Building Knowledge Management products

You may want to start by reading part 1 of the series: What is Knowledge Management and why should you care?

Our users are our colleagues. Whether they are working in games, human resources or IT, they require an entire ecosystem of products to help them access the knowledge they need.

What are the products?

We map our products from the user’s perspective. Our products form 4 concentric circles, starting from the user in the centre moving outwards to ‘my team’, ‘my networks’ and the outermost layer ‘the company’.

Me
Tools with information relating to only you.

They help you:
– store personal files
– take online courses
– learn about your work habits
My team
Daily tools to collaborate with an immediate team.

They help you:
– call and chat with your team mates
– document your work
– manage tickets
– share and access team files
My networks
Tools which link different networks of people who have something in common (eg location, profession, interests).

They help you:
– access information related to your office building or studio
– find like-minded people to chat to
– learn about your fields of interest
The company
The platforms and data infrastructure that underpin all the other tools.

They help you
– access company-wide information
– search across and navigate between all the different spaces
– get a personalised experience

They also help our team manage internal tools and platforms.

Combing in-house products with off-the-shelf solutions

The tools we manage aren’t all products that we’ve built internally. In fact it’s about a 50-50 split between products developed in-house and products we’ve bought and implemented within the organisation. The Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) market for internal tools is vast and offers many opportunities to address user needs without investing in our own tools. 

Regardless of your products, the product manager’s role is two-fold:

  • to ensure that we’re providing value to the users and, 
  • to develop a common understanding on what we are (and what we are not) delivering, for the team, our users, partners and stakeholders. 

However, the types of activities our PMs do vary depending on whether they’re managing in-house or SaaS tools.

Different to a classic PM role, PMs working on SaaS tools will closely monitor our vendor’s roadmap and in some cases seek to influence it. They will review new features, working with user researchers to identify how these may impact our users’ experience. They will also consider what integrations with our ecosystem are necessary. They will then collaborate with IT infrastructure teams to manage the release of features and communicate these changes to users. 

Focussing on the employee experience

We want our employees to be able to work more efficiently and produce better quality work. This means we think a lot about the ‘noise’ our products create. We can’t have products competing for our users’ attention. So we make sure that our tools are unobtrusive to avoid distracting them from their daily work. 

That’s why it’s important that we design an ecosystem based on the employee experience and their journeys across our tools. We create our roadmaps based on their needs and within user journeys, rather than focussing on individual products.

Adapting to changing needs

Knowledge Management is a rapidly evolving field. Even in normal times, we’re having to adapt to new user needs and disruptive tools in the market. The recent health crisis has only increased the speed of change. The rapid shift towards working from home in early 2020 meant we had to quickly adapt.

New behaviours and expectations continue to emerge and we’re certainly expecting more change. Therefore we are closely observing our users, as we focus on building a digital workplace where all employees can focus on what’s important because they have the right knowledge at their fingertips.

What is Knowledge Management and why should you care?

Knowledge Management, whether you have a department for it or not, is a crucial part of how companies function. 

In an organisation with thousands of people working across the world, knowledge is not only created constantly, but it is also shared and consumed with near immediacy. Our designers are coming up with new ideas, our engineers are solving technical challenges, and our marketers are uncovering new trends in the industry. 

Managing that knowledge effectively allows companies to achieve better performance, because it avoids duplication and promotes the use of best practices 1. These mean cost and time savings for the organisation, making it more competitive. 

Good knowledge management not only benefits the company, it also creates a happier workforce. 

Our users expect to have the right information at the right time and it’s our role to enable that.

I dare you to recall the last time you trawled through never-ending search results across document management systems, email or your intranet… looking for THAT document that you need. That is the pain we try to relieve.

Dilbert link

You’re not alone. Knowledge workers waste between 20 and 30% of their time searching for information 2. A particular study found workers to be spending 1.9 hours a week searching for but not finding documents and 1.5 hours a week recreating documents that already exist 3.

We want an organisation where knowledge can be reused with near-immediacy to enable our employees to work more efficiently and produce better quality work, while helping them flourish in their job. 

