As I've started new jobs, whether changing companies or taking on new projects, I've realized there is really one thing you have to get right if you want to be successful long-term.
It's building credibility.
This is particularly important for product managers, since we have no direct authority over anyone, but need to influence people throughout an organization in order to be successful. Of course, building credibility is crucial in most roles, especially as you get started.
As I've been thinking about my own experiences and watching those around me, I've realized that credibility is very much like like an investment account. You add a little bit to it at a time, and it starts to grow. And once you've made enough deposits, you can start tapping into it without drawing down too much. But you can't make withdrawals if you haven't made deposits, at least not without seriously damaging yourself.
Asking people to trust you without giving them any reason to trust you is a surefire way to lose. Lose face, lose credibility, and lose long-term influence. It may seem fine at first since people may have no other option, but those withdrawals will come back at some point, especially if you haven't delivered, but often even if you have.
So how can we make deposits into our credibility account? The good news is that you don't have to be an industry expert or a visionary. You just have to start to lay the foundation of trust in order to build upon it. So here are a few key ways to do that, especially as you begin a new role.
"You may be the world's foremost expert on something, but if you don't understand the context you're operating in, not a single person will care about what you have to say."
Coming out of college, I was pretty cock-sure of myself. As most college grads seem to be. Particularly, I was abundantly confident in my Excel skills. I had taken several classes focused on Excel and had been using it for work and projects, so why wouldn't I be an Excel expert, especially compared to folks who clearly weren't as well-versed as I was?
That was the attitude I took into my first job. I can recall working with an experienced product manager and noticing that they were doing something in Excel that could be sped up with a shortcut. So I, of course, showed them how to use the shortcut, subtly demonstrating my knowledge and experience. Fortunately she was very gracious and thanked me for showing her. I figured that most of my team probably didn't know Excel that well and I could take that opportunity to teach everyone.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Everyone I worked with was vastly superior in their knowledge of Excel. As I sat down again with the aforementioned product manager, she began to walk me through several spreadsheets she had built for a project I would be taking on. I was overwhelmed because I didn't understand half of the things she did. She had to walk me through a couple times all of the functions and macros and queries she had built so that I could even take notes.
So while I may have known about some shortcuts, I was vastly unprepared for the depth of knowledge that others had for the job specific things that they were experts at.
That was a humbling experience, but I see it repeated so often. When we come into new roles, we may have this idea that those around us aren't as capable as we are. Be humble. There is a good chance that you, being the new person, will have a lot to learn. And that's not just coming out of college. You'll have a lot to learn even with 20 years of experience. The best people always do.
In another role that I had previously, we went through a significant change in management. Not only did our entire organization get moved, but our managers were also shifted. Up to that point, our group had been working with a significant amount of autonomy, which upper management wanted to end. So they brought in a new manager for our group with the intent of reining things in.
But that's not what happened, at least not immediately.
Our new manager came into his role with a mandate from his superiors, but he didn't do anything initially. He told all of us that his first order of business was to get a deep understanding of our group and organization before he made any changes.
And that's what he did.
He met with all of us multiple times to fill in his understanding. He was open about the changes that were being considered, and asked for frank feedback.
In the end, there were a lot of changes made to our organization and group. Not all of the I agreed with. But I wasn't upset about any of them. Because rather than come in and simply rush to make senior leaders happy, our new manager was patient. He made sure that changes made sense and that he took the time to really "get it" before moving forward.
That's a lesson for us all. As you move into new things, be patient. It is probably going to be incredibly difficult, but your teams will thank you for it.
Another real key to success is gaining understanding, like my manager did above. You may be the world's foremost expert on something, but if you don't understand the context you're operating in, not a single person will care about what you have to say.
I've seen this frequently with certain groups of agile coaches and project managers that are brought into organizations. Ever eager to bring their "expertise" to the group, they jump right into their solutions before they even understand what the problems are (if there are in fact any problems).
Just because something you did in a previous role was a huge success, doesn't mean it's the right thing for a new role or project. How would you even know if you haven't take the time to understand? Understand the team, the organization, the customers, the stakeholders involved.
In one instance in my career, our organization hired a project manager to be part of our product team (I know, another story for another time about organizational structure). Within a very short time, he was trying to change the workflow of our team from top to bottom. He had lots of charts and documents showing what he wanted to implement and what he expected. It was truly bizarre to me. Because as I looked through these things and listened to him, it was very clear to me that he had no understanding of how our team worked or what we were already doing.
Don't try and make withdrawals on credibility you don't have. Just because you have 20 years of experience doing something, doesn't mean you can be immediately prescriptive of what others should do.
