Welcome to the third season of our continuing series of candid, one-on-one interviews with product management professionals!
In the spotlight today is Andre Bakken, Senior Director of Product Management at The Weather Company.
What process has he found to be most successful for bringing powerful products to market? What do you do when things fail or the release goes sideways? Read on…
Andre, what’s it like working for The Weather Company?
The Weather Company is all about providing superior data to its customers. We’re analyzing and making forecasts, then taking those forecasts and bundling them into services and applications that apply to media, insurance, energy, and aviation. It’s a really cool place to work.
You’re building products for a variety of different industries and users. How do you interact with them and turn those learnings into actionable next steps?
Hearing from your customers can be the best and most difficult part about a product manager’s job because you’re constantly trying to understand what they’re saying they want and what they really need.
The key to me is to ask your users questions, but also spend a day in their shoes. Watch what they’re doing. Try to get to the heart of the problem, then determine a solution.
Basically, you need to define the problem then get the customer to validate your understanding of the problem and then validate a solution. Ask them to walk through the prototype. Most customers and users are smarter about applications today than 10 years ago, which is great, because they’re better able to articulate what they do like and don’t like about the software or hardware you put in front of them.
How is success defined and measured for new features you release?
Is the customer using it? Then we can track the analytics. Are they telling colleagues about the product? Then we can track referrals. What emotion are they putting into those recommendations? The emotion can be a little harder to pin down because it’s more subjective. But I know, when someone comes up to me and says, “Here are two of my colleagues; can you show them what you showed me?” then I know we’ve done something right.
Can you describe your process?
I think the classic approach is the best: Start with market requirements. You need to know the market, know what problem you’re trying to solve, understand the total market, and make your business case. I advise against taking a Big Bang approach. Instead, go to market with a sample set. Define increments by buzz and by the value they deliver. Get users and clients involved in the early stages. Then, when it comes time for the release, you have rich use cases and stories that people can relate to.
It’s a fact of life, there will be buggy releases sometimes. The question is, how do you handle those rough times? My general thought is: Be honest. Owe up to the fact that we messed up, explain how, and also how we’re going to make it better. In a sense, it’s similar to the validation process: You’re getting feedback from the market, and then asking, is this okay?
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
I started programming in high school. I had one English teach who told us how to get through writer’s block. He said, when you’re stuck, don’t write on paper; think it through in your head. In product management, you need to communicate a lot — and you’re not always going to have Powerpoint or a teleprompter — so being able to think things through from different perspectives is critical.
What kinds of software were you writing in school?
I created a Star Trek game; it was like the old paper games. You’d make decisions based on Klingon ships coming toward you, and decide what weapons to use. That was primarily a text-based game. After that, I built a billiards game, which was much more intensive because it was graphical with pretty complex math.
Kirk or Picard?
I really liked them both, but I’d say Picard. Less of a cowboy, more pragmatic.
What positive and/or negative trends do you see in product management?
On the positive side, the tools are getting better. We also have access to better metrics and dashboards, which makes it easier to understand how products are doing.
On the negative side, because apps are getting easier to build, some people assume anyone can be a product manager now products can market themselves. Unfortunately, product management will happen in a vacuum and that can have a really bad affect on the company and its customers.