Q&A with Product Manager Mavens

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The following transcript has been altered for readability


Raz Carcoana: I’m Raz Carcoana. I’ve been a product manager for 20 years now. I love designing software, ever since I first did it. Transitioned from doing support right after college, during the startup boom in 2000. Doing technical support was not my thing, but I really loved understanding the business and understanding how our users interact with our digital products. And I just dove headfirst into product before it actually had a structure and a discipline to it. And I’ve really enjoyed watching it evolve over the last couple of decades into its own discipline.


Dalia Vasquez: I’m Dalia Vasquez. I’ve been a product manager for about 20-plus years. Started out in the Navy. The Navy told me I was an IT business analyst and project manager. So, that was very straightforward. I am very blessed to have that opportunity. And I was writing requirements from the time I was 19. So right off the bat, my first job was in a FinTech, and I’ve gone in and out, into entertainment, travel, retail. But FinTech is it. The blockchain and all the newer stuff now going into financial market analysis, with the apes, the social life, and the GME fiasco of the trading in the past few years. So that’s where I’m at right now. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.


Bhaji Illuminati: Thanks for the intros. So as we look back on your careers to date and the different types of companies that you’ve worked in, different sized orgs, different industries, how has the role in the expectation of product management changed or evolved?


Raz Carcoana: That’s a great question. Yeah, so it’s interesting. When I first started, it was sort of an offshoot of project management. There were a lot of parallels with project management as a discipline. However, project management didn’t always answer the kinds of questions that businesses needed answered, or that engineering needed answered. And there had to be somebody in there to connect those dots.

One executive leader I worked with called it the connective tissue that brings the bones and the muscles together, to use a high school biology metaphor. And that’s really where product seems to have its really sweet spot. It’s those pieces that need to be connected to make the right decisions throughout an organization. So I’ve seen it evolve from project management. But now, it’s got these wonderful offshoots of product managers with a focus on data, product management with a focus on operations. That’s a new focus area.

And then, with additional verticals and disciplines. You take product management, and you apply it to a specific industry, and you get these really sub-genres of product that are really unique, and interesting, and combine skill sets that aren’t necessarily taught traditionally. And so, I’ll say that some of the skill sets that I’ve seen really take off in product center around the liberal arts disciplines, the ability to mingle and mix different thought areas into creative, new solutions. And I think that’s what product managers are largely counted on for, to do that think work for the organization.


Dalia Vasquez: I think, to piggyback on your perspective and your experience, project management definitely was it back then. For me, we were more of a waterfall FinTech company. And I mean, nobody truly knew there was a product manager. Back then, to us, product manager was more somebody dealing with a manufacturing company, and they owned a tangible product. The software wasn’t truly a thing yet, where there was any certification. A lot of people didn’t even have unlimited internet. Computers were very expensive too.

So as I grew, from my perspective, there was the concept of the IT business analyst, and I think the military had a lot to do with it. And as I grew, IT business analysts would work with marketing e-specialists. They threw that E right at the beginning when commerce became this e-commerce, and the eBays of the world, which Tijana was here because she could talk so much about the growth from her eBay experience. But it truly was a waterfall.

I think my first experience with Agile was mostly on FedEx. They were doing something more fragile. They were starting off the idea and the concept that you needed to have a requirements document work with a UX agency, into wireframes. Back then, they were chicken scratches. We didn’t have the tools for prototyping we have today. It was like, “Here’s a PowerPoint with a PDF-looking thing, with some screens.” It wasn’t a Figma or an Adobe XD.

And then, I saw it grow. There was a need map. Mike Cohn came out and said, “Hey, we got to standardize something here. I think I got something good going from the 80s. So I’m going to go try it out.” And tried out this certification. I was one of the first down in the Austin class. And we were very few, but that was the first product ownership certification that was out there. The concept of SCRUM was introduced. Then it was SCRUM versus Kanban. But I still want to plan everything out ahead as a waterfall.

And I’ve seen it evolve. You go into a product management certification from it, for example, but they’re still using Mike Cohn’s preamble into Agile story writing. There’s so much in the growth of being a product manager, to Raz’s point. It goes into now product ops, but there is a program manager, there is still an IT project manager that is needed. There is still the business analyst, system analyst, tech product manager. There are so many variances right now into being a product, that talking with Amazon, it’s like, “Okay, they got like five different roles in product management.” And each one has a very unique and very specific role, that if you have been in the industry, you can tell it apart, but if you’re new to it, it’s kind of hard. And it can get very confusing.

And that probably changes a lot based on the company size as well. So if you’re at an earlier stage, it’s product management team of one, that wears every single hat.

Yeah. And there’s that not so identifiable line between product management and product design. I have peers who have been product designers for 20 years, and the question was, at what point did you realize that you were a product designer? Do you know what I’m saying? And we can’t separate the design from the functional requirement. And you can’t separate the entire product from it. So there’s still this blurriness between these two roles. And it’s really hard. But also to your point, depending on the size of the companies, where you say, “Okay, who takes on what? And do you go together and gather feedback? Do you humble yourself enough that you can trust that your partner can gather all of that information, and you can come together and still own together the process?” There’s so much. There’s so much space to grow, being there.


