Even if you’re not a resolution-setter, the new year is a moment for taking stock: reflecting on the last twelve months and projecting ambitions for the future.
In the spirit of fresh starts, we sat down with 8 very cool product managers to review the product management scene in 2016 and assess where the space is headed in the upcoming year. Will cyborgs rise up to replace us all and doom humanity?! Probably not. Predictions for 2017 range from the infiltration of data science, to fostering psychological safety, to the influx of AI (kiiiind of cyborg-ish, no?).
These PMs’ insights will help you plan your product management strategies for the new year, no matter your company or industry. Here’s who we talked to:
- Suzie Prince, Head of Product at ThoughtWorks
- Daniel Zacarias, Product Management Consultant
- Anna Marie Clifton, Product Manager at Yammer
- C. Todd Lombardo, Chief Design Strategist at Fresh Tilled Soil
- Vanessa Ferranto, Senior Manager of Product and Experience at Zipcar
- Matt Bilotti, Product Manager at Drift
- Rose Grabowski, Senior Product Manager at GrubHub
- Tim Herbig, Product Owner at ORBIT
Title: Head of Product
Tweet to her: @pm_suzie
Finish this sentence: “2016 was the year of…”
I wanted to say it was the year of continuous deployment, but actually I think it’s the year of trying to do that. I see a lot of aspiration, so maybe next year will be the year where people really grasp these processes.
Looking back on the past year, what did you learn about your space?
The saying “build it and they will come” is something people say, and not something I believe. This year it became really clear to me the holisticness that you need—marketing, messaging and sales —for one to get it right. You can’t just make this golden thing and hope that people will come use it.
You build products for software developers. What trends are emerging in your space for 2017?
One of the biggest trends we’re seeing is this idea of being “serverless.” Doing more and more work that is outside of your own hardware. The idea that next year you could pretty much build your entire startup on services that other people look after and support is becoming really clear to me. You don’t need to be some giant with all this massive infrastructure.
What is the #1 way you want to evolve as a PM in 2017?
I think the biggest thing for all product managers is “don’t get stuck in the details.” You are not the person that needs to do every tiny little thing and be distracted by everything. It’s not a new thing, but it’s definitely something to be aware of.
Read more Suzie:
- How “non-technical” product managers can jump the skills gap
- The Product Managers’ Guide to Continuous Delivery and DevOps
Title: Product Management Consultant
Tweet to him: @listentodaniel
Finish this phrase: “2016 was the year of….”
2016 was the year of realizing that cross-functional teams are useful beyond software products.
Tell us more.
I worked with a team in an industry that has nothing to do with software. They organized themselves by functional departments, each with “their responsibilities.” The problems I saw were all too familiar: information silos, conflicts between sales and engineering, low customer satisfaction…
That’s when it clicked. The real value that cross-functional teams bring to the table is not about lower risk, faster delivery, or even better outcomes for the company or product. It’s actually that it incentivizes having a common set of goals. That’s the #1 driver of a healthy team.
Looking back on this time last year, how did you see the software product space differently?
I think we’ve made big strides in going towards a problems-first mindset. However, as an industry, we still suffer from shiny object syndrome and remain too technology-oriented. Too many conversations start with: “How can we use this tech to solve this problem?” Instead of: “How can these problems be addressed by technology?”
What product management trend (or strategy/idea/approach) are you excited to sink your teeth into in 2017?
I’m looking forward to setting up an internal communications process similar to this one. It’s all too common that with so many moving parts we fail to keep everyone updated on what’s going on.
What’s the #1 way you would like to evolve personally as a PM in the next year?
I want to be better at summarizing my notes for other people to consume. Big fan of building shared understanding, but it’s sometimes hard to calibrate the right balance of information to share with other stakeholders.
Read more Daniel:
Anna Marie Clifton
Title: Product Manager
Tweet to her: @TweetAnnaMarie
Complete the sentence: “2016 was the year of…”
2016 was the year of psychological safety and bringing that concept into the workplace—specifically product managers doing so.
Can’t say I’ve heard that term before. What does that mean?
