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Category: Product Management

How Being a Marathon Runner Makes Me a Better Product Manager

Aside from getting hours a week to think while out running, there are some shared lessons to learn between being a marathon runner and product manager.

Here’s a few that I came up with (while out on a run, naturally):

  • It’s about having a long-term goal and a plan to achieve it — training for a marathon takes months. You map out a schedule with various runs, and your gradually build until race day. As a PM, the product roadmap is your guide and you plan out a strategy to get you there over the course of many sprints.
  • It’s about collecting and analyzing the right data — cadence, pace, heart rate, effort, what I ate, how I felt…it all goes into painting a picture of where I’m at, where I need to work and whether I’m improving. On the PM side the same holds true. Collecting and analyzing the right data gives insights into where to work on the product, and whether what we released had the intended effect or not.
  • It’s about taking thousands of small steps — when it comes to the marathon, you can’t go into it thinking about all 42.2 kilometres. You break down the training into weeks and days, and the race into kilometres and even steps. As a PM, you need to focus on getting from here to there, but not all at once. Iterate, take small steps, learn and repeat. Keep it moving.
  • It’s about learning from those around you and sharing what you’ve learned — I talk to running friends and learn from their experiences to grow as a runner. I share my experiences with others to help them grow too. It’s a community. As a PM, I learn from other product managers and study other products to learn things to apply to my own product. I share what I’ve learned with others to help them do the same. It’s a community.
  • It’s about highs and lows, and celebrating the good while learning from the bad — you have good runs, and you have bad runs. Some races it all comes together. Other races…not so much. As a PM, some releases are a reason to celebrate while others leave you scrambling to understand how you got it so wrong. In both cases, you learn from it and move forward.

Midway through the BMO Vancouver Marathon
Midway through the BMO Vancouver Marathon
I’ve been a runner since 2008, and a marathoner since 2010. I consider myself a veteran marathoner now after eight full marathons and two ultras. I learned a lot in my first few years as a runner, going from running for about 20 minutes at a time to running a 50km ultra marathon in five hours and 18 minutes.

I’m a relative rookie as a PM, only taking the job at Hover in the summer of 2013. Similarly, the first few years as a PM have been spent getting my feet under me and building up the skill set to work with our team to make a great product.

In both roles, I still have a ton of learning to do and goals to achieve.

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Know Your Product

If you are asked a question about the product you manage, there are only two answers that will suffice:

  1. The answer to the question.
  2. “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.”

If you aren’t the expert on your product, then you’ve got work to do. There should be very few stumpers when it comes to the ins-and-outs of what your product does, what it’s good for and how to use it.

Count the “I don’t knows”

It’s not the end of the world if someone asks you something and you don’t have the answer at hand. You can’t know it all. But if you find yourself saying, “I don’t know…” a little too frequently, then it’s time to dig in and give yourself an in-depth refresher on just what you are building.

Most importantly, when you don’t know something, make it a priority to get the answer. You owe it to the person who asked (especially if it’s a customer) and you owe it to yourself and your team.

But I just got here!

It’s particularly tough for product managers who didn’t work on the product from the start. It’s not an easy job to get up to speed and become an expert user. But that’s your job.

Photo credit: Christopher Sessums
Photo credit: Christopher Sessums
Don’t overlook users when it comes to learning about your product. Watch them use it. Talk to your support team and ask to watch them work.

Once you think you know everything there is to know, go back and learn some more.

Why it matters

It’s hard enough to build a great product with all of the information and experience and knowledge. Having less than the full picture puts you at a huge disadvantage.

Knowing exactly how (and why) things work the way they do gives you the great insight to understand how to make it even better. Seeing where you get frustrated, or watching your users run into roadblocks shows you where you’re coming up short.

When it comes to leading a team, not knowing how things work puts you in a tough spot. It’s a waste of a developer’s time when she or he has to explain that the feature you asked them to build is already there. Support has enough work to do supporting customers…don’t make them spend valuable time on you. Marketing should be able to lean on you to explain how something works and why it matters to your customers.

