CPO Series: Show How Your Product Sausage is Made

What does a great product organization a Porsche Singer have in common? Check out our CPO series session with Avin Arumugam, CPO at One Inc, to find out.

What does a great product organization and a Porsche Singer have in common? Check out our CPO series session with Avin Arumugam, CPO at One Inc, to find out as Avin goes into how he was able to expertly leverage PDLCs to transform his organization into a top tier brand.

In this webinar, Avin covers how to:

  • Drive alignment and adoption throughout your organization
  • Bring together strategy and execution
  • Choose the right tooling

The full transcript is provided below.

Read the Full Transcript

The following transcript has been altered for readability. 

Avin Arumugam: Thanks, Kalei. And thank you, Dragonboat. Thanks for having me. It’s really exciting to get to talk to everybody today.

So first and foremost, I’d like to, before we jump into… The agenda’s going to be a little bit about CPO. We’re going to talk about how everything’s kind of made and I’ll explain all of that. I want to talk to you guys about how I came up with this sort of process and the overall system.

Has anybody heard of Singer Porsches? Anyone? I’m pretty sure everybody’s familiar with the Porsche 911, right? The Porsche 911 is a car that’s been the same sort of base model, and they just tweaked it slightly all throughout the years.

This guy, by the name of Rob Dickinson, loved driving Porsches, and he loved the steering of the… He drove the ’60s Porsche. He loved the steering. He drove the ’70s Porsche. He loved the suspension. He loved the engine of the ’90s Porsche. He liked the look of the ’80s. So what he did was he took all the different parts that he liked of the Porsche, and made his own version of a Porsche called a Singer Porsche.

That company has become so successful that Porsche, who is notorious for not liking people touching their masterpiece, that have blessed his car and actually started building the engines for him. And if you guys ever Google Singer Porsche, they’re absolutely beautiful, in my opinion. About 80,000 man hours, and they’re very, very expensive.

So why am I telling you this? The reason I’m telling you this is because the way I kind of constructed the process that I’m talking about here was through my experience of working in all these different companies. So I worked at Visa, and JPMorgan, and PayPal, as Becky said, and One Inc, a startup, and Postmates. What I was able to do was I was able to drive, in some of these world-class organizations, their product process. Some of them, I drove. Some of them, I was a passenger in it. And I was able to pick and choose the best things.

But for instance, JPMorgan, the way they get consensus around the organization is world-class. Just the way they do it. It’s called the NBIA process. PayPal that, as Becky and I were talking earlier, they are one of the first SaaS companies before they were sort of a SaaS company. So their PDLC process is, I would believe, the gold standard, and we were doing it 15 years before everybody else. This is not to say that PayPal was the greatest, but they had some good nuggets. So I took that piece. And for Visa, for instance, their geographic expansion and how to make sure that products tied together, those were the pieces that I was like, “Yes, we need that.”

So what I kind of did was put together, “This is what I think product CPO needs to have.” The best of everything. Created my own thing, and I had that chance to implement it in my own organization when I was a CPO at One Inc, and it really helped bring the company together, change the culture, and we actually had a successful exit and we sold to a private equity firm. And one of the pieces that was talked about was like, “You guys know what you’re doing about product.” Everything else had huge due diligence, and I give all that credit to the team, because they really embraced the process.

So let me kind of go to the next slide here. I want to start off with what is a CPO and what do they do. So the way that I think about it, it’s just three things, strategy, execution, and an executable strategy.

What do I mean by that? Strategy. You’ve got to focus on the value prop. The CPO’s job is to make sure that they help define the value prop for the organization. They don’t have to own it, but they’ve got to bring everybody together and say, “This is our value prop to our customer.” Okay, so who’s your customer? Well, that’s the part that the CPO has to own. He’s got to be able to go find out who the customers are, and make sure they validate those value propositions.

And then the third thing is, “Okay, how do I actually deliver those value props? Who are my key partners? What do we do? Do I need any special skills internally to do that?” That, I consider strategy, right? How do we get this out the door? Other people call it vision, right? What’s the vision for the product? So that’s the first thing.