Google released a study that found the unifying factor across high-performing teams is a concept they’ve defined as “psychological safety.” It’s the emotional experience team members have in being able to express opinions and faults without risk of retribution.
Very cool! Other than psychological safety, what have you learned about building software products in 2016?
Something I wrangle with as a PM in the software world is how to reduce ambiguity. I find the larger and more vague a project, the more debilitating it can be for team members to move forward. So I’ve learned how the role of the PM is to take that inertia and drive away as much ambiguity as possible.
And when you compare the software product space to this time last year, how did you see it differently?
My career has been from many smaller, younger startups, so something that struck me when starting at Yammer is the systemization in place to address things like accessibility, localization and designing for user experiences incredibly unlike my own. I now consider and build out workflows to accommodate various accessibility and localization concerns that never occurred to me before.
What is the one thing you’d like to evolve personally as a PM in 2017?
The #1 thing I’m looking to strengthen is my ability to develop psychological safety on my team. I’m being conscious about getting more in tune with my team’s style and identifying how to provide a space for someone to say something when they may be afraid to.
Read more Anna Marie:
C. Todd Lombardo
Title: Chief Design Strategist
Company: Fresh Tilled Soil
Industry: UX and Design Consultancy
Tweet to him: @iamctodd
Finish the statement: “2016 was the year of…”
I think 2016 was the year of data science infiltrating product. Dealing with various product teams, I saw a demand from clients to develop and design products that are heavily reliant on a data model.
As as mentor to product teams, what have you learned about product strategy this year?
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that product strategy comes in different levels. Companies have a stratification of strategy that’s dependent on their life stage, maturity, size and even industry.
Care to elaborate?
Take a company like Google: At the highest level, there’s a business strategy and underneath are business units with portfolio strategies for individual products. Compare that to Slack that has one product in market: Their business strategy is their product strategy.
Looking back at this time last year, how did you see product strategy differently?
Growing up in the product world, I have this product-focused mind that didn’t always see this strategy stratification. In 2016, I found a framework for my brain that sees the connection between my product strategy and the overall business strategy which may include other products/services.
What are some emerging trends you see popping up in your particular product space?
I’m seeing more companies “validate qualitatively, verify quantitatively.” PMs are basing their initial product strategies on qualitative data and later backing their product choices with quantitative data to say, “Yep, it’s reinforcing our plan and we should continue with it.”
What’s the #1 way you would like to grow as a product person in 2017?
Given that technology changes so fast, as a product strategist I ask myself: How do I stay abreast of things while still offering the best advice to my clients, so they’re as successful as possible? Answering that is what I want to evolve most in 2017.
Read more C. Todd:
Title: Senior Manager of Product and Experience
Industry: Sharing economy
Tweet to her: @VGFerranto
Complete the phrase: “2016 was the year of…”
It was the year of process improvement for faster and more agile development.
What made agile a special consideration in 2016?
Our company transitioned towards a new platform and infrastructure. This shift meant aligning short- and long-term goals, and building communication across large product/engineering teams and global stakeholders.
We were already an agile organization, but a stronger emphasis on building iterative improvements in our process (including product management practices) has proven valuable in achieving our goals.
What have you learned about B2C software in 2016?
As product managers, we must advocate for realistic roadmaps and key metrics to measure against. Many PMs struggle with how to build a transparent and concise roadmap effective for any-sized organization. Having a clear vision is the first step to executing your way there.
What trends are emerging in your product space for 2017?
The industry is incredibly exciting with ride-sharing, car-sharing, peer-to-peer models and the emergence of autonomous vehicles. These trends focus around the collaborative consumption model and ways to integrate new technologies into fleets in fresh and interesting ways.
What’s the #1 way you would like to grow as a PM this upcoming year?
Being on the board of Boston Product Management Association—a co-founder of Boston Women in Product and co-creator of Agile Product Open—I want to leverage these communities (and more) to gain a greater knowledge of the agile and product management disciplines.
Read more Vanessa:
Title: Product Manager
Tweet to him: @MattBilotti
Fill in the blank: “2016 was the year of…”
Design becoming more important in the product cycle. This year design became more of a driving factor in the product development process in a way it wasn’t necessarily before.
