Product to Product: Atlassian’s Evan Michner on why PMs need to be great writers

Product to Product - Evan Michner

Welcome to our third episode of Product to Producta podcast for / by product people.

Listen to the episode below:

In this episode we have Evan Michner, Principal Product Manager at Atlassian—specifically for their chat tools, Stride and HipChat. Evan is one of those product managers who, as he describes it, stumbled into product. He went to school for creative writing and started his career in ad copywriting. After a few years of feeling meh about copywriting, he got invited to do “product-y stuff” for a new startup. Despite not fully understanding what that meant, he said, “Sure, why not?” and his career as a PM launched from there.

My colleague Eleni, who’s also a former-writer, was curious about Evan’s transition from writing flashy headlines to working in product at a massive tech company. But more specifically, how he applies his creative background and writing skills in his day-to-day at Atlassian.

With such a need for product managers to be ‘world-class communicators,’ Eleni and Evan’s chat makes the case for why writing isn’t just a nice-to-have soft skill for PMs, but a necessary tool for them. Plus: Evan’s experiences offer some concrete ways for PMs to keep scratching any creative itches they may experience.

The episode can be listened to above, and we’ve also included a transcript below. You can subscribe to Product to Product on iTunes (here) and Google Play (here), or get the latest episodes delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.

Eleni: Hey Evan, thanks so much for doing this with us. I’m really looking forward to chatting with you today.

Evan: My pleasure—thanks for having me.

Eleni: One of the reasons I’m so much looking forward to this conversation is because I myself did the transition from being a writer into marketing—which I feel like is a very common transition. Going from writing into product, however, not so much. How did that happen? 

Evan: The more that I’ve been in product the more I’m realizing almost every product manager kind of falls into product management. You rarely learn about it in school or college or university. For me, I studied creative writing in college. Political rhetoric, poetry, fiction, all sorts of stuff and ended up my senior year kind of focusing on copywriting for advertising—which was not exactly in line with what my fellow creative writing majors were pursuing. I really felt like I enjoyed copywriting so I ended up working in ad agencies and focusing on headlines and body copy and how do you talk to people and all that kind of stuff.

I ended up moving to Austin, was tapped on the shoulder and invited into a really small group when they were building a new business and they needed someone do “product-y stuff” and I said, “Well, I’ve never done that I’m not sure how creative writing can apply to that, but I’m happy to give it a shot.”

So 10 or 12 years later, I guess it stuck. The fascinating part is I think it took me a while to figure out how creative writing actually helps you in product or marketing or any other field really. For a long time, I felt like it was unrelated and I’m just now realizing it’s very related. There’s a huge overlap.

Eleni: So when you were first introduced to product were you literally like, “I don’t know what this is, but I’ll give it a go?”

Evan: Yeah, literally! I sat down with one of the designers and this is one of those conversations that I’ll never forget because it was so pivotal for me in my career. I remember sitting down with the designer at the time saying, please tell me what the difference is between a graphic designer and a software developer.

Eleni: One thing I’m interested in, as someone who studied creative writing and has a creative background, people who choose to pursue that type of field usually have some kind of creative drive and desire to have creativity be part of their day-to-day. I’m wondering how product management scratches that creative itch for you?

Evan: Well, I actually go back to advertising, which is the first thing I thought I wanted to take a stab at, and being in advertising just for a short year or two, I realized this wasn’t actually as creative as I expected. I think my expectations were very different than reality. You know pitching clients, and getting deals, and doing all that stuff which is critical to the business of an ad agency, wasn’t quite what I expected.

"That creative process of how you tell a story, literally is product management."

And at the same time, I will say that I also realized I wasn’t really going to be the best copywriter. I felt like I was okay at it but I could see other people’s work and I felt like I wasn’t great at flashy headlines or just really out of the box crazy stuff, which is part of the reason I was so open to trying something different.

I think before creativity, or maybe paired with creativity, is just the core concept of thinking. Like how you frame up a problem. When you’re writing a short story or a headline or something, you’re trying to think who would be reading this and why am I even doing this? Where do I want to end up? That creative process of how you tell a story, literally is product management. That’s literally what a product manager does is try to figure out how to get from A to B, tell a good story and understand who you’re talking to, selling to and solving problems for.

Eleni: A lot of the writing that product managers do might be in context that we don’t consider writing—like a Slack message or slide deck. You can consider that writing in a product context. I want to know from your perspective: what is writing for a product manager?

Evan: Everything. And I think writing is part of communication for a product manager. Because the other part is standing up and talking to the team. When you kick a project off, for instance, if you think about a product manager’s job you’ve figured out the problem you’re trying to solve. You know the basic measures of success, you know how long you think you’re going to work on it until maybe you ship it.

