Management Frameworks

As a manager or manager of managers of a product development team it’s hard to focus on the right things and to make sure that you’re making progress on your ever growing list. I wanted to share a few of my personal frameworks that have helped me focus better and be more productive over my career:

1. Understand Product and Team Health

I wrote a separate post about this here but one of the most important things you can do when managing lots of products/teams is to understand the health of both the products and the corresponding teams. I do this by asking the following three questions and tracking this over time.

  • What do the metrics say? Metrics are impartial measures of how the product is performing on an absolute basis and trending. Having valid, high quality data sources is essential.
  • What does the team say? Most of your insight will be from the team lead, but make sure and also talk to team members from time to time so you can further validate (or invalidate) the insight from the lead.
  • What do our customers say? Talk to customers, talk to customer support, get structured data on customer pain points.

Combining the insight from these three sources has helped me improve judgement around what we should build and also help with designing better teams.

2. Segment your work

I segment all of my work into three buckets:

  1. (10-20%) Set of things that only I can do (or want to do) myself
  2. (60-70%) Set of things I can structure and review
  3. (10-20%) Set of things that need zero oversight or someone else can do better

This allows me to spend time on the areas that I can have the most impact while making sure that I don’t drop the ball on all the jobs that need to be done by the organization.

Over time, if your objective is to make yourself redundant you should aim to move more and more tasks from category 2 to category 3. This is also a good sign of a team that both well assembled and performing well.

3. Track your time

Each quarter I write up my personal goals (Primary focus, Secondary focus, Observing) and share them with folks I work with very closely.

As part of this exercise, I reflect back on the previous quarter and break down my allocation of time and highlight anything in my list of goals that did not get done.

I then take all the tasks that I don’t think should be on my plate going forward (not the right priority, or someone can do better) and plan to transfer them to someone else for the next quarter as part of my personal planning process.

This has helped me be more deliberate and focus on the things that matter.

4. Get buy in for projects

People are the most important asset in any product development organization and high performers do not like to be told what to work on. One of the most important things that managers of product development teams have to do is get buy in from their teams on the projects they work on.

In the ideal situation a specific job to be done matches both the interest of a team/person and their capabilities. In other situations you’ll need to get buy in from teams to take on projects, and the best outcomes are always situations the team is motivated to work on the project (ideally it’s even their idea).

Depending on the person or team and their preferences, it’s important to phrase the project in the right terms:

  1. Do it for the Company: This project the most impactful thing you can do for the company’s growth – logic and long term thinking.
  2. Do it for your Team: This is the most impactful thing you can do for your peers or your team – community and selflessness.
  3. Do it for Yourself – This is the most impactful thing you can do for your development/career – drive and growth.
  4. Do it for Me: This is something I need you to do for me – strength of the personal relationship. This line should be used sparingly, because it can be relationship damaging and/or selfish.

These are a small subset of tools that I’ve found personally helpful as I’ve worked with product development teams over the last decade and hope you do as well!

Advice for my younger self

I really like Garry Tan’s 3 lessons that he posted in 2013 that he wished he knew when he was 16 – I often refer to them and it inspired this post for me.

Here are a few things I’d tell a younger me, some re-enforcing and some to change my behavior:

  • Compound learning: Optimize for learning per unit of time as early as possible in your career (read books, try new functions and industries). The earlier you learn the better this learning compounds over time and leads to better judgement and decisions. I did not read enough or take enough advantage of my educational opportunities. If you want to be a better investor, learn as much as you can per $ invested. When you invest small amounts you can still do big diligence (investment memos, models, post mortems etc) and you will make less expensive mistakes further down the road.
  • Keep a low burn rate: When you are earlier in your career you can take more risk because you have lower cash requirements and these risks could have potential upside but lower predictable cashflow. It’s very easy to have your lifestyle scale up (especially in fixed costs) as you make more money and these can ‘trap’ you if you’re not deliberate about increasing your spending. This could cause you to trade short term vs. long term to maintain your lifestyle even when it might not be the right choice and may prevent you from trying something that is more fulfilling.
  • Relationships are as important as outcomes: Don’t be completely (short term) outcome driven at work, at the expense of relationships. Don’t think that most important thing is ‘winning’ or shipping even if folks around you get burned along the way. When I was earlier in my career I made a number of mistakes here and thought I was making the right tradeoff at the time. Now I know this is is too short term-ist and you will benefit from building strong lasting professional relationships with high trust – over the long term this will allow you to have better repeatable outcomes with people you work with for long periods of time.

Predictions for the future

I was thinking about a few things that 20-30 years from now (our children) would be surprised that our generation thought was ‘normal’. I’ve broken this up into two categories – predictions where I have higher confidence and predictions where I have lower confidence.