Now, if everybody here’s in product, we’ve all had a few run-ins with management consultants. And not to disparage anybody, but where management consultants kind of fall is usually on the execution side. So the CPO has to be absolutely an excellent executioner, right? So creating a strategy that looks great on a PowerPoint is great, but if you can’t execute it, it doesn’t matter.

So what are we going to talk about today, from the system that we’re working on, is the execution part. One of the main tools I use, which I call the machine, right? What’s the machine that actually delivers those value props? I’ll show it to you in a second, but the overall how the sausage is made. So if you have an idea, how does it come out in the end? So that’s the execution part. And who is going to work together to operate the machine? That’s how you put together your team, right? It’s very important for a product, the CPO, to understand how to put together the right people. So that’s part of the execution part of a chief product officer’s mandate.

Now, all these two things, right? So strategy plus execution equals an executable strategy. So what does an executable strategy mean? It means finances. In this and in part of our operating… My role, the operating partner at Struck Capital, the tenure of how people are talking about when we invest in startups, it used to be just growth, growth, growth. It’s becoming, and I thank God it’s coming back to like, “Okay, are you using the money effectively? Are you doing things the right way? And if I put money in you, are you spending every dollar the right thing?” And every investor needs to see that, every board needs to see that, and every CPO who interacts with a board needs to be able to draw that connection back in. So when I say executable strategy, it’s, “Are you using my money the right way?” And my money meaning what the board has given you or what your investors have given you. Okay?

Cool. So the next thing is what is a PDLC? What’s the purpose? So full disclosure, there’s a couple of my portfolio companies that do use Dragonboat, all right? I’m going to tell the story about a couple… Actually, there’s one in particular that was struggling as a chief product officer. But once they started using Dragonboat, I was getting calls from all the other board members, telling me, “Oh my God, this product person is just doing so well. They really got it. They’ve really turned around.” And what a tool like a Dragonboat does is it gives you… I call it the three, two. Three product managers, two project managers. Like I said, full disclosure, my operating partners are doing it, and I’m a big fan.

Now, a tool like Dragonboat isn’t what I’m going to be talking about. I’m talking about having a picture of how you actually execute the project, and a tool like Dragonboat actually helps you run it.

So the delivery of a product is really complex, right? Blending of all these different skills, different people, right?QA, your designers, your engineering, your marketing. And if you go to any organization and say, “So tell me, how do you deliver a product?” and they are unable to explain it to you or draw it, and I’m talking everybody needs to be able to draw it, there’s a problem. So what I have found really useful with all my operating partners, just every company that I’ve been at is make sure you have a picture of how everything works.

So what does that look like? So I’m going to walk you guys through this. This is an example of one of the earliest PDLC pictures that we put together at one of my companies. If you look at the setup, it starts on the left with how does an idea come in. Right? You need to be able to know where ideas come from, how you’re dealing with them, because the sales guys are coming with a million ideas, and every product person has dealt with sales guys saying, “I’ve got this idea, that idea,” and if you don’t get back to them, that’s going to cause a lot of issues. So this process helps manage that, right?

So where the ideas come in, whether you put them in an icebox, whether you put them in the backlog. So icebox means… I call it a kill box, but my team didn’t like that word, so we always changed it to icebox. And then you’ve got the backlog. And then you put it into the bottom part of like, “Okay, we’re actually going to do this,” and we start writing preliminary requirements.

The beauty about doing this picture is it talks about the tool you use. Who’s the RACI on this? Right? And RACI is another callback from the old PayPal days, which is who’s responsible, who’s accountable. So always have, in the picture, who is the person, the one… I guess before it became… We used to say one throat to choke, but now we say the one hand to shake, right? So who’s the one hand to shake on each one of these boxes? And how long do they need to spend on it? Because if you look at the right here on the left here, it’s like five days. Why is it five days? Because I want to tell the product manager, “This is just an idea. Write something up for five days. If you’re spending more than five days, you’re too long,” right?

Then it goes to engineering. We put it in the roadmap. They run through and write the full detail to get an estimate. And then it goes into what we call the SDLC, which is the engineering piece. Comes out into QA. And then you go LTS.

What this does is it tells you who are the people that are responsible, how long they need to spend on it, and it tells you what’s your overall burn from a start of an idea to actually the end of an idea, right? How long it takes. Because that’ll help you with strategic planning.