You’ve got some of the basics in place and it’s time to sit down with the team. And your whole goal is to show up as a product manager in that instant and make sure that you can look the team in the eye, communicate with them about what problem you’re trying to solve, why you’re trying to solve that, how it relates to the business, how it delivers the value back to the business and then how you’re going to succeed. What are you measuring here? And you’ve got all of that written out because people digest information differently. You want to be able to have that conversation with the team. Then you want the team to be able to go back later that day or that night as they’re thinking about it and reread everything you just said—maybe just slightly differently in written form. And they should be able to walk away with a clear understanding of what their purpose is. Over that next couple of days or months or whatever that is, as you work towards solving that problem.

When you think about how a product manager can fail they can fail a lot of different ways. But the one that seems to be the most common is just really simple things like communication. If a software developer can’t articulate why they’re working on what they’re working on, you figure out why. What information was lacking in that kickoff that you’ve reached a point where your team isn’t quite sure how they can chase the bug they’re fixing (for instance, on the most micro level)? As a product manager, you should be able to communicate the why behind things.

Eleni: So do you think developing writing as a skill is a bit of a stopgap against these moments of failure? Is it a protection thing?

Evan: Probably, to some extent. I think it’s also something you can exercise. You can get better at it. You can get feedback on it and ask your team. At Atlassian, we do something called health monitors. It’s not rocket science; it’s sit your team down and figure out what are we doing well at and what are we not doing well at. And often times what comes up in health monitors is we’re three weeks into this thing and I forgot why we’re doing it.

"As a product manager, you should be able to communicate the why behind things."

And you’re like that’s an easy problem to solve in the grand scheme of things. And often that comes back to I didn’t have the documentation, or it wasn’t clear, or I lost the page where we were tracking our success metrics. So as a product manager you’re thinking, how can we make sure to not do this again? I want a single page system your team’s using. I want a single place for someone to go and digest whatever problem we’re solving and why are we doing that really, really quickly.

Eleni: Right. I’d love to get into some of these specifics. Can you tell me about maybe two or three concrete ways that you use writing in your role at Atlassian? Whether, it’s a document that you create or process you put in place. 

Evan: One example is we use OKRs. So objectives and key results. On the surface, it’s actually a really simple way to get a shared understanding around what are we supposed to be doing over the next quarter or two. If you’ve ever written an OKR, it’s some of the hardest writing you have to do, Because it’s constrained and very structured; it’s supposed to guide you and see around the corner to some extent, which is a really, really hard thing to do.

So when you think about all the different forms of writing from advertising and copywriting, to poetry, to political writing, writing an OKR is right at the top of hard things to do. Writing an objective for a team to understand and digest really quickly is hard. And then trying to crystallize simple metrics of success as key results is really, really hard. Because you’re maybe not sure if you can measure those things or what if this is the wrong thing? What if this is too broad or too narrow? And you need to fit it in a sentence or two; really short and succinct.

Eleni: So how do you make sure that it’s crystallized and clear and that your team will get what they need out of it?

Evan: I tend to personally treat it like a feature release. Where you’re going through dogfooding and maybe there’s an alpha and beta and then finally you start rolling it out to the world. That’s what I tend to do with writing. You have a small group of folks that you show and say, “Okay, does this make sense? Can you repeat this back to me? Would you know what to do if you read this?” So user testing to some extent.

"If you’ve ever written an OKR, it’s some of the hardest writing you have to do."

And I will say that at Atlassian, in particular, we operate in a very, very open environment. You have people all over the world giving you feedback on whether this thing makes sense, or arguing through problems, or is this the right metric of success. If you can learn to harness that and use it for good, which almost everyone has here, it’s a fantastic weapon or tool to have in your tool belt because it is dogfooding software to some extent. Here’s this document or an OKR, do you understand what this means? And that takes five minutes. It’s not a huge investment and then you iterate through that and make sure it makes sense before you really sit down and go public so to speak with what your team is responsible for. What they’re signing up for, for the next two or three quarters.

Eleni: Do you have a template that you follow for that OKR?

Evan: Yeah, so we use templates for OKRs. We use templates for almost everything. We have something we call project poster here. And it’s a really basic, what problem are you solving? Why? How does this deliver value to the business? And how do you know if this is good or bad? How do you know if this succeeded?

So we use template for OKRs. We use templates for project posters. We have a whole playbook here at Atlassian that lets teams self-manage their way through problems from brainstorming to health monitors. All this kind of stuff, which is a blessing for a product manager. You have enough problems going on and just to pull out a play on aligning around a shared understanding. You know every couple weeks as you’re in this multi-month project for instance, how are we doing? Do we know what we’re doing? Has our goal changed? Just some communication tactics like that.

