Leading Teams and Building Products with Shopify’s PM
This week, Product School’s #AskMeAnything session welcomed Shopify’s Product Manager, Aaron Sadhankar!
Aaron Sadhankar has over 8 years of experience in fast-paced, exponential growth companies focused on SaaS, mobile, and e-commerce products. He specifically has expertise in user research, lean product development, and data analysis. Also, he has prior software engineering experience in the enterprise and energy industries. Currently, Aaron is the Product Manager for Shopify in Ottawa, Canada. Curious about how Product Managers have broken into and mastered their roles? Then join our Product Management Slack Community and ask them!
Shopify Product Management
What are the top 3 tools that help you in your job?
We are pretty light on tools here. What I use the most:
- Slack – Project channels are useful to focus the discussion
- Google Docs – Project plans and briefs live in there
- Show & Tells – We try not to have meetings, but having a cross-team session every 2 weeks to show current work and accomplishments is a great way to communicate what’s happening and get the team excited about smaller milestones
How was the process of introducing AR in Shopify’s platform and how was getting buy-in from stakeholders?
AR was a really cool project here! Internally, we very much treated that effort as a startup within the company. Leadership was very optimistic on AR being a great tool for commerce, but with the field being so new, they wanted the team to take risks and really be the ones pushing the industry forward. So, it was a very specific case of needing to move quickly with new tech. Leadership was brought in on that approach.
What’s the ratio of UX to Developers at Shopify (or even on your team)? Do you feel the current ratio works well for your team?
Shopify has always been a dev-focused company, so that discipline represents the biggest group in R&D. UX is critical though, and on every team, we try to have a Product-Dev-UX “trifecta” of leads. I think that is more important than specific numbers. There should be at least 1 person on the team that is owning their discipline.
Why do you like to work with engineers?
I used to be one so that helps haha. But ultimately, the software engineers are going to be the bottom and front line of what customers will be interacting with, so it’s critical to work with them.
Product Management Skills
How do you handle situations where the stakeholders don’t take responsibility or even blame you when it wasn’t your fault?
Often you will hear that ultimately PMs are accountable for decisions and mistakes made by their team, regardless of who is to blame. I generally agree with that, but in reality, what that means is that you as the PM should constantly be trying to understand what might not be working and follow up with those team members.
What type of software development methodology would you use to create a website focused on e-commerce that does not use Shopify and why?
I don’t think the development methodology matters as much as whatever allows you to quickly understand what works well with customers. With e-commerce, what I’ve seen is that it requires investment up front to understand who your audience is and build on that. So focus on that, and the development method should simply be whatever enables that.
How do you price a new product and enhance an existing product or legacy product? Also, as a Product Manager, do you make the decision about how much the product would cost?
That’s a really good question. Here at Shopify, it’s not solely the Product Managers responsibility to make pricing decisions, but rather something we will bring marketing, growth, and stakeholders in on. Two anecdotes from my experience:
- You really need to understand the customer segment and who the product/feature your building is for before determining the process. Often, there is a narrative the feature falls under (i.e. merchants that run brick and mortar stores) that means a few features could be priced together. And that is usually much more effective than trying to price individual products/features you are shipping.
- Experimentation can be important for pricing in certain regions. We’ve had to use a different pricing strategy in some countries because it’s lead to higher conversion rates there, but not in other places.
What’s your process for writing software requirements and ensuring the team understands the requirements?
I’ll start with the generic “it depends on the team”. But more specifically, you have to first understand the project at hand and the team as well. My take on the purpose of requirements and documentation is to reduce the risk of building the wrong thing and to help speed the team up. If writing requirements won’t really help with that, there’s not much of a point to do it.
Certain projects that are more open-ended/experimental and don’t benefit from detailed requirements. But, we’ve had projects where we have to rebuild an existing feature, and in that case, it’s important to document requirements because there’s a higher risk of breaking something that is already adopted.
What’s the balance between intuition and hard data (results of an A/B test) when you’re making product decisions?
Love this question, as I am a bit of a data nerd. I like the term “data-informed” rather than “data-driven” decision making. Ultimately, you need to have a key understanding of the customer (human) problem you’re solving for. But data helps to better understand them, and as you build and ship, data helps you understand if you’ve hit the mark or not.
