up his network. He wants a very simplified interface that hides a lot of complexity, wants to select a few options and have the network up and running as quickly as possible.

Now let us take another example –

2) Performance review management software: Companies do performance reviews either on an annual basis (everyone gets their reviews done at the same time) or at the time of employee’s hiring anniversary date. The software vendor decides to offer these two options only in the enterprise version and turn off the capability to performance reviews at the employee’s hire date in the small business version. This does not work out because even small businesses have the need to do performance reviews based on the employee’s hiring anniversary date.

How to do this right?
So how do you avoid these two traps. Here are some ways to do this right –

  1. Clearly understand the needs of the small business user. It takes the same amount of time and deep understanding as the enterprise product to get it right.
  2. Clearly understand the persona of the user who will potentially use the product before you decide what the product needs to be. More often than not, you will find that usability tolerance to be vastly different between small businesses and large enterprises – not that large enterprises don’t like user friendly products, but they are a little more tolerant because of the resources they have to handle implementation and ongoing maintenance.
  3. Make your product offerings by balancing the needs of the users and your business goals. If the functionality needs are the same, make the product offerings different on other variables. For example, you can impose limits on the number of users who can use the product or by by pricing your product as per user. This way small businesses can get all the functionality they need, but pay less fees depending on the number of users they have. Or limit the amount of data they can store – for example, the enterprise version of a CRM product could allow saving unlimited number of contacts, but the small business version may allow only upto 1000 contacts. If it is a survey software, you could segment based on the number of surveys someone can run per month or by putting a limit on the number of responses you can get per survey.

In essence, simply watering down products is not the right answer.

Thoughts? Do you agree?

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I am hiring a product manager. Interested? Send me your resume

I am hiring a product manager to join my product management team at Gazelle.com. If you or anyone you know is interested and is local to Boston or is planning to move into the Boston area, please send the resume to gopal [at] gazelle[dot] com. The job description is given below.

What does Gazelle do?
Gazelle.com allows consumers to trade-in used electronics in 20 categories (cell phones, digital cameras, camcorders, laptops, iPhones, MP3 players, GPS devices etc.) for cash. Our vision is to change the way consumers consume by allowing them to trade in their devices when they upgrade to newer devices such that the older products do not end up in the landfill. In case you are wondering why it is better for a consumer to use Gazelle as opposed to trying to sell on auction sites such as eBay or listing sites such as Craigslist, read the top 11 reasons to sell on Gazelle. We are experiencing tremendous growth and are looking for a rock-star Product Manager to join our product management team.

Job Description
If you enjoy creating web products that deliver an awesome customer experience and if you love to work in a very informal, fun environment where you are expected to do what it takes, you should apply. The product management team at Gazelle is responsible for the product planning and execution throughout the product lifecycle, including: gathering and prioritizing product and customer requirements, defining the product vision, and working closely with engineering, business development, marketing and support to ensure revenue and customer satisfaction goals are met.

Gazelle focuses a lot on our company culture and we will hire only those who will fit strongly into our culture that is focused on having fun while we work hard on our vision of changing the way consumers consume used electronics.

The Product Manager is expected to:

  1. Assist the Director of Product Management to define the product strategy and roadmap
  2. Create requirements documents for features and/or new products
  3. Lead a cross-functional team to develop required products and/or features that meet the customer needs.
  4. Work with the business development team to assess partnerships and licensing opportunities
  5. Run usability tests, beta and pilot programs with early-stage products or releases
  6. Have a keen sense for product usability and customer experience.
  7. Act as a leader within the company

Required experience and knowledge

Skills

  1. Minimum of 5 years experience as a Product Manager of an ecommerce website (consumer products a plus)
  2. Demonstrated success defining and launching successful products
  3. Experience interviewing prospects/customers to understand their pain points and then creating products that successfully solved these pain points.
  4. Proven ability to influence cross-functional teams without formal authority
  5. Samples of effective requirements documents delivered in the past
  6. Bachelor’s degree required

Intangibles (to be heavily weighed)

  1. Organized, methodical, process-driven.
  2. Proven ability to work independently with minimal supervision.
  3. Excellent written and oral communicator and sound teaming skills.
  4. Impeccable problem solving and analytical skills, as well as the ability to develop innovative alternatives and recommendations.
  5. High level of ethics and integrity, as well as the strength to stand behind them.
  6. Results- and detail-oriented with ability to manage and execute multiple tasks.
  7. A proactive, “hands-on” self-starter who will prosper in a fast-paced small company. and
  8. The ability to have fun while doing all of the above.