When inevitably a CEO, your CEO will say, “We need to do this. I need it done in three months,” and in two weeks or three weeks, you go, “Our process here, everybody, takes three months.” So something’s got to give, right? It helps you have those intelligent conversations. It helps you have the conversation of saying, “I know what you want, but here’s what we’re capable of doing.”

So the biggest takeaways and action items that I have seen come from using a machine and forcing them. And I use the word forcing, right? I force people to draw me a picture. I draw a picture when I go in the org. You’ve got to have a picture. It creates transparency and accountability. Nobody can hide in the shadows, right? You have to be able to make sure that people know this is what you committed to, here’s what you’re doing. And this machine, it’s not you, the CPO, being the bad person. It’s the picture. The picture is saying this needs to be done in 10 days, and it’s not. So what do we do? Do we change the picture to make it 15? Do we change the picture to make it 12? Or do we keep it with 10? Right? The conversations become easier. It timeboxes the task, as I said earlier. Knowing who’s in charge and where to go.

Now, the beauty of having a product platform tool, right? It gives everybody a place to go. If you have Excel sheets and Word documents flying around, no bueno. Right? Give me a single spot where I can find everything about a product. That’s what makes a product organization really hum and helps everybody else know, “The product guys and gals, they’re not just doing stuff they want, they’re doing things that actually are right, and we all know what they’re doing.” Transparency.

Spotlight on choke points. We’ve all had those discussions with engineering, right? Like, “It’s not me. It’s there.” If you have the picture, you walk by and say, “The problem’s here.” So we either need more people, right? We need to reduce this, reduce that, or do whatever.

Now, HR loves these diagrams because it helps them understand where the people needs are. Right? So now you ingratiate yourself with the HR team. I’ve had more HR teams love this picture than anything else, actually.

Giving the exec team consistency, right? As CPOs, you most probably sit on the executive team. You should be sitting on the executive team and making sure that everybody’s on the same page onto what it takes to actually deliver products is really, really a powerful tool. And I always tell my CPOs is, “You have one.” You have one if you hear your CEO saying, “Hold on, hold on. Where is this on the picture? What does the picture say?” When he starts saying that or she, right, starts saying that, boom, you’ve got everybody bought into the machine.

The last one is it’s all about morale, right? This product is a great motivational tool to get people going, but it also allows you to be hard on the problem, not on the people, right? A lot of people mistake this sort of… I guess the way that I run things is very hard on the people. No, no, this thing helps shift it to the problem, and not the people. So that’s why I really love using the machine as a way to kind of encapsulate how your product gets done. So that’s the crux of how I make sure every one of my organizations or companies that I work at has a picture.

Kalei, that’s it.

Kalei White: Awesome. Well, we have a lot of questions. First of all, people want to see your diagram, so we will share that afterward, if that’s all right with you. So we’ll just jump right on into the Q&A now. Just a second. Okay. So first of all, what, in your opinion, is the difference between a good chief product officer and a great one?

Avin Arumugam: There’s a lot of things, right? The one biggest thing, right, that I believe is execution, right? That’s the quantitative. They’ve got to be able to execute. But the sub-piece here, which makes a great product manager, is ego, right?

Kalei White: Right.

Avin Arumugam: Ego.

Kalei White: Don’t worry. I put up the screen.

Avin Arumugam: Okay, good. Being able to manage ego. Egos of your executive team, of your product team, of everybody, period. Most important thing. You are not the most important. The product person is not the most important thing, right? That’s what, I think, makes a great chief product officer.

Kalei White: That’s a great point. And being able to see the whole company and what all of your executives on the C-suite need and dealing with all of them and yeah, totally, dealing with all these different personalities. That’s such a big one.

We’ve got this one question. Love the transparency and accountability. Product managers though are often free spirits. So how can you get them to adopt this standard process?

Avin Arumugam: So this is where it goes to the soft part of… And this is my experience, right? You’ve got to tell them. You can be a free spirit, but… Let me step back here. When a product manager says, “If I’m not around, things don’t work,” right? “I’ve got to be around. Oh my God, it’s so hard.” My first thought is, pardon my French, “That’s a shitty product manager.” The second thing is you haven’t created the space for you to live your life. So I tell him, “This will help you live your life.”