Therefore our product vision is to build a digital workplace where all employees can focus on what’s important because they have the right knowledge at their fingertips.

This is part of a series on being a product manager in Knowledge Management. See part 2 on building Knowledge Management products.

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Footnotes

  1. There’s lots of stuff in academic literature about that. You could start with Abubakar et al, 2019.
  2. See ‘Employees spend more than 25% of their time searching for the information they need to do their jobs‘ and ‘Do workers still waste time searching for information?
  3. Bridging the Information Worker productivity gap in Western Europe: New challenges and opportunities for IT

Starting as a manager of product managers

Inspired by a former colleague’s blogpost about things to do as a new product manager joining a team (which has now become a Trello board) and because I have just started a new role, I thought to add to Steve’s piece by reflecting on what to do when you start as a manager of product managers. 

I started nearly 3 months ago and while this period is often referred to as ‘onboarding’, it’s been much more a ‘fact finding mission’.

I’ve always been convinced that Product Management is 50% story-telling, and therefore it’s probably no surprise that the classic ‘What, Why, When, Where, Who, How and How much?’ helped me structure my thinking as to what questions to ask. 

  • What: the product(s)
  • Why: the strategy
  • When: natural lifecycles
  • Where: the company
  • Who: your team and your stakeholders
  • How: product craft and agile working
  • How much: the budget

What: the product(s)

Getting to know the products your team manages is the pretty obvious thing to do. You may already be familiar with the product, or you at least played around with it during the recruitment process. Though, if like me, you’re working on tools that aren’t customer-facing, this might be your first real interaction with the products. 

The over-arching questions I had about the products were: 

  • Who are the users?
  • What user needs does it meet? 
  • What is the vision?
  • What are the main metrics?
  • Who are your key stakeholders?
  • What is the technology?
  • How well do we understand the product usage (data and user research?)
  • What is its adoption?

Why: the strategy

Here I worked my way down from understanding the company strategy overall, then understand how my department fed into the overall strategy and what our strategy was.

I also tried to understand the rate at which these change. Looking at previous strategies will give you the historical context as to why things are the way they are and an idea of how often things change.

When: natural lifecycles

All places of work have their natural rhythms. They are in part imposed by financial and fiscal policies but also show up in the rate by which organisational change happens and how often people move roles. Beyond looking at budgeting cycles, trying to get a sense of the rhythm isn’t always straightforward.

Some of the questions I had were:

  • For what period do objectives , strategies and budget get defined? What ceremonies mark these periods?
  • What is the time someone typically spends on the team or in the department? How long have my colleagues been here? Have they always had the same roles? What is the rate of change here?
  • How long has the department existed in the shape it does now? 

View the autosave

Where: the company

Beyond its strategy, there’s many things that you need to know about the company, and the higher you are in seniority the more important it is.

Depending on the size and age of a company, this can take quite a long time. In a big organisation you’ll probably never get to the end of this before something changes.

My questions at the beginning were about:

  • The industry we operate in (as it was new to me)
    • how does my company/organisation compare to others?
    • what are the main challenges and trends in the market?
  • Company culture
    • What behaviours get rewarded?
    • How do new initiatives get put forward?
    • How candid are people in their approach?
  • Company structure
    • How does my department fit in?
    • What other parts of the organisation do we work with?
    • How is power distributed?

Who: your team and your stakeholders

Of course, a huge part of the first few months is getting to know the people you work with. Starting with the product managers and the people who make up the product teams (design, dev, research, QA etc).

I asked the people I directly managed about:

  • Their background: How did they arrive to product?
  • What are their strengths and points of growth?
  • What are their biggest challenges?
  • What do they love/hate about the work?
  • How do they rate the collaboration with others?

And I try to get them to know personally as well. This can depend a lot on each person, as we all have a different level of comfort when it comes to talking about personal stuff at work. I won’t force a conversation about their personal lives, but when it feels good, I don’t hesitate to engage in conversations about things like family, hobbies etc.

I had very similar conversations with the people who are in our product teams as I had with the product managers, especially if I will work with them directly. I won’t have the same intentions, as I don’t have managerial responsibilities here. But understanding how they want to develop is important so that I can find opportunities to help them grow.