10 reasons why you want to work at Gazelle

  1. Competitive salary with quarterly bonus (based on individual performance) – we want you to focus on making our customers happy and not worry about money.
  2. Stock options – we want you to have a stake in the company. We all sink or swim.
  3. 401(k) match – we want you to start saving for your retirement – your long-term happiness matters to us.
  4. 100% paid medical, dental and vision benefits for employees and a generous contribution towards coverage for dependants.
  5. Flexible hours – we don’t care when you come in and leave as long as work gets done. But, we are very serious about getting work done and we hold everyone accountable.
  6. 15 days of paid vacation plus 3 floating days per year plus national holidays – we want you to have a life outside of work.
  7. Free lunch on Mondays – that is if you like pizzas and sandwiches – we love both of them. Oh, we also have free coffee and espresso – you will need the caffeine. And if you like junk food, we have free snacks as well.
  8. Open office floor – we don’t have cubicles, offices and name plates. All employees including our CEO get a desk and they are old desks, no mahogany or cherry here, because we are frugal and also environment friendly.
  9. Get to work in an old building – yah, the bathrooms occasionally don’t work, we may have to double-park, but we absolutely love the startup feel.
  10. No dress code – yes, you need to wear clothes, but we don’t care if you want to wear a suit or come in shorts or flip-flops. Did we tell you that all that matters to us is doing excellent work that delivers an awesome experience to our customers? Oh yah, we did.

Events force actions

Events force actions – this has been such a guiding principle for me that it has allowed me to get clarity when there is none, has kept me focused when I have been distracted by too many things to do, has helped me achieve something because the deadline is looming. For example, I am about to leave on vacation and the last two days have kept me laser focused on getting things done.

I have blogged in the past that everything needs a head and a date, otherwise it will never get done. So everytime, you think you or your team is not making progress towards your goals, create an event and drive an action towards it. The event is essentially a milestone such as an alpha launch date, beta launch date, a demo or presentation to the executive team or usability testing with customers. Once you have got others to commit time to an event, you or your team has to react and get moving. You will be surprised how such a simple action on your part can energize the whole team and get things moving.

Thoughts? Are there any additional ways you have energized you or your team to get moving?

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Managing your product management career – Part 3 – Job hunting tips

This is the third and final post of the series on managing your product management career. The first post was about assessing your product management skills and the second post was about how to market yourself as a software product manager.

Now that you have assessed your skill set, build digital assets for your personal brand, you are now ready to start the next step in your career. Here are a few job hunting tips.

If you think that you can easily find a job by posting your resume on as many job sites such as Monster, Careerbuilder or HotJobs, be prepared for a rude awakening. I have never posted my resumes on any job site. The only professional resumes you can find on me are on LinkedIn and on the About me page on this blog.

There is something called a “hidden job market” out there which is a lot larger than the “visible job market”. Various studies have indicated that upto 80% of new jobs that get filled are never advertised.  They get filled via referrals. So if you are dependent on applying for advertised positions and waiting for the phone to ring, you are going to be disappointed.

If the above number does not awaken you, consider this one. About 24% of jobs are created when an exceptional candidate is found – wow, these jobs did not even exist before the employer found this candidate. (Source: mgssearch.net).

So how do you really tap into this hidden job market? A google search will point you to a very good articles on how to do this. Here are three tips that I have put to work in my past job searches.

1) Work your network! Let the network know that you are looking and seek their help in getting in touch with decision makers in companies that you may want to work for. This can be done confidentially if you let your network know.

2) Attend local product management or industry related events (breakfasts, dinners etc.) – You are likely to run into hiring managers or potential job seekers that you could look to hire. For example, when I attend the Boston Product Management Association meetings, I always hear hiring managers announce that they are looking for product managers. Such events give you the golden opportunity to meet face-to-face with the hiring manager without having to send emails, play phone tags etc. You could not find a better way to get in the door. After this, it is upto you to make a great first impression that will result in continued engagement and hopefully a job offer. Remember that you are always a salesman for a product – YOU!

