Lessons as a Developer from Web Directions Product Conf

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Made in Australia.

In the lead up to the Web Directions Summit 2019 Patrick, one of our Developers, took the opportunity to review his experiences at the Web Directions Product Conference. Learning is an important part of working at Cogent, it’s one of our core values, and Patrick used some of his learning budget to attend the conference. This blog adds another layer to the learning cycle as we share Patrick’s insights with you!

In the beginning of August 2019 I attended the Product focused Web Directions conference. Here are my take aways from two days that I found very valuable as a developer, gaining different insights than I would usually find at an engineering-focused conference. I expect I’ll go to many more product focused events in the future.

David Demaree, Product Manager of Google’s Material Design, gave a fantastic opening keynote. He focused on how to define what a Product Manager does, and the attributes that we should measure a Product Manager by.

These attributes are: strategy, execution, storytelling, domain knowledge and leadership. Each individual can be measured against each of these traits and David gave a number of examples demonstrating strengths and weaknesses across a range of hypothetical Product Managers.

David also explained the importance of narrative as a way to create understanding between the team and the product, and between users and the product. Storytelling to allows users to understand how the product relates to them. These user stories are brought to the team further deepen their understanding of what they are building, but also who they are building for and why. The team also needs something concrete and actionable to work on. Storytelling helps the team create a specific solution for a specific problem for a specific user market.

Success metrics should be associated with a narrative to provide meaning to the changes in raw data metrics.

These might not be novel ideas, but for me it was a compelling framing. A system that makes intuitive sense. David used to be an engineer at Typekit, and this talk got me excited that perhaps there could be product management,  or aspects of it,  in my future. He mentioned a quote from Leland Rechis, a Product Manager at Google

“Product Managers take in a firehose of information and output it as structure”

Sounds like what we often do in software engineering.

Anna Harrison from Thnx talked about ‘Hum’ within teams. It’s a concept that sounds a bit odd at first, but after listening to her talk, I’m convinced that it’s something I have observed and experienced in teams. She argues you can’t just scale Hum. Teams work best when culture, collaboration and communication align, so it’s important to keep this state of hum during projects. Hum becomes even more important as projects evolve, bearing in mind it takes roughly six months to grow trust within a team. 

Nicole Brolan, Chief Product Officer at Seek, gave really great stories of failed projects and how the team had to tried to avoid failure. Often their attempts to bet on the right horse ended up backfiring. Teams want to act decisively, but by doing so, they can become so emotionally invested in the wrong solutions. Nicole suggested casting a wider net with decision-making techniques to avoid confirmation bias.

Some of my favourite one-liners from the conference:

  • “It takes 7 minutes for the mood of a leader to infect the team”  Michelle McQuad, MAPP
  • “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made” Immanuel Kant
  • The IKEA effect — people place a disproportionately high value on products they partially create.

Day two began with anote with Sherif Mansour, a Distinguished Product Manager at Atlassian. His unusual job title was explained in the talk, as Atlassian offers two paths for senior staff: either they can go into management within their area (design, development, product management) or they further specialise in their area as an individual contributor without the management side.

This addresses the common problem of people going into management who are not suited or interested in management because they had no other way to climb the ladder.

Sherif encouraged common product management tasks such as customer interviews, personas, story mapping, surveys, data analysis to always be done with other members of the team and never alone by the manager. This meant the learning was shared instead of having to be re-communicated back to the team, and the team was far more involved in the understanding of who the product was for and why it mattered to them.

Build-a-Box was a way to involve storytelling and a way for teams to get more involved. People would use pens and paper to draw what the product would say and look like if it were sold on the shelf in a cardboard box. It can work for both the entire product and a particular feature.

On the topic of planning for the next ten years of your career, Sherif encouraged us to write down the activities we want to be doing in ten years instead of what title we want in ten years. This resonated with me, as I have not always felt content with being put into a ‘developer’ or ‘programmer‘ box, and if I want to draw wireframes or do user research it seems I must move into the ‘designer’ or ‘product manager’ box. 

Helping with this multi-angled view is the PM Craft Triangle, which plots people within the three axis of general manager, artist and scientist. Sherif said practically no-one sits at dead centre, but rather people tend toward one or two of these traits. I plotted myself near the artist corner, looking at management as a skill I want to grow in, and scientist as something that has never really captured my attention.

Keen to know more about what it’s like to work at Cogent? Find out more over at our Careers page.

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