Then there’s the stakeholders. This is a whole subject in itself of course, but you’ve got to start somewhere. First I tried to understand from my team who the major stakeholders were, how they were impacting the products. Where they had stakeholder maps, this was really useful.

Next step is meeting them. This can take a while, so I had to do this strategically. I asked both my team and manager for advice on the order in which I should meet people. Of course they didn’t quite match up, but based on their recommendations I was able to put together a plan.

Indeed, some stakeholders were perfectly happy to meet with me when I had very little knowledge about our team, products, company etc. They were very patient to help me understand how they fit in and would answer any questions I had. Others were best to leave for a bit further down the line. They wanted to gauge your approach, suss you out, and it was better to come somewhat prepared.

How: product craft and agile working

Like for many other managers of product managers, I also have a responsibility over the overall product discipline in my area. So understanding how we worked was crucial to see how I can bring about improvements.

The main questions I had at the beginning:

  • How and where do we communicate about our products?
  • Where and how do we gather evidence to inform our decisions?
  • How do we collaborate with other disciplines?
  • How often do we release code?
  • What expertise is key for our product managers (technical, market, users, all of them?)

How much: the budget

This is not something you want to leave for last, because it’s the thing that can really hinder you if you don’t pay attention. As a manager of product managers, you’re much more likely to be involved in defining budgets or at least getting a say in where money gets spend. 

It’s crucial to understand when the budget gets decided and by who, and understand:

  • When do you need to start making your case for money? 
  • How much flex is there in the current budget?
  • How does it get adjusted?
  • Where are we now in terms of spending?

In conclusion

This was me at the end of every meeting

Above is probably only a fraction of the questions that I asked and will continue to ask. Treating the start on a job as a quest or a discovery really helped me frame my thinking and being ok with not knowing. The free pass you get when you start a job to spend all your breath on questions, is a huge opportunity.

Also… I sometimes fell into the trap of saying ‘I have a stupid question’ which made me instantly cringe inside. No question is stupid, there’s no need to belittle myself. I therefore created a ‘stupid question jar’ with a euro for every time I said that out loud. I’m happy to report that at the time of writing there were only 2 euros in the jar!

What about a squiggly product career?

‘What are you building here?’ was an interview question that dumbfounded me 5 years ago. That day, I mumbled an incoherent answer. 

In hindsight, I have a better response: a squiggly career*. With every new product job I have changed industries, working across non-profit, legal, government and now gaming. I have chosen to focus on the product craft without settling on a specific industry. 

Here’s my thoughts on what’s good/bad or easy/hard about that approach, as well as some thoughts on how to make that choice for yourself. 

Employers and recruiters may say ‘become an expert’ 

While this isn’t everyone’s view, I have repeatedly heard from companies and recruiters that they look for PMs with the right industry experience. My most recent example is a recruiter from Spotify who shared some insight into how he selects CVs.

He considers 6 seconds a generous amount of time to spend reviewing a CV. Being time-poor, beyond focussing on experience as a product manager, he requires relevant industry and domain experience. That means that it’s not just music/ subscription services you should know about, but also he’d like you to have experience in the domain you’re applying for (eg payments). 

When asked about what to do if you didn’t have the necessary industry/ domain expertise, he said be prepared to either go in at the same level as you are or potentially go down in seniority. Also, you should invest a lot of time in learning about the domain/industry before applying for the role and be ready to make a pretty strong case as to why you are pivoting. 

What I also sensed in his answer is that his expectation was that you would only be pivoting that one time. You should show your commitment to focussing on this industry and domain for the longer term. 

I can definitely see where he is coming from, and for a company like Spotify with hundreds of PMs and a high appeal, maybe having these types of requirements makes sense.

I can also see it from a PM’s perspective – becoming an expert in an industry can be highly stimulating when it’s your passion.

However, I know it’s not for me. I never had a 10-point plan for my career. When I changed jobs it was because the next opportunity was something I was excited about and where I would learn a lot, not necessarily because it was an obvious choice.