3) Continue to expand your network even during job searching. I have written about how to do this in my previous post on how to survive a layoff.

4) Always network – don’t wait till you are ready to look for a job. They say  “Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty”.

Thoughts? Do you have any additional ways you have used to look for jobs that have worked successfully?

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Managing your product management career – Part 2 – Marketing “you”

This is the second of  three posts I intend to make related to my talk on “Managing your Product Management Career” at ProductCamp Boston. The first post was about assessing your product management skills.

Now that you have accurately assessed your product management skills, it is time to think about how to market yourself. Before the advent of the internet, all you needed was a resume. You created one, mailed it to different companies when you were applying for an open position. Unfortunately, in the current world, resume is still required but is grossly insufficient. It is not good enough to stand out in a crowd of product managers. You need to “market” yourself by creating digital assets online. This does not mean that you post your resume on every job site you can find on the internet. Instead, you need to create your own digital assets online that market your personal brand. You also need to take advantage of social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook. I, as a hiring manager, for instance first does a Google search on a candidate’s name before paying attention to the resume in hand. I want to fLinkedIn ind out what comes up about the candidate online. This can be used to your great advantage if you create a great portfolio online.

Here are some things you can do to create a great digital presence for your personal brand.

1) Start a blog: It does not necessarily need to be on product management, but something that your passionate about. If it is cooking, so be it. If it is horse racing, so be it. What I want to see is your passion, your writing skills and ability to take an initiative and keep up with it. For example, this blog is a big part of my personal brand. It is the first thing that usually comes up when you Google my name. Now, a word of advice. There is nothing more to turn off people (at least me for sure) than seeing a blog which has 1 or 2 articles written months back. This is akin to seeing a real estate property in a dilapidated state. You would be better off by not having a blog if you cannot keep up with it. Otherwise, you come across as someone who starts new things and loses interest.

2) Write a guest blog post or comment on other’s blogs – If you feel that you are not ready to start your own blog, look for opportunities to do a guest blog post on existing blogs. I for one is always looking for guests to write about product management on this blog. If you think you have good content, contact me. If you think you are not ready to do this yet, then start commenting on other’s blogs. By this, I do not mean that you leave a comment of “Great post” on many blogs, but instead enrich blog posts by sharing your opinion with others.

3) LinkedIn – If you are not LinkedIn, create an account now. If you are on LinkedIn, make sure your profile is up-to-date. Treat it as your online resume. LinkedIn does a very good job on doing search engine optimization of member profiles and invariably it is something that comes up when you Google someone’s name. Do you have recommendations on LinkedIn? Product managers interact with customers and all internal stakeholders as shown below. Make sure your recommendation gives the viewer a 360 degree view. Get recommendations from all these groups you have worked on. Don’t go overboard and get say 10 recommendations for each job because too many can turn off people as well. I would say 2-3 per job are good enough. There are also so many product management discussions groups on LinkedIn. Join these groups, post any questions you have and get free expert advice from the product management community. Also contribute to existing discussions.

4) Speak at events or attend events: If you have a local product management association or product camps, take advantage of these opportunities to speak at these events. Many times, these events will be publicized online and offline and will help you build your personal brand. If nothing else, attend these events and help out by volunteering. Webinars could present another opportunity to build your reputation.

5) Write articles for magazines: Can some of your content be published in magazines. For example, I wrote about understanding market needs through customer visits and had it published in the Pragmatic Marketing Magazine. This article then got read by a large number of product managers and since the magazine is also online, the article gets indexed by Google and comes up if someone searches on my name.

Thoughts? Do you have any additional ways you have used to market yourself online?

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Managing your product management career – Part 1 – Assessing your skills

This is the first of  three posts I intend to make related to my talk on “Managing your Product Management Career” at ProductCamp Boston.