Higher confidence

  • Driving cars: Much of the the research and data points to autonomous vehicles being the future of transportation. Lower rates of accidents (1m people die per year with 95% of deaths caused by human error), increased independence, reduced traffic, fewer parking spots and lower ‘wasted’ time from travelers makes this very compelling. I think our kids will think that we were ‘crazy’ to do something so dangerous every day. ‘Classic’ cars will still exist but they will be more focused on collectors and enthusiasts vs. a common mode of transportation.
  • Eating meat: I am a meat eater and enjoy eating meat. However, I realize that eating meat is inhumane, bad for the environment (deforestation, fresh water usage and greenhouse gasses) and an inefficient way of generating calories. We are much more likely to enjoy plant-based, lab grown ‘meat’ like the products from Beyond Meat (now served at McDonalds) and Impossible Foods – which are only going to become cheaper to produce over time.Like ‘classic cars’ it’s possible that consumers will still be able to buy meat but it will become much more expensive and rare and not a common mode of calorie consumption.
  • Mental health: As modern medicine allows us to extend life, cure disease and regenerate our bodies it’s entirely possible that (wealthy) humans will not die of natural causes in the next generation. As we live longer and longer, I think we are going to be more mindful of our mental health and not just our physical health. There will be better measures of overall mental health, preventative check ups with mental health specialists (like we do annual physical check ups now). We will also integrate time for meditation or reflection as part of our daily routine just as we do with physical exercise now.

Lower confidence

  • Owning a primary residence: Fewer people are buying homes (marrying later and higher student debt) and I think this trend is going to continue. Young people are spending more money on consumption and want optionality to move around. I also think that many people (in the US) have too much of their net worth concentrated in a single asset and would be better placed investing in a more diversified manner. I think there are lots of emotional reasons to purchase a home – e.g. roots in a community and family stability which is why I have lower confidence in this prediction.
  • Drinking alcohol: Drinking alcohol is terrible for you – we’re essentially poisoning our bodies. Studies have shown that alcohol is both more dangerous to individuals and to society than a number of illegal drugs. However, as humans we crave products that help us feel more relaxed, less inhibited, and facilitate shared social experience with others. Also many cultures all around the world have their own alcoholic drinks that are an important part of their history, and there is a massive $1.5 trillion global industry around alcohol production and consumption. Drinking might be too ingrained in society to go away, but I’ll follow how young people behave closely.

Thanks for reading – I wrote this mostly for fun and to capture my thoughts at a single point in time on how the world may change in the future.

Podcasts – my faves

In addition to audio books, I love listening to podcasts. I use Overcast and listen to most podcasts on around 1.25-1.5x speed without any noticeable sound distortion. Overcast also has a nice feature which dynamically adjusts the speed if ads or ‘intro sequences’ are played so you save even more time when listening.

Here are some of my favorites in rough order:

  • How I built this: Guy Raz from NPR interviews entrepreneurs who have built successful companies and they share their stories. I’ve listened to every episode and find it quite inspiring.
  • Entrepreneurial thought leaders: A Stanford series on the story of mainly technology entrepreneurs. It was the first podcast I listened to regularly and has been running for a long time (10+ years).
  • Hidden Brain: Shankar Vedantam from NPR presents well researched episodes about the human behaviour and society.
  • Recode Decode: Kara Swisher from VOX interviews folks in the tech community. She’s witty, dry, opinionated and gets really interesting guests on her show.
  • Invest Like the Best: Patrick O’Shaughnessy gets lots of smart investors and finance futurists on his show and I’ve improved as an investor through listening.
  • Serial: Sarah Koenig presents, and I really enjoyed Season 1 in particular. A lot of folks in the US who become regular podcast listeners start with Serial.
  • A16Z Podcast: This is really tech centric, and I only listen to the episodes with people or topics that I’m interested in learning more about.
  • Exponent: Ben and James talk about tech and society and are both really smart, thoughtful guys. James and I are friends from business school, which is an added bonus 🙂
  • The China Africa Project: Lots of interesting topics about the intersection of economics, politics and technology between China and Africa – likely a bit niche for most.
  • Freakonomics: Steven Dubner gets some really excellent guests to talk through a variety of topical issues. I don’t listen to them all, but select the ones that I find interesting.
  • Software Engineering Daily: This one is new, but I’ve enjoyed listening to more technical folks talk about designing systems.

Why I’m writing

One of my goals for 2019 was to write more on my personal blog. I set this goal for a few reasons, and hope to share about 1-2 posts per month on a variety of topics (product management, investing, personal growth and travel).