Raz Carcoana: I think company size is a really key element, especially as you try to grow your career and develop your skills. And precisely targeting the right size, I think, is incredibly meaningful. Of course, the smaller the organization, the more you’re going to do, and the more you’re going to be exposed to different things. But in larger organizations, you’re going to find frustrations, where you feel like this is an area you contribute in, but obviously, there’s a delineation there. You have to obey within the structure of the organization. You have to hand off that work. And so, knowing what you’re looking for is also incredibly important.

I’ve worked my way up the ladder from small to large, and then back down from large to small, and have experienced it in these different ways. And yeah, for my preference, I like the smaller organizations with a little bit more ambiguity and a little bit more hats, just because there’s a lot more growth there and a lot of opportunities to be tactical and impactful. There you go. And that is fun. That’s the fun part for me. I’m a builder, and I enjoy building and putting things in people’s hands to use, and making an impact in their lives. And to see that cycle go directly really quickly is really fulfilling. I think, as a product person, there’s a little bit of a builder in everyone.


Bhaji Illuminati: Do you see the expectations of a product manager in terms of what those KPIs, goals, and success criteria are at a startup versus a big company? How are those different?


Raz Carcoana: I would say that in a smaller organization, the KPIs and the OKRs you’re targeting are nascent in nature. You’re just starting out, you’re just starting to build, and so you are really setting the anchors and the foundations for you’re going to look and measure your business over time. And so, not only do you have a lot of influence there, you also do a lot of trial and error. In larger organizations, I’d like to think, and in my experience, it’s fairly true that these metrics have already been established and the organization has matured. And your role there is less definition and more depth, creating depth and understanding at what drives each OKR, adding data to that, and finding ways to move the needle there. And so, yeah. The challenges are certainly different in those two environments.


Dalia Vasquez: I think it depends. Because I have been in large organizations, like in Omnitracs, where I was the one who was assigned with this product suite, or product line. And from there, I discovered there is a whole need for a gigantic re-architecture on the platform, and there’s so much more that we could do. And at that point, we had a team that became on startup mode, and our KPIs were very different from what the existing company was, even though it was a 40-year-old company. Now, me working in startups, which that’s been my role, to his point, yes, there is a lot more flexibility. At the same time, it truly depends on the leadership of the company.

It also depends on the experience of its founders. I have found founders that, what is a product or a company. You found a gap in the market, and you happened to be the first one to put the money into it, or you’re running along with other people who have found the same gap, and either has the resources or the capacity to go run after it. Because I’m pretty sure many of us have had ideas and found gaps, but either you weren’t positioned or you didn’t have the resources to run after it, you’re like, “Somebody else will beat me to it.” How many of us would’ve had an Uber, or a Twitter, or something like it.

But the reality is, some of these people who come up with ideas may actually come from a completely different field. I’ve worked with people who are from the legal fields, creating technological companies, and their KPIs are very different from somebody who’s had 30, 40 years in financial investments and is a stakeholder. So I think it would vary. Us as product managers, we’re it. We’re holding, as mini CEOs, as they call us, the ground on helping them define what are the KPIs we should be looking for, and how do we model our product? What do we think should be the right metrics when you’re releasing it? And I think there’s always an opportunity to grow, even, like I said in my example, with a 40-year-old company.


Raz Carcoana: Those are probably the best ones to innovate at, right?


Dalia Vasquez: Oh my gosh. That is like the Christmas present in summer. It’s like, “What? I get to work on a brand new project in this 40-year-old company? Are you kidding me? That’s an opportunity of a lifetime.”


Raz Carcoana: Yeah. You have to have a little bit of rebel inside of you, to challenge convention and be a change maker. That’s what product is all about.

I think that’s one of my favorite parts, is having the bandwidth to… And it’s actually in my job description, which is great. Your job is to challenge conventional wisdom, Raz. That’s what I… It’s incredible. I love that part. I love that part of it. What comes with it is the frustration of encountering all the traditional aspects of whatever industry you’re in, and then trying to change the direction of that, change the trajectory of it. And oftentimes, because it’s a large industry, financial services obviously is a big one. There are a lot of industries out there like that really desperately need change and evolution. It’s like turning an aircraft carrier. That’s going to take a long time. It’s going to be a big arc. But yeah, being a force behind that is really exciting.


Bhaji Illuminati: We had a question come in from Lizith, which touches on what we’ve danced around, around KPIs. So she asks, “Can you talk about setting KPIs and OKRs before finding product-market fit?”


Dalia Vasquez: All right. So it depends. Before I find my marketplace, I actually like to do a POC still. I got to have some sort of feedback from somewhere. One of the best examples that I’ve found so far was this idea creator, the founder of one of the companies that I’m working with right now, he actually started out the company by feedback. He had followers on Twitter. He expressed his concern and opinion about a topic, and everybody went, “Boom. Oh my gosh. Somebody has to do something about it. Somebody has to create… I wish it had… Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And that entire trail of these Twitter followers created the company that we’re working with right now.

And a lot of them even became investors for the company, which is immensely like a turnover around Wall Street, because this isn’t common. This isn’t the normal, “Let me go get investors.” No, it was already funded out of a social media tweet. So you already have growing in there. You already have expectations. You already come with a suite of features. The problem is, how do you identify how to define a KPI if you don’t even know which persona you’re going to focus on?