We as software product managers, spend a lot of time managing products at work. We assess the competitive position of our products, we identify gaps in the product’s feature set and then enhancing our products to fill these gaps. This kind of assessment is an ongoing effort to make sure the products maintain their competitive edge in the marketplace. But how much time do we spend in our working career to assess the competitive position of the ONLY product we have absolute control over – OUR OWN CAREER? We could switch jobs, we could get laid off, we may switch careers, but amongst all this, there is only product that is constantly with us – our own skill set. If we do not assess where we stand and work on maintaining our competitive edge in the marketplace, we can only expect  to become outdated and not finding a buyer for our services (future employers).

So how do we do a skill assessment to understand our strengths and weaknesses? It is quite simple and can be done using a simple Excel spreadsheet. Here is what you do.

1) Make a list of all the skills you need to be a world-class software product manager. The spreadsheet may look something like this

2) Then make a honest self assessment of where you stand today and how important this skill is to a Software Product Manager job on a scale of 1-High, 2-Medium and 3-Low as shown below.

3) Once you have completed the assessment, sort the spreadsheet so that the rows where “Importance to a Software Product Manager job” is 1-High and your current skill level is also 1-High is at the top as shown below.


4) The picture should now become clear. The rows colored in green are your strengths and the rows in red are your competitive weaknesses. This is where you should devote your energy, time and money.

You should plan on revisting this spreadsheet every 6 months to add new skills that you have developed and also to update your current skill set.

Thoughts and coomments?

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Product Camp Boston – this Saturday

Product Camp Boston is this Saturday – May 22 at Microsoft New England Research and Development Center. If you are a product manager in the greater Boston area, have you registered yet? If not, what are you waiting for?

If I get selected by attendees,  I intend to run a session called Managing your product management career. If you attending and are interested in knowing how to build your personal brand so that you stand out as a product manager, how to market the only product you are fully in charge of – “YOU” and also get some practical job hunting tips, please vote for my session.

Software scalability and Exceptions

Growth in business puts scalability and performance demands on the software product that the company provides. These demands could take the form of site accessibility (number of concurrent users) and also number of exceptions that need to be handled by the system. Issues caused by increase in the load experienced by the product is well known (solved by load balancing, more servers, well written web pages such that it can load faster etc.). I want to touch upon an equally important scalability issue which is related to the number of exceptions and their frequency.

So what do I mean by an exception? I am not talking about exceptions from a software programming sense where the concept of try-throw-catch statements to handle anomalous situations in the code is used. Instead, I am talking about anomalous situations that can happen from a user or a business process perspective. Let me clarify more with a simple example.

Assume that our product does one thing – takes a full name, typed in by the user and splits it into first and last name before storing it into the database. Sounds very simple. If the user types in “John Smith”, first name = “John” and last name = “Smith”. Everything goes well but over time, until the system starts encountering names it had never seen before. Names such as:

  1. John Doe Jr.
  2. Safraq Ahmed Naveed
  3. B. Sunil
  4. Rajeev Kumar P.C.
  5. DÖRTHE Austerlitz
  6. Timo Gärtner

Let us take the second and third names in the above list. In the case of John Doe Jr., you don’t want the system to store the last name as Jr. and refer the customer as Mr. Jr. in the emails it sends him. In the case of “Safraq Ahmed Naveed”, what do you do with the name “Ahmed” – is it part of the first name or last name? Can your product handle special characters such as “.”, “Ö” or “ä” in the names?

Such problems should also be considered scalability problems. It may not cause site performance issues, but it could prevent users from using your product. I have used a very simple example to illustrate the issue. But in the real world, when such exceptions are encountered in the core business process, things can take an ugly turn not only because of the number of the types of exceptions, but more because of the frequency at which each of this happen. What used to be considered an edge case when you had 100 users could quickly turn into a mainstream use case when you have a 1000 users. In my career, I have experienced numerous such issues – all of them sound trivial – but that could have caused major impact on product usage. If you are running a consumer facing website, you may not even know about these use cases that are affecting your business because customers turn away when they find that the website cannot even handle what they consider a simple use case (one that applies to them, but which in your books is an edge case).

As software product managers, we need to be aware of these exceptions that may be raised because of expansion into a new international market, a new vertical etc.

Thoughts?