Some products will require more data experimentation and tests, and others will rely more on qualitative validation. It’s important to define that up front before the team starts.
What would be your best tips and recommendations (work methods, frameworks, exercises, readings) for people who are working on the development of digital products as a Product Manager?
There’s a lot out there in terms of methods and frameworks. I really hesitate to prescribe to any specific one. One tip I will give is to work with your team on this, and figure out what’s best for them. Just like building product, building process and how your team works is part of your responsibility and you want to do it in an iterative and measured way.
As Product Managers, we typically need to be the motivators of the team, stakeholders, and customers. When you find yourself in a tough place, what helps you get through?
Yeah, it totally happens. Two ways I often deal with this:
- Product Management is a role that can often be isolating. What I’ve found is sharing and confiding in team members and other PMs is super helpful. A lot of times you want to hide difficulties from others and to shield the team from that, but honesty and openness goes a long way. People respond well to vulnerability and often have helpful insights from their own experience.
- Perspective, whether that is taking some time offline, a day to think through it, or even just a walk.
In regards to understanding what customers want, I can do user research, discussions with customers and looking at data to see consumer behavior. Other than that, do you have any suggestions?
Those are all good tactics. What I’ve found effective is to figure out where your blind spots of understanding are, and where you are making assumptions. Often there are certain aspects of the problem and customer that you and the team might be really familiar with, but the bigger risk is in areas that you might not have as good of an understanding. These could be edge cases, types of customers, or even different regions/countries.
Another useful tactic is the “premortem”. Get your team/stakeholders to try and tear apart the proposed solution and everywhere it could go wrong. It really builds a good understanding of things you might not have thought of, and the team usually feels better after any concerns from individuals have been shared with others.
Transition into Product Management
What’s your thought on being a Junior Product Manager?
Often people ask about how to get junior PM experience. I think the better way to look at it is, how can you get experience making customer impact on some domain that you want to be doing product management in? At Shopify, we’ve had a lot of people move into the PM role from other disciplines (i.e. design, support, engineering) because they were inherently helping their teams make product decisions and understanding the customer.
I’m a Senior Business Systems Analyst with experience in a variety of applications. I don’t have coding experience but I do have SQL experience. Would it be easy for me to transfer to Product Management and what additional skills would I need?
We have a big PM team here and a lot of PMs don’t have a coding background, and that’s ok. The skills that are more PM specific to pick up transitioning into the role are the ability to help teams make decisions, working with various stakeholders, being able to concisely communicate plans. Just to give some examples.
In terms of training and transition, I think you want to try to get any experience you can in making the type of impact PMs have on a team. So even in a Systems Analyst role, take a role on the team where you are helping with cross-functional decisions rather than just your specific responsibilities. I’d encourage any training that helps with this.
I understand that Product Managers have a wide range of responsibilities. To grow my career, I am wondering if I should increase my technical knowledge of system modeling or gain more experience on the business side of things?
There are many different paths you can take! I’m generalizing based on my experience, but typically, your ability to enable a team to make impactful decisions is what matters more than anything else. If you’re working with a highly talented development team, you can trust them to make the technical decisions to achieve the team goals. So I’d say technical knowledge can certainly help in your career but understanding customers and enabling your team is more universal.
From your experience in Product Management, do you feel that employers prefer PMs with MBAs?
For most groups in Shopify, there’s no preference for MBA. Other companies I’ve talked to as well, I don’t feel MBA as a background is a requirement I’ve heard often. Of course, there are elements in the skills you learn with an MBA that are beneficial to being a PM (strategy, stakeholder management, etc.).
What is the main difference between a Product Manager and UX role?
At Shopify, UX is focused on understanding and designing the interfaces our customers use. That includes doing user research and UI design. Although PMs are often involved in these efforts, our role is to really enable UX to be more effective in doing this. And then also do the same with engineering and other disciplines involved with the team.
Any final advice for aspiring Product Managers?
My advice (and I still have a lot to learn) is to just put yourself into positions where you are enabling others to build a product. For all the skills that you need as a Product Manager, it doesn’t matter if you’re applying them if you aren’t leveling up as many people as you can.