See, we tend to make the mistake a little bit and say, “These are the KPIs that I’m going to use, standard. I want to grow new people.” Okay. You have new customer growth, and you have people coming in. But what’s going to happen if the majority of the people you’re bringing on board are freemium people? A lot of product managers are not thinking that not everybody wants to pay a standard package for something. And then, we have to break away from packaging a product as a monolith, rather than saying, “I can create features and add-ons that I can add on to a service, something that some people would pay for. Now my KPIs look very different from the bubble KPIs.”

So that goes with, how do we move into the future? You got to move into the future by thinking that maybe you also introduce crypto payment methods. And if you do that, you have a niche, and now you have different KPIs set from those that are the standards. I’m going to offer a standard method of payment for my product, and those are freemium. And if they want to enable this, they get this package for a month. And now, you define your KPIs very differently.


Raz Carcoana: Yeah. I was thinking, it’s kind of a chicken and egg problem to some extent. It’d be fun to start with some key metrics that you want to impact, and then back into some kind of product that can do that. I think that’s an interesting intellectual exercise. And it may have some practical applications for sure. I would say, though, most importantly, KPIs and OKRs are something that ought to be flexible as well, as the business evolves, as you learn more about your users and their preferences. And I think you may have touched on this already, Dalia.

Your KPIs have to keep up with it, so the conversation about, is this the right thing to measure, now that we’ve evolved to this next level? Is that the right thing to measure now? Are those the right indicators to follow? And of course, as a company grows from C, to series, to IPO, those indicators can and must change as you go along. Because you’re proving different things at every stage of growth. At the C ground, you’re not trying to scale.


Dalia Vasquez: Exactly. You haven’t even penetrated the market yet.


Raz Carcoana: Right. So I kind of see them as two planets having gravitational force on each other, bobbing back and forth and influencing one another. Is this the right product? Is this the right way to measure the product? We’ve evolved. The product has changed. Are these the right metrics? Back and forth. And I think that’s one of the key roles of product folks, is to drive those conversations within the organization to evolve.

Organizations inherently want to be static, because there’s structure and there’s predictability in that, and that’s what business looks for. Nobody would want to invest in an unstable business. And so, there’s this sort of bias towards stability and towards staying. And product is there to keep nudging, and keep pushing, and keep evolving the organization. Those are some of our tools, the products, the metrics, the data that supports it. And then, keep having those conversations to make those changes to evolve the organization.


Dalia Vasquez: Yeah. I think, just to give them at least something, some of the things that I use because I was having this conversation not long ago, even a day ago. First of all, you have to identify, are you penetrating the market? Is this product something that, it’s already out there and has a lot of competitors in it? Because that changes your metrics by a ton. If you do have a lot of solid competitors out there, you have to be able to offer something that can distinguish you.

Now, it doesn’t mean you have to wait until you have that full feature parity set to be able to penetrate the market. You can actually have, like I was mentioning, that niche of people who believe in you, believe in your product, believe in your company, and they’re like, “I can see where this is going. I can see the value.” And then you can start using metrics that are on your base product.

So you have to split your product and your value prop and identify, within my product or suite of products, which ones are the ones that are the revenue-driving so that you can focus on revenue-producing activities as if you were making investments in your portfolio. But that’s how you go. You go with revenue-producing activities, and then you say, “Okay, if these are the revenue-producing activities, I can release them into the market, have my alpha and beta users, and I’m going to be tracking how many people are truly hitting the tools that I think are going to make me money, even though they’re free.” Because one of your metrics would be actually having subscribers that you’re retaining over the long term.

To Raz’s point, it’s going to change. You’re always going to have to change your metrics. But you’ve got to start with that data. You’ve got to start looking, are people truly hitting it? And if they’re hitting it, are they actually staying and being proactive about it? Is it taking them long? Do I have many complaints? From my perspective, in a brand new product, I look for that. If I have too much feedback on, yes, this is good, but… If I see that but, that’s definitely a clear metric to me that there’s something wrong with that product, and I have to work on it a little better.

And if people are coming, but not quite playing with it or coming back during the day, I definitely know that I need to enhance it. That’s how you start growing your metrics until you get to the point where you are there and people are paying for it. And if you’re increasing the price on it, you’re also watching out, “Are my subscribers leaving? Are they referring?” So there’s so much involved in metrics, but at least that’s where I can start from a high level, to give you a little bit. Because we could have a whole class about it.


Bhaji Illuminati: And it has seemed to be a theme of today, especially coming off of Melissa’s session, around being more outcome-focused and outcome-driven. So it sounds like you both have a good grasp on how to make decisions based on data, how to run an outcome-driven product, plan an organization. So did you have a shift from being a feature factory, as some people call it, to being an outcome-driven company? Or was that a deliberate thing that happened, or just an evolution of your time as a product manager?


Raz Carcoana: So, it’s a little bit of both. Again, it’s the dialogue. When you’re small, you have this valuable nut that now has marketability, and you want to sell it. And you’re getting feedback because you’re listening to your users, you’re getting feedback, “Oh, you should do this with it. You should do that with it.” Then, you have this tendency and this lure to become a feature factory. And you become a feature factory for a while. You’re like, “Oh, let’s pack in this value, that value, and that value. We can increase our price and have different packages.”

