In today's fast-paced and competitive business environment, product managers need to leverage the right tools to effectively manage their products and achieve success in the market. In this interview series, called “5 Tools That Should Be in Every Product Manager’s Belt” we are talking to experienced product managers, industry professionals, and thought leaders to share insights from their experience about the most important tools a product manager needs to succeed. As part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing John Purcell.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before diving in, our readers would love to learn more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well, I’ve spent almost 25 years in the tech industry so far, but only 13 of those were in product leadership roles. So really, you can look at my career in two halves–-I spent the first half in the Telco industry doing a variety of operational and go-to-market roles. Towards the end of that run, I had the good fortune to work for a really inspirational and experienced leader who convinced me to get my act together, go to business school, and kick-start a new phase in my career. So I did, and before I graduated, I stumbled upon my first product role at a Boston company called LogMeIn. It was truly an amazing place with talented people, and that’s where I learned how to be a product leader. And quite honestly, I’ve carried the lessons I learned there with me in the years since.
It has been said that our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
I’ve certainly made mistakes at EVERY step along the way in my career—the learning never stops! And there were a couple of high-profile mistakes very early in my career as a product manager. I don’t remember them as funny per se, but they were formative, to say the least. The first of those was when I inherited responsibility for a new product that was already in the late stages of development. I assumed my job was to get it across the finish line, but as we got closer and closer to launch, I started to realize that the market didn’t want it!
As a rookie product manager with a lot of anticipation and excitement about the product, I didn’t really know how to intervene and change the plan, so I just continued executing on the same path. Well you can imagine what happened–-we launched, but customer adoption was almost completely missing. I took that one on the chin—which was an important learning moment. Customer testing, feedback, validation, and adoption are the most important forms of currency a product manager can possess—without those things, a mistake like mine will happen again and again.
What do you feel has been your ‘career-defining’ moment?
I’m into my fourth decade of work in a varied career, so I’ve had quite a few career-defining moments, as you can imagine. The decision quite soon after I graduated college to emigrate from Ireland and come to the US was clearly the first and I didn’t know what I was doing, to be honest. It sounded like fun, I always wanted to visit the US, and I had a chance to come work here. 25 years later I’m still here! That was both life-defining and career-defining, as I think about it.
I’ve worked at large public companies, small, early-stage VC-funded startups, and established fast-growing PE-backed companies. I’ve learned something substantial from every single one of them, so you could argue each has created a career-defining moment. I’ve worked for leaders that inspired me and others who frustrated me—each situation has taught me something that defined and shaped how I operate today. I’ve been very lucky to have crossed paths with people who’ve pushed me in new directions; into things I haven’t done before. Maybe at a high level, that’s one of the fundamentally defining characteristics of my career—I’ve rarely stayed in a role long enough to get comfortable.
I constantly find myself dealing with new things and new experiences—a partner at a Boston VC firm told me recently that that doesn’t stop as you become more senior—there’s always something new to learn and to be uncomfortable with!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I’ve been extremely lucky throughout my career, even in those earliest roles. Of course, they were difficult at times—doing new things and consistently putting yourself in uncomfortable situations can make it mentally and emotionally challenging. But I can’t pretend for a second that I’ve experienced “hard times” per se. There are people in jobs and industries that are far tougher than anything I’ve ever done. We need only think back over the last three years of COVID-19 and the things our essential workers had to deal with to appreciate that reality. I suppose my personal drive at work has always come from this insatiable hunger to keep moving forward, keep progressing, take the next step into the next new challenge, and do it all with people I respect and learn from. Maintaining a positive attitude can be difficult, but I draw energy from the people I work with, whether they realize it or not! With the right team, it’s amazing the kind of magic that happens.
How do you keep track of your team's progress and ensure that everyone is working towards the same goals?