Be the expert on your product.

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I Just Don’t Understand Why We Wouldn’t…

The one thing me the product manager just loves to hear: “I don’t understand why we wouldn’t [blank].”

(Preface to this rant: Suggestions are always appreciated. Collaboration is essential to success. Don’t stop.)

Starting your suggestion with “I don’t understand why we…” is most definitely not the way to go.

When you say the words, “I don’t understand,” you may think you are admitting that you don’t have the whole story to why something is the way it is. Maybe you mean it to say that you haven’t really thought it through before making your suggestion. Maybe you are conceding that it’s more complicated than your simple solution might imply.

The way it comes across when you say, “I don’t understand,” is that your suggestion is the most obvious thing in the world. The implication of your words is that you’ve considered it carefully and can’t comprehend how I haven’t come to the same conclusion as you have. In other words, what you don’t understand is that I haven’t figured it out yet considering how readily apparent the solution is.

It’s difficult

Product management is really, really difficult and often very complicated. Fixing or building things usually takes way longer than anyone hopes or expects. Solutions to problems are tough to get right and often it takes multiple tries to get it even close to right. Unintended consequences are everywhere.

Sometimes you have to implement part of a solution now, and part of a solution later because 10% of the way to perfect is better than 0% of the way. Other times you have to accept that something that sucks will continue to suck for now because you can’t fix everything and it’s lower on the priority list than some other things that suck.

Suggestions about how to make things better are always welcome. But the suggestion that the solution is obvious isn’t going to get you very far.

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If you have momentum, getting things done feels effortless. If you lose momentum, everything feels like a struggle.

Over the past couple of years as a product manager, we’ve had periods of months where it felt like we had some good momentum going. We were chugging along, making good software.

The rest of the time, especially when we had no momentum, things were tough. It felt like we were going nowhere.

Momentum killers

I’m increasingly on the lookout for momentum killers as a way to maintain our pace of change. Things like unexpected tasks have a way of really killing momentum. Even vacation time can put a drag on our team’s output in the weeks before and after.

Sometimes it’s impossible to predict a momentum killer. Or at least it seems at the time that it couldn’t be predicted. The little things like security audits, or refactoring, or small improvements might seem minor when you look at them in the backlog.

But those things might someday end up being a serious momentum killer that costs you far more time and effort than if you tackled them when you already had good momentum going.

Gaining and maintaining

Focus on gaining and also maintaining momentum and the net result will be a team that is efficient, happy and doing their best work.

Most importantly, when you do run into something that kills your momentum, try to work to minimize the amount of momentum you lose and work to get that forward motion happening again as quickly as possible.

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Designing for Mobile

Some random thoughts on designing for mobile.

  1. There’s way less space on mobile (duh). Tables and layouts that work fine on the desktop fall apart quickly. An iPad in portrait is a mere 768px which means you’ll be compromising on things like sidebars. If you put important functionality into a sidebar, you better have a good way to deal with it when you no longer have room for that sidebar.
  2. Hover states don’t exist on mobile. If you do things like show alternate info on hover on the desktop site, or have a menu that expands on hover, you’re heading for trouble on mobile/touch. For consistency, it may make sense to ditch hover states entirely.
  3. Popup modals are trouble on mobile. How do you handle something like a popup window with information? On mobile, your popup might be as big as, or bigger than the entire screen. Consider whether you can rid yourself of modals entirely on the desktop so you don’t have to deal with doing something different on mobile.
  4. Touch target size is important on mobile. Those little checkboxes and toggles might work great with the precision of a pointer and a mouse or trackpad. But on a smaller mobile screen, with a finger, little checkboxes get tough to use and it can turn into frustration for users pretty quickly.
  5. Menus with too many pages overwhelm on mobile. Users are generally much more task focused on mobile. Get in, get it done, get out. They aren’t there to learn about your company, or read a dozen articles on your blog. Consider simplifying your entire site structure for mobile to enable users to stay on task.
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