You can do that, but then you fall into this feature factory mindset. And then, at that point, you have to now push and bias towards data-driven feature development, and say, “Okay, now we have all this stuff out there. What’s actually valuable. What is it teaching us about our users? Did we launch 10 different features, but only three of them are really used? Is that really what’s happening? Let’s look under the hood.”

And so, I think that transformation happens, again, two planets, gravitational pull, as you grow. You get a little bit… You have those conversations again. Are these the right KPIs? Are we growing the right things? Whatever. And then, you bake in the right feature. Very few, I think, organizations have the luxury to be measuring the right things from the beginning all the time. Oftentimes, two years into your product evolution, you realize, “Oh my God, we should have measured this thing two years ago. It would’ve been awesome.”

Which, you know someone’s using it.

You didn’t think… I mean, it wasn’t something you would think about. Because all products have this organic, conversational nature to it in how they evolve. And that’s why one of my perspectives and one of my favorite things about product is the fact that we have this role in an organization to have those conversations and constantly nudge and push folks in the right direction, to make the right kind of decisions for the product.

But yeah, it’s definitely organic in nature. And maybe this year, you have a conversation with some stakeholders, and next year, you have the same conversation, but your stakeholders are different, folks have moved on, different thinkers have come, new thought work has been done in that area, conferences have been done, people are learning different things, and now that conversation’s completely different a year later. Maybe your product hasn’t changed, but now, people are thinking a little bit differently about it. I think that’s valuable too.

At the end of the day, I think to be a successful product manager, you have to have some level of passion for the thing you’re doing, so that you can push yourself to the depths, where no one else will want to go, and to get into the kinds of details that no one really wants to get into, but that is incredibly critical. And so, I’m kind of riffing off-topic here, but that part is incredibly important, especially if you’re going to be the voice in your organization driving those conversations.


Dalia Vasquez: Yeah. To me, it was a little different. I’m going to be very honest. I was so excited that I was doing something outside of the Navy and being behind four gray walls or on a ship, that I was just like, “Oh my gosh, this is so exciting.” I didn’t care if people were using it or not. Do you know what I’m saying? I was just excited that I had something, that I had a product, that there was something called software and applications, and that there were… At this time it was corporate, the large companies that actually had the ability to have internet that had it. And to me, having a bank that is, for the first time, going from the brick and mortar to actually have something online, was huge.

And as I moved up and moved through different phases, I always had a leadership above. Because when you’re studying, you always have that senior product manager, or in my time, the marketing e-specialist, whoever who’s above, who’s looking at those metrics and taking the customer service info. Back then, we didn’t have analytics like we have today. There was no Google. So you had to speak with your customer service team, with your sales team, to actually know what’s going on with the product, if people are using it or not. And then, talk to some DBA guy who could pull a query to see if users were using it.

So when I realized that that could be done, because I kind of got tired of going back and forth to customer service, I was like, “There’s got to be a spreadsheet.” I’m a spreadsheet person, and so, I was like, “If there is a spreadsheet out there, could one of you guys pull it out? Is that a thing that you do?” And I remember one of those guys was like, “Yeah, I can run a JavaScript, and do blah, blah, blah, and create this thing for you.” And that was my first admin portal. And that was the first time I’m seeing metrics. But I still didn’t know what it meant. It was just a list of people.

I remember when Google came out the first time, and you’re looking at Google analytics for the first time, and that’s all you have, is a list of people with weird GUIDs. And what the hell is a GUID? Now you have people from all over the world, maybe, because you couldn’t control geolocation. And you’re like, “But what are they looking at? They got here. So did they create an account?” And as it evolved, I almost would say to anybody, go play with Google analytics. Stand up something on your own, it ain’t expensive, and play with it, so that you can start realizing how people start using something, no matter what you push. It could be your own portfolio, and you can see metrics.

And so, little by little, when I started becoming more senior, and I started seeing the money, and I was like, “Oh, we got to keep the lights on. Oh, I need Dragonboat subscriptions for my roadmap. Oh, I need all of these other cool tools.” We had to start looking at, are we making money? Because the stakeholders will come back and say, “I don’t think that feature is worth it. We’re not making enough money for it.” And I was like, “Hold up. If we’re not making enough money for it, then how do I account for it? How do I make money out of my own platform?” And that started shifting my mindset from, “I’m having fun with something,” to, “Okay, I need to make money out of this.” So it’s been an evolution for me.


Bhaji Illuminati: I love that story. And it’s interesting how the Navy and your experience there really shifted and formed your perspective on product management. We’ve talked a lot about different paths and how people get into their roles today. I think you’ve got a pretty unique one.

Okay. So we’ve touched on different types of goals, different types of metrics. I want to dig into that a little bit and talk about when there are a million things that you could be doing, how do you prioritize? How do you make those trade-off decisions? And how do you pick the best? It’s a big, loaded question. Let’s hear it. Raz, I’ll kick it off to you first this time.


Raz Carcoana: That is one of the hardest questions. That’s the frontier of product in any organization, is having those really philosophical questions about where should we be spending our time and resources, and what’s going to have the biggest impact. Because until you do it, you can’t measure it. And if you can’t measure it, you don’t know if it’s working or not. And so, you have to put your best foot forward. You can be scientific about it. You can synthesize industry trends, and the position of the company, and you could put it all together.