I have four main objectives for writing:

  1. Improve the quality of my writing: I stopped taking written English classes at the age of 16, and studying only Math + Science + Engineering caused the quality of my writing to stagnate. I’m writing to improve the structure, the content and the prose by which I express myself (and I’m enjoying it).
  2. Clarity of thinking: When I am forced to write something down in a way that can be understood by others, I expose the gaps in my own understanding of the subject matter. Writing helps me understand things better.
  3. Efficiency gains: I often get asked similar questions (e.g. how to get into product management, what are you reading right now) by folks and find myself sending a slightly modified note or having the same conversation multiple times. I want to be helpful and make sure to follow up, so taking a few extra hours to write down thoughts in an easily shareable format has saved me time.
  4. Using WordPress.com: I work at Automattic on WordPress.com so spending time writing and using our product helps me understand our product and our user experience better because I’m also experiencing our product like a ‘normal’ user.

As an aside, I think it may also be quite interesting to look back in a few years and see how I thought about a topic or expressed myself objectively vs. relying on my memory alone.

Getting into Product Management

I get asked frequently for advice from folks who are looking to get into product management and often send them slightly customized versions of the same thing. I decided to write something a little more comprehensive and share it broadly. 

There are a few phases of work for folks looking to get into product management:

  1. Start by learning about product management and what product managers do
  2. Figure out where you want to work and make a list of companies that are exciting to you
  3. Prepare for your PM interview and get the job

1. Learn about product management

Product management is different from company to company. It’s worth learning about the different perspectives of product people at different companies, and here is a short selection:

2. Figure out where you want to work

An important part of the process is generating a list of companies you may want to work at by evaluating company size, quality of mentors, your connection to the product etc. Product management varies significantly by product, vertical (ecommerce vs. autonomous car PMs do different things) and individual company so it’s useful to spend time upfront here.

I recommend going somewhere where you think you’ll get good mentorship from people who are both experienced and very strong product managers. I also recommend joining a company which is growing, as a lot of opportunities can arise from growth.

Companies like Google and Facebook have very well respected product management practices, but it can be difficult to get an interview or get through their process without prior product management experience (unless you are earlier in your career where they have great rotational Associate Product Manager programs).

Some good resources:

3. Prepare for your interviews

Read and Learn: There are a few foundational books that will help you prepare for your PM interview and generally help you becoming a better product person:

  • Read the lean startup
  • Read design of everyday things to teach you how to think about user experience
  • If you are a ponderer and not a doer I would recommend making things happen
  • If you want to learn how to run a product development process I suggest reading agile product management which can be a bit dogmatic and dry, but it’s useful to know these foundational elements
  • If you don’t have a technical background, I’d spend some time learning how technical systems work and some of the foundational elements of programming. The best way to learn is to read/watch videos (good resource) and take a codeacademy class (javascript or python)
  • Cracking the pm interview is a really good book by a former Googler, and I’d start by watching her youtube video
  • Practice questions on the pm interview – it autogenerates a bunch of questions and you can go through them

Analyze products: Spend time breaking down products you like/don’t like – most ‘product people’ naturally do this, and enjoy this type of exercise. I like to break down my analysis into 1) Why does this product exist, what user need is it solving? 2) What do I like about the product? 3) What would I change and how would I change it? 

Learn how you’ll be evaluated: Companies hire somewhat differently so make sure that you ask your recruiter or hiring manager about how you’ll be evaluated as part of the interview process. Here are a few dimensions from my experience that I’ve used, and seen used in the past. 

My Interview Criteria: There are a few key skills that PMs need to be successful and I use them to assess when interviewing product candidates. It’s important to have at least one area where you feel like you are excellent and can get that across during the interview process.

  • Analytical Ability: Run AB Tests, Interpret metrics, Make data informed decisions
  • Product Sense: System design, and UX design to solve a user requirement
  • Leadership: Inspire, Influence, Build loyalty, Have empathy
  • Project management: Prioritize, Get things done, Make tradeoffs, Unblock
  • Technical ability: Ask the right questions, Build trust/respect

Google Interview Criteria:

  • Product Design: User experience and design
  • Analytical ability: Fluency with numbers, Key metrics dashboards
  • Technical ability: System design, Algorithms – earn respect from engineers
  • Strategy: Business turnaround, Go to market
  • Culture: Googliness, Kindness, Leadership

Facebook Interview Criteria:

  • Leadership and Drive: Influence, Self starter, motivated, influence teams
  • Execution: Goals, Metrics, Prioritization, Process
  • Product Sense: Design, Understanding users
  • Engineering fit interview: Not a technical one like Google, more fit interview

Being a product manager is fun, challenging and a great fit for people who like to make things, and like making things in a better way.