Eleni: It’s so funny how those questions that you think would be completely a given and known to everyone so often just really are not. Like what are we doing?

Evan: I agree and part of when you watch a product manager go through a project, feature or problem, what you can often forget is how long he or she has been thinking about that problem relative to the rest of the team. We take that for granted. How many times have you shown up as a product manager and sat down with a team and everyone’s ready to go and you leave the room and everyone goes, “Wait, what are we doing?”

As the product manager, you’ve been doing research and talking to users and lining up your documents and doing design and prototyping, while everyone else has been thinking about something else in some cases.

Eleni: How does writing help product managers give people that context? Like taking it all the way back to the beginnings of their thought processes? Is that part of the role of writing for you?

Evan: I believe it is and I would say, personally, writing it out helps me make sure that I’m thinking about it in the right way. It’s a self-test of does this actually make sense? It’s an elevator pitch, right? Can you write an elevator pitch for this yet? Can you repeat it back to someone in 15 seconds or less? And walk away with a basic understanding of what it is.

"What is that one sentence that can immediately create this magical shared understanding?"

For me, just the fact of trying to sit down and articulate why you’re trying to solve this thing is the first step in making sure you’re actually solving the right thing. And second of all can you communicate that to the team? Can someone else digest this? Does this make sense? Is this the source of truth? Will we update this? Does the writing make sense? When you think about reading an article in a magazine you kind of have an introduction, you have the middle, and you’re in the suspenseful middle part and then you end with this conclusion. Does your product document read like that?

Eleni: Right, that’s a really cool analogy. Do you think that a lot of product managers pay attention to writing and why or why not? Do a lot of product people think of this as a standalone skill that they need to develop or do you think it’s just not on product managers’ radars?

Evan: I think it depends. As you know product managers come from such a diverse number of backgrounds, which is the goal. It’s not let’s bring more people in who know how to write well or have degrees in liberal arts or even computer science. It’s when you mix all those various people together you end up, ideally, with a better problem, a clearly defined problem and a better solution ultimately for the business.

In our case, I think that we end up probably spending maybe more time than most product teams on written communication, primarily because A) we have a number of folks who have backgrounds in communications of some sort, but B) because our teams are all over the world. You can’t just depend on sitting down in the hallway and getting your story straight and off you go. So probably more so than the average team I think.

Eleni: Since you mentioned your degree again, copywriting/creative writing is all about being creative and clever. I’m curious to know as you transition into product, how did you adapt your writing style to product management. But also, when you’re writing now on the job how does that creative and clever side come out? How is it advantageous to you now?

Evan: I do a lot of presenting. Speaking out loud, whether that’s as small as a team kick-off or we have town halls. Learning to write for that actually has been another pretty fascinating exercise in constrained creativity to some extent. When you stand up and talk for 20 minutes, most folks are hardly going to remember much of it. As a speaker, you want to believe that they’re going to remember every single word that you wept over and put energy into. In reality, they probably don’t, which is the same as a written document or a blog post you write.

As a product manager, you think about how can I make sure that if they read nothing else, if they can only walk away with one thing what is that one thing that I want everyone to understand. What is that one sentence that can immediately create this magical shared understanding? And build this compass for the team? I think there’s this really fascinating intersection with public speaking.

Eleni: How do you get people to remember that one thing?

Evan: Well, one tactic is saying it over and over again until you’re sick of it yourself maybe. Often when you think about why you would ask that question, it’s either because we didn’t say it enough times or maybe you need to say it in a different way? When you think about just any communication you have today, just mirroring back. “What I heard you say is this? Is that right?”

Just basic mirroring back and repeating. Maybe using different words. When you think about a team or even just a triad—a product manager, a designer and an engineer—at the core of what a team is for the most part (and that’s before you even start layering in the marketing and press and support everyone else), every one of those people receive information differently. There are people there who really need just written.

Eleni: That’s a really interesting point. Can you break that down for us a little bit more? How do you write specifically, but communication more broadly to those different departments like marketing, engineering, sales? Just explain to us the different approaches you take to each of the key departments that you work with?

Evan: Yeah, I’ll give you a couple of examples. The first one is when you think about just the core, basic writing is a requirement, whether it’s a document or Jira tickets or whatever that is for a product manager. Typically the vision you have in your head is: product manager comes up with thing, tells team, product manager sits down, writes stories, requirements, team does those things. In reality that may be one way to do it.It’s probably not the healthiest.

"Some of the best teams have figured out how to harness that volume of conversation for good. "

So one of the things we adopted on our team is co-authoring those stories. That’s really speaking to the strength and diversity of a team. The product manager, designer, engineer, each one is looking at that problem through a different lens and that’s a good thing. I think for a long time, product managers wanted it to be, “I’ll handle the requirements, but you write code or the prototypes or the mock ups.” That’s not a very efficient or healthy way to do anything and often times, the team probably doesn’t want to work with you anymore because they don’t feel like they’re part of the problem.