Rather than be like this project manager, be like my manager above. Understand the people. Understand the problems. Understand the current state of things so that when you do make suggestions or implement changes, you can do it while getting everyone on board together.
To gain understanding, you'll have to ask a lot of questions and really listen to the people involved. You'll likely hear different things from those in the trenches, and that is often where your key insights will come from.
Finally, you need to find the places where you can add value. It's not just about listening and understanding, though that is a huge part, but you also need to contribute to the success of the team and organization. That's what they brought you on for, right?
While there are numerous ways you can start to add value (while adhering to the advice above), here are a couple that have worked for me:
1. Get involved - Don't let the fact that you're new or unfamiliar with things keep you from raising your hand whenever possible. Take on projects that will not only help you learn, but will start to help you make those credibility deposits as a team player.
2. Make your suggestions - While this may seem to go against some of the advice above, it's really all about your attitude and delivery. Don't be prescriptive, but tell the stories of how you did things and ask if those around you think that may be helpful. Let your new team guide you, but don't be afraid to ask the question.
As you start a new role, whether in your current job or with a new company, focus on making credibility deposits. Don't try and draw down too soon. You may have been the guru before, but it will take some time to build up that kind of reputation again. Don't worry, it will come. Just do it right and you'll be off to a great start.
I've interviewed and hired a lot of people throughout my career so far. A surprising number actually - largely as a function of the roles that I've had over the past 10 years. At BYU, I was a manager over the on-campus computer labs. At Goldman Sachs, I helped establish and expand a product management team in Salt Lake City. Both of those roles entailed quite a bit of hiring, so I learned a few things about hiring the best people. And one thing in particular has stood out to me recently as a real key to doing just that, and it involves the interview process. Particularly making sure that a small group of people don't make the wrong decision.
Get candidates in front of the best people
Hopefully in your organization you feel like you're overflowing with some of the best people in the business.
When I was managing the computer labs at BYU, we had between 50 and 75 employees at any given time. And given the fact that they were student employees, turnover was inevitable as people graduated or moved on to other things. As part of a larger organization shift that I was orchestrating - to focus on getting more leaders into the organization - I changed the hiring process as well. It was no longer one or two people doing an interview and making a hiring decision, but six or seven people. And it wasn't just management. We started bringing in our supervisors and lab employees, not as passive participants, but as active members in the interview process. Everyone was allowed opportunities to create their own interview questions, pose those questions to our prospective candidates, and offer their valued feedback afterwards.
I did this primarily for two reasons. First, I wanted to establish a process that could continue after I left. Getting the up-and-coming leaders ready to take the reins was an important factor. But once we hired the best people, I also wanted to get their opinion of new hires. While I certainly trusted my own perspective, I knew that it was just one perspective. I valued other points of view, and felt it would be a missed opportunity not grow future leaders.
Get ready for lots of interviews
Goldman Sachs gets interviewing right. If you've ever heard of their hiring process, you've probably heard it can involve lots of interviews. And that's very true, at least in my experience. A dozen interviews wouldn't be strange at all. I recall scenarios when it could have even been 20 interviews.
As a candidate, that sounds absolutely terrible, I know. But the purpose (at least in my group) wasn't to try and wear someone down. It was to give everyone a chance to meet the person they may be working with and give their opinion.
I recall the first week after I had joined the firm, we were interviewing for an additional spot on the team. I was given a resume by one of my colleagues and told to join him in an interview. I was a bit confused since I didn't know the role well enough to have any idea what a good candidate would be (I was struggling just to take everything in at that point). But that didn't matter. It was going to be someone I'd be working with, and I needed to give input. I recall about 10 people interviewing the candidate that day, and we all gathered at the end of the interviews to discuss our thoughts. Everyone was expected to give their opinion and vote whether to bring the person back for more interviews or to pass on them. I don't recall specifics on what I said or how I voted, but that same process stayed true for my entire time at Goldman.
Top to bottom
One of the best things about the hiring process at Goldman was that it was top to bottom. New employees were expected to given opinions and weigh in just as much as managing directors. Not to say that votes were always weighted the same, but if anyone on the team had a legitimate reservation, it was taken seriously by everyone.
After about a year on the team, our manager got a promotion and was heading back to New York, which meant finding a new manager for her previous position. As part of that process, the three of us on the team had the chance to interview all the candidates who were potentially going to be our manager. I'm not sure how frequent something like that happens elsewhere, but we had the chance to voice concerns and help narrow the field to the people we thought would best lead our group. And we eventually made an excellent decision.
