Paving the Cow Path and Other Stories by Simon Cross

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Facebook product manager Simon Cross chose to talk what has influenced his theories of product management at this year’s London #mtpcon, giving the audience some constructive advice and leaving them with some food for thought. Cross has spent most of his six years with the company working on developer products and is currently working on Facebook at Work. “I’m pretty sure I’m a terrible product manager,” he joked, “at least I used to be – and I’ve spent most days in the past six years thinking about how I can be better.”

“This craft of ours is hard and misunderstood – often by us as well as our peers – so I’ve had to work hard to build my own mental model of what it is we do, and how I can help teams succeed in building things that people love.” In what proved to be a recurring theme of the conference, Cross said that stories product managers tell each other have had the most impact on honing his craft. The stories “of successes and failures, of surprises, the leftfield things we find, the personalities that we encounter”.

simon-cross-at-mind-the-product-stage

The Hacker

In 2009 Facebook moved into offices in 1601 California Avenue, Palo Alto. The building was open plan, though some teams had their own rooms. The games team had a room which seated six people, but the company was growing and the team soon grew to eight, so two different staffers would work from home every day. Eventually, to everyone’s surprise, the team chose to build a games loft – a mezzanine platform in the room – over the course of a weekend, to accommodate the extra staff.

As Cross says, this may be nothing to do with product management but it’s a great lesson in solving problems with unexpected solutions, and reminds us that the obvious approach isn’t always the right path to take. Note that the games team did not ask anyone’s permission: apparently the word hack is so important to Facebook’s company and product culture that it is set into the concrete outside its Menlo Park headquarters.

The Cow Path Paver

When product managers “pave the cow path” they look at people’s behaviour and build their products around it. And you would be hard-pressed to find a better example of this than photos in Facebook.

Eleven years ago Facebook found that people were changing profile pictures five, 10, even 20 times a day – they were using their profile pics to tell stories and share photos. It was clear that Facebook needed to develop a product to help users share their photos, says Cross, and a Photos team was formed.

The team was small and it faced huge competitors, Flickr, Snapfish, and so on, all with products and features which Facebook could not hope to emulate. So the photos team came up with the one feature it could build – tagging – because Facebook realised that “people are the most important things in most people’s photos”. Within a few years Facebook had more photos than the other top 10 photo services combined.

The lesson here for Cross is that every development in the Facebook photos product can be linked to that moment in 2005 when the team saw how people were using the photos: “Instead of trying to change people’s behaviour, they codified it.”

The Influencer

Product managers have no power and this “forces us to sharpen our ideas and argument. Everything we get done is done through influence” asserts Cross.

Cross related a story about Sam Lessin, former VP of product management at Facebook. In 2010 Lessin printed out his Facebook profile – it was 15m long – because he recognised that the idea that you could see the story of someone’s life was very powerful. Lessin would take copies of his profile print-out to meeting, he put it on the wall of the engineering office so that when the team came into work they would walk past his profile: it meant they saw the problem and understood what they had to do. The first version of the product, Memories, shipped late 2010, and it’s now known as Timeline.

The question product managers must ask themselves then, says Cross, is “how can I influence my team to understand the value of what we’re doing and why it matters?”.

The Expectation Setter

Cross used the development of Messenger to illustrate the importance of a product meeting or exceeding expectations.
Messenger is one of Facebook’s most successful products, used by over a billion people every month. Its first version shipped in August 2011 and didn’t have the growth curve that the company had expected, according to Cross. The Messenger team uses a framework of “understand, identify, execute” to make sure they are working on the right things, and this proved fundamental to putting the product on the path to a billion users a month.

The team found that if people didn’t get a reply straight away they wouldn’t use Messenger again. Why? Because users were messaging from a phone their expectation of the product was based on SMS, and they were expecting their phone to buzz immediately. But Messenger is also a universal messaging app, allowing you to contact anyone on Facebook, so some would get the message as an email, or only when they were online. In short, expectations about how the product should work didn’t match reality. It was an elegant and simple solution to introduce the lightning bolt, a tiny change which tells you that the person on the other end has Messenger and you can expect them to reply pretty quickly.

The lesson here, says Cross, is a simple one: is your product meeting expectations? If it’s not people will churn.

Simon Cross at Mind the Product

Takeaways

So what is Cross’ advice for product managers? What does he keep thinking about to make himself a better PM?

What’s your “tagging”? What’s the feature that takes you round the competition?

Pave the cow paths. You don’t have to change people’s behaviour, you can codify it.

Print out your profile. How are you able to influence your team?

Understand. Identify. Execute. What’s the goal, why does it matter? What are the right levers? How do you execute perfectly?

His final piece of advice is that we should all read more, and read more broadly than we ever thought possible: “Read books about people – because they’re who you work with and who you’re building for.”

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