During this Recess break, Sean shared how his product team adapted during COVID-19 and how they helped support their users during the transition from an office work environment to fully remote. He also shared his experience working across geographical areas on a product team, as well as some advice for product managers who one day want to become a product leader in their organization.
We had a great time talking with Sean and recommend watching the full talk but if you’re tight on time, we’ve pulled out some highlights below.
(The highlights have been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Overview of Igloo Software (4:41)
Amy: Can you give us a high-level overview of what Igloo does and how your role fits into the organization?
Sean: At Igloo, we’re the leading provider of digital workplace solutions. In fact, we were just named the leader in the Forrester Wave survey for internet platforms. Essentially, for those of you that aren’t familiar with digital workplaces, think of taking your old intranet platform, kind of an internal web page, very top-down, and turn that into more of a digital destination where users can share content, where they can collaborate. You can have various news channels. You really can build any type of solution that you want in order to meet the needs of your organization. In that, we also offer a number of different prebuilt solutions to let you solve common business challenges. Every organization has to onboard new employees, for example, so we offer an onboarding solution that lets you walk your employees through your first day, your first week, your first month, et cetera.
We also package our application in multiple different ways. If you just need one solution, you can go and purchase that solution. You can purchase a bundle of solutions. We recently introduced Zones, which allows departments to essentially build their own digital workplace tailored specifically to the needs of that department. Then of course, we have our full digital workplace solution that can handle multiple different departments and areas of your organization, and many different business cases and problems.
How COVID-19 affected their users (6:12)
Amy: How did COVID affect workplaces, and how have you seen the need for your tool to change due to COVID, and what has your product team done differently, if anything at all, to help support these users?
Sean: One of the advantages for us is that our product is designed to enable organizations where your employees may not be colocated. We deal with a lot of organizations today that are global. They’ve got offices around the world. We’ve dealt with organizations where the majority of their workforce works from home or is already remote. We have organizations that span multiple different time zones. Our product is designed to give that two-way communication, both top-down and bottom-up, as well as enabling collaboration across the platform. The business challenges that we solve are in areas like knowledge management, team collaboration, corporate comms and culture engagement.
The really interesting thing is — and I’ve heard this phrase used a bunch of times — we’re in the big work-from-home experiment right now. One of the great things for us at Igloo is we’ve gotten a lot of validation from our existing customers. The solution and the tool that we’re providing to them has been fulfilling the needs that they have in this time, with tons of feedback from our existing customers saying that they don’t know what they would have done without having Igloo as that central source of information, that trusted source of information during this time.
When you think about it, this is a rapidly changing situation. Things change on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis. You’ve got information coming from local, provincial or state organizations, from the federal government. How do you keep track of all that information in a way that you’re communicating it so that your employees know what your organizational standpoint is, what your newer policies are, what your future direction is? Igloo can do that capability, of keeping all of that information in one place and then linking out to those trusted sources of information at the same time.
How Igloo responded to COVID-19 and helped their users (8:08)
Amy: You mentioned in our pre-interview that your team actually turned around a solution bundle in six days, pretty quickly, I think, for a life cycle of a feature. What are some things your product team did to achieve this?
Sean: Yeah, so I have to say, I mean, it wasn’t just the product team. This was an organizational-wide effort. I would think, from our first brainstorming session, it was about six days, maybe seven days before we turned this around and had it out to customers.
What we started with was we obviously knew our tool and we knew the capabilities that we had in our product, so the first thing we started with was what elements of our solution are going to be the most critical for customers at this time, right? What do they absolutely need? We started there as a basis. What we ended up with was essentially a three-solution bundle that we felt would have really good traction with our existing customers, as well as people that aren’t already Igloo customers.
What we focused on was, first, leadership. We knew that executive leadership teams were going to have to make big decisions. They were going to have to communicate, and they’re going to have to do that without being in the boardroom, without being in the same office. We created a leadership center for those individuals to be able to converse and come up with the plan for the organization.
Then we realized that those plans are going to have to be operationalized. There’s going to be a team of people, your HR team, your facilities team, your finance team, your legal team, who are going to be implementing these decisions that the executive team is going to come up with. Those people need an area to be able to collaborate and work together.