One of the exercises we’ve adopted is co-authoring stories. For instance, that kick-off that we talked about, product managers showing up with what we call a project poster, which is at its core, “What problem are you solving? Why are you doing it and how do you know if you succeed?” And what happens is the team evolves towards the actual solution together, which is A) much healthier and B) requires that you have designers and developers and marketers and support people, who are holistically thinking about the same problem, which means bringing in everyone earlier. Everyone’s willing to do that more well-rounded problem-solving, rather than just sitting down and banging out mock ups or something like that.

Eleni: You work on communication apps. What have you learned from your own users about what makes good communication and good written communication?

Evan: I’ve been working on communication-related products here at Atlassian for a little over three and a half years. The one theme that’s really started to emerge for me is we talk a lot. We end up writing a lot of words to the point where you think, “Did we do this before we had these tools?” I don’t see people getting distracted all day in the hallway talking about the football game, but for some reason we feel like that’s okay to do in chat, for instance.

We’ve taken that idea and said, “You can apply it.” There’s a lot of different applications. One to product management. One to just how we develop tools and products. But the key theme for me is talk in and of itself doesn’t really solve problems. It’s not actual work. It’s not helping you actually solve that thing. It could be an input to that solution, but it’s not actually doing anything until you say, “We have a decision,” or we have some sort of output out of this conversation and the team can take that away and actually do it.

Chat is a great example when you think about a team working on a problem. In a month or two into this project and everyone feels like it’s going well. Chat does a number of things like being able to let team members communicate quickly. You can imagine trying to write an email for every technical problem you run into. You’d never get anything done, so it’s fantastic in that regard. Some of the best teams have figured out how to harness that volume of conversation for good. They understand how much you really want to put into that tool to get something out of it.

"Bad writing for product managers could be overly prescriptive."

Ultimately as a company, that’s one of our main takeaways. People need more than conversations. They need a decision or they need to be able to track this work or move out of this into the thing that you’re actually there to do. That’s where your work is. As a product manager, you can apply that in the same regard. 

Eleni: I feel this ties back to what you were talking about before about concise creativity. Yes, you chat in volume all day long, but when it comes down to it, there is something to concision through fostering alignment with your team and making projects move forward.

Evan: Yeah, exactly.

Eleni: Good writing for product managers is obviously different than what it would be for a journalist or a novelist or an advertiser. What are the ingredients of good writing for a product manager? What would be bad writing for a product manager?

Evan: Well, first I think it’s making sure that you actually know what you’re writing about. Maybe that goes without saying, but it’s amazing the number of documents or user stories, where you get into it and you go, “What am I doing here? Why are we doing this again? I don’t feel like I’m communicating this well.” Go through that effort and exercise first to make sure that whatever that artifact is that you’re writing will make sense. Like I said, I do that in iterations, rolling it through dog-fooding and A/B testing and making sure someone can repeat it back to me the way that I hear it in my head.

Eleni: What about bad writing? What’s a no-no for a product manager?

Evan: Going back to that project poster, project-kickoff moment in time, bad writing is we’re building a solution with React. Thanks, you’ve completely missed the overarching problem and you’ve told the people who know far much more than you do typically, what technology we’re using. Bad writing for product managers could be overly prescriptive. We’re edging towards prematurely architecting the solution when you need the team to help you do that. You need to do that together. That’s probably maybe the most egregious example, is overly prescriptive solution-oriented writing.

Eleni: A lot of product managers have the opposite background to you. They start super technical and then they move into product. What’s your number one tip for someone in that situation for how they can develop their writing skills?

Evan: Well, I would try and make it a project. Set an OKR for yourself, for instance. My objective is to become a better writer by the end of the calendar year, whatever that is. (That’s probably a poorly written goal or objective.) I want my team to be able to feel like they have clear direction. Maybe that’s the objective and your key results is maybe it’s you asking your team at the end of the year, “Do you feel like my writing has improved? Do you feel you could walk away with a clear understanding of where we’re going? Could you do your work better and faster?” That’s a lot of what I do is walk around and talk to our teams and say, “Do you know what you’re doing and why?” So that could be a key result, for instance. Write an OKR for yourself, make it a goal. If you don’t write it down it may not happen.

Eleni: Evan, thanks so much for chatting with us. This was really fun! 

Evan: Thank you so much for having me—appreciate it!


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Author
tarif

Tarif Rahman

Tarif is the Digital Content Specialist at Roadmunk. He's got a penchant for storytelling, enjoys bringing creativity to the tech world, and has an aversion to Netflix (don't judge).