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Hidden costs of software outsourcing

In my software product management career, I have worked with remote software development teams in India, China, Australia, Ukraine and the UK. In many of these cases, we were working with outsourcing partners. I have been wanting to write a post reflecting on what actions ensured success and what resulted in failures. It has been on my to do list for a while – like a year.

Software outsourcing is always pitched as easy to do. Common benefits that are advertised include 24-hour development day (they are coding while you are sleeping!) and the large cost benefits through hiring cheap but good talent off-shore. While there is an element of truth in this, it is also a double edged sword. The 24-hour development day can be advantageous or disastrous because a lot of bad decisions can be made by your partner team while you are sleeping. The time it takes to discover these and then rectify them is at least 48 hours. Developers overseas are also typically cheap to hire because of the favorable currency exchange rates, but if you don’t set up the right infrastructure, you could lose precious time and money because of bad architectural decisions, poor code quality, major integration issues etc.

Last week, I was forwarded a slide deck on outsourcing and its common pitfalls. This deck captures the valuable lessons I have learnt over the years working with software outsourcing partners. It in fact captures it better than I could possibly have.

This is a must read for anyone who is doing outsourcing, who has been burnt by it or who is looking to explore an outsourcing model for software development. Consider this a good 5-10 minute primer.

As full disclosure, Sitrus who has put this presentation together is the outsourcing partner in Ukraine that I had worked with and are one of the better ones I have worked with. I am not paid anything to pitch their name or to do this blog post.

Thoughts?

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Friction points – Why customers don’t buy from you

It is our job as product managers to find out why our customers “buy”. Buying is a very emotional behavior especially when it comes to consumers. When selling B2B products, the purchase cycle typically follows a chain of events – RFP to demos to pilots to implementation to release to production. But what about consumers? How do they make buying decisions?

It is very important that you delve deeper into the customer’s lives to see what influences them. For example, on eCommerce websites, shopping cart or checkout abandonment is quite common. This is one of the metrics eCommerce retailers keep a close eye on (or should keep an eye on). Why? Consider the chain of events that happens before the customer abandons the shopping cart.

  1. Customer comes to your site instead of going to one of your competitor’s sites. Awesome, they know that you exist and they have selected you!
  2. They find the items they want to buy. Awesome, you have exactly what they want.
  3. They like the price and add the items to their shopping cart. Hurrah, it is wallet time!
  4. They start the checkout process (I see them pulling their wallets out)

Then whoosh! all of a sudden they abandon you. You almost had their money, but in a flash they were gone. Given that it is a website, you don’t know who they were or how to contact them to understand why. All you know is that you just lost a sale.

So what can you do to improve your situation when faced with this? I propose that you pay close attention to “friction points” that cause the customer from not buying from you.

There are many eCommerce “friction points” that have been well documented, but you still see so many sites that make these mistakes.

1)   Form fatigue – every field on the form that you are asking the customer to fill out is a friction point. Especially, if you are asking for information such as fax number, address (especially if I am signing up for an email service), annual income (yes, I am so inclined to reveal this to a complete stranger) and the list could go on. Your marketing department will likely have justifications as to why each of these fields are needed, but you as a product manager must think from your customer’s perspective. Yes, marketing is important, but you have to find the right balance between your needs and the customer’s needs. After all, your marketing department is not the one paying you money to keep you in business.

2)   Required registration – If users don’t understand why it is needed and the value registration would provide them, they will flee in droves. I have seen this in person during focus groups and usability testing. Common reaction: “S***w this, I am out of here”

3)   Surprises – Don’t surprise them! Imagine that you as a customer gets to the end of the checkout process and the retailer springs a $15 shipping fee on you. How will you feel? Would’nt you abandon if you think the shipping fees is a rip-off?

However, there are a lot more friction points that certain verticals take advantage of or there are others that if solved can increase conversions. The classic example I always use is “mailing” – the old fashioned way where you have to deal with envelopes/boxes, stamps, post office

Let us first look at the example where the company is hoping and praying that you will not mail anything. The commonly used marketing gimmick of “Mail-in rebates”. Retailers offer discounts on products via mail-in rebates. The price after mail-in rebate looks very attractive while you are in the store or when shopping online. But these companies make you buy at the full amount and want you to send mail-in a flimsy card to get the rebate. They are banking on the fact that most customers will not mail it in because of the “friction points”  involved in filling out the long form, attaching all the required documentation and making sure they mail it within the specified time period. And they are pretty successful at it because research shows that 90%+ of customers don’t.