Kalei White: I love that.

Avin Arumugam: Five days, six days. So you know what you’re doing, and you can say that we’ve all agreed this is what I need to spend on it. And I can go above and be a free spirit and do more, but at least you can timebox things and get things going. That’s why this is important. So I’m not doing this… I’m doing this for the organization, but I’m doing this so that you have a good life and you don’t hate working here.

Kalei White: So you can take a vacation, right?

Avin Arumugam: Correct. And people know where to find the document and they don’t have to call you and be like, “Jenny is the only one that does… She’s the product owner.” I’m like, “No, this is the way it is. It’s right here. It’s on step 15.”

Kalei White: Totally, totally. Anthony wants to know, how does a CPO prioritize, given there’s a lot going on in the org? So what would the day-to-day be like, and then how hands-on should they be in the weeds versus delegating?

Avin Arumugam: Okay. First thing, it goes… So we were talking about execution, right? When I talk about what’s a CEO, it’s a strategy. If you set the strategy, and that’s a lot of work up top and making sure you’ve got the strategy and always revisiting that strategy. If you set the strategy well, your prioritization should be easy, okay? 80% of it should be easy. There’ll be a 20% piece. You’re like, “But CEO wants this, or CFO wants this.” And you can have those debates in executive, but that’s where… Every call shouldn’t be a debate. 80% of it should have been done when you had your exact retreat where you all agreed on the strategy. Now, if things change, update the strategy, okay? So that’s the piece.

Now, the second part of Anthony’s question was, “Okay, how hands-on do I need to be?” It all is up to you. It’s how well you set it up of your machine. If your machine has you in there all the time, yeah, that might not… That’s not a real machine, that’s just a diagram flow for where you need to work, right? But you need to set up things where your team can actually make those decisions, and there are fallout pieces in the machine so that you go, “At least at the end of it, I’ll catch it.”

So I believe a CPO should do all the hard work upfront, make sure it’s running for a couple of quarters, and then they step back and start doing more strategy stuff. But if you haven’t set up the execution, you’re going to be in it and it’s going to be ugly.

Kalei White: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Make it a real machine, not just a flow chart of when to get involved. That’s fantastic.

Question from Bill. What have you seen that prevents teams from going from strategy to execution? It’s one thing to have strategy, it’s another to execute. So what’s a common blocker?

Avin Arumugam: To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I’m going to say it’s the machine. Once you have a strategy, okay, what do we do next? You go, “How do you do it?” That’s what you need the how, right? A lot of times, people have that jump because they’re like, “How is this going to work? How’s engineering going to manage this? How’s tech…” But if you show like, “This is how a normal project would work,” and you pick a really simple one, it kind of gets people over the hump. That’s why the picture really helps. It helps everybody visualize. Because I guarantee you in your organization right now, if you ask anybody, “Draw me a picture,” they will not be able to.

Kalei White: Right. Yeah, makes a lot of sense. Another question for you. How do you connect product strategies, business needs, and all the customer requests that are coming in?

Avin Arumugam: So part of… God, I sound like a Star Trek character. The machine solves all. But if you draw the machine, right? On the top left-hand side, you use a tool that brings in all the ideas. And what we used to do in most of my organizations was I would have Friday parties. Pizza. I’d buy pizza for lunch. It’s a cheap way to bring everybody in on Friday, right? I’ll buy you lunch. We’ll go through all the ideas, and we’ll either icebox them, we’ll backlog them, or we’ll say we’re going to do… And we send notes back to the team and they’re having tools that can send back to the person that put the request in. So first, you’ve got to give people a place to put the request in, and then you’ve got to have a consistent way of going back to them. And then adding those KPIs, right? Because you go, “We already do this,” right? But I’ve got a better idea, and you go back and talk to the team, because you’ve got to bring that camaraderie. I hope that answers the question.

Kalei White: Yeah, yeah, it makes a lot of sense. There’s plenty of questions here. I’m trying to pick a good one because we don’t have all the time to get to everyone, but we will follow up afterwards. Here’s a good one. What do you include in your board deck? How do you get the most out of those meetings?