Why it’s worth it

In the short term, a squiggly career may be hard. It requires resilience, an ability to learn, and a true openness to new ideas and ways of working. However, it also gives you the exposure you need to become really well-rounded and develop a broad perspective.

Through my squiggly career, I have not only explored different domain, I’ve also worked in companies of different sizes, on both very technical things as well as transformation/change management projects, have managed a team on a shoestring, and have had a well-resourced team.

This means I am now extremely adaptable. I have learned the advantages and disadvantages of these environments and am able to adapt to a new role and bring in the things I have seen work elsewhere. 

Through these experiences I have become really good at being thrown into new things. While I get stressed and nervous like everyone else, uncertainty isn’t what scares me. I have acquired techniques to make sense of uncertainty and ambiguity, and I have the resilience to know that I have been in this situation before and will be able to deal with it, and I know how to support my team through it as well. 

Some top tips on making a squiggly product career work for you

1. Decide whether this is really what you want

It’s hard work. And from a logistical perspective, it also requires you to be in a place where there’s lots of product jobs, or you’ll have to be flexible with either working remotely or be willing to relocate. 

I was in London for my early career, and am now in Paris, and that has made this approach much easier.

Life has many different priorities, so this might just not work for you.

You may also find that you particularly love a domain. If that’s the case, that’s great, go for it!

2. Get really good at learning

A growth mindset will support you through the different stages of your squiggly product career because learning has to be at the centre of everything you do. 

The most crucial part is to learn about yourself and really understand how you learn. Then it is to be intentional about your learning. Have clarity on what you need to learn, don’t let the world happen to you. 

3. Build a strong narrative

With a squiggly career your job titles and previous experience are unlikely to tell a coherent narrative. You need to take charge of your story, and make sure you have a good idea of who you are and what you care about. 

Finding the golden thread throughout your different experiences can help create that. Add that to your intro on your CV or LinkedIn, but also have that ready when someone asks you why you want a job, or ‘what are you building here?’.

4. Keep your network going

Your professional network is a crucial aspect of your career development, regardless how squiggly your product career is.

While you may remain connected to your product network, changing industry can mean you lose touch with people you know from previous roles. This may be ok, but it’s worth being intentional about who you want to stay in touch with and make efforts to do so. Squiggles don’t mean you can’t return to a previous company or industry.

*When I was trying to describe my career, I first thought to call it a ‘portfolio career’, but then I came across the squiggly career’s podcast. It’s a brilliant podcast by Amazing if that strives to make work better for everyone – particularly in the context of careers that don’t follow a linear path. 

So I thought to name the blogpost squiggly careers to reference Helen and Sarah’s excellent work – but also because I realised that it reflects my career better than ‘portfolio career’.

Guest post: Deepfakes – What are they?

by Chris

Watching and reacting to the Buscemi-Lawrence video

At first glance it looks like Steve Buscemi has expanded his wardrobe, donning a sparkling, red dress at an awards Q&A event. Once he speaks, or rather she speaks you realise that the voice coming from his mouth is not his own. It’s the voice of Jennifer Lawrence.

My smirk of seeing Buscemi in a dress is replaced by confusion as I realise what I am watching. It’s Buscemi’s face superimposed onto Lawrence’s body. Actually it’s more than that. Online, we are accustomed to frankenstein images of faces cropped on to different bodies.

Only there’s nothing crude about this creation. Buscemi’s face is moulded onto Lawrence’s body, so that her gestures become his own. Head, eye, mouth movements almost imperceptible to the eye align perfectly. It’s such a close recreation that without prior knowledge of both actors; recognition of their image and distinctive voice one would find it difficult to know that this event has not occurred as shown in front of live cameras. Indeed, it was dreamt and created in the mind of a programmer.

The depth of the fakery produced by this technology is apt given its name: a deepfake.

How are deepfakes made?

Actually the name ‘deepfake’ comes from the deep learning algorithm used to create these fake moving images.

To make a deepfake one requires three ingredients. A computer, a working knowledge of a neural network, known as a ‘generative adversarial network’ or GAN,  and video footage of a person or persons to train the network. Alternatively, it is just as easy to pay a programmer to create a deepfake for you, for little cost.