I made sure that this same pattern followed as I progressed in my career at Goldman and became a Vice President there. I had the opportunity to take leadership for that team and expand it significantly. Throughout the process, every single member of our team had the chance to interview candidates. Whether it was summer interns or more senior openings, we had everyone involved.
Time and effort up front
That probably sounds like a lot of time and effort. And it is. Hiring is a lot of work. But putting in the effort up front always pays off multiple times over in the end.
Something that has always struck me is how different interviews can be based on the candidate, the day, the interviewer and their background, and any number of other factors. I've had team members who liked to play hardball and ask tough questions. I've had others who like to have a nice chat and make the interviewee feel really comfortable. And that's the point. Since everyone on the team has a unique background and perspective, they are going to see things that others may miss. They are going to take a different angle.
All of that leads, in my opinion, to finding the best candidates.
In a round of interviews a few years ago, I remember being impressed by a candidate. They were well-spoken, easy to talk to, knowledgeable and overall really good. That was my experience and the experience of one other person on my team. But the somehow the rest of the interviews with the same candidate went really bad. As a result, all the other members of the team wanted to pass on the candidate. I was perplexed at how it could have been so different for several members of my team, but that was fine. We passed.
What would have happened if I was making the decision in that case based on just my interview? I think we would have ended up with a subpar teammate.
And that is unfortunately something I've seen happen.
In another scenario (one that I wasn't part of unfortunately, but had implications for me), a hiring decision was based on one or two interviews. They were looking to hire someone quickly and did. Unsurprisingly it was a bad decision. While the candidate had a good resume and talked a good game initially, it became clear after a few weeks that they really didn't have the experience they had claimed.
I believe that if a few more people had been involved in the hiring process, especially with some different perspectives (like a product manager perspective!), this issue could have been avoided.
It's got to be real
I'm not suggesting that the hiring process be a formality either. I've been invited to interviews where my opinion wasn't valued, and I could tell that I wasn't really going to get a say in the ultimate decision. That is just as bad as not being involved at all, if not worse. I voiced some serious concerns, but since the hiring manager liked the candidate, no one else's opinion mattered. They wanted a rubber stamp, not input.
Getting your team involved in the hiring process isn't just about getting their buy-in, though that is a nice outcome of their involvement. It has to be about getting their input to make the best decision. That means that concerns have to be taken seriously. It may be that the group overrules one or two people, but it has to be done by weighing the positives and negatives and ultimately getting to the point where those in opposition can at least disagree but commit. I've been in that situation. It may not be the outcome I wanted, but I knew that the team was looking for the same outcome as me, which was the right person for the role. So I trusted them enough to disagree and commit.
It's unfortunate when we're not willing to put in the right work to get the right people. I've seen organizations that will spend months vetting possible vendors for relatively minor contracts, getting dozens of people involved in the process and spending countless hours. But then only spend a few interviews and a few hours for a hiring decision that will have a bigger impact for a longer time.
If we do interviewing right, we can get the right people. But it often involves getting lots of folks involved. It can involve quite a few interviews. And a bit of time. And perhaps most importantly setting aside one's ego. Like the quote at the beginning (attributed to Lincoln, but it may not have been him), you can't fool everyone all the time. So getting lots of your team involved in the interviewing process is one way to ensure that your making a good decision for now and for the long term.
I'm enjoying taking a look back at the past year, so wanted to continue doing so, this time with a product manager perspective. And somewhat of a technology enthusiast perspective. Now these are certainly not all products that were released in 2017. I'm unfortunately not a blogger for a tech publication who gets access to all the fun things before they come out. But these are the things I've started using that have been real game changers this year.
But we set it up and began to use it occasionally. It was a novelty at first, but then I began to see the potential uses. And given the fact that they are only $30 (or around that depending on timing), it seemed like a no-brainer. Dots began to appear in new places. I began using one as my alarm in the morning. The dot in the kitchen became a go-to for music for the kids whenever they wanted to hear a particular song. And it's so easy that they have begun to ask Alexa to play songs for them. McCoy can get it to work. Kinley is surprisingly close (Alexa just has a little trouble understanding toddlers still).
And as we moved into our new home and began incorporating smart home devices, Alexa became an even more integral part of our routine. A simple voice command to turn off all the main floor lights. Or turn on the Christmas lights. We now have dots in most rooms of the house, which also lends itself to the cool functionality of being able to call room to room, like an intercom system. Which wasn't something we realized would be useful until we started to use it. Now it feels like a must-have thing.
This also includes the new echo spot, which is a recent addition, but is superb in what it can do. It looks great and makes me want to have a few more.
Having just come off of the Christmas season, you can imagine how helpful that was for Christmas lights.