At the end of the day, I think it comes down to stakeholder alignment and getting everybody to execute at the same time. What you want is everybody on that page, rather than a lot of friction, disagreement, and whatever. Now, I’m not saying disagreement is bad. I mean, that’s a great part of the dialogue. That’s what you’re going to have before you pick that direction. But once you’re there, you got to roll and you got to execute. And then you got to change directions, if that’s what the evidence tells you, and remain objective to the goal rather than to the original idea.

I know that’s not terribly helpful, but I’ll say this. On a sprint by sprint basis, I do something tactical, I do something strategic, and I do something in between. And I like to touch all of those items. In a well-running team, you can touch all those items on a sprint basis, if that’s the kind of rhythm that you work at. But if you’re not thinking strategically, then all you are is just a tactical assemblage of features and fixes. And if all you’re doing is thinking strategically, then you’re missing out on the tactical moves that really put you ahead.

So I’m strong in figuring that out. At the end of the day, I think if your users, your customers, however, you define that, if they’re not getting value from you on an ongoing basis, then that’s something you need to look at. Are you spending too much time fixing bugs or something? What is it? Give your people value. That’s the role, that’s the opportunity. And so, if you focus on that item as best you can, with as imperfect data as you can, you will know pretty quickly if you’re wrong. Just get it out there. Get it in someone’s hands. Get them to use it. Oh my God. We were wrong about this thing. Pivot. Change. Go to this other-


Dalia Vasquez: Fail fast. Fail fast.

I like to give people little nuggets here and there because I wish somebody had done it with me. And so, after 20 years you just wish for things, like that magic wand and the Wonder Woman bracelets, I keep waiting, Amazon releases. Maybe I’ll go work for them to make them. But the idea is, if you are a product manager who works at a startup or a very small company, everything is important, and everything is a fire. And everybody wants to put pressure on you and say, “This is what’s most important.”

I have found that creating a business process modeling notation flow helps. Why? Because I reduce the arguments, I reduce the politics, I reduce the, “No, the customer service needs these, but legal is saying that this has to happen. And here is the refactoring of blah.” It’s all-important, right? But if we go from left to right on creating a feature, the picture is very clear. You already know what you need to create and what you don’t, no matter how important they say it is.

If it’s the happy path and you’re trying to get to a goal that is going to give you high value, revenue, lower risk, lower compliance, higher customer satisfaction, higher growth rate, put it on a spreadsheet. It’s very straightforward. You can put something from one to five, give it a point, and say, “This one gives me high value. This one has high risk, has high complexity, blah, blah, blah.” You can see it clearly. If you can’t see the picture, used the BPMN.

If that doesn’t work, they’re going to have to teach people a little bit about it, maybe we need more resources and separate the team to create parallel developments. And that’s a whole nother conversation. It requires 95% psychology. It truly does. You have to be somebody who can speak the lingo with everybody around you, because all of your teammates from other departments, your stakeholders, they’re all going for the same goal. They want the company to succeed, but from their perspective.

It’s like that picture of all the old men, the elderly touching the different parts of the elephant, and they’re all trying to describe it. And the leg, the trunk, everything is important, but the product manager is standing over here like, “Y’all are touching only one part of the whole picture. I can see that all.” Right, Raz? So when you got the picture of the whole elephant, you’re like, “Okay, I got to fit it through this door. And it’s too small.” And they’re like, “No. But wait. The elephant has the open pasture.” It’s like, “No, no, no. There is a fence. I can see the fence. It’s too small. We got to move the fence out first, and then you can get the elephant through, with the part of the body that you want.” And that’s how I see product management and product development. I see it as an elephant, constantly.


Raz Carcoana: Yeah. Dalia, you touched on my favorite part of being a product manager. You talk with so many stakeholders that you have a picture of the company that a lot of folks just don’t have, and you see pieces fit that a lot of folks don’t see how they fit. And then it’s incumbent upon you to tell that story of what you see and show everyone what you see. And a lot of times, once folks start seeing that picture, they start to see how their work fits indifferently. But yeah, that view of the company that you get doing product work and touching every single department, I don’t know that there’s another role that does that in a typical organization, to be honest.

So, going back to the priority, two methods that I provided, one was using the BPMN if you are in a particular feature and that’s all you own, maybe even doing a high eagle view of the entire picture with sub-processes, drilling into different tabs. And then, if you actually have multiple requirements coming in, you can still portray it in a BPMN flow. Because if there’s a, I got to check this flag from a legal perspective, I got to make sure the user, if X, Y, and Z, right?

All of those things can be portrayed. But when all things fail and you want something quick, throw a spreadsheet, do some metrics, and say, “What’s the level of complexity? What’s the value that it brings me? What is the risk associated with it? What’s the growth rate? Would it actually bring me…” Because sometimes, we look at a feature that brings you no money, but it brings you so many customers and it can actually be a MarTech feature within your whole scope, that it can actually be the highest value. Because maybe that’s what you need, referrals.