Video footage is fed into the GAN which is actually composed of two neural networks. The first network tries to make the video footage align as closely as possible, superimposing one face onto another body and matching intricate facial details such as lip movement. The second network identifies mistakes in the output, acting as an adversary of the first network, teaching it and improving its final product. Hence over time, even without high-quality video footage, the first network is able to produce hyper realistic creations such as the Buscemi-Lawrence video.

At present two types of deepfakes have been shared online, with the potential for more variations. The first is a basic face swap, as seen in the Buscemi-Lawrence video, and fake celebrity porngraphic videos.  The second is a voice swap.

In an awareness-raising campaign, Buzzfeed commissioned two deepfake videos of Barack Obama.  Both videos show Obama speaking to the camera from the Oval Office in what looks like a public address. In the first video his voice is replaced by that of comedian and impersonator, Jordan Peele. In the second, his voice is replaced by his own, old audio taken from footage that was filmed decades earlier while Obama was a student, in a much different role and setting.

What is scary is that both deepfakes are almost seamless in quality. Obama’s mouth and facial expressions move to form the words spoken by Peele, or those spoken by him as a student in late 70s. The only evidence of the deception is the low fidelity of the audio.

Deepfakes may become even more realistic with the arrival of digital voice impersonation, brought by Montreal startup LyreBird.  Lyrebird’s machine learning algorithm requires a small collection of words read aloud to train its neural network to produce an accurate model of your voice, which can form new sentences on its own.

It works by breaking down the audio of your voice into phonemes, linguistic building blocks, and then feeding them into a GAN, which again improves the fidelity of voice output over time, as it trains against itself, learns and improves.  An hour later Lyrebird’s algorithm can speak in your voice. Making statements you would not dream of speaking out loud.

The potential of deepfakes

The silliness of watching famous actors switch faces at award ceremonies masks the incredible power of the technology. Deepfakes gives someone the power to manipulate another person’s image and even voice when combined with digital voice impersonation. As with any powerful tool its potential is great; for good and for harm.

The benefits of deepfake technology is already realised in computer graphics where it improves the look of games and special effects. It’s cheap and accessible, offering studio level graphics to a wider number of people. Image and voice manipulation may benefit people that may face online discrimination due to the way they look or speak.

Admittedly deepfakes already have reputation for harm.  They first surfaced online in pornographic videos where the faces of female celebrities were superimposed on to the bodies of pornographic actors. In a December 2018 article for the Washington Post Scarlett Johansson, a victim of these malicious deepfakes, voiced her concern for those less famous.

Johansson pointed out that her fame provided a level of protection not afforded to other people. Johansson makes an important point. When you are famous you are accustomed to your image and voice being manipulated, often for comedic effect. The public is also accustomed to the image and voice manipulation of celebrity, hence we take a critical eye to any footage linked to a celebrity questioning its truth.

Would we use the same critical eye when watching our favourite YouTuber or a video of our friend or family member.

It would be easy for someone to create a malicious video of you making hateful statement or acting in illegal ways. All they would require is some video and audio of you speaking into a camera. The video sharing platform, Youtube, is a veritable mine for the future manufacture of deepfakes. Millions of people around the world have uploaded hours of video and audio content freely accessible to all.  Once another person has control of your image and voice, their power to make you appear to act in their wishes makes blackmail a serious risk. Malicious intent to harm your public image, through the release of embarrassing or illegal material is already of problem more easy facilitated by technology.

The use of deepfake technology enable blackmail as people are targeted, embarrassing or illegal behaviour is modelled and money is exchanged.

On a fundamental level once images and audio may be manipulated to the extent shown in deepfakes, technological deception is no longer perceptible by the human brain, seeing is no longer believing, at least online. Online is truth will die. Every video will be tainted with the hue of deepfake technology, precisely because we will not be able to decipher if it’s a real or not.

So what are we to do?

