2020 has been a year like no other. With the end to an unforgettable year now in sight, we spoke to some noted product leaders about their experiences over the last 12 months and what the extraordinary events of 2020 have taught them about their craft.
This is what they told us:
“Stick to your guns.”
I’ve often repeated the Jeff Bezos quote “be stubborn on vision; flexible on details
” to echo my belief in the importance of setting a great vision and sticking with it while acknowledging that how you achieve that vision will change over time. I believed it - but 2020 really drove that lesson home. When the pandemic swept the world our cashflow dried up literally overnight and we faced the imminent collapse of our business. As we took stock on how to survive it was our mission that pulled us through, united the team behind a common cause, and gave us the direction we needed. As a result, while we have completely pivoted our business this year - not a single one of our current revenue lines even existed in February - we’re still holding true to that same mission.
Adam D'arcy, VP Product, GoPay Consumer Platform
“Even in the darkest times, if you look hard there may still be unexpected ideas that can delight your customers.”
We built GoPay's social payment product this year that was based on hang out use cases, but just before launch last month, Indonesia went on lockdown! We had almost resigned to postponing launch to next year when we had one last meeting to see if there might still be an angle - even in all this mess. After taking a pulse of the market we realised just how sick everyone is of this pandemic especially on not being able to connect with their friends and family. So we launched anyway with a campaign called #2021wishes
where people could send a token amount to a friend and share a feed post on what they hoped to do together in 2021. The campaign was really well received and we managed to launch our product successfully despite the situation.
Thor Mitchell, Head of Platform Product, Miro
“Office spaces must change and become places where people want to work.”
I began working from home last year as a coach and consultant, so the transition into lockdown wasn't too challenging. In August I accepted a new full time role, and for the first time onboarded entirely remotely, and started working from home as part of a larger team. I've learned, to my relief, that I can work effectively in this way. I can sustain a routine, stay focused, and build good working relationships. I've also learned that I wouldn't want this to become permanent. Yes, I miss working in an office.
I've been incredibly fortunate to work for companies who invest heavily in creating office environments that are inspiring, collaborative, and enjoyable. Places where amazing people come together to achieve great things. Moving between offices has taken me around the world, to live in London, Sydney, and San Francisco. I would hate for the next generation of product people to miss out on these opportunities. So my hope is not that the pandemic causes companies to abandon offices entirely. My hope is that bringing teams together is recognised as valuable, but that the bar is now much higher for these spaces. No longer can employees be expected to tolerate drab cubicle farms, or noisy open plan atriums. To retain good people, offices will need to be places that people want to work in. Places that have been designed to enable and support productive, healthy, and happy teams.
Alicia Dixon, Senior Product Manager, Apartment List
“Don’t make assumptions about your skill set, no matter how experienced you are.”
I started 2020 as a senior product manager at Hilton. First I was furloughed and then laid off as a result of the pandemic. My time at Hilton was awesome and I loved being there, but being honest, we operated as a “feature factory”. That was something I wanted to get away from in the next phase in my career. So I sought out a product-led company, and I’m now working as senior product manager at Apartment List, a much smaller company. I went from working at a $10-billion household name to a company that's just hitting profitability. I made the mistake of thinking that my years of product experience more than prepared me, so the transition would be a breeze and the work would be a cake walk.
People who know me know that I’m passionate about continually learning and expanding my product knowledge. I’ve read the books, taken the classes and passed the certifications. So it is likely surprising for me to say this, but I wasn’t where I needed to be. It turns out that while the core tenets of product are the same, the skills and competencies you need to be successful at a product-led company are different from those you use at a feature-factory. I thought I had all the theoretical knowledge and that I could just adapt, but doing the work in practice is a different thing. The way I have to think and process information is different; and I’m still making my way through the adjustment, moving from building features to creating a user-centric strategy. While the change didn’t come right away I am completely open and receptive to change.
“Connect with your users on an emotional level.”
When we build technology products we want them to scale and we want to create something that works for everyone. But lockdown has had a huge emotional drain on lots of people and we don't know what's going on in their heads, so we need to build products that recognise this and have some humanity in them. This has been a real focus for us this year, and I would urge everyone to think about it, even in terms of small things like the automated emails you send and the way your website is written.
My other observation is that people have become angrier in 2020 - quicker to judge and jump to conclusions, and it can get very personal. You have to be more resilient, and remember that people can have lots going on in the background that you don’t know about.
Kathy Pham, Computer Scientist and Product Leader, Mozilla and Harvard
“We need strong product management, which encompasses ethical and social considerations.”