Now let us take another example, where it is paramount to the company that customers mail things in for it to be successful. I currently work at Gazelle.com where our customers trade-in their used electronics such as laptops, iPhones, Blackberries, cameras, camera lenses, gaming consoles, movies, video games etc. for cash. We sell the gadgets we buy via eBay, wholesale channels or recycle them responsibly all here in the United States. The process involves the following steps:

1)   You tell us about the model and the condition your gadget is in by answering a few questions on gazelle.com.

2)   We tell you right away what we will pay you if the gadget passes our inspection and matches the condition you told us in.

3)   You mail us the gadget, we pay for shipping.

4)   We pay you via the payment method you selected (check, Paypal, Amazon gift card etc.) after we complete the inspection within 10 business days.

We are experiencing explosive growth, but one of the “friction points” we always think of, is the act of our customers having to ship their gadgets to us. It does not matter if a million customers come to our website and tell us that they have a million items to sell us. Unless they actually put it in a box and mail it to us, it does not matter.

So here are ways we work hard to reduce this “friction point” of shipping:

1)   We always pay for shipping – we email you a pdf that has the packing slip and pre-paid shipping label.

2)   For many categories, we even send you a box free of charge so that you can use it for shipping.

3)   We keep you informed throughout the process once we receive your gadgets.

4)   We pay you as soon as we complete the inspection. In fact, if our inspection shows your gadget to be a better condition than you had told us, we pay you the higher trade-in value, no questions asked. In the event we find the gadget is in a worse condition than you had stated, we send you a revised offer and explain the reason for the reduced offer.

5)   We give you the choice of accepting this revised offer so that we can send you the payment or if you decline and want your gadget back, we ship it back to you free of charge.

Now if you happen to live or work near our office, you can even walk in with your trade (forget about boxes and shipping labels) and we will pay you on the spot.

Now these are the things we do today. Are we done yet, hell no!. We are always looking for new ways to further improve our processes such that we can eliminate the “shipping” friction point.

We continue working on finding economical ways to reduce these “friction points” so that we can stay in business and work on our vision to “change the way consumers consume.” When we still have a vast majority of electronic gadgets ending up in landfills and polluting the environment, we at Gazelle know that we still have a lot of work to do.

As product managers, it is important for us to realize that unless we reduce our customer’s friction points of doing business with us, we are not going to be successful. And the friction points may not always be related to the product, but it maybe within the ecosystem of your product – whether it is customer support, documentation, order management, sales support etc.

Thoughts? What are your customer’s friction points and what are you doing to solve them?

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Image: Courtesy of carfullofpandas.com

7 tips on how to survive a layoff

OK, so the economy is showing signs of recovery, companies are starting to hire, everything seems to be looking good, but then you find yourself laid off, what do you do? Having been a victim of two layoffs from my past two jobs, I hope to share with you what helped me find a new job in about 2 weeks time both these times. So how do you survive after a layoff?

1) Try anticipating it and try to get ahead of it: As software product managers, we are supposed to keep a tab on how well the business is doing. Are we acquiring new customers? Are we cash flow positive or getting close? How is the cash burn situation? We are supposed to know this well. So when you see numbers that are not showing any positive signs of improvement over a long time, you see others getting laid off, don’t wait for the axe to fall. Start looking! It is one thing to be optimistic that the business will improve, but on the other hand there is something called the point of no return – the tipping point where it is all downhill from here. Try to get ahead of the impending layoff for three good reasons:

  1. it is easier to look for a job when you have one
  2. it is better to get laid off when you know that your job hunt is off to a good start and you are well on your way to landing a new job and
  3. you will be able to take your time to find the job with the right fit for you and not be desperate to take the first job that comes along once you have been laid off.

For example, once I saw the writing on the wall at my previous company about five months before I got laid off, I started the job search in right earnest, turned down 4 potential offers because it was not the right fit, had 2 offers within 2 weeks of getting laid off and I ended up taking one of them. None of this could have happened if I had waited for the axe to fall and get started. And if the layoff happens suddenly out of the blue and you are blindsided, so be it. Read point 5) below on what to do.