Deepfakes are trained on video footage, so be aware of sharing your image and voice online, to reduce easy access to training data. There’s little point in giving the sculptor more clay. Still for many of us our image and voice already has a place online in social media accounts or video sharing platforms such as Youtube. For many, our livelihoods, depend on our online public image. To prevent the most malicious impact of deepfakes to enable blackmail, enable the power of fame, by sharing video you film as widely as possible. Avoid giving access to your image in video to another party. Always keep a copy for yourself to be able to challenge any claims made by other parties.

Many online platforms have taken a hard stance on deepfakes, many porn sharing sites actively take them down and Reddit has banned communities that produce them.

There are also active communities of researchers trying to create algorithms to easily identify deepfakes, taking away their power to deceive the public.

Right now, it’s important for Government to raise awareness of the effectiveness of deepfakes to deceive the public as the technology improves in sophistication.

Currently there’s an online battle for truth, as think tanks and news agencies attempt to counter fake news stories that have become ubiquitous in certain communities online. Once fake new is supported by deepfake productions offering irrefutable evidence, the power of truth in other sources all but dies.

That is why the Buscemi-Lawrence video is powerful. It presents the extent of the deception. How we can all be deceived, as technology begins to surpass even our human senses / as technology begins to surpass our ability to distinguish what is real and what is not.

Reframing the local authority as a local facilitator of change

At a recent service design event in London, I was in a discussion about service design and local authorities, where I heard about the great work that Waltham Forest Council is doing in that area. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since, specifically about what was so different about the approach the service design teams were taking. I came to the conclusion that what they were doing was reframing the role of the local authority from an authority to a facilitator. This was happening both in the community but also inside the council.

Reframing the role of the local authority

In our modern world, it’s hard to imagine a world without institutionalised government, and it means that it’s also hard to remember the reasons why they were set up. When too many humans live together, problems cannot be resolved by everyone coming together, these collective problems were given to a government institution to solve. We elect officials to decide on our behalf what needs to be done, we pay our taxes to give them money. That way, we don’t have to think about where our rubbish goes or how high the flood defences should be. The local authority does it for us.

But at the same time, by not having to think about it, we’ve also developed a sort of apathy towards what the council does, only concerned by the amount of council tax we have to pay. We no longer feel empowered to lead or participate in the change we want to see in our community.

I see two drivers as to why this has to change:

1 – Local authorities are under increasing financial pressures due to continuing austerity measures and budget cuts. Now, more than ever, they are having to make sure that they are investing in the right things and will be seeking for quick-wins and cost-reduction strategies. Also, by involving the community in developing your services, you also develop buy-in from the start and reduce up-take costs, especially where you can tap into community influencers.

2 – The idea that government services have to first of all meet users needs, and be built together with the user, has become a standard at central government level, and is increasingly adopted across local authorities, who are signing the local digital declaration to commit to the principles set by the Government Digital Service.

Changing perceptions of the council

The team at Waltham Forest Council told us about the work they had to do ahead of actually being able to start their co-design and user research process. When the designers first approached people in the local community, the team found that a lot of people associated the council with either bin collections, council tax or parking permits. They often saw the council as a sort of punishing authority, rather than an institution that served the community. The designers had to do a lot of work to change that perception and win people over little by little, by explaining their service design approach, showing them how their input would lead to change in the community.

The distance between the local authority and its community could also be felt amongst people working in the council. Especially those that saw themselves as experts able to solve the problems faced by the community without ever talking to the local people. The service design team had to do a lot of internal influencing to get other parts of the council on-board with their approach. Particularly regulated areas such as procurement and finance were hard to convince of working in agile and iterative ways, but increasingly, these more traditional areas are equally being transformed, with more and more people championing approaches to agile procurement for example.

Going forward

Working together with the community and doing so in an agile approach, where you’re iteratively working to solve a problem, rather than implementing a solution, is key to transforming local government services. It means that councils will be able to provide services that better meet the needs of the community, and will be able to save costs by de-risking investment in new projects and focusing on the problems most important to the community. So what I would like to see is for the local authority to become the local facilitator of change, giving the community back the ownership of change.