This year has really highlighted how important really good product leaders and product managers are, and just how good they have to be. It’s the product role that determines the vision, the features, how to bring user voices to the table, how to understand roadmaps - and all those things have been so critical this past year.
We have to think through the breadth of influence that tech products now have. This year we’ve seen the role that technology has played in the pandemic, the racial justice movement, and the US election to name just three - so our work is really critical, and product managers have so much influence over what makes it out the door. How do we produce ethical and responsible tech products?
But while a product vision is critical, so is the ability to take the vision and break it down into actionable pieces. From the way that the product managers at Zoom responded so quickly to user needs at the start of the pandemic
, to what kinds of technologies governments should build or buy in response to the pandemic and the ethical and responsible considerations that go with that, this is what good product managers succeed at.
Emily Tate, Managing Director, Mind the Product
"Be intentional with relationships."
One of the biggest challenges with full-remote working is the inability to see
people on a regular basis. I know we see people in Zoom calls, but we miss the daily micro-interactions that let you know when someone isn't okay. It could be small things - the look on someone's face that indicates they're struggling with some data analysis, so you can offer help. Or it could be big - seeing that a teammate is truly down, allowing you to give them some extra grace and offer your support. Regardless, many of the cues you can spot with extended in-person interaction are easy to miss when you're spending a lot of time communicating via text and in limited, focused video calls. Make time to intentionally check in with your team on a personal level. The more you invest in these relationships, the better you'll be able to gauge the health of your team.
Adam Thomas, Freelance Product Leader
“We need an apprenticeship model for Product."
In a year where the job market has been very volatile and difficult for so many people, product managers are still being hired in huge numbers. But hiring managers often don’t understand what they need from a product person, so the people they bring in aren’t skilled enough to carve out the product discipline for the business, and it ends up in a mess. I believe that every new product manager should shadow someone senior for at least the first six months of their job - it’s the most effective way I've seen for people to understand what the job of Product is.
Some smarter businesses are beginning to recognise this and are launching fellowship programs - Aha.io is one
- so that people can properly learn what being a product manager entails. My hope for next year is that this idea takes off and we start to see the apprenticeship model really move through product. Product people need someone to train them rather than to be left to learn from a Medium article or a Steve Jobs video. Many of the competencies I see that product managers lack, like the ability to gauge what frightens stakeholders or an understanding of how to measure and mitigate risk, come from this absence of training. Apprenticeship is about more than just investment for the product discipline, it will be a differentiator for businesses.
Kristen Berman, Co-founder, Irrational Labs
“Social coordination is the game-changer.”
In 2018, business-travel spending exceeded $1.4 trillion - and the pandemic erased almost all of it in favour of video meetings. Amazon specifically announced savings of $1 billion in employee travel expenses this year
. And, the smart money says it’s not all coming back. Less business travel makes business sense. Why did it take a pandemic for companies to realise they were overspending on flights?
Companies needed to make the move to video meetings at the same time. If one company went solo, they would feel at a disadvantage to others. Cutting employee travel would mean their people missed important conferences. Saying no to in-person sales or fundraising calls would feel like a slight to the client. Making the leap to video calls was not something one company could do alone - it needed to be a coordinated leap across all companies.
This is not the only example of a shift in behaviour requiring social coordination. Working remotely was not something you could ask your employer to do without feeling some nervousness. Now, it is an accepted practice.
Norms are changing. People are working out in different ways, cooking in different ways, making friends and lovers in different ways. Social coordination opens up new markets by opening up new customer demand. In 2021, product managers and designers will need to ask the question: how has social coordination changed the game - or, more appropriately, changed the norm?
Rosemary King, Incoming Director of Product Management, Receipt Bank
“Have a big vision but always know how to break it down. Plan for all eventualities.”
If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that we need to both act for tomorrow and plan for next year - and we have to stay really flexible.
I’ve been working with a cashflow forecasting startup called Float for the past six months. We’ve been working on our customer niches and how we should best serve them. We have to be sure that we can start delivering value as quickly as possible, but also create a plan that carries us into 2021. There are so many different directions we could go in. In the near term we want to improve the customer experience and educate our customers, but we’re also looking at building out really complicated features that can change how people do their work a year from now.
2020 has really shown us the importance of thinking about best-case and worst-case scenarios, you’ve had to do it or not survive. You have to create a couple of scenarios for what the future could look like and be able to break them down so that you also deliver value for your company in the short term.