The other product is their light switch. It is almost just as simple. You just need to remove your old switch, wire in the new one, and viola, it's done. You can control your lights from anywhere. All of these work great with Alexa, which is a big win. And the app is incredibly easy to use to group things together or control remotely. It adds a degree of simplicity to my life that I appreciate. With a simple voice command, I can pretty much turn off an entire floor of lights from the bedroom. Or set things on a timer so I no longer even have to think about them (hello porch lights). So no more getting out of bed to check all the lights. It is another game changer for me.
Ultimately, what I'm looking for in the products I love are problems that are being solved in my life, without forcing me to change what I'm doing. They just fit in and make things easier. That is certainly the case with Alexa and some of the smart home products I've loved this year. And I'm looking forward to a great 2018!
With 2017 officially coming to a close, I wanted to take a moment to look back at this year and reflect. All in all, 2017 was an incredibly good year. So many great things happened for me personally and for our family. It was a year of big change, big moves, and big accomplishments. My wife and I discussed some of the most memorable parts of the year for us as we counted down to midnight. (Full disclosure, neither of us actually stayed up to midnight, we called it quits early. Parenthood, right?). So here they are, in no particular order. Well, it's pretty much chronological order. But whatever.
Of course I could go on for quite a bit longer with other highlights from the year. There were quite a few and we really did have an amazing year. But those were certainly the ones that stood out most to me and Kelli as we looked back. It's exciting to think of what 2018 will bring.
I hope your 2017 was as good as ours, and hope that 2018 will be an amazing year for all of us!
To repurpose the quote above, what if the portions were really large? I could see that being a place that some people might go to frequently. The food stinks, but man do you get a lot of it. That is how many teams operate without realizing it. It is so easy to produce a lot of work without any of it actually being valuable to customers.
So what can we do to avoid producing a lot of food that stinks?
We have to measure what we're doing.
KPIs are essential for understanding the impact of our work. Without them, we really have no idea if what we're working on has any value. And focusing on the wrong KPIs is a great way to serve up a lot of food, but it may not be the kind of food that our target audience wants to eat.
For a while when I first started in my current role, we didn't have well-defined KPIs. And we got whiplash because of it. It was incredibly easy for anyone to come to our team and request new products and features under the guise of "improving satisfaction" and "better experience". Those things are incredibly important. But how will this feature improve satisfaction or create a better experience? How do we know for sure? How will we measure it? Too often those questions went unanswered and we were left having certain decisions made for us by whoever could yell the loudest or get the most attention from higher-ups (not to say that isn't still an ongoing struggle, but let's save that for another post).
So establishing meaningful KPIs was crucial in beginning to wrangle stakeholders and partners into legitimate discussions around outcomes. If we believed a new feature would improve efficiency or satisfaction or outcomes, how were we going to measure? What did we expect and how could we validate it?
Performance indicators also tie the overall company strategy back to our products. At WGU, the mission is to provide affordable, competency-based education to underserved groups. The measures of that all revolve around student outcomes: making progress toward a degree, overall satisfaction, keeping students enrolled and engaged, etc. So the measures for products need to stay focused on those overall goals and the university strategy.
The key performance indicators I created fall into four groups: student outcomes, student satisfaction, student issues, and staff efficiency (you can replace "student" with "customer" in your own KPIs if this is useful to you). In order for new features to pass muster, they had to move the needle in one or more of those areas.
For example, within student satisfaction, we measure that through a variety of surveys. Since my team's focus is on the assessment experience, and student's are given surveys after they take an online assessment, we are able to very accurately measure if changes we make impact their overall satisfaction.
Another example is within the employee efficiency. We know very accurately the number of issues our support staff deal with and the time it takes to deal with them. So we can measure the decrease in issues as well as equate that to time spent troubleshooting and solving problems. If our features are truly impactful, we can measure the decrease in the number of issues and how many man-hours that saves.
Establishing the right KPIs and measuring against them is difficult and can be time-consuming. Sometimes it can be incredibly difficult to find the right measure. On my team, we deliver assessments to students and evaluate them. But I don't think the number of assessments we deliver is necessarily a good KPI. It is easy to measure, yes, but would delivering more assessments mean anything? Possibly, but because that would be an easy rabbit hole to go down without adding value, it's not currently one of our KPIs.
Establishing the most important indicators up front is one of the keys to knowing what to work on and how well you've done solving underlying issues. It isn't easy. It takes time and effort. And patience. We may not always see immediate pay-offs. But having created the right KPIs initially, and staying focused on measuring and improving, we can avoid making a banquet of terrible food.
