Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Great Product Managers Steal - The Hardest Easy Job in Tech

We've all heard the (wrongly?) Picasso-attributed quote, "Good artists copy; great artists steal." And there is a similar quote around coding circles, "Great developers are lazy." However, this refers to the common practice of reusing code that someone else has already written. Well, the same holds true for product managers.

Now, before the trolls gather, I want to explain. I do not condone the use of wget as a tool of the trade. However, I do believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Also, inspiration is often derived from the collective conscious; that great site you used to do X, seeped into your latest instantiation of the feature you're working on. Which is to say, others can also be inspired, by the same things you were, to draw the same conclusion that you did. But, not all stealing is equal. So, now that that's out of the way, here's how I steal.

Product managers are problem solvers and lucky for us, if you have a wide enough lens, there are very few new problems. For example, MapReduce looks like something implemented in the Linux Kernel, which looks like a classic queuing problem. Now, this is easier said then done. As a product manager you are constantly looking to competitors, best of breed companies, and hockey-sticking startups to try to determine how you can bring some of that to your product / company. And if you aren't, it certainly doesn't help that your 'business counterparts' are. But, does implementing a me-too search engine make you Google. In actuality, it probably makes you more Cuil than cool. So, be careful where you steal from, because it might not work for your business.

Personally, I prefer to steal from as close to home as possible. Now, what does that mean? Currently, I work for Best Buy; a company in the middle of a great retail turnaround. Now, every analyst and pundit thought we were long-for dead; the nerdy kid who loses his lunch day after day to the elusive interwebz; a part of the new world of retail we just don't understand...

So, steal from close to home? You can't be at Best Buy long without hearing the story of Dick Schulze, our founder, and the company's entrepreneurial roots. And if you're lucky, you can find Dick on-campus and ask him about it yourself. The gist is retail is a simple business. When an entrepreneur worked in a single store everyday, he was able to deliver an experience that allowed him to build what you know today as Best Buy. As a product manager for Best Buy, that's where I choose to steal from. Dick's customers back then, are my customers now (more or less). The company culture from then, is the company culture now (more or less). Rather than trying to turn Best Buy into Amazon, I rather turn Best Buy into Best Buy, just a modern version of past glory days. In the current era, that means web, mobile web, apps, omni-channel experiences (where the web and the store meet), in-store analytics, complex algorithms and the like. But, we can't focus on new applications of new technology in an old space. We have to focus on customer problems, which tend to be old, core problems that are incrementally different because the world has changed. For example, customers have always wanted competitive prices and a great in-store experience. But, now, the bar is higher than it has ever been. And since everything old becomes new again, I prefer to look back and see what worked in the past and use it as the inspiration to go forward.

As product managers, we have to discover what delights and what solves actual customer problems and scale that to the world we live in today, with an eye on where we might be tomorrow.

Now that you've seen what makes it easy, let me introduce you to what makes it hard. The world has changed. The customer is more sophisticated than ever and is ever becoming harder and harder to impress. In most cases, the customer knows more about a particular item than an employee. If I want to buy a blue dinglehopper, 30 seconds of internet research makes me as, if not more, knowledgable than the sales person. And the advantage of being able to get something now, by going to a store, is quickly waning. After all, how many things do we actually need RIGHT NOW? And if you are Best Buy, it's really hard. Why? Because our solutions have to work for more than 100,000 Blue Shirts, in more than 1100 stores, selling hundreds of thousands to millions of products, to more than 250 million annual visitors.

So, when you steal, steal solutions to customers' problems and ALWAYS start with the biggest problem. Nothing hurts more when you deliver a product only to find out that Your Solution Is Not My Problem

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