Prad Patel is the product manager of video experience in Trinity Mirror, one of the UK’s largest newspaper, magazine and digital publishers. Trinity Mirror’s flagship publication is the Daily Mirror and its portfolio includes more than 200 other titles. A seasoned PM with previous experience in News UK and other well-known news brands, Prad has worked at Trinity Mirror for nearly three years.
Managing a team of seven staff, Prad is responsible for giving Trinity Mirror readers an engaging video experience. He oversees the newsroom content like the photos and video footage that are displayed on the publications’ websites. Prad makes sure that journalists can get photos and videos from phones to the various editing platforms and upload the final content on the website. He is also involved in some user experience projects, such as live streaming, analytics, and content recommendations for users.
Prad doesn’t believe that most people choose to become a product manager but rather that they “fall into the role”. He decided he wanted to work in technology after finishing an architecture degree. His architecture training has given him “a keen eye for design” but otherwise, he says, it has had little practical value in his chosen field. He also has a diploma in business, and this has taught him some strategies and tools that he now uses to direct and lead his team.
Joys and Sorrows
Prad’s greatest joy as a product manager is building great products and helping people do the jobs that need to be done. He loves being part of the news industry: “I feel that what we do is important on a regional, national, and international level, and I like being part of that. We’re in a world where more news is reported and discussed than ever before, and it’s becoming harder to determine what’s real and what is ‘fake news’. Journalism has always faced the issue of public mistrust, but we’re now in an era where it’s under constant scrutiny. As product managers, we need to be thinking about how we build the solutions which can help build trust in the brand.”
The biggest trials for PMs, in Prad’s experience, come from products failing. Equally, it’s those situations that allow you to learn and mitigate future mishaps, he says: “It’s all learning.” Indeed, his proudest moment as a product manager is linked to a potential system failure. It was the day of the first match of the Premier League season 2013. Prad was overseeing the implementation of Premier League football rights and mobile notifications for News UK’s publications, including The Times and The Sun. Previous systems had been able to inform football fans of a goal and deliver a clip of it to a phone in about 44 minutes. Prad had been given three months to build a system that would deliver the same content under six minutes. But problems kept on arising as the launch date approached: notification delivery time was too long, audio was missing, or editing was not right.
On the day itself he was sitting with a group of senior News UK executives. In the 17th minute of the Liverpool vs. Southampton match Daniel Sturridge scored for Liverpool. The entire room went quiet. Prad communicated with his team in Wapping, giving the executives a live run-down of the events and processes. Five and a half minutes later the phones started to buzz – first for The Times, then for The Sun. Everyone was celebrating. The Sun’s deputy head of video wanted to know why The Times got their buzz first, but in the back of his head Prad was thankful there was any notification at all. It was the ultimate delivery of a very high-profile and valuable project where Prad and his team met all the requirements. As he puts it: “A once-in-a-lifetime project, you don’t get many of those.”
Day to day
Most of the Trinity Mirror team of seven is based in Romania, meaning that work has to be done with Prad sitting in London, away from his team. Prad praises his Scrum master in Romania: “She’s the best Scrum master I’ve ever worked with. She comes from a product manager background, she has the team’s trust, and has a full understanding of how things work. I’ve seen Scrum masters who try to get too involved with the developers on solutions and forget the important task of resolving the team’s blockers.” He values his Scrum master for her excellence in handling both him and the team.
Sprint planning has several stages. First, Prad refines the sprint with his team a few days before the sprint. Then the Scrum master sizes sprints according to team holidays, after which the team can have an idea of their velocity. High-priority bugs take precedence and always go to the top of the sprint. Prad then prioritises the most valuable features. Every story has to have a deliverable at the end of it.
Backlogs require strict hygiene. Prad has a simple rule: “Each week I look for stories that have not been touched for the last three months, and delete them unless they prove valuable. This small exercise saves time in the long run and also ensures I’m on top of the backlog at all times. I’m very, very anal about the backlog. No-one else in the business is allowed to come and dump tickets into my backlog,” he says.
Roadmaps play two main functions for Prad. “For me, they are the starting point for the solution and at the same time a tool to showcase my plans for the year to the rest of the company.” Presenting the roadmap to different internal groups takes up a big part of his time but provides valuable feedback, he says. People can ask questions on specific items and their value in the roadmap. If a product manager is not able to answer those questions, the item should not be in the backlog, he says. Prad keeps a 12-month roadmap for the entire company to understand, and a personal roadmap that has three columns: work in progress, work for nearby future, and work for distant future.
Prad advocates the “jobs to be done” approach and is careful not to build features that have no users and no added value: “If you try to find out what the problems are – what is your user trying to improve about themselves, or trying to achieve – once you have identified that, you can start building a product.”
Practice vs Theory
In Prad’s experience it’s the business structure that dictates how a product manager’s role varies from company to company. “In each company people have a different idea of what a product manager does and what their job functions are. In News UK, for example, everything had to go through approval stages, while at Trinity PMs are given more autonomy and control over their products.”
In the newspaper industry many of his end customers are editors and journalists who work in hours and days while in product management work is done in sprints. Roadmaps tend to change and a product manager must anticipate user needs: “You have to know what is coming up in next few months. Most of the time they [editors and journalists] will not be thinking that far ahead.”
In Prad’s opinion there’s a big difference between product management theory and practice. “Most books teach product managers to say ‘no’ when in reality it’s not that easy. Sometimes everything is important and has value, and it is hard to push back on your stakeholders. I have a method for when I start in a new environment: I aim for the low-hanging fruit where possible. Being able to fix a small but vital problem gives a quick win to the user and earns their trust. Earning good karma through people management buys more time to build new features.”
Prad says product management books rarely stress how important it is to have a good sense of humour: “I think it’s the most important tool in a PM’s toolkit.” Through open and warm communication the team can be honest on deadlines and any other problems without having to fear lack of support.
Sources of Inspiration
Prad finds much of his inspiration from reading. On the day we spoke he was reading “Product Mastery” (Jeff Watts), a reminder of what a good product manager would do. Another book that he recommends is “When Kale and Coffee Compete” (Alan Klement) which makes it clear why people buy or don’t buy a specific product. “It’s good for understanding that people don’t care about your product, people care about what their needs are and what jobs they’re trying to get done,” he says. “People use your products to fulfil their needs and make better versions of themselves. It helps to understand why people might not want to buy your product.” Lastly, he says I should to dig out “The Art of War” (Sun Tzu), the legendary war strategy treatise, because it includes much that is applicable to product management.