Yeah, this is a tricky one for the team I’m with now. We’re a fully remote, time zone-distributed team of about 85 people representing 7-8 different functions. Each function has its own way of tracking day-to-day tasks and deliverables. So I find myself focusing on two key challenges: 1) Ensuring that each function is prioritizing those tasks based on a unified, overarching strategy that is well-communicated and simple to understand; and 2) Iterating and tuning a system that allows managers and leaders to quickly understand status and progress to the objective, without writing pages and pages of status reports, or sitting in hours of status meetings every week. I’m sure you can appreciate how challenging that is at a company in which people are rarely in the same room!
We provide direction by putting our product investments solidly in the context of our prioritized business objectives—if we’re successful, product managers, software teams, designers, customer success managers (and so forth) will be empowered to make prioritization decisions on a daily basis. When it works, I don’t have to tell any individual or team what to work on; I just need to occasionally pressure-test why they’ve prioritized work the way they have, with minor course corrections if necessary. We support and enhance this process by using the OKR framework to translate higher-order goals into personal and team objectives and then hold people accountable for measuring their own progress.
Lastly, on the status point. As much as no one ever enjoys sitting in endless status meetings, providing over-arching visibility at all times is something we’re committed to. I can’t sit here and tell you we’ve dialed that in perfectly yet—call it a work in progress. The good news is that we’re becoming more and more aligned with capturing, sharing, and communicating important updates. We’re all seriously committed to the idea of avoiding surprises.
Can you share an example of a time when you used data analytics to inform a major product decision, and what tools did you use to gather and analyze that data?
Like most product teams I’ve ever been a part of, we do try to be disciplined about this with every product decision we make. I mentioned earlier that customer insight and intimacy is the most valuable form of product management currency, so our priority is always to instrument, measure, test and validate, share and get feedback from our customers, and use as many of these as possible to inform our decisions. That said, I do think that one of the things great PMs have to get used to is making hard decisions on the basis of imperfect information. Rarely can you be 100% sure you’ve delivered the right thing when you’re moving fast. But that’s the secret—move fast. Experiment quickly. Express your hypothesis, and remove every barrier you encounter to test it quickly. Don’t get fixated on Minimum Viable Product (MVP); Focus on shortening the time to shipping the first thing you can use to get feedback and test. Build this into your process early.
Aside from that, we use a variety of analytic products I’m sure you’re familiar with, such as FullStory for UX session analysis, MixPanel or Google Data Studio for product and feature usage measurement, Navattic for interactive website demos to measure interest, CRM data to connect usage and revenue data, of course. We survey customers using products like SurveyMonkey or simple Google Forms, but nothing replaces the impact of a live conversation with a customer with a problem.
It’s a balance, or maybe compromise is a better word here. If you’re lucky enough to work in a company that’s growing and moving as fast as DoiT is, speed is a must. I share this with my staff all the time; If you have an idea, share it quickly and widely. Get as much feedback and reaction as you can in as short a time as you can. You may never be sure. So ship the simplest expression of your idea and let the customer tell you whether it works.
How do you stay on top of industry trends and new technologies that may impact your product?
DoiT’s success is based, in large part, on the intimacy we build quickly with our customers. We are a company with just over 500 people today. But we had over 10,000 customer interactions in 2022. As I’ve said a few times in this interview, THIS is the most important source of market intelligence we rely on. Our customers are fast-growing, digital native companies that operate almost completely in the public cloud. By definition, this means they’re moving fast and experiencing different problems every day. Our job is to understand where they’re going and to predict those problems and help. We rely on deep, deep knowledge and understanding of public cloud technologies and the contexts in which they’re used. So, of course, we stay close to the public cloud hyper-scalers themselves—we’re always learning and improving.
What are some of the key collaboration tactics that you use with your team, stakeholders, and other departments, and how do you ensure that everyone is on the same page?
In a fully remote, time zone-distributed company, THIS is the thing that keeps me awake at night. In the aftermath of COVID-19, it appears as if the hybrid work model is what we’ll likely settle into across the tech industry anyway. Any company that combines in-person and remote work will struggle with the idea and practicalities of collaboration. Like most, we rely on video conferencing for “live” collaboration and tooling like Slack, Miro, StackOverflow, and Atlassian for communication, idea exchange, and knowledge sharing. Information flows freely through our company, but we work hard to ensure that transparency remains even as we grow. For companies like DoiT, the ability to scale collaboration and inspire all team members to connect to the mission is critical. If you take that for granted or fail to be intentional in your investments, the business will fail.
How do you track and prioritize customer feedback and feature requests, and what tools or processes do you use to incorporate that feedback into your product roadmap?
We’ve tried a few different, systematized approaches to this. We have feature request portals but have found them somewhat problematic with respect to openness, spam, and hygiene. We still live there, and we’re playing with some ideas to strengthen that channel. I mentioned we had over 10,000 interactions with customers in 2022—quite simply, every single one of those produced something interesting and worth pondering! The trick is to try organizing and categorizing so you don’t have to go through all 10,000! We have some incredibly talented people at DoiT, and they’re playing with some big data processing techniques to surface meaningful insights there.
All of that said, our product organization believes profoundly in the magic that happens with live customer interaction. It doesn’t matter whether or not they want to talk to you about the thing you want to know! You simply will NEVER have a conversation with a customer in which you fail to learn something that shapes your thinking. We try to carry quantitative objectives with respect to customer interactions in the product team—establish muscle memory and find ways to flex those muscles every day if you can. From that point, it’s easy to leverage “old fashioned” feedback tracking mechanisms like Google Docs or Slack workflows to organize it all.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Tools That Should Be in Every Product Manager’s Belt”?
1. Curiosity - Not a tech tool per se, so maybe I’m cheating here. That said, if you maintain curiosity in EVERYTHING you do, you will never stop discovering and learning. Hire people who demonstrate it, reward people who exhibit it, and harness it if you have it.
2. Google Slides/Powerpoint - Not the most glamorous tool in the belt, but I believe good storytelling is an invaluable skill in great product people. When you spend much of your time influencing people without authority, having the ability to tell a good story and convey it clearly and in a compelling way will take you a LONG way!
3. Task Tracker - This is a catch-all, so another cheat probably. Product managers will spend a significant amount of their time prioritizing, reprioritizing, and refining lists of work, whether they be in a Jira backlog, an Asana Kanban board, or simply in a Trello project. I’ve always found it helpful to have a parallel method to track my personal tasks and keep my actions straight and organized. I’ve tried notebooks, Google Tasks, Trello, and even Jira itself! I’ve settled now on a product called Notion which is an incredibly flexible, powerful, and intuitive application.
4. Instinct to communicate - Sorry, another non-tech cheat here! The greatest product managers are quite often also the greatest communicators. I’m not talking about tools here (see number two above)—I’m talking about behavioral characteristics. We have an expression in our organization—oxygen and sunlight—we need both to live. Ideas and work need the same. Great ideas die in the dark. The greatest mistakes happen in the dark. A commitment to openness and active, frequent communication is the answer. When you subscribe, learning accelerates, mistakes are found and corrected, ideas get better via debate and feedback, and you generally avoid ruining anyone’s day.
5. Patience - The greatest companies are filled with people who care about the product and want to share ideas about where it “must” go. As a product manager, that can create anxiety, feel overwhelming, build frustration, and send you on an emotional rollercoaster. The greatest product managers move fast but are patient when they need to be. They never get too high or too low and maintain balance in their work. This is one of my greatest daily challenges. Thankfully I am surrounded by people I can learn this from!
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?
The product podcast that got me through the pandemic is Pivot with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway. It remains the only podcast I’m always up to date on, and focuses on life at the intersection of business, technology, and sometimes politics. These two inspire me in different ways. Kara has seen and written about every wave of technology since the early 1990s, and Scott is one of the smartest economists and business leaders in the world. Their differences and distinctions are what expose their raw humanity. I’d go to breakfast with either of them, but preferably both!
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