Best of luck in your journey and thanks for reading!

Books I’ve read this year (H1 2019)

I started listening to books via Audible and it’s really helped me ‘read’ more, and am consuming books at about 3-4x the rate that I did in 2018. I prefer audio for most stories, and especially for autobiographies spoken by the author themselves.

I also decided to write 1 line for each book that I read to remind myself of one thing that I learned, which helps me remember some of my learnings from the book.

I’ve starred (*) my faves in the list (in the order I ‘read’ them)

  1. *Never Split the Difference (Chris Voss): Negotiation is about empathy, and understanding the person. At the end of the negotiation, that person should want to negotiate with you again. Identify, Label, and ask questions starting with ‘How can I’. Get people to say ’that’s right’ and agree before moving the negotiation forward.
  2. Thinking Fast and Slow (Daniel Kannemann): System 1: gut and System 2: logic. Often times each system can betray the other system. Presenting the same thing in different ways can profoundly change the way it’s perceived. Different people behave totally differently in the same situation given their personal circumstance.
  3. Mindset (Carol Dwek): Growth mindset people derive value and joy from learning, effort and progression, Fixed mindset people derive value and self worth/unworth from comparative outcome.
  4. The Outsiders (William N. Thorndike): Profiles of 8 successful CEOs – all super analytical, excellent capital allocators (including aggressively buying back stock), and focused on generating cashflow and value for investors. Great CEOS hire young, less proven leaders and incentivized them with value creation.
  5. **7 Habits of highly effective people (Steven Covey): I really enjoyed this book.Do things that have meaning to you, value relationships, have a family mission statement and make sure everyone understands expectations and roles and responsibilities. Talk openly about problems and issues.
  6. **Principles (Ray Dalio): When you talk to people actually be open to your idea being wrong and really listen to their point of view, especially if they have high believability. Have a set of founding principles which you run your life (e.g. meaningful relationships and meaningful work), and company and make sure that the people around you know and are bought into those principles. Idea meritocracy is his general framework – make your passion and your work one and the same.
  7. *Homo Deus (Yuval Harari): Suicide rates are high (2/100 people who die, kill themselves), What’s more important – intelligence or consciousness? What happens when algorithms know us better than we know ourselves from our actions (but what about our deep conscious being)? What happens when all the tasks what we do now can all be done better by non-conscious beings (Robots)? 
  8. *Red notice (Bill Browder): make sure you always do what is right and if you see an opportunity that you have unique insight on, make sure to execute on it.
  9. *Born a crime (Trevor Noah): being able to communicate and be accepted in lots of wide groups is incredibly useful in life, and allows you to build bonds with people.
  10. The hate u give (Angie Thomas): it’s hard being a young black person in the US and they will be subject to a level of discrimination that I’ll never experience.
  11. The 10x Rule (Grant Cardone): I did not really enjoy the book. He biases to action and high effort/action to be productive – termed at ‘Massive Action’ and feels like it’s targeted towards people with high levels of inertia. This is counter to a lot of smart folks in the value investing world – e.g. Warren Buffet. 
  12. *Shoe dog (Phil Knight): trade prevents war, and helps create empathy for each other. Phil reads to learn before every important tasks. America is no longer the entrepreneurial shangri la. Find your calling because you’ll be able to keep motivated with bumps along the road.
  13. Sapiens (Yuval Harari): I forgot to write anything for this book so this is a bit weak – there are so many themes about culture, religion, socieatal norms that I learned about that I was ignorant to .
  14. *Thousand Splendid Suns (Khalid Hosseni): Life was very hard for women in the 90s during the Afghan war. Men who beat their wives are cowards, and  this book makes you hate them even more.
  15. First 90 days (Michael Watkins): Leaders try and do too much upfront. Focus on learning and getting to know the team l, culture, process and product. Make sure you have a quick win or two. Make sure you write down your plan and are in sync with your manager.
  16. Extreme ownership (Jocko Willink):  I thought the book was a bit gimmicky. There are no bad teams only bad leaders, leader is ultimately responsible. Make sure teams understand the why and are empowered to ask when they don’t understand. Simplicity is important.
  17. Enders shadow (Orson Scott-Card): Building relationships and trust is as important as being a great strategist.
  18. *Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson): The criminal justice system is broken in the US with so many black people incarcerated, even as children for their lives. More insight into the lives of poor, black people in America.
  19. 21 Lessons (Yuval Harari): This is the 3rd book I’ve read from Yuval Harari who I really like – his clarity of thought is exceptional. This book covers topical issues like AI/Future of Work/Universal Basic Income (UBI), Religion/Country design, Mental health /Aging and Wellbeing.