Why do PMs keep asking existential questions ?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about feeling like a product fraud, which got me thinking about what this PM archetype is that we imagine the role of a typical Product Manager to be. And then, considering how many blogposts I have read about that particular question, I wondered why we spend so much of our time pondering about what our role is and should be.

There are hundreds of books, blogposts, podcasts telling us what product management is, or alternatively what product management isn’t. I am curious as to why we seem to question the role over and over again. So I explored a few reasons that I can imagine.

A recent discipline

It is a recent discipline, and it’s still being shaped by this ever evolving world. But product managers existed in a pre-tech world as the person that would care about a product from all angles, that would bring together the manufacturing and marketing of a product. I wonder whether pre-Medium and pre-Twitter product managers asked this many questions.

The world of work is changing

The world of work is changing and it’s particularly affecting the industries that Product Managers are working in. But then again technology has changed most jobs.

If most jobs are changing, are all professionals going through this? A whole industry has been spun up to answer what product management is or should be. I don’t know other industries so well, but do other job families ask themselves ‘But what is my job?’ so frequently as we as PMs do? I’ve never heard any of the developers ask that question. But I might simply not know what I don’t know.

Diversity of experiences

To come back specifically to product managers. I think another challenge is to conciliate the experience in a small startup compared to a large organisation. While there’s certainly an overlap of skills, what you’ll be doing day-to-day and the overall responsibility could well be very different. So the product community is trying to figure out what the overlapping skills and responsibilities are.

Is it because we’re fighting for legitimacy

I’m sure all PMs have faced remarks that play down the role of product managers. I still remember someone saying ‘I don’t understand why Product Managers get paid so much, they don’t do anything’ (and I’m aware that I should just get over stuff like that), but really it indicates that we as a discipline may feel the constant need to define ourselves in order to justify our place at the table… or rather at the Kanban board. In multi-disciplinary teams the boundaries of roles get easily blurred and since we’re not one of the ‘makers’ we struggle to point at something to say. “There- that’s what I did!”.

Always delivering value

To put a more positive spin on this, maybe it’s also because our day-to-day job is always making sure that our team delivers value. It could be that we have internalised the question of value so much that we need to constantly re-appraise whether we as a discipline are bringing value to the team. In a way this is my favourite reason because it paints the conversation about Product Management as a way for us to stay accountable to ourselves and always making sure that our role is needed.

Do you have any thoughts about why we ask ourselves what Product Management is or should be? I’d love to hear your views!

Feeling like a product fraud

Throughout my career as a Product Manager, I’ve had several existential crises, thinking that the job I was doing did not reflect what I imagined a Product Manager should be doing. Several years into being a PM, I came to realise that no-one really does this ‘typical PM role’ I imagined, because it doesn’t exist in the real world, and that is the beauty of the job.

I’ve listed some of the moments in my career where I’ve felt like a fraud and why – with hindsight – I now know better.

Because there are no developers on my team…

When I started in my current role, my team was very odd, it was multi-disciplinary, but lacked the roles I was used to — developers and QA engineers, or a visual/UX designer. My team had a user researcher, a delivery manager (akin to a scrum master) and a content designer. Needless to say I was rather clueless as to what I could do with that team constellation. Building anything would be rather tricky!

But then, I was working on a product that wasn’t yet built and our team was this shape because we didn’t understand the problem space at all. Throwing a team of developers at the problem wouldn’t help, but the user researcher and designer were the right people to get the team to a place where we understood the problems better. And a few months later, we were ready to welcome a developer into the team and start building!

By that point, I had understood that as a PM I was just as qualified to set the vision and advocate for our users in a team without developers. The skills of product management equally apply in a team with different types of expertise — be that designers, researchers, data scientists or even policy experts.

Because I am also doing UX design, user research, QA and making sure the printer doesn’t run out of ink

Like many, when I first learned about product management I was in a job already acting as a PM. I was translating the needs of our users and stakeholders into stories and providing the necessary context for our developers to build our product. However, next to that I was also doing a lot of other jobs, such as drawing wire-frames, doing user research and testing the product. It was difficult to feel like a legitimate product manager.

