Minding the product at #mtpcon 2012

What an honour it is to have been called up to the small band of product managers at the Government Digital Service.

Wanting to do the absolute best job I can, I jumped at the chance to tag along to Mind the Product 2012, where product managers from around Europe met up to learn how some of the best in the world go about their business.

Of the many pearls of wisdom shared, here is what stuck with me since…

Where a product manager sits
First up was Martin Eriksson who, as one of the organisers, welcomed us and then pulled up a slide to explain where product management sits in an organisation…

So there you have it, product management is the intersection between business, technology and user experience.

And with that wrapped up, it was time to go home.

Not really… throughout the rest of the day we would hear how behind that handy, simple diagram is a complex, tough and hugely rewarding discipline.

A heightened sense of purpose
The opening speaker was one Marty Cagan, a man well-placed to explain what’s involved in industry-defining products having seen a few in his 30 years at the likes of HP, Netscape and ebay.

What stood out most in Marty’s talk was his strongly held view that good product managers need to have a heightened sense of purpose. And that purpose is to create products that people love to use.

Again, it seems very simple but in the rest of his talk, while trying to reassure us that we were capable, Marty was also open about the sheer hard graft, sharp thinking and courageous risk-taking that would be required if we were to achieve this purpose.

So how is it done? How does this product management thing play out day-to-day?

Materials that move at the speed of thought
Tom Chi is a maker clearly at the top of his product management game. Most recently he’s been leading a Google X team to bring augmented reality glasses to market as part of Project Glass.

He wowed us with swashbuckling tales of rapid prototyping Google X style, starting by asking everyone to guess how long it took to produce the first working version of Project Glass. 4 to 5 years? 4 months? 5 days? Try 45 minutes!

How did they do it? By believing that they could, by thinking big but starting simply with minimum functions and raw components. And nothing can be simpler than coat hangers and modelling clay – yes, these were the ‘materials that move at the speed of thought’ Chi and his team employed to prove that the vision could be a product and to then move through the iterations that would eventually lead to a patented design and maybe one day soon a product on your face.

Tom Chi’s was my favourite talk at #mtpcon. It was quite simply exciting and fun and made product management feel full of potential.

I loved the way he talked about ‘constellating’ the results of iteration to ensure that you are truly discovering the best possible product. I also appreciated his dogma squashing skills when he had the whole audience applauding and nodding at his ‘don’t fail. learn.’ correction.

Oh, and he introduced us to the concept of π-shaped people.

Good turns
There were plenty of other good turns over the course of the conference from product managers who work with music, games and even the future.

Listening to them, I came to realise that product management wasn’t just applicable to websites and software; the discipline’s focus on users, return on investment and innovation made it highly relevant to a range of sectors.

Product management of critical national infrastructure
I’ll give the last word to Tom Loosemore, one of my bosses at the Government Digital Service. Tom’s words at the lectern have had an effect on me more than once over the years but his Mind the Product talk was especially galvanising coming as it did just a few weeks before our big launch of GOV.UK.

He explained how applying the methods of product management was one of the major step-changes being made to digital  in government. He spoke of how product management, like the use of open source, is vital to the delivery of a new shared web platform for all of government and a radically improved user experience to boot within an ambitiously tight timeline and an incredibly small budget. Ambitious but entirely probable because of the methods we were using and because of the people GDS had hired, people with attitude, the right attitude. No pressure then.

As Tom spoke, I could see my peers logging into the beta, I watched them nod approvingly as they engaged with the site and with what Tom was saying. As I sat there at the back listening to Tom talk about the importance of product management to the programme we are involved in, I started not to feel the pressure but the belief that I could deliver as part of a team of product managers who are working with a breathtakingly, refreshingly talented team of designers and developers united by a desire to deliver a piece of critical national infrastructure that citizens don’t just use but that they appreciate.

Time will tell whether we are successful. But what I learned at Mind the Product – from all the fantastic insights and examples that have delivered on their promise – is that by adopting product management we are doing something right and proper. It’s something I strongly believe in and that I am proud to be a part of.

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