Bhaji Illuminati: So we only have a couple more minutes left. I would like to pause here and just give you the floor, Tijana, to do a little introduction of yourself. We’ve covered some topics already. So we’ve covered switching from feature focus to outcome focus, making different prioritization and trade-off decisions, the difference of a product manager role at a big company versus a small company. So if you want to pick any of those topics and share some nuggets of wisdom, we could use them.


Tijana Dwight: Sure. So, a little bit of my background. So I started at eBay, during eBay’s hyper-growth from a fairly small, post-IPO, but fairly small company into a huge enterprise. And then, after eBay tried a startup that was biometric payments, then went back to PayPal for many, many years. So I’ve had experience in small, as well as big environments. And now, I’m at Dragonboat as a VP of product. And what really attracted me to Dragonboat, and from my experience as a product manager, going back to the old world of product management.

As a product manager, you really want to focus on, what are the requests? How do you prioritize them? How do you collaborate with everybody, engineering, and UI, testing, and designers, and come up with the best product? You don’t want to spend most of your time communicating to the rest of the org on what you’re doing or trying to get their buy-in on why you’re doing something. A lot of our energy is spent on convincing other people why your product deserves to be in their spot or deserves to get some of the resources from the development.

So now, these days, there are so many tools to help you automate that. And with a little bit of time and investment spent into enabling your work… We all have to work in Jira. We all have to work in certain environments. But going beyond that and setting up your world so that you can minimize the noise, minimize the manual spreadsheets, presentations, and updates, and justify why you’re doing what you’re doing, but also having visibility into understanding what other parts of your company are working on and why. Looking at the full platform across all of it really helps focus on the right things and build the expertise and the in-person connections with the right people across your company that you need.


Bhaji Illuminati: You summarized it well, touched on all the key points. Swapi has a follow-up to that. So how do you minimize it?


Tijana Dwight: So, this is why I joined Dragonboat. Most of us are in Jira. But to me, I look at Dragonboat as a tool to leverage what you are already doing in Jira, import it, and marry with a much bigger picture. So you can still work on your roadmap, on your priorities, update if there are shifts in strategy, escalations, or whatever is going on. You can do that in Jira or in Dragonboat, but you can use tools like Dragonboat to really enhance that visibility to the rest of your org, across different platforms, to your management, to your stakeholders, to whoever is sending in requests, can see where those requests are. And you can then use that time for all the other important things that product managers need to do and focus on.


Dalia Vasquez: Personally, Dragonboat has been my go-to… Even though Jira has it, and there are a lot of other tools out there, Dragonboat is my go-to to see overall progress on a product via fixed version, via stage, and overall. I have a portfolio product. And sometimes it’s really hard because the way I’ve done it is I’ve said, “Okay, a fixed version doesn’t care which product is going in. It cares about the amount of features that are your minimum sellable product, or your minimum buyable,” as people will call it.

And so, I draw a line, and maybe a fixed version of 0.2 only has a sprint worth of work with two components. And we throw them out in product, and there it went. But that one set of components that we just threw out, that widget, or that function, is actually a part of the alpha or the beta of something else on their product suite. And when I’m in Dragonboat, that’s how I see it. And I like to see when the automation from Jira, the guys completes this print, and everything is going done, done, done, done, and I get that one notification that says, “Phase has changed for your epic.” And so, now I know I’m meeting my objective of penetrating the market and growing my customer base.


Bhaji Illuminati: And that’s how we can get you out of your spreadsheets.


Dalia Vasquez: I had to share my spreadsheet with Becky Flint. Because years ago, I was like, Becky, I have this spreadsheet, and here’s how I do things. So Becky pulled me out of the spreadsheet. It is very true. That’s very true.


Bhaji Illuminati: So Venet just threw into the chat, “What’s the typical hierarchy you prefer?” He said, “Portfolio, initiative, epic, US?”


Dalia Vasquez: From my perspective, because I’m owning portfolios, it depends on the day of the week. So during the beginning of the week, I have to see it at a portfolio level. Because that’s when I get my status, that’s where I get… If it’s the beginning of the sprint… The end of the sprint, and right before the beginning of one, I also take a look at it at a portfolio level, in case I missed out on something huge that I need to squeeze in from the perspective of by initiative, is because I’m speaking with a stakeholder and somebody brought something up that I’m not sure it was included. So I have to go down to the initiative level.


Tijana Dwight: Yeah, it depends on what you’re looking at. So different portfolios will be doing work for different high-level initiatives. And then, under that, depending on what level of detail you’re trying to get to, you can then look at your epics and your stories. But the nice thing is, everything can roll up to the top initiatives, and the top OKRs, and see how it affects different portfolios and different roadmaps.


Raz Carcoana: For me, I’d say that I’ve seen variances between large and small companies, which is a topic we touched on before. Obviously, as a small organization, you may not have a whole lot of portfolios or initiatives. And so, the hierarchy must be pretty simple to juggle and manage. User story, epic, initiative, portfolio, I’ve seen quite common. But also, the other way around, with initiatives that touch multiple portfolios in large or medium-sized organizations.

You have an initiative that touches a bunch of different pieces and components of the business, and so they could be the parent over the portfolio. So I think ultimately, though, that particular view, how product views the work, is something that the entire organization needs to align on as well, in order for product folks to be effective. So whichever hierarchy you do choose and promote, I think alignment is incredibly important in order to be effective.