However, looking back this was a wonderful opportunity. Not only was it my route into the role of PM, it has also given me a huge appreciation for some of the other disciplines. In small startups, this can certainly happen, and there are also plenty of project or consultant roles that are disguises for a product role. So forget your job title and feel included in the product community.

Because I am executing orders from senior management…

As a PM you can be in a situation, where you want to represent your users but senior management is much more keen for you to just do what they say. You can fight back with the user research you do and the analytics, but ultimately if senior management doesn’t offer you the freedom to build the product based on your users’ needs, then they are simply not doing their job right. And it certainly isn’t on you. I was legitimately a PM, I was just in the wrong place.


Have you ever felt like a product fraud? I would love to hear your experiences!

From blog to platform: Reni Eddo-Lodge’s ‘Why I’m…’

Yesterday I went to a discussion with Reni Eddo-Lodge about her book ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’. I read the book not so long ago and have since been a big fan of hers.

She shared with the audience what the year, since her book was released, had been like. She has been overwhelmed by the range of responses her writing has triggered. Be it her detractors judging the book by its cover, or rather its title, and completely misreading it as ‘why I hate white people’. Or people of colour finally finding their lived experiences and feelings reflected in a book. Or white people for whom the book triggered a sort of self-exploration and journey of remorse. Reni says she had to remove her contact form on her website in order to keep her own sanity; she couldn’t keep up with the avalanche of emails.

What was particularly powerful last night were the questions that came from the crowd. Near to every question that was asked was preceded by the person’s own story and experience with structural racism, discrimination or post-colonial vicissitudes. While Reni’s book started as a blog to vent her frustrations with the denial of structural racism and the lack of recognition for intersectionality in today’s world, it has now transformed beyond a piece of writing to become a platform for dialogue. It gives particularly people of colour a safe space to share their stories and for these to be acknowledged and recognised by others.

Reni also made powerful points about the lack of education on black history in the UK, and for me, her book was overwhelmingly educational with regards to events that have shaped the BAME community and the world they live in. And both the book and the discussion last night have motivated me to educate myself further. So my next steps are to explore the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. If you haven’t read her book, I’d definitely recommend it, and for further reading, check our her bibliography.

MTPcon 17 — theme 4: designing for the future

Two of the talks at MTPcon were concerned with designing for our future. On the one hand Amber Case was advocating for calm technology, while Josh Clark was talking about considerations for designing machine learning and big data products.

Amber Case, who is a scholar at MIT, started talking about a few worries of hers: a connected kitchen, where every piece of the kitchen would be using a different technology system with its own username and password, asking for your attention all the time, and were you to move, you’d have to get all the credentials from the previous tenants, making sure it works with your current devices… it all seems very disruptive.

Amber Case is an advocate for Calm Technology and she has a set of rules she to define calm technology:

  1. technology should not be intrusive, it should remain in the background
  2. technology should only be there when you need it
  3. tech should inform and calm
  4. tech should amplify the best of technology and the best of humanity: machines shouldn’t act like humans and humans should act like machines
  5. technology can communicate, but it doesn’t need to speak
  6. technology should consider social norms
  7. the right amount of tech is the minimum amount to solve the problem

Josh Clark also had the future in mind, thinking about what rules we should apply to build big data products and he had a few recommendations as well

  • Principle 1: embrace uncertainty. Machine learning products such as image recognition technology has still a lot of short comings — for example this one:

Clark suggests that we need to embrace the lack of knowing instead of building the perfect machine that is always right. Here is his suggestion for the same image:

  • Principle 2: improve the data. Another challenge of our time is the quality of the data that we feed into big data products. We are running the risk of teaching it pre-existing prejudice and inequalities, reinforcing structural inequality rather than creating a level playing field. Algorithms are in no way objective. They represent the agenda of the agenda of the person who is behind them.
  • Principle 3: responsible data gathering. As we are getting better at gathering lots of data, we need to be more responsible in the way we do it. We need to be loyal to the user, and take responsibility, as your product will have the values that you put into it.

More MTPcon 17 themes:

(1) the contribution of leadership

(2) creating space and opportunity for teams to perform

(3) rejecting or embracing the past