Some teams have backlog refinement (or grooming) down to a science. Other teams, not so much. Either they don't even try, or it is a time that is more or less wasted since there is no clear direction or purpose.
I've been there. We've probably all been there. And if you haven't, I suppose you can stop reading now. But for anyone who currently finds their refinement efforts lacking, here is a little something to try. And even if things are going well, maybe this could help focus you even more. As I was contemplating how to make our refinement meetings more focused, here is what I came up with.
FUSE. As we examine each story in our backlog, along with the epics they belong to, I've asked the team to help think about 4 things in order to ensure each story is ready for prime time.
Focused: Is each story appropriately focused? As we build out stories and descriptions and acceptance criteria, there is always the possibility that we've included too much in a given story. So asking the team to help us take a step back and make sure that the story is focused enough and doesn't need to be further broken out.
Understandable: Is the story understandable? What questions remain? This is probably an area that I always need some guidance on. I understand the story since I put it into the backlog. I generally know the entire backstory as well. And the business need and the user perspective etc. But the team may not always have that full perspective. This is a great time to not only explain everything, but to also make sure all of that is captured in the story.
Sized: What is the size of the story? Of course, no refinement exercise is really complete if we haven't estimated a size for a given story. Once the story is understood and broken out sufficiently, we need to size it so we have an idea where it will fit into one of our sprints. Of course, sizing is a separate topic in itself, so we'll leave that for another post.
Expounded: Finally, is the story fully expounded? This ties in very nicely with it being understandable, but I think it deserves its own section. We need to make sure appropriate detail is there, and doing this jointly with the development team is crucial. It involves getting their input and including that.
Expounding also extends to the epic or version as well. Our refinement meetings are great opportunities to ensure that the stories we've written include all the necessary items. Hopefully that is the case, but it's never a bad idea to pause and think again about all the stories together to ensure nothing has been overlooked.
As we've implemented this "checklist" into our refinement meetings, it has vastly improved our productivity. It has given our team the ability to focus on what we need to get done and given us direction. We no longer meander through stories but have a purpose in analyzing everything. So give it a try and let me know what other practices you use to get the most out of your refinement meetings.
My Time at Goldman
A few years into my career at Goldman Sachs, I got a phone call from a recruiter for another company. This wasn't unusual, but a question he asked stuck with me. When he probed a bit about my willingness to leave and detected my hesitation at that point, he posited "So you're a Goldman guy for life, eh?"
I didn't plan on being a Goldman guy for life, but I also had several things I wanted to accomplish before leaving. I wanted to establish myself as a leader within my team and within the Salt Lake office. I wanted to advance to become a vice president. I wanted ensure that I created some lasting products.
Fortunately I was able to accomplish all of those things. I proposed Goldman begin to participate in the Salt Lake Corporate Games, and led the whole office in coordinating that effort for five years. It included hundreds of people each year, and over 40 teams. And each year our office was in the running to win first place. Our best finish, in my final year, was third place. A huge accomplishment. I also established myself as our team leader, taking on a mentoring and leadership role for the Salt Lake fixed income group. And in just over 5 years, I was promoted to vice president. In my final few years at Goldman, I also led the creation of multiple new products. This consisted of financial products, including three new money market mutual funds, as well as technology products, including investment tools and internal and external websites. You can learn more about my journey into product management in this post.
It was after I reached many of these milestones though, that I started to think deeply about what was next for me.
My Decision to Move
In college, I struggled initially with deciding on a degree path. I enjoyed business and management. I seemed to have an affinity for finance. I was surprisingly adept at accounting. I loved technology. Ultimately, I settled on pursing a degree in finance since it would give me a path in a few of the areas I enjoyed. It was also a way that I could help people. Money will never go away. And people/businesses will always need help in that area. So it was decided. I would go into finance to ultimately help people achieve their goals.
After nearly seven years at Goldman Sachs, I began to really think hard about what was next. There were many options for me still. I could continue in my role, taking on more projects and helping to grow the Salt Lake office. I could take a trading job in New York, and move my family out there. Or I could begin to pursue other opportunities.
I also began to really evaluate what I wanted my legacy to be. A few conversations I was having with family and friends had turned my thoughts to the very long-term. When looking back on my career, what did I want to have accomplished? What mark was I going to leave? What would bring me the most joy?
When I initially got into finance, it was with the intention of helping people. And while I certainly think there is a role in helping large institutions that ultimately impacts individuals, I felt too far removed from my original goal. And in my role as a product manager, I found myself the most passionate about the technology products I was creating, rather than the financial side.
So with all of that in mind, I knew that the next step for me would be a technology focused role that had a significant impact on individuals. Creating the products that could improve or change lives.