Bhaji Illuminati: Do you have any advice for how to create that alignment and be more effective?


Raz Carcoana: Yeah. I learned a long time ago that agreement is less preferable than alignment. Because even if you don’t have an agreement, if you have alignment, you can move forward. And I think ultimately, the way that I work is I like to see the work as a thing that is separate from me, that all of my partners weigh in on, and contribute to, and refine, and make better as it works through its process. So as you engage with various stakeholders with concerns about whatever the problem might be, they need to feel empowered that they can affect and nudge the alignment, and change the trajectory with their feedback. And sometimes they can, and sometimes they won’t be able to. But having that open channel of communications and that honesty really goes a long way into creating alignment. Yeah.


Dalia Vasquez: Yeah. I personally have had multiple personalities to deal with, and I, myself, I’m not easy. So going through that route, it’s been where, if I know that somebody’s giving me a lot of pushback, one of the things I do is create a one on one to see what the concern is. If you see yourself, like Raz was saying, as a service provider, then you’re actually helping and counseling your team. You have to put that hat on. You’re the glue that brings everybody together, and that makes a lot of things happen.

You can’t see it as, “I’m going to gain personal anything.” Because you don’t expect to be recognized. You don’t expect to say, “Oh my gosh, my face is on the news because I release this product.” No, you’re a service provider to others. And as a team, you make this happen. And when you approach it that way, you can get through agreements more than alignments a lot faster. In agreement, if you ask the other person what is the concern in a one on one, more than likely, you will know that that area that they’re covering has a lot of risks, accountability, and it helps you value the priorities a lot better.

And then, at the same time, you can actually grow yourself in that picture of the elephant. Because they’re only seeing the leg, they’re seeing the leg is hurt. You’re seeing the whole body. They don’t know the tail just got cut off and the guy is not balanced. So you can give them that perspective, and say, “Hey, the tail is having issues right now, so we’ll come back to the leg right after the tail is fixed.”

And then, when you do that, you actually get alignment. Now, there are difficult personalities that you may never just go across. And that’s okay, too. You just have to say, “Okay, well, this is why your leg is going to have to wait. Because the infection on the tail is greater.” That’s just it. And you’re just going to have to live with it. And if you have issues with it, then go up my chain of command, be very military proactive, and just be like, “With all due respect, sir.” And that’s it.


Tijana Dwight: And to that point, that’s why I love that there are tools today to put all that in one place, make it as accessible and visible as possible, so you’re not making decisions… In our world, there are a lot of passionate people. And you’re not making decisions based on who’s the loudest in the room. You have tools.


Raz Carcoana: Or the highest-paid.


Tijana Dwight: Exactly. You have tools to put it together and at the impact of whatever change you’re talking about, that it has on all the portfolios. Is everybody meeting their OKRs? Things that we talked about in the beginning. Is that happening? Do we need to adjust based on that? It’s not based on opinions, it’s based on solid data and facts, so that you can build a relationship and not focus on, how do I get through to this person.


The Secret Propelling Product Leaders Forward CTA

Power your team with Dragonboat

What are the changes and new approaches product managers should be aware of leading into 2022? How (and why) should you build a product-centric organization by taking a portfolio approach? Learn everything you need to know in this Q&A with product managers Raz Carcoana, Tijana Dwight, and Dalia Vazquez.

This Webinar Covers How to: 

  • How product management has evolved in 2022
  • Are Expectations of Product Manager Goals Different From Startups to Larger Companies?
  • How Should You Set KPIs for Product-Market Fit?
  • Transitioning from ‘Feature-Factories’ to ‘Outcome-Focused’
  • How Do You Prioritize your Work?
  • What is the Best Product Hierarchy?
  • How Do You Build Alignment?

The full transcript is provided after registration.

Meet the Speakers 

Raz Carcoana is a product leader with over 20 years of experience delivering innovative products and experiences in heavily regulated industries. He is passionate about user-focused outcome-driven product management. Raz is always on the hunt for great metrics and great narratives that drive remarkable products.

Tijana Dwight is an experienced product and product marketing leader with over 15 years of experience in fast-paced, high-growth environments such as PayPal and eBay. She is passionate about actively engaging with customers to deeply understand their needs as well as any unique requirements, market trends, and innovation opportunities.

Dalia Vazquez started a life of strategy as a Cryptologic Technician in the USN over 20 years ago. Since she has founded companies and led software product strategies and lifecycles for companies ranging from Incubators to Fortune 50. Author of “Product Strategy in a Flow” a lean way to strategize product development for PaaS, SaaS, Blockchain, and Mobile Apps for Minimum Sellable Products that are high in quality and quick to market.

How Product Management has Evolved

When product management began there were a lot of parallels with project management as a discipline. Back then, a product manager was typically somebody dealing with a manufacturing company who owned a tangible product. And as the software industry grew, there had to be somebody to connect those dots.

One executive leader I worked with called product management the connective tissue that brings the bones and the muscles together. And that’s really where product seems to have its sweet spot. It’s those pieces that need to be connected to make the right decisions throughout an organization. So I’ve seen it evolve from project management. But now, it’s got these wonderful offshoots like product managers with a focus on data or product management with a focus on operations.

