Tools for Technical PMs with ICX Media’s Chief Product Officer

This week our #AskMeAnything session welcomed Alex Mitchell, Chief Product Officer at ICX Media!

Meet Alex Mitchell

Alex Mitchell is passionate about creating and scaling powerful web and mobile products that make a significant impact in millions of people’s lives around the world. Alex deeply enjoys building and managing the product and development teams that help achieve that goal.


Alex is currently the Chief Product Officer at ICX Media. Also, he is the author of two books (Building Digital Products and Disrupt Yourself) and an avid Medium blogger (@Amitch5903). Some of Alex’s key skills include building web, mobile, social and eCommerce products, as well as, applying machine learning and AI to products.

The Product Management Career

How closely related or how distinct are the roles of a Product Owner and a Product Manager in your opinion?

To be honest, I’ve never been at a company that separated the two roles, I think this may only exist at larger product organizations than I’ve been a part of.

From friends at other companies though, the roles are very related, with the PM playing the more strategic, outward facing role and the PO playing the inward, execution, agile role. Both have to work hand in hand to achieve success. But again, I’ve always been both.

Considering the traditional marketing perspective (product, price, place, and promotion), how would you define “product” vs “marketing”?

Product and Marketing are certainly very entwined, hence the existing of a whole function at larger companies called Product Marketing!

I’d define Product simply as the set of features and capabilities and Marketing as the way those features and capabilities are connected to problems to be solved or jobs to be done.

Without Marketing, only a small subset of your potential users will understand the capabilities of what you have built or connect it to the problems they have.

Can you provide some examples of increasing the retention rate? How can you verify that the feature can increase the retention rate before development?

Retention was a BIG part of the business in my role of managing our Website Builder product at www.vistaprint.com. While there are no guarantees in retention rate increases, there are certainly a few ways to come up with more informed hypotheses to test.

One thing we observed in our data was that customers who had custom domain names retained significantly better than those without. We tested several hypotheses, including lowering the price of custom domain names, bundling in different packages, and more to try to get custom domain names in the hands of as many customers as possible even if it meant short term revenue reduction.

Through this hypothesis + experimentation, we were able to find several ways that both increased the % of our customers with custom domain names and decreased churn.

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How much is a PM involved in shaping the business strategy of the company? What, if any, business qualifications do you need? MBA?

It depends on the company and the size of the company. At a smaller company like ICX Media, we’re only 35 people, so PM and Product in general is involved in every business strategy conversation. As companies get bigger and more mature, other voices start to get louder and help shape strategy more (Marketing, etc.).

On the MBA piece, definitely not essential for a PM role, but a strong signal that you’re serious about continuing to learn (although there are certainly other cheaper ways to do this). Here’s a podcast and article where I talked about the pros and cons of a Product Management MBA.

Should PMs be responsible for increasing revenue?

If the company is focused on increasing revenue as a top-level goal, PMs should have related goals that will help achieve increases in revenue.

Whether that means lowering churn or increasing add-on rate depends on the product, but in general, Product should align with the goals of the business, but their focus should be a level deeper. “Increase Revenue” would not be a good goal by itself for a PM or Product team.

Tools for Technical PMs

What tools do you recommend for bringing digital products to life quickly?

I’m a huge believer in rapid prototyping and one of my favorite tools lately is Figma. It is similar to Sketch for design, but also has a prototyping feature that is WAY better than Invision/Marvel.

I love taking a new product feature, building it there first and testing it with current and prospective customers to get their feedback before building.

What tools do you use that are indispensable to your role as a PM? Any specific softwares or methodologies that stand out?

Indispensable Software Tools:

  1. Fullstory
  2. Heap
  3. Intercom
  4. Pull Requests (Github Stats platform)

Methodologies:

  1. OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) as a lens to judge potential features/products.
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What skill sets do you think are mandatory for Product Managers in technology? Should they know programming languages and be hands on programmers?

I think it’s mandatory to have a baseline understanding of technology (as mentioned before, a 100-200 level understanding of CSS, HTML, JS, databases, etc).