In order to accomplish this, I first decided that I should expand and "level up" my tech skills. So I did a coding bootcamp in the evenings and started to teach myself coding wherever I could. This of course helped in my existing role working with development teams, and set me up to better be able to move fully into the tech space.
I also primarily focused my job search on the education space. I knew that there is no way to make a bigger impact on people than to help them change their own lives through education.
Fortunately for me, my own decision to move on aligned with the build out of the product management organization at Western Governors University. And a great fit was made.
So I left my role with Goldman Sachs in March, and straightaway started as a Senior Product Manager with WGU.
When you're going through things in the moment, it can often be hard to be grateful. I know that is certainly the case with many things in our careers, and is certainly the case with many of my experiences at Goldman. There were some really tough times. But ultimately I'm grateful for the opportunities I had there and the things I accomplished. I'm already looking back nostalgically on a few things (though other things might take a little more time still).
I learned a great many lessons in my time, and hope to continue to build on those experiences as I build the next generation of products that are going to change people's lives.
Almost exactly six years ago we moved into our current home. It was an exciting and terrifying moment as it was our first home. Kelli and I had been renting up to that point and everything aligned at the end of 2010. I had graduated from college and we were both comfortably employed.
We knew the area we wanted to move to. Davis County. Preferably in Farmington somewhere. Kelli had kept an eye on the market for months and we knew what we wanted and where we wanted to be. When we eventually met with a real estate agent, we knew exactly what we wanted to see. Frankly, we knew the house we wanted. While we saw a couple houses, as soon as we walked through we knew it was the one. (We did have to go back because the renters were still there during our first visit which made for a shorter appointment than we had hoped, but that’s another story).
As we’re preparing now to move out, I’m waxing a bit sentimental about our first home. Not only was it our first home, but it was the home to so many firsts for us. And as I think back on them, it makes this very bittersweet. I’m excited for the next chapter and our next home, but so sad to leave this place that has meant so much to us for so long.
Here are a few of the firsts we experienced here and why it’s meant so much:
Our First Puppy. Sammy joined us within a few weeks of moving in. I’d even say he was a main driver of us moving into our own home. Rentals aren’t very dog friendly, and since Kelli grew up with dogs her whole life, it was really important to her. He was born March 25, 2011 and as soon as he was old enough, he joined our family. And from there, slowly took over more and more of our house.
My First Tile Project. The kitchen had a terrible linoleum when we bought it, so one of the first orders of business was to tear it out and put in some tile. I had never laid tile before, let alone for an entire kitchen. So it was a learning experience. Fortunately my dad had done a little tiling and we worked through it together. For many, many evenings, I’d leave work to go to the house to lay tile, often not finishing until 11pm or later. It’s funny to look back on, because we didn’t even have a wet saw (an investment we made subsequently), so we scored the tile and broke it for all the cuts. Wow, right. I’d say that this was really the beginning of my DIY experience, and really laid the groundwork for so many projects to come.
Our First Child. Probably nothing changes you more, or changes your life more, than having a child. And that was certainly the case for me. Bringing that little guy home was overwhelming. And watching him grow for the past few years. Saying his first words, taking his first steps, learning and playing and becoming a little boy. It’s been amazing, and so much of it has happened in this home.
A New Deck. This is probably one of the things I’m most proud of. When we moved in, there was a small balcony off the kitchen with no backyard access. So I planned out a massive 16X16 deck with full access to the backyard. I researched all the best practices for building decks, drew up the plans, had them approved by the city, and then ordered all the materials. My dad and I then proceeded to tear down the balcony and build an amazingly awesome deck. It went up really quickly and withstood one of the most severe windstorms I’ve seen. I think this project will always stick with me because it was really my transition to a serious DIYer, at least in my eyes. And it set the stage for even bigger things to come.
Our Daughter. Almost exactly two years after the birth of our son, along came our daughter. We got to experience so many of her firsts in our home, along with watching our two kids interact and learn and grow together. So much fun watching their two personalities play off each other. And so much more craziness.
All Sorts of Upgrades. Inside our house we’ve done so many things, it’s crazy to look back on them. Remodeling the guest bathroom, remodeling the master bathroom, refinishing the kitchen cabinets, landscaping the entire yard, putting in a patio. All big projects that did. And remember that tile floor in the kitchen? We decided to rip it out as well and put laminate throughout the upstairs. That was probably the longest project of them all. While most of it got finished within the first few weeks of starting, finishing it all (including the last finishing touches) may have stretched out beyond a year. Don’t judge.
