Read Until You Understand with former VP of Product at HYFN
If you don’t have the right info to be a successful product manager, where do you find what you need to support your decisions? What happens if something comes up that you just don’t get?
Chris Graham, a former NFL consultant, joined us for a live chat in our Slack Community and according to him, the best method, is to read until you understand.
Chris Graham is the former VP of Product and Marketing at HYFN. He oversaw HYFN8, an enterprise social media management system, and advertising publishing tool. He is familiar with the startup cycle through all of its phases. He has also taught Product Management for +3 years at establishments including General Assembly and has acted as a consultant for numerous early-stage startups and the NFL. He holds a degree in Economics and Political Science.
Can you talk more about how you broke into product management?
Absolutely! My background is in economics and writing, which I translated into a job in marketing. From there I joined HYFN on the marketing/business development side with an ambition of moving into product management. I did the usual things like proactively seeking to contribute to the product, learning about tech, etc., and was put on the project full-time.
For new Product Managers, the number one thing you need to understand is beyond contextual skills like story writing, agile, and understanding the tech, you need an extremely deep knowledge of the domain and the customer to be successful. Trying to be a Product Manager before you have that is tough.
Also, candidly, a lot of it is luck based if you’re not an engineer by trade, as a lot of organizations want technical product managers or experienced ones. That’s why I suggest making it a lateral move within an organization if possible.
What do you find is your most valuable tool in creating buy-in across different parts of the organization?
That depends on the specifics of the organization and your role in it, but there is no substitute for in-person communication with every major stakeholder. Design, tech, finance, etc. have to have a decision maker in the room with you concurrently, or they’re not going to be aligned, especially in newer organizations or less mature products.
I’d suggest aligning with each individually and guiding the conversation when they’re all in the room. Unfortunately, that’s the best tool I’ve got.
Could you elaborate on aligning incentives and how you accomplish that?
A basic example is in markets where you want your customers to perform an action, such as evangelizing your company. Companies like Uber create an affiliate program, which rewards the new user, the existing one, and Uber itself. Within an organization, it involves understanding the needs of finance, design, your customers, technology, etc. and making sure their needs are taken into account as you make decisions.
This is incredibly hard to do without a deep knowledge of the industry and/or the organization. I was bad at it for a long time, but if you’re taking all of those things into account, you’re on the right track.
How have influencers come into play?
Influencers are great if their values align to those of your company, but they’re just a method of distribution and awareness creation. If the product is bad, the results will likely be too. Marketing exacerbates and emphasizes whatever you already are.
Is it data analytics that drives the decision of adding a new feature on your product or are there other factors?
Depends on the product, and the stage in the life cycle. In short, yes, but you don’t always have ~100mm users and a 1% test to extract meaningful data, so you’ll rely more on qualitative measurements. Alignment with the long term vision for the company is also a major consideration.
What’s your biggest challenge in your effort to align the incentives for various teams and stakeholders?
People who place their own ambitions over those of the team. Life changing for people involved in the company. Hard problems being inherently stressful. Creating trust.
What was your first job and what was the lateral movement from there?
I wrote a sports blog. Then I was a marketing manager. I moved to HYFN to do some marketing and Biz Dev, then moved into producing projects and managing a product. I have my own venture fund and education program now.
How do you measure a product feature’s success once it’s been released?
Adoption, especially by the target segment of the user base. If it’s adopted and loved, you almost certainly did well. This can change a lot between B to B and B to C products, but whether success is usage/revenue/sharing, it tends to be pretty clear, and a benchmark for success should be set ahead of time.
At times the issue is discovery of the feature, so make sure your users hear about it as it’s released, and that you’re tracking how easy it is to adopt in the product. UX is often the sticking point for new product adoption; see Twitter.
Were there any resources that helped you in particular in getting better at Product Management?
The hard thing about hard things is invaluable. I read a16z religiously. I also love Ribbonfarm, Slate Star Codex, and Stratechery. You have to be willing to be very uncomfortable, because you’re not going to be very good at most aspects of the job at first. I didn’t consider myself adequate for 2+ years.
A good start is: ask questions until you understand literally every aspect of the product you work on: customers, marketing, revenue model, tech stack, long term vision, design, etc.
Have you ever picked up the reigns of a product mid-cycle? How did you manage this? What challenges did you face?
Love this question. Short answer, yes, and it sucks. The team inevitably has ideas about how everything should be done, and you’re probably not there because everything is going well. Start by taking 1-3 months to understand the personalities of the team, why things are how they are, who makes decisions, who do you need on your side, etc. From there, make 1-2 constructive changes per month.
On the customer side, find someone that loves/uses the product and will give you honest feedback within two weeks and make them your best friend. Use them as a proof point with the team when you’re saying things they don’t want to hear.
What’s your advice for people who want to get into product management with a design and analytics background but no business degree?
I hate business degrees, so you’re on the right track! No Product Manager is good at every product, we all have strengths and weaknesses (duh). So don’t try to be a product manager, try to find a product you want to work on.
Your best bet is to start at an early stage company where your other skills can provide a lot of value; Amazon needs you to do one thing, not 50. A startup needs all the help they can get. Ideally, it would be a company where you have a deep understanding of their customer. After a couple of years, you’ll be able to do whatever interests you. Hopefully.
What is an average day like for you at the office?
I run my own venture firm and education company, so incredibly varied. I take care of email and focus work from 7-10, then generally have meetings with portfolio companies, VC’s, LP’s, my partners, etc. from 10-5, with communication and work in between. I teach from 7-10 a couple of nights a week. I read pretty much constantly. There are no two weeks that look the same.