Then finally, as I mentioned before, news, right, having the opportunity to give your CEO a voice and be able to address your entire employee community. Have the ability to communicate if your offices are closed, if they’re open, to people who need to go up and pick up new hardware, who need to grab supplies for their home office. Being able to provide updates to your entire organization made a newsroom an essential part of this.
From the first day that we really brainstormed on this, we started work. We had some people on the implementation side putting together some proof of concepts. We vetted those internally across the entire business. What do we think our existing customer is going to want? We pulled our sales team in and said, “Hey, from the customers you’re talking to externally, what do you think they’re going to want?”
I think we had this out by the next Wednesday, but during that time, we shifted to work-from-home. Not only did we get this out in six days, but we also enabled a shift to remote work for our entire organization, and we were still able to get this out to customers really quickly.
How Sean, as a leader, supports his product team (10:42)
Amy: As a leader, how do you help support your product team when time is like a time crunch, when before it may not necessarily happen before the pandemic? Maybe your roadmap is a longer time. Now it’s like, “Okay, we’ve really got to push this out.”
Sean: We’ve been pretty lucky, again. Because of the industry that we’re in, we’ve been able to continue to focus on our roadmap. The features that we’re releasing are all in line with enabling our customers to be able to work from home, to communicate, to collaborate.
One of the things that we’ve done as a team, though, we actually had a unique challenge. We’ve had two new employees on our team start since we’ve shifted to full-time work-from-home. There’s a couple of things that we enabled as general house rules when we went to work-from-home. One of those was always keep your video on, right? Unless you’re eating lunch, then we don’t need to see that, but having the team have that face-to-face opportunity has been really important for us.
We also do a daily social standup, so every morning, replicating that feeling of people coming into the office, getting to their seat, that little bit of social chit chat everyday where people talk about their day, their families, et cetera. We’ve tried to keep that going, even though we’ve been work-from-home. As a leader, that was really important to me, having new people joining our team, giving them an opportunity to interact with our other team members outside of the standard work conversations, so that they weren’t always in a Zoom talking about something business-oriented, but they had that opportunity to also make connections with other team members.
The other thing that obviously you have to juggle in these times is your technical architecture, making sure that your environments are all standing up, and ensuring that you’re balancing both your technical roadmap as well as your product roadmap at these times.
The role of UX designers at Igloo (13:37)
Amy: I was speaking to a PM, and she mentioned that she works really closely with UX researchers, because their company is big enough to have that role. She mentioned how important it is to have those surveys, have these people gather feedback for you. Does Igloo have that? Is that one of the roles of the UX designers?
Sean: We don’t currently have a dedicated UX researcher. We do have, though, our UX designers perform that role. They work very closely with our customer success team, with our support team, interacting with our technical sales consultants or technical account managers to understand how our existing customers are using the platform, as well as gaining feedback from prospects to understand what prospective customers are looking for in a digital workplace solution.
They’ve built relationships and a network throughout Igloo in order to be able to gather that information both internally, or set up a meeting with a customer if they’ve got a new design or wireframe that they want to walk through. We actually track customers that have a strong interest in particular areas, and we reach out to them on a regular basis to gather feedback.
Working on a geographically distributed team (14:46)
Amy: In your career, you’ve also worked with teams that are spread across different time zones, literally across the world. What were some of the challenges that you encountered, and how did you overcome them? Because I think it’s more common now, because a lot of teams are going either full remote, full distributed, whatever the term you like to use for that.
Sean: I wish I could say that I’ve overcome every one of those challenges. Unfortunately, that’s not always been the case, but there’s a few lessons that I’ve learned over time working with geographically distributed teams. Really, all of those challenges for me have always boiled down to communication, ensuring that you have that channel open, that you’re able to talk through an issue.
I mentioned before how we’ve been maintaining a social standup within my team. That comes directly from experience that I’ve had working with teams in the past, where the relationship is strictly business all the time. You join a call, you talk, you end the call. There’s no further interaction. There’s no bumping into someone in the hallway. There’s no further conversation. I’ve just always found in my career that, when I have the opportunity to build that relationship beyond the thing that we’re working on, it always helps me later on when a problem comes up to have that conversation. In the past, I’ve booked flights and I’ve traveled to our headquarters or traveled to another office in order to have an opportunity to spend some time face to face with people.
