In this ProductTank Melbourne talk, John Cutler, Senior Director of Product Enablement at Toast, sits down to answer audience questions and give his advice on product career trajectories and some overall product career tips.
Watch the talk in full, or read on for an overview of the key points
John begins his talk by highlighting how the majority of product advice comes out of Silicon Valley. This means it is often out of context and not applicable to the rest of the product world. In response to this, John outlines how his talk aims to share what he has observed.
The transition from design to product management
The first question is about how to make the transition from design to product management. John says you “have to understand the why of the business” by creating options for features and exploring the business context of product. When focusing on the learning loop, as John says you should do, you should be consistently asking yourself questions such as:
- What was the strategy?
- Why prioritise?
- What was the outcome?
- What did you learn?
By exploring this product loop, you will both build your skills as a product manager as well as set yourself up for a future role if you choose to leave your company.
Creating the tempo of learning for your career
John addresses the next question on how to create the tempo of learning for your career, for junior product managers especially. John gives three areas of guidance:
- Keep your own learning journal about the efforts you’re working on.
- Build a relationship with an engineering counterpart and design counterpart very early on, in order to learn more and be sponsored later on.
- Understand how the business works, how it makes money and be introspective about all decisions.
- Make risk lists. While some of the best practices in product can seem intellectually like good ideas, they need to be assessed.
Moving to Head of Product
John points out that VPs do not create a career trajectory for product managers who want to remain as product managers only, meaning the only way to continue developing is through a management route. Product managers are expected to be self running and sufficient. John says this results in them receiving little coaching or mentoring. Therefore, you have to create such opportunities yourself through the following steps:
- Figure out management and learn the culture in your company
- Focus on the intersection of business strategy and product strategy
- Decide whether you want to become a manager of other product managers
- Test your organisation out for the idea of a senior product manager track
- Partner with other managers in design or engineering in order to learn about management
Introducing outcome-driven metrics
The next question is about how to introduce an outcome-driven mentality for successful products. John responds that “a product manager should always frame the tree of impact”. He says that the things you are working on now with a meaningful impact will also have a chain of impact. John says that you must therefore frame the narrative of your work in a way that will encourage sustainable growth for the company.
John highlights that often companies can think that finding the perfect metric will solve everything. He advises to always avoid this, as when “using measurement as a trust proxy, you are destined to fail”, which means always measure with care.
The next question is about to manage your workload when moving from a senior product manager role into a lead or head of product role.
John says that as a head of product, you have a manager and you set your expectations with them. He advises it is important to “set reasonable goals with your manager and shortcut the urge to overdo it”. His main tip is to apply product thinking to your development and remember you cannot be successful at everything.
Building product manager skills from portfolio management
In order to build your product management skills, John suggests a few practices:
- Talk to customers whenever you can in order to build your discovery muscle
- Always consider the drivers, constraints and floats
- Adjust your artefacts to be more product-centric
- Spend time understanding the thought process of designers and engineers to learn about partnership.
How to manage health and pressure
Another question from the audience asks about how to manage the stress and pressure that comes with a product management job. John responds by saying product managers need to focus on their personal why. He says: “if you focus on your why, then you can focus on those activities that lift you up rather than bring you down.”
Additionally, he says people can get too focused on changing their company. John says to combat the stress, focus on what you can do in your immediate surroundings.
Applying product management thinking
John then answers an audience question about how to apply product management thinking if you support a platform or an infrastructure theme.
John advises to:
- Think of the evolution of the platform, how is it going to be used by more than one person
- Remember the people you work with internally are partners and customers
- Trace how your platforms are helping your business and people out in the world
Bringing together different experiences
The final audience question concludes John’s talk and asks how to bring together different experiences, for example, experience in marketing, analytics or engineering into one product role. John says that having too much experience can be difficult, as you will want to fix everyone’s problems. John’s solution for this is “to focus on one area of your expertise that you enjoy” and make sure the company you join has your other areas covered so that you will not be pulled in any other direction.