Avin Arumugam: What I usually do is I walk them through… So it depends on the board, right? A lot of times, you’ve got to make sure they’re all clear on the strategy. I spend one time. I don’t even talk about my roadmap. None of that. I talked about the strategy and how everything works. And then I say, “Here’s how I’m going to explain to you,” and we all agree on the KPIs. And then every board meeting, I give them updates on those KPIs that we agreed on. And if anybody wants to double-click on anything, we have a breakout of that issue.

But the beauty of tools like Dragonboat and all the other ones, they have these tools that give you PowerPoint presentations from your Kanban board and your progress flow. It’s just a press of a button, right? Like on Dragonboat, it’s a press of a button and a report comes out. So the product managers don’t have to do it. The project managers don’t have to do it. It’s amazing, right? So that’s my sort of, I guess, advertisement for Dragonboat. It just helps you make your life easier.

Kalei White: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. And talking about metrics, what are some of the most important metrics to track?

Avin Arumugam: I can’t answer that. It depends on the company.

Kalei White: Right.

Avin Arumugam: It depends on the company, depends on… There’s no one killer metric. Yeah, you can do the revenue. It depends on your strategy and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Kalei White: Makes a lot of sense. Let’s see. Have you seen, where you’ve worked before or in your portfolio companies, product operations, and has it been a helpful role? What’s your take on product ops?

Avin Arumugam: This is a big debate now. Everybody’s talking about product ops. I’ve been seeing this. A good product manager is, I believe, a little bit lazy. What do I mean by that? He’s like, “This just seems so hard to do. Let’s find a simpler way. I’m going to create a process to make it really simple,” right? So that’s product operations to me, right? It’s helping everybody.

I think… This is going to sound bad. It’s these tools that’ll help you. These tools, these automated platform tools are your product operations team, right? If you set it up directly, they are product operations. Cool.

Kalei White: Yeah, that’s true. A lot of product ops use Dragonboat as well. It really streamlines helping to do the cross-functional piece. A lot of product managers just care about their one product, but Dragonboat helps them to say, “Here’s why I need this resource.” And product ops is saying, “Yeah, and you need to go talk to this team over here, and that one.”

Avin Arumugam: Right. It just helps… Big organizations, you have the ability to hire a product ops person, great. Until you get to that point, use these tools. They’ll just help you. And then later on, you can have a products op team. No offense to any products op people on the call, right?

Kalei White: Right, right. And then last but not least, we have a question from Katie. At what stage in a business should they bring on a chief product officer?

Avin Arumugam: So you bring on a chief product officer very, very, very carefully, okay? You don’t throw that out lightly. Not everybody’s a CPO. I’m sorry. You can be a head of product. You can be a VPO of product. But a CPO is different, okay? So it depends on if you find the right person and the right stage. There is no answer like, “Series B, 50 million rev. Bring a C…” No. There is none. There is none. It depends on the maturity of the product, right?

When the product begins getting really complex and you need somebody to parse out how everything works and be a little bit of a gatekeeper on what we execute, that’s when it happens. When the CFO goes, “What the hell are we spending all this money for?” That’s when you go. When that question comes up and there’s no consistent person going by sending it for this, this, this, that’s when you need somebody as a head of product. You give them the CPO if they actually are delivering to the business.

Kalei White: Right. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Avin. We’re already at the time limit for today, so it’s been such a pleasure. We just want to close it out by sharing that through partnering with thousands of product leaders like Avin, we’ve learned that great CPOs need the right tooling for their teams to achieve their goals. Check out how Dragonboat may help your product teams by booking a free consultative demo at dragonboat.io/CPO. And thank you so much, Avin. Hope to see you soon. And thank you, everyone, for joining today. We’re going to share over everything that we presented today, as well as the recording. So thank you so much, and don’t forget to tune in every week. Same time, same place. Bye.

Avin Arumugam: Bye, everybody.

Dragonboat is the fastest growing product portfolio platform for outcome-focused teams to strategize, prioritize, plan and deliver products that drive business results. With Dragonboat, product teams can connect OKRs, customer insights, and product initiatives in one source of truth PPM platform. Sign up for a free trial or book a demo.

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