The Woodshop. As my confidence in my ability to make things and build things increased, the number of things I was building increased as well. I made some shelves for our home office. Outdoor tables. More shelves. Soon my projects were taking over the garage. In addition to that, I realized that I wanted to dive full force into woodworking, including woodturning. So that meant we’d need a dedicated space. So we decided to build a shop. This was probably the culmination of all the projects that had come before. And it was big. About 16 feet long, 14 feet deep and 8 foot walls with a very high roof. It was spacious and beautiful. Once again, my dad, who is the source of all knowledge when it comes to building/fixing/making things, helped make this one happen. And we built a shop. It became the place where I’d spend countless Saturdays working on various projects for our own home and building up a small woodworking business, selling shaving set, rolling pins, ice cream scoops, cutting boards and other handmade wood items.
Ultimately I feel like I could go on and on for days. This home has changed us. It has changed me. It’s where I feel like I fully transitioned into manhood. Getting a dog, having children, building decks and shops, remodeling, creating businesses. We’ve grown up a lot here. And as we continue to grow, it’s time to transition to our next home. I expect that our next home will be a part of our lives that will continue to change us.
Of course, it’s not just about the home. It’s the people who you share it with, who help build it, who make it more than just walls and a roof. Fortunately that is the part we’ll be taking with us. Our puppy, our children, each other. I’m sure my dad will get roped into more projects at our new house. And that we’ll continue to make more memories than a house can handle. So I’m looking forward to that. But I’ll never forget the place that started it all.
When I first started in my first role out of college, multitasking was not just the norm, but the expectation.
I recall getting training on a few things that I'd be doing. One task involved pulling data from a few different reports that we generated and then using that information in a handful of spreadsheets that then got put into another report. All well and good. But while the reports were being generated for that task, we switched focus to another task. As soon as a report popped open, we'd switch back to the first task. Back and forth. Add in a few other tasks during all this and hopefully you get the picture.
The ability to multitask in this way was worn like a badge of honor by many people. The expectation was that everyone have the ability to switch from one thing to another to another constantly. Emails to tasks to phone calls to reports etc. Of course, I noticed this and tried my best to follow suit. After all, I was a smart individual and knew I could keep up with the best of them.
Fortunately for me, I realized quickly how terrible this was. I marveled that everyone else wasn't making loads of mistakes working this way. Until I realized they were. And I was too. Any time I might have gained by switching back and forth so as to not waste a second, cost me more time going back through all my work to check for mistakes. It was a real waste.
There has been plenty written recently about how multitasking in this fashion. Rather than gain efficiency, we actually lose it and increase risks. In the case of work, it means making mistakes on what we're doing. When it comes to something like driving and texting, the risks are even higher. The American Psychological Association has some great studies about the costs of trying to multitask and our inability to do it. There is even a great little experiment that shows how poor we really are when it comes to multitasking. Try writing a sentence and then a sequence of numbers. Now try writing one letter and switching to a number and see how well you do. Not well, I'm sure.
What to Do
I have the feeling that many of know this to a large degree. We know multitasking is bad. Driving and texting, Facebook and meetings, etc. But we still fall victim to it at work. At least I did, until I actively decided to kill multitasking. Here are a few of the things I did early on and try to do still.
Leave the Email
The main culprit I noticed early on was email. I know that not places are the same, and some organizations abuse email more than others. It wouldn't be unusual for me to receive an email or two every minute. Some requiring my attention, others not. But to stop to check email every time I received one was the biggest productivity killer there could be. So I stopped. I'd allow emails to wait until I was at a point I could shift my focus for a minute. No more being a slave to my inbox.
This led me directly to setting expectations with everyone I worked with. I wanted to make sure they knew I'd get back to them, but not to ever expect immediate replies or answers. This took a little bit of time, but with good communication and follow-up, it works wonders. All of my colleagues knew they could depend on me to get back to them, but that I wasn't living in my inbox and may take a few minutes. Once the expectations were set, life became a lot better.
Clearly set what your priorities are going to be. What is the most important? The most urgent? What can be knocked out quickly and what might take some more time? Once you've established priorities, it's time to focus.
Focus on One Task
Forget about jumping back and forth between things. Focus on one thing and do it well. Even if there is a little down time in that task, like there was for me when I was generating reports, it costs much more to try and switch back and forth between tasks. By staying focused on the current task, I didn't have to try and remember where I was and what I needed to do. I saved the mental cost and mitigated the risk for me.
It's impossible to multitask like we commonly think about. This doesn't mean you can't balance multiple things going on at the same time (which is the life of a product manager), but it does mean not allowing yourself to get pulled from one thing to another every few minutes. Focus on priorities and work until you get to a place where you can effectively switch tasks without losing efficiency. When it comes to multitasking, just don't.