One thing I would recommend, whenever you have the opportunity — obviously in these times it’s very difficult to find your way to a remote location — but whenever possible, if you’re kicking off work with a new team or on a new project, it’s great to have that opportunity to meet face to face, have a little bit of social time and get things off on the right foot.
Qualities that make a good product manager (16:59)
Amy: Because you don’t learn product management at school, it’s typically not given as a class or it’s not a topic they teach, what are some qualities you think that make a good product manager?
Sean: You’re right. When I was in school, I don’t think I ever heard the words product manager at any point. When I was at Motorola, we were working on, again, network infrastructure. There was no PM that was helping guide. We were looking at standards documents and trying to adhere to those. It wasn’t until really I started making the shift that I started understanding what a product manager is and what we’re responsible for doing.
I think one of the things that’s — again, I’ve gone back to communication quite a few times — but as a product manager, you need to be able to communicate your vision. You need to be able to communicate where you’re going. You need to be able to describe, to the teams that you’re working with, the why. That question comes up all the time.
There’s never an exact science to product management. If it was just an algorithm, it’d be really, really easy, but you’re taking and aggregating information from a number of different sources. Being able to communicate to others and explain to them why this thing is prioritized above this other thing, and making compromises on that prioritization and the order in which you’re going to do work, I think is key. For me, it really comes down to communication, it comes down to vision, and it comes down to compromise and negotiation.
Developing your PM intuition (18:33)
Amy: I often hear that PMs need to have this intuition for vision and have this visionary perspective for their team. How do you develop this intuition?
Sean: Well, I think it depends on the nature of the organization that you’re working at, and what stage in the life cycle of your product you’re at. A very early startup, that inspiration, that vision, that intuition, is critical, because you don’t have a lot of information to base your decisions on. I think as an organization matures, that’s still really important. There’s got to be those moments when you’re creating something that maybe your customers didn’t know they needed yet, to paraphrase an old Apple quote. I think it’s really important for us to also make sure that we’re looking at the data and that we’re understanding how our customers are using our existing products, what they’re doing with it, where their needs are.
For us as an organization today, it’s really important for us to have those relationships with our customers, to be able to talk through our vision and our strategy as we move forward. We talk a lot to analysts, and have a lot of conversations around the market and where that stands. Then we talk internally, because we know as a product team that we don’t have insight into every piece of information that’s out there and every perspective that’s out there. For us, it’s really important to make sure that we’re pulling that information from, again, our sales, customer success or customer support teams. Those individuals all have valuable insights into what our customers are looking for.
Again, it’s really important for us to make sure that we’re evolving not just the set of features that we have in the platform but the technologies that we’re using on the back end, to ensure that we can continue to innovate in a timely manner as we move forward, working closely with our engineering teams to make sure that we’re building the right new technologies and selecting the right technologies in our platform to grow the product in the future.
Audience Q&A period
(22:25) I’m curious if you and your team uncovered any surprising insights about working remotely that you think will affect the way we as a culture will view working remotely moving forward.
(23:48) How do you validate product ideas at an early stage? Do you always need to have domain knowledge to do it?
(24:56) What is one really nugget piece of advice that you’d give to a PM who eventually wants to become a product leader in their organization?
(26:35) What are some of your interests that are completely non-tech related?
As the VP, Product Strategy, Sean Duffy advocates for customers throughout the planning, design, and development cycle at Igloo Software. Leading a team of product managers and UX Designers, Sean applies his extensive experience in enterprise software to the development of Igloo’s product vision and strategic roadmap, collaborating across the business to evolve Igloo’s market leading digital workplace solution.
He has been practicing Agile Development for more than 10 years as both a product manager and software engineer. In every release cycle, Sean strives to deliver exceptional value and quality to customers. Prior to joining Igloo Software, Sean has spent 17 years developing enterprise software in diverse roles, including product management, software engineering, and quality assurance.
Amy’s a Content Marketing Specialist at Roadmunk on the Marketing team. She produces Recess, the Product to Product podcast and video content. Prior to Roadmunk, Amy worked as a journalist in various Canadian newsrooms and wrote for publications like NBC, CBC, Vice and more.