Mapping Product Career Opportunities to Product Teams.

In their excellent new book, EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products, Marty Cagan and Chris Jones articulate three consistent themes that helps you identify winning product organisations.

  1. The Role of Technology: “The vast majority of companies view technology as a necessary expense. In contrast, in strong product companies, technology is not an expense, it is the business.”
  2. Strong Product Leadership: “In most companies, the role of true product leadership is largely missing in action. In most companies, there is no product strategy. In contrast, in strong product companies, the product leaders are among the most impactful leaders in the company.”
  3. Empowered Product Teams: “In most companies, the technology teams are not empowered product teams, they are what I call here feature teams. They are all about implementing features and projects (output), and as such are not empowered or held accountable to results. In contrast, in strong product companies, teams are instead given problems to solve, rather than features to build, and most important, they are empowered to solve those problems in the best way they see fit.

If you haven’t read this book, please stop and go and read it. It is table stakes for any product manager or product leader. A quick review:

The best part of the book for me was framing the entirety of product management in a taxonomy. It provides a map/model which so crisply articulates the inductive whole that is; solving ill structured and hard problems with technology. This perspective is so often missed in the myriad of blogs and the latest ‘framework du jour’ articles that it is hard to understand where to start for product managers before this book. In essence this book highlights the underlying principles and the hard truth about product management. It is hard & it depends.

What was so great, is it provided me with the ability to articulate what I felt was so intuitively wrong about how I have seen product management to date. I wanted to take what I have learnt and assess any future career oportunities against this framework. But how do you find a truly product led company with empowered product teams? There are some great resources for reverse interviewing companies, and teams and i’d seriously encourage you to read them.

However, having read and used these techniques, I have often fallen pray to my own biases. It is all too easy to fall for the shiny well practiced answers to the 10 questions you have chosen from these blogs. The sunk cost fallacy is one great example, you have likely spent a significant amount of time on interviews with a company. The answers you hear is more likely to be what you want to hear, not actually what they are saying!

So how do you solve for cherry picking interview answers? We need to map what we are looking for against (opportunities) against what the company is offering.

Shishir mehrotra and and Matt Hudson have some great resources on problem framing and prioritisation, coining the phrase Eigenquestions. Which lines up neatly with opportunity framing by Teresa Torres. Essentially both teach us to prioritise the questions, not the answers. For me, I really wanted to generate the single most important question, an ultimatum, a line in the sand to have conviction if it was worth continuing the discussion with a company or not.

Firstly you need to generate the question you care about most. For me, I primarily care about working for empowered product teams. The specific nuance I believe is how the company as a whole thinks about 2 very key aspects of product management.

  • The problem space, following Teresa Torres principles, this is where the strategic prioritisation happens within teams, and is often referred to as opportunity discovery. Not to be confused with the company product strategy, or solution discovery
  • The delivery space, this is usually what methodology or school of thought the team (or its leaders has) about how best to deliver the solutions to the opportunity space. This is all about execution.

If you have been involved with any product development in the past, then these concepts aren’t new. But the way people approach them can be polar opposite, just take waterfall and agile delivery methodologies as an example. So what seperates these approaches? I believe there are 2 underlying principles which determine wether you you choose to run something as a project or as a continuous process: Structure & Cadence.

So let’s take John Cutler’s recent example, to illustrate my point. You only have a wedding once, (finite cadence) and you can repeatedly have good weddings by following a wedding plan (High structure). Ergo a wedding is a project.

A marriage on the other hand, is continuous, it doesn’t happen once, it needs continuous work. Also what works for one marriage wont work for another. The ‘problem’ is unstructured. Ergo a marriage is a product.

Back to product delivery methodologies, it is easy to spot waterfall project companies and steer clear of them now-days (if you are that way inclined). And we have the tools and ability to articulate why this doesn’t work in modern product management.

Firstly a belief there is persistent structure to the solution fails to address the core principle with technology (it is always changing).

Secondly, there is a fundamental belief that there is an endpoint. A final phase in which the project is done. This is at odds with a hard truth, Customers always want more, they are never satisfied.

So back to what I am trying to learn about a company. I want to know wether the company I’m interviewing for believes problems can be solved in a structured manner, and can be solved finitely. If they do, then I look elsewhere.

This school of thought mirror Evan’s tweet below. If you are a product leader in charge of an e-commerce product. You could aim for deep thought, but that is really hard work. Or you could take best practices from the last 2 companies you have been at and apply them. It’s important to note, the caption.

Pick your poison couldn’t be more apt here. There are tradeoffs, and choosing one box over the other has its advantages and disadvantages. In the case of e-commerce problem, taking your CRO best practices, and having a feature team implement these is likely to get you results much quicker. But i’d argue it isn’t a sustainable longterm management solution.

So if like me, and you want to work for an empowered product team,I started asking ‘Do you have empowered product teams?’ but this was a mistake. This is a research question (something you want, rightfully answering). But it’s a very bad interview question. The hiring managers often didn’t know what I meant, or had a very different definition of empowered. So even having an Eigenquestion doesn’t mean I get the right answer! This is exhausting, but worth it. So finally as Product manager we learn to reframe research questions to customer interview questions. And I landed on the following:

How do you see the product problem space at the product team level at {the_company} evolving over the next 12 months?

This question really helps establish the following points:

  1. What is the problem space today?
  2. Where does the leadership or PM of the team today think this is going?
  3. If they do think they know where it’s going do they have any customer research to back this up?
  4. If they don’t know where this is going, do they have a strategy for addressing this?
  5. How do they set team objectives, are they expecting to change them every quarter like OKRs?

This question helps me prioritise what I want to know about a company, it opens a quick way to assess the 3 points empowered helped me articulate.

  1. What is the role of technology?
  2. Do they have strong product leadership?
  3. Are Product Teams Empowered?

It is important to flex this depending on the stage of your career, working on a feature team might be fine if you want to learn about agile delivery methods. But just make sure you have mapped out your career opportunities, to your interview questions ahead of time!

What are your next career questions?

A new product mentor, figuring the best way to learn new stuff, and teach it in less time than I took to learn it.

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