Having a dedicated UX person or team is great for many reasons. They are experts in the different areas of user experience. They are another set of eyes on ideas, constantly thinking about how users are going to interact with different products and features. But that doesn't mean that UX should sit with a dedicated person or team. Everyone is responsible for thinking about what the user experience is going to be. I think that is especially true for product managers. We can't deflect the responsibility simply because there is someone else who does it.
So with that, here is a framework that I've used in my own product management experience. It is my four "F"s.
First off is function. Because you simply can't have a product or feature that doesn't function. For me, nothing else matters if this part isn't there. Of course, this is driven by the user's goals. What is it that they want to do? What problem do they have we are trying to solve? How are we best positioned to solve the problem?
When it comes to beautiful design, it's hard not to think of Apple products. And usually the function is there too. But in the case of the Magic Mouse 2, design clearly took precedent over function. While adding the ability to recharge it was great, the lightening port was put on the bottom of the mouse, making it completely unusable when you need to recharge it. Putting the port on the front of the mouse may have made it a little less beautiful, but it would have made it usable when it came time to charge it.
Fortunately most of the products and features I've worked on, especially recently, have always been about function first. But I do recall a time when that wasn't the case. We wanted to create a new web page for clients with lots of information that wasn't currently available. It had lots of nice looking charts and graphs and information, but unfortunately got pushed live before any historical information was available. So while it was very pretty, most of the information it promised wasn't there yet. Users got a snapshot of the current day, but without being able to compare that to other things it was useless. Needless to say, we had to pull it back down since it was causing confusion rather than helping users.
This is the next building block of the user experience for me. Once the function is there, the problem is being solved or the goal addressed, it has to have some aesthetic appeal.
When I first started my coding bootcamp, the idea of form was addressed by one of the instructors. He was teaching CSS and showing some cool tips and tricks. At the end of his lesson, he begged everyone to not forget about the look of their products. He said it happened in every cohort, all the time. People became obsessed with getting the functionality of their apps or sites or projects, only to run out of time to make it look good. So at the end of the bootcamp, people demonstrate their apps with awesome functionality, but they all look like crap. I tried to take that lesson to heart for my projects during my time there as well as after.
Products have to look good or people won't want to use them. There is a certain level of distrust we have if an app or site doesn't look professional. The alarm bells start to go off that it might not be legitimate. This doesn't mean that every product has to go out perfectly polished, but good form has to be there from the start so it can be improved upon.
Once you have the function and form, the next step for me is thinking about how a product or feature fits into the user's life. Solving a problem and making it look good are great, but if it doesn't fit into the user's life, they simply aren't going to adopt it.
This tends to be the problem with many fitness and weight loss tools. I think MyFitnessPal is a great app and I tend to start out using it periodically with the best of intentions. But unfortunately I just can't ever get into the habit of entering information after every meal. It simply takes me too far out of my routine to be useful.
I had this problem with a financial product that we launched. It was useful product, at least in our view, that people should have in their portfolio. But no one seemed interested and it didn't go anywhere. So I set out to do some customer research. Among a few other problems, we discovered that people just didn't see how it fit into their portfolios. So we addressed that issue with some new online tools to help them see where it would fit and we saw much more success after that.
Finally, it has to be fun. When I think of something "fun", I think of something that I want to come back to, something I want to do again. To me, the "fun" is the culmination of the other elements. When things are done right, you should have a product that makes people want to come back to it again and again.
Pinterest seems to have fun nailed down within its product. It's easy to use and a fun way to find new ideas for cooking, DIY projects, clothes, styles, etc. It's got the functionality, the form and fits easily into people's lives. Nothing is simpler than pulling up the home page of Pinterest, scrolling and pinning things. It is something that many, many people keep coming back to. Now I'm not an avid Pinterest user, but I can certainly understand the appeal.
Many of the products I've worked on recently aren't what you'd traditionally think of as "fun". But it is an aspect of UX that I've tried to always keep in mind. How can we make this product or feature something that people want to come back to again and again? An example is a redesign of an internal website that I created to help our sales and marketing teams. I took several sites and consolidated it all down to one, easy to use site with only the most relevant information. We added data that was useful and suddenly had a tool that people were checking frequently because it was the quickest place to find what they needed. Not a super sexy app, but fun enough to keep people coming back.
UX and product management tend to distinct roles at many places, but I don't think we can really afford to completely separate the two. Product managers need to keep the full user experience in mind as we design and implement new products and features. And by keeping UX in mind through the process, we will certainly always come out with better products.
My personal musings on a variety of topics.