2) Work your network long before you need it: I am a strong believer in the saying “Dig your well long before you are thirsty”. Don’t wait to start building your network (I do it via LinkedIn) or to work your network only after you have been laid off. Too late! You have to keep working the network all the time by helping others whenever you can – either when someone in your network is looking for a job, needs an introduction to someone you know or when they are looking for information you have access to. Your network will not forget your good deeds and will reach out to you in your time of need to see how they can help you in return. If nothing else, drop a friendly note, a birthday greeting, christmas or new year greetings to make sure your network knows you are alive and breathing. Networks are two way streets – you ought to be ready to give a lot more before you can expect to get something in return.

3) Build your reputation: I cannot tell you know how many times I have met readers of this blog. In interviews, I have been told that they have read my blog. Because of this, my interviews have never been on whether I know product management, but more on whether I will fit culturally into the organization. None of this was built in a day – I have been blogging for the last 2-3 years and I am now seeing the payoff. I have spoken at local events, conferences and all of these show up if someone does a Google search on my name. None of this can be taken away from me even when I get laid off for no fault of mine. My reputation as a product manager lives on. You got to build your reputation online, it is the best marketing material you can ever produce on YOU!

4) Make new connections: Assume you get an interview with a company. You make a good impression on the folks you interviewed. One of two things happen – you do not get the job or you turn it down because you don’t see it as a good fit. Is that the end? No – when you drop a thank you note to the folks who interviewed you, ask them if they would be willing to make a LinkedIn connection with you. Out of 50+ people that I have asked over the last couple of years, only 1 has turned me down. Read again, I have made 49+ new connections as part of my interview process.Why does this matter? Consider this real world example of how I landed up at Gazelle:

  1. I go through a phone screen for a position at Company A in November. I am deemed to be not a right fit.
  2. I send a thank you note to the recruiter thanking her for the opportunity. I make a request for two things – a) LinkedIn connection and b) do you know of any one who may be looking for a person with my skills
  3. Within a week, she recommends me to her friend at Company B.
  4. I go through two rounds of interviews at Company B in December – the position gets put on hold.
  5. Opening at Gazelle opens up in January – the recruiting manager at Company B recommends me highly to Gazelle.
  6. Gazelle reaches out to me over the weekend, my former boss who knows the CEO writes to him as well.
  7. I get the job, not just based on their recommendations – I still had to show up and go through two rounds of interviews – but because my connections opened the door for me.

Steps 1-4 happen while I am still employed. 5-6 happens within 2 weeks of getting laid off.

5) Never treat it as a knock out blow: Layoffs sting – it hurts, you feel worthless, you may spend sleepless nights worrying. But you need to recover. You cannot treat it as knock out blow. Usually good things happen – I have found a job better than what I had. You need to take it on the chin and get immediately back on the feet. Now is not the time to go into your cocoon, instead now it is demo time for the most important product – YOU!. Let everyone in your network know that you are actively looking. Get your LinkedIn profile updated, get recommendations from your former colleagues for the position you just got laid off, start showing up at local events, speak at these events if you can.  Look for short term assignments among your network, apply for unemployment benefits, explore ways to keep some income coming in – every dollar helps. Don’t be ashamed to tell others that you have been laid off – not to get their sympathy, but more to get the word out that you are actively looking. You never know who knows who.

6) Take the time to relax, build a new skill or enjoy life: Easier said than done, right? But if you do all of what I have stated above, believe me, you can. During the 4 weeks I took off, I went grocery shopping with my wife (something I had not done in years), I dropped off my kids at school and other after school activities, took long afternoon naps and read books. It was a great way to put a brake on my otherwise hectic work life. I got to relax and enjoy my life after a long time. All because I was close to getting offers from the companies I had interviewed with.

7) Always save for the rainy day: There is nothing faster that you can burn after a layoff than Cash. Everything comes out of your pocket – health insurance, mortgage, car payments and all other expenses. There is no income other than any severance payments you may have received. So always have enough cash saved away for the rainy day.

Thoughts? Do you have any experiences to share?

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Image: Courtesy of washingtonpost.com