I don’t think however that they need to know programming languages or be hands-on programmers. They should know enough to understand at a high level what trade-offs there are in the development of a product and be able to communicate that to other teams, their manager, the organization, etc.

How do you decide which metrics are best for your product? Do you use any framework?

The best metrics are the ones that are the most tightly connected to the success of the business. At each of my last 3 PM roles, I’ve tracked a different set of metrics.

At Vistaprint Digital, it was very churn, engagement, and AOV (average order value) focused. At Upside, it was important that customers purchased several times from us in a short period of time before we considered them true customers. At ICX Media, we’re much more B2B focused, so direct user feedback is more valuable than many traditional SaaS metrics, although as we scale, we’re watching those closely too.

Could you tell us about any framework for prioritizing or defining product roadmaps, apart from the tools available?

Prioritizing is certainly one of the more important responsibilities of a PM and includes so much more than simply reordering tickets.

I mentioned it briefly before, but I think prioritization really begins with developing OKRs that are tightly coupled to the goals of the business. Once you have these objectives and hard metrics that prove you either have or haven’t achieved them and have everyone in your organization bought into those, prioritization becomes easier.

What will give me the greatest chance to achieve these goals? Of course, there still are dependencies to be aware of (both between tickets and across teams) but this goals-first approach simplifies things a lot. Check out John Doerr’s book or Ted Talk if you haven’t seen those yet for more on OKRs.

Breaking into Product Management

What advice do you have to people with no technical background that wants to get into Product Management?

This is something I write about a lot actually. First, I’d advise building at least a light technical background with free tools like www.codeschool.com (now Pluralsight).

I’d focus on CSS, HTML, and JS to start. But don’t feel like you have to be a Technical Product Manager to break into Product Management. Lean into the skills you’re best at and find the companies where that type of Product Manager is in demand.

I’ve seen PMs succeed with heavy Marketing backgrounds and heavy Analytics backgrounds, or even heavy Customer Research backgrounds.

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I’m looking to move away from a technical background (Software Quality Analyst for 9 years) into Product Management. How should I model my resume and overall experiences?

Cool to hear! In terms of moving from Quality to Product, I’d suggest highlighting experiences/moments when you’ve contributed to idea/feature development both inside and outside of your day to day job. How do you go above and beyond simply quality testing to understand the holistic function of the product?

I’d also recommend picking up a side project or two where you take more of a product role. These could be really small little apps, but try to build something with a team from the Product side. Whether it works or not, it will be a great learning experience and one that certainly would stand out to me if I was hiring/interviewing for a PM.

I’m a Computer Engineering with a PMP certificate who is struggling to land a Product Management job. Which strategy would you recommend for somebody like me?

One strategy I would try is finding a company that really values the Product Manager role (and Product in general) and getting as close as you possibly can to the Product team even if your role is not called “Product Manager”.

At Vistaprint Digital, I actually started as our lead analyst, not in Product. However, I interacted with the product team several times and day and when a Product opportunity came up (albeit a very small 2 developer team), I took it and never looked back!

Any advice on moving from a role as a (lone) Product Manager at a small startup, to a larger software company with an established PM team?

I’ll take a swing at this one, although to be fair, I’ve headed in the opposite direction (smaller and smaller) throughout my Product career.

My first advice would be to understand the capabilities/backgrounds of your other Product Managers. You’re going from an environment where you did everything to one where you likely have many more specialist Product Managers who have developed deep skillsets.

There is probably a PM better than you from a technical perspective, better than you from a marketing perspective, etc etc etc. Make sure to lean on this talent as you work on your feature/product and take full advantage of their knowledge!

I’d also say to make sure you have very clear goals for your team/product. Before your goals were likely 100% aligned with the company goals, and now they may be a bit more specific than the goals of the larger organization.

Any final advice for aspiring Product Managers?

  1. Do a side project/hustle (or 3!) with friends or people you meet, you’ll learn more than you ever could have imagined.
  2. Never stop learning about new technologies, new startups, and new products (and always put yourself into the shoes of those product managers. What would you build next if you were at that company?).
  3. Never forget about the customer. Get your product, idea, company in front of customers as early and as often as possible. You’ll never regret it (and you’ll develop a pretty thick skin).

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