In this keynote from #mtpengage Manchester 2020, Janna Bastow, co-founder of ProdPad and Mind The Product, discusses how in tech, optimising debt is essential to building the perfect product.
Watch the video to see her talk in full. Or read on for an overview of her key points:
- Uncomfortable topics become less scary when talked about – we need to discuss debt
- Ditch arbitrary deadlines – they’re debt collection tools
- Time paying down debt is always time worth spending
Janna starts by looking at some of the roles she’s had and the lenses they required; as a product manager she would ask, “what problem are you trying to solve?”, and “have you tried turning off and on again?”.
Janna still finds she asks, and is asked about, the same thing whether she’s consulting, training, mentoring, or as a CEO. The question is about debt. And it’s uncomfortable to talk about.
Debt Enables Trade-offs
While we might think of all debt as bad, Janna says this isn’t the case. A product manager can’t build a perfect product without debt.
We’re often forced to cut corners in tech, as we deliver innovation at break-neck speeds, and that’s fine, so long as it’s measured and managed. What’s not fine, Janna says, is when tech debt is accrued without intention; because this happens when there isn’t a shared understanding of how the product will be built, and tech debt usually arises outside the control of the tech team.
You need to be active when it comes to debt and Janna recommends using debt as a learning opportunity – for instance, releasing something fast or of lower quality, as a way of experimenting. First and foremost, you need to be aware you’re negotiating – you’re doing it every day – negotiating work and the path of the product, to satisfy business requirements.
Ditch the Roadmap
Janna blames deadlines for tech debt. She doesn’t mean necessary ones, more those put into a timeline roadmap for the sake of keeping people happy – what she describes as a “debt collection pot”.
While a roadmap may appear harmless – it’s just things to do over time – you’ll often see work expanding to fill the time given, and, as scope creeps, more debt will be incurred as you start to renegotiate. The outcome of continual trade-offs is a dramatic impact on the quality of your work: costly adjustments, features stripped of items, and changes left undocumented. What’s more, you will have imparted huge stresses on your developers and may end up paying later with costly refactoring, leaving your team at a point of technical bankruptcy.
Define Your Debt Vocabulary
Communication is the key, Janna says, whether it’s how you communicate with sales on deadlines, stakeholders on scope, or with developers on business ambitions. Share your awareness of all areas, actively handling debt and before long you’ll have a product you’re proud of.
To allow us to start discussing debt, Janna identifies some areas where debt has an impact, as well as ways to take control:
Track Your Design Debt
Design debt is the limitations of the product caused by design not matching requirements. It’s what you encounter every time you answer “it’s not a bug it’s a feature”.
Janna recommends usability tests to cull your design debt. Here’s one example:
- Map out your key features
- Get team members to perform a series of tasks on each
- Grade them Green (completed unassisted), Orange (some assistance) and Red (unable to complete the task)
By testing, you can identify areas of issue, and you can track your improvements by having users retake the test over time.
Stop trying to build a finished product. Make sure you know what an MVP is – and more importantly do your stakeholders know what it is? Experiment, retire your experiments, iterate fast and learn.
Reduce Process Debt
Keep track of unscalable processes. While they’re not always bad, they can accumulate and be left as an unwanted legacy. Always check in to find what costly business pains are being hidden under processes. Ask what your support team is handling and make sure they’re not filling the gaps that your product has left. Don’t let debt go unchecked.
Influence Culture Change
Janna warns against short termism, a culture often seen in startups which can allow debt to accumulate without long-term thought.
A corporate culture focused on steady growth can be just as bad – often teams get siloed and are forced to focus solely on their own area or expertise. Too often this kind of division can lead to competition rather than collaboration, so be ready to raise awareness and allow for a cultural shift.
Treat Yourself to Tidy-up Time
Janna shares how her team uses two hours at the end of the week for tidying up – some administrative debt management. Her team will at times spend this time physically tidying up desks, or digitally organising their inboxes. Sometimes they look forward, setting filters and automations to reduce next week’s debt. Paying down debt is always time well spent.
It’s Time to Approach Debt Holistically
Remember that “product management is a cost centre”. It’s a product manager’s job to be aware of the costs, whether it’s negotiating a deadline deadlock with sales, documenting finely-detailed features, measuring velocity and burndown, or looking to reduce work and saving costs. We always need to be sure we’re building in the right way and keeping track of our debt.
Janna invites us all to keep discussing debt and to continue developing our “shared vocabulary in trust”. If we’re honest and clear we can always find the best resolution for our business as a whole.