You build a product for sales and customer success teams. How did you see your space differently this time last year?
It was still very focused on email. That’s where we were when we began building Drift. But then this concept of live chat and offline messaging with customers surfaced as really important. Companies started realizing:
- Offering these communication options helps connect better with customers, increases sales, keeps customers happy, etc.
- This concept doesn’t require massive human-time investments (i.e. somebody sitting there all day answering questions).
In 2016, what have you personally learned from your product space?
There are so many tools for this space that it teaches you to ask: What are we building that will get customers to stay with us without handcuffing them? I feel the tools that win in this space don’t lock customers to their product, but work cohesively with the customer’s other systems.
Looking ahead, what’s an emerging trend you see in this product space?
I think AI and machine learning will be exponentially prevalent. It’s all about who’s got the algorithms that can help things scale better and people work smarter.
What’s the one way you’d like to grow as a PM in 2017?
Since we try to be inherently flexible at Drift, we build a lot of early “step ones” and know that “step ten” is somewhere ahead. I’m really good at creating the “step one”, but I want to get better at working out the ultimate thing we’re building towards earlier on—so we can draw more of a straight line towards it.
Read more Matt:
- How to Handle Bugs, Backlog, Prioritization and Communication with the Burndown Framework
- What Pizza taught me about product
Title: Senior Product Manager
Tweet to her: @rosegrabowski
Complete the phrase: “2016 was the year of…”
Listening. 2016 continued to show me the more I listen (to customers, to stakeholders, to users), the more I understand their needs/wants and know the right things for us to work on.
What have you learned about building web and software products in the past year?
There seems to be this common misconception in the space around the origins of the MVP concept. The cliff-notes version of the concept centers around building the minimum product a customer can use. But creating a minimum product was originally intended to provide insights for what to build afterwards. By focusing on creating a cheaper product to start, you’re missing the unique potential of the concept.
Looking back on this time last year, how did you see your product space differently?
I used to think there was a “great” way to organize teams to build software, and it was probably agile—specifically scrum. I’m realizing many who claim to do agile/scrum awesomely actually experience the same significant challenges around the methodology. I’m now more skeptical that there’s a right team process, as opposed to, “Let’s just use this OK process, as long as it doesn’t get in our way.”
What product management trend are you excited to dive into in 2017?
Customer experience mapping. I’m currently working on a product with both software components and physical interaction aspects. I’m psyched to be thinking about the user experience more holistically, so I can affect more than just the software interaction.
What’s the one thing you’d like to evolve as a PM this year?
I want to not get bogged down in the day-to-day minutia. So much of that minutia is important, but I’m personally committed to ensuring that it doesn’t overwhelm my more strategic objectives.
Read more Rose:
Title: Product Owner
Tweet to him: @herbigt
Finish this sentence: “2016 was the year of…”
I have the impression that 2016 was the year of the design sprint. This book came out and basically everybody in the corporate sector was like, “Hey, design thinking was yesterday now we need to do design sprints!”
For me personally, it’s not that much about the doing design by the book, but more like, “Okay, let’s really get to the essence of the design sprint.” Cross-functional teams working and focused for 3 days in a row and doing user testing at the end of it.
Looking back on this time last year, how did you view product management in a different light than you do now?
Last year I saw more value in the operational things, such as running and maintaining a backlog and keeping developers up to date. And now I’m more in the mindset of, “I really want to take care of the bigger questions” and “Which problems should I solve and for which user group?”
Looking ahead, what product management trend are you excited to take the reigns on?
People are getting more used to the terminology of the product needing to fulfil the job. Also making the shift from user stories to job stories. The inventor of jobs to be done methodology, Clayton Christensen, wrote a new book this year, Competing Against Luck.
What about 2017—what’s the #1 way you personally want to evolve as a PM?
I personally want to get back into public speaking more. I used to do a lot of talks back in 2012 or so. I see a huge personal gain in helping others, leveraging others and spreading knowledge. This is why I write and do a podcast and newsletter.
Read more Tim: