Janna Bastow is an internationally recognized leader in Product Management, and the co-founder of ProdPad, a cloud-based software for Product Managers. She is also the co-founder of Mind the Product, one of the top resources for Product Managers worldwide. In this interview, Janna shares unique insights, advice, and resources for Product Managers based on her deep experience as an entrepreneur, thought leader, and practitioner.
This interview series provides one-on-one mentorship sessions with top executives in the Product world. You’ll learn how they got to be where they are today, important lessons from their career, what they look for in a Product Manager, and more.
Growing up in Canada I always dabbled in making sites and designing products for my own enjoyment. My first job was as a customer support rep for a tech company. The development team took note that I was good at recording bugs and communicating changes that customers were asking for, and so in time, I was given the role of Junior Product Manager. Having no clue what the term meant, I googled, ‘What is a product manager?’ I distinctly remember Jeff Lash’s Good Product Manager blog coming up, which was one of the first things I ever read on the subject. (Read also Jeff Lash’s Product Mentorship Interview).
#2 Tell me about ProdPad and Mind the Product and about your role in the companies.
I came up with ProdPad whilst working as a product manager a few years back. I joined forces with Simon Cast, a fellow product manager who was at a different startup, and together we co-founded ProdPad as online product management software. ProdPad allows teams to gather ideas, surface the best ones and turn them into product specs, and put it all on a product roadmap to communicate the product vision and direction.
Mind the Product started because we simply wanted to meet other product managers. It began when we joined forces with Martin Eriksson, who’d founded the monthly ProductTank meetups, which have since grown immensely and are now held in cities around the world. Along the way, we started creating online content for the Mind the Product blog and we now also run the Mind the Product conference which is in its third year. This year the conference is bringing together speakers, workshop leaders and 900 product managers from around the world to inspire building better products. I’m lucky that I’m able to bring in my product management experience while working as a co-founder for both companies.
#3 ProdPad is a tool for Product Managers. As a Product Manager yourself, how do you ensure your personal biases don’t get in the way of creating a product for a bigger audience?
We learned this the hard way. We first built ProdPad for our own personal use, and because of this the original version was not a tool that was universally useful for product managers. We had to rebuild a large part of it to capture that value. What we learned was that even if you think you are your archetypal end user, you are almost certainly not your end user! So we built the wrong stuff for a little while until we turned around and built something useful – we learned a lot by talking to our early users! Now we make sure that we keep that up by constantly talking to our customers: every day we run demos, have conversations and talk to product managers and their teams across industries to understand what their needs are.
#4 Can you share your thoughts and best practices on creating, maintaining, and communicating roadmaps?
First and foremost a roadmap is a strategic communication tool, which is the most important thing to remember. Its purpose is to communicate to the rest of your team what steps you will be taking to head towards your product vision. Roadmaps need to be broad enough that people will understand the direction that you are going and also be at a level that you are comfortable sharing with your customers, board and team – even if this means maintaining slightly different internal vs. public versions.
But roadmaps are not detailed release plans – you don’t need to share your product’s “secret sauce”, exact feature specs, or precise dates – instead, you simply need to make sure it communicates where you’re trying to head with the product.
#5 What are the key trends that Product Managers need to be aware of? And where do you see the Product Management profession in the future?
The Product Management role still isn’t classically taught, so people from all different backgrounds enter it, whether they’ve worked in development, marketing or support – making for a big mix. But I think it will become more formalized over time. I see universities catching on and beginning to teach product management, and I think training will become a lot more available as more resources become accessible to product managers.
There are lots of tech trends which will impact the product manager role. The big one I’ve noticed is that people are expecting a much higher quality user experience than they were getting a few years ago – the basic expectation for any product is increasing, setting the bar higher and higher. Even enterprise tools are now moving to have the same level of UX as consumer tools. People are also beginning to expect that everything works on every device, everything works with every other tool, has cross-sharing and cross-posting abilities, and integration with all other products – as product managers we need to facilitate this need.
#6 More and more companies are adopting UX. What is your advice on how Product Managers can learn about design and incorporate UX into their product lifecycle?
I find that product people still don’t spend enough time talking to their users; they spend their time with internal stakeholders, which of course is important, but you’re never going to understand user experience if you’re not getting out of the building, talking to your users, understanding what issues they’re having, and what you can solve for them.
It helps to be transparent about the design process, and include your users in early wireframing and design conversations, so their input can influence the final product before it goes too far into development.
#7 In your experience, what are the biggest Product Management challenges that startup companies face today?
Startups are often created because the founder was passionate about something – this does not always mean they have the discipline to put together a good product and to listen to customers and understand what’s going on in the product management aspect. But at the same time, startups rarely have the resources to hire someone, and very rarely do they make the first hire the product manager (it’s normally developers and marketers) which means that skill has to come from the founding team who may or may not have that skill-set.
#8 With ProductCamp and ProductTank, you are a very active member of a global PM community. What are some differences you’ve seen in the Product Management profession between Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world?
In the US, the Product Manager role is more developed and understood. One of the key differences I see is that product management there often has its own seat at the top level and is, less and less, reporting into tech and marketing. The advent of the Chief Product Officer role, for example, is much more prominent in the States than across Europe. However I feel that the role has been increasingly acknowledged in other parts of the world over the last couple of years.
The Product Management community is definitely growing worldwide, and I urge all product managers to get involved. Come along to the Mind the Product conference, join a ProductTank meetup, take a look at our blog, even write for us! Getting involved in this global community is something that’s going to inspire better products.
#9 Which are your favorite blogs to keep up to date with everything a Product Manager should know?
• I love what they are doing at Intercom, always providing actionable insights.
• Marty Cagan’s Silicon Valley Product Group blog is consistently brilliant.
• Jock Busuttil’s series “100 things I’ve learned as a product manager” is one of my favorites.
#10 If a Product Manager walked up to you asking for advice and you only had a few minutes to give ‘em your best tip, what would it be?
Always ask yourself what problem you’re trying to solve. Using this question is a way to bounce back ideas and get to the core of what your customers are asking for, and ensures you keep heading in the right direction. The product manager’s job is not to know all the answers to what the product should be, but to ask the right questions and translate the answers into something that’s usable, technically feasible and profitable for the company. So always ask what problem you are trying to solve: if you can’t articulate it then it’s very possible you are not solving any problem at all.
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