Do you have any advice on how to stay focused on the final goal of the product rather than having to play a part in the politics that may affect the outcome?
Unfortunately, you can’t change what a company values from the middle. Sorry. Trying to make the best of it, work backward from things that are hard to deny, i.e., define success with your boss(es), get them to commit to achieving those things, then advocate across teams, get their buy-in, etc. It’s hard. Sorry.
What are some good approaches to get a solid understanding of an industry?
Read constantly. Talk to a Product Manager you respect. Try to focus on a single kind of product/vertical. Talk to any company in that industry who will give you their time. Go work for one if you can, in any role.
Any advice that you would give to your younger self?
Be less of a jerk. Focus on the outcome your client is trying to get to. Nobody cares if you’re right if you don’t get to the right outcome. Take the long view of your career even when you’re frustrated.
What’s something you didn’t know that you wished you knew before moving into a Product Manager role?
Everything. Literally. Amongst others, how software companies work, how markets value them, how we measure success (tactically and strategically), how to write a user story, what makes a good user experience, cash flows, etc.
Would you ever hire someone without a degree?
I have many times. A degree is a signal for lazy people that can’t evaluate talent. A competent hiring manager can tell if you’re a good fit or not based on your track record and skills.
How have you worked with designers/design teams, and what were the characteristics of good collaborations vs. bad ones?
Bad designers fail to understand users and their needs and instead focus on what they want. Good ones do the opposite. Great ones know when they’re right about users and when they’re wrong relative to product managers. They should be an integral part of any good cross-functional team with tech/pm/QA/analytics and treated as an equal stakeholder.
What qualities/skills you think, are essential before one should feel confident to break into a Product Manager role?
Leadership. Accountability. Putting the entire team, customer base, and possible investor base ahead of yourself. Humility. The ability to understand the difference between what/why/and how, and where you fit in (what and why). Knowing the customer and industry deeply. Soft skills for getting people to want to work with you.
How do you train yourself to handle information overload and focus your energy on all aspects of a product?
I got better at processing information by reading a lot and constantly trying to push my limits. Once you achieve a certain level of skill, the ability to process lower level information is much easier. I also set a north star for my products and always re-focused myself on that. ‘Focus on what matters’ is something I tell myself every day.
How do you handle the time it takes to write user stories and do wireframes, etc., vs. the meetings and activities a Product Manager needs to engage in?
Make the meetings smart and efficient, and end them when they’re done. ASAP hire a UX person to manage the wires, it’s damn near impossible to do both. Do focus work in the morning before everyone crushes you with requests.
Any lessons learned the hard way?
Pretty much all of them. Pricing, understanding my customers, focusing on outcomes, understanding the market, knowing how to create buy-in across the organization. All things I was bad at and learned the hard way. How to keep my emotions in check was the most painful.
How can one prove/himself a good fit? Will that be company specific fit or generic fit for any quality Product Manager role?
I hire curious people who take personal pride in being a good Product Manager because across any realistic timeline they’ll succeed. They also need to understand our customers. They’ll learn our product with time. They need to have the nuts and bolts skills like story writing, running a meeting, etc. All my interviews are functional, so we make people do those things and see how it goes.
How would you convince your dev team to re-write features (and maintain the existing product with technical debt) when they are pushing back?
Demonstrate why it needs to be done from the perspective of the user, not yourself. Show them a proof point, data/qualitative feedback, etc. It’s not about you and them or right and wrong; it’s about the product failing to do what it needs to do. Own the failure as your own, because it is.
Do you have any tips for Time Management knowing there is so much to juggle almost all the time?
Cut out nonsense. Your life/job have backlogs, groom them relentlessly and cut out anything that doesn’t get you where you want to go. Block time on calendars for you. Hold everyone, especially yourself, for being on time and using group time effectively. Block time to read and think, it’ll pay off.
How do you balance competing responsibilities that crop up from other parts of the organization and keep focused on Product-focused priorities?
Be candid with those people about what is realistic and prioritize relentlessly. Be transparent around what is taking your time and why. Elevate your time constraints to your boss/CEO and let them prioritize appropriately. If everyone knows you’re much better off. Make sure your people come first.
Would you agree with the thinking that Product Managers should not be writing the user stories, but someone in the development team would be better positioned to do it?
No. Engineers are not tasked with understanding your customer better than anyone; they’re tasked with engineering. They are a vital part of story writing, but if they’re writing stories and prioritizing, your product manager is probably bad.
How does your new role working in ventures differ from being a direct Product Manager?
It’s night and day. I don’t manage a team anymore; I manage entities that help other teams. Similar skills, but applied completely differently. I make their missions my mission.
What are some best ways to validate new features or new ideas from a Product Management standpoint? What makes you certain that is what the user needs?
I ask them. From a B to B perspective, that’s often a very easy task: find the biggest pain in their day and eliminate it, then turn it into a positive outcome by saving them additional time or money. B to C is harder and tends to be a product of you loving and using the product yourself or inspiration. It’s a lot trickier.
What is your most effective way to prioritize features for a roadmap?
MoSCoW is useful, discussion, revenue analysis, size to value ratios. Unfortunately, it’s very company and product specific. Start by talking to customers, then evaluating the data, then hypothesizing, testing, refining, before deploying.
Any final advice for aspiring product managers?
Every time you hear about anything even slightly related to your field that you don’t understand, google it. Read until you understand. Read things that are far too challenging/uncomfortable until they make sense.
Understand that a lot of the value in learning is not going to come immediately in specific formats, but over time. As opportunities present themselves what you know will make and break them. Focus on leading the team, not being right. Know your customer better than anyone else.
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