Raz Carcoana

Product management can now be applied to a specific industry to create sub-genres of product that are unique because they combine skill sets that haven’t been taught traditionally. Product managers are largely counted on to do creative think-work for the organization.

How are Expectations of Product Manager Goals Different From Startups to Larger Companies?

The size of the company brings a unique set of challenges in each environment.

Smaller Organizations

In a smaller organization, the KPIs and the OKRs targeted are nascent in nature. New companies are just starting to build. Therefore, they are setting the anchors and the foundation to measure their business over time. Product managers at startups will not only have a lot of influence over these decisions but will also end up having to do a lot of trial and error.

Larger Organizations

In contrast, at larger organizations, metrics should have already been established and the organization should be matured. The product management role there will have less definition and be more about depth. That means PMs need to provide an understanding of what drives each OKR, add data to that, and find ways to move the needle. 

“Product managers are kind of mini CEOs in the sense that they will be the ones to help define the KPIs we should be looking for and how to model the product. The company will look to them to find the right metrics when releasing the product.”

Dalia Vasquez

How Should You Set KPIs for Product-Market Fit?

KPIs and OKRs need to be flexible as the business evolves and as they learn more about users. Things will inevitably change as businesses prove different things at every stage of growth. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of product managers to continually ask themselves “are those the right indicators?”.

“I see KPIs and growth as two planets with a gravitational force that pull each other. As product changes you need to see if the metrics are right. And your metrics will influence the direction you go in. And those will continuously go back and forth. So that leads to one of the primary jobs of the product manager, which is to drive those conversations around change.

Organizations inherently want to be static because there is structure and predictability there. That’s why you need product, to keep evolving and nudging the business. And the tools for that evolution are your product metrics, the data that supports the metrics, and the conversations around change.”

Raz Carcoana

Dalia advises to split product and value-prop and identify within the product or suite of products, the revenue-driving activities. That way, the focus can be put on revenue-producing activities much like making investments in a portfolio. Then look at alpha and beta users to provide feedback. From there, start with the beta and see if it’s hitting and more importantly, staying with them.

Transitioning from ‘Feature-Factories’ to ‘Outcome-Focused’

It’s natural for small companies to resemble a feature factory early on because they will largely be pushed by user feedback. However, companies need to be careful not to fall into a feature-factory mindset. Successful companies will always eventually transition into being data-driven and evaluating what is valuable. They will ask themselves, “from what is put out, what has it taught the organization about its users?” That transformation occurs with growth and goes back to the importance of having evolving KPIs.

Above all, outcome-focused organizations are iterative. No organization will have measured the right things from the very start. It’s common for companies to realize years later that there is something valuable to be measured. And this metric would have provided more value had it been measured from the start, but that’s not something that can be predicted. It is more important to have continuous look-backs to make the right decisions for product. That will prevent companies from falling into a build-trap.

“To be a successful product manager you need to have a passion for what you do. You need to go in-depth with your product. And go into those details that no one else wants to get into. That part is incredibly important, especially as the voice of the organization, to drive conversations.”

Raz Carcoana

How Do You Prioritize Your Work?

Product managers are constantly asking themselves “where should I spend my time and resources to make the biggest impact?”. But when it comes down to it, until it’s done, it can’t be measured. And if it can’t be measured, product managers can’t tell if it’s working. The more important thing is to build fast off of the data, and quickly adjust based on results.

Raz boils It down to stakeholder alignment and getting everyone to execute at the same time. There can be a lot of friction and disagreement. Disagreement is an important part of the conversation. However, once aligned, it’s time to roll out, execute, and change directions as necessary. Organizations need to remain objective to the goal rather than the original idea.

Everyone from different departments are going for the same goal but from their perspective. They can only see one part of the whole picture. Product managers spend time communicating with a lot of stakeholders. Therefore, they are the ones who have a picture of the company that a lot of people in the organizations won’t have. And so it is up to the product manager to share the context and tell the story. Then once they see that picture, they’ll see how their work fits in.

“People are always looking for a magic wand or Wonder Woman’s bracelets to make that decision, but the truth is everything is important and everything is a fire, especially at a startup. So what I have found that works to minimize the noise and politics and brings the full picture is using a tool to put it down and score it out. Because it’s all-important, but if we have a source-of-truth, you already know what you need to create.”

Dalia Vasquez

Building Alignment as a Company

Multiple personalities will not be easy to deal with. However, only as a team can a product organization effectively make things happen. That’s when product managers have to act as the glue between departments and create alignment. Even if there’s no agreement, if there’s alignment, the organization can move forward.

Various stakeholders need to feel empowered that they can change the company trajectory with their feedback. They may not always be able to, but what is important is having that open line of communication. That will go a long way in contributing to the success of a product organization. 

Tijana notes that that is why a product portfolio management tool is so helpful because it makes it easier to provide the whole picture.

“In our world, there are a lot of passionate people. Tools make it so that you are not making those critical decisions based on the loudest person in the room. Your tool showcases the impact of whatever change you’re talking about on all the portfolios. You can see if everyone is hitting their OKRs and you can adjust on that. It’s not based on opinions, but on data. That way you can build relationships in your organization, rather than focusing on getting through to a specific person.”

Tijana Dwight

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