The conversation covered her career path to Product via UX, advertising, championing women in tech and passion for business, as well as delving into specific topics with being a product person.
Here are the key takeaways I jotted down, which I’ve tried to organise by topic…
Zheng gave us a neat little story about how she started out (in a sense): a classic tale of taking something that nobody else wanted to do and absolutely nailing it.
The task was designing banner ads for TradeMe. She obviously attacked her self-imposed challenge with passion and drive (significant keys to success on their own), but I also noted that:
- She formed a loose multidisciplinary team which (I think) included people with knowledge and access to data analytics and marketing folks.
- Was data driven – each time she/they ran a new design, they would analyse the data to see what was working and what wasn’t, and think about why that was the case.
The other factor which she used to her advantage was being able to iterate at an appropriate speed – which was obviously supported by the data she and her team had access to.
Some pretty obvious takeaways there, a key one for me would be about being data driven / enabled > implication: you need to have the data. As a data architect colleague of mine once said: before doing any data design, you must first think about what questions you will want to ask your data.
Other stand-out points around career path included:
- Turning weaknesses into strengths, by using them as differentiators. The context for this was around credibility.
- Follow your passion. Zheng laughed in response to a question – someone asked something which inferred she had planned her career out; she said that in retrospect her career may look like it was planned but the reality at the time was anything but. Her response to challenges was to consciously seek out ways of addressing these – which in her case frequently included training courses, which she collectively found effective (I think for one particular area she did 7 different courses).
- People want to work with people they like and trust. Zheng spoke of this in reference to relationships between companies, but it’s obvious from her perspective that this is based on interpersonal rapport. It’s not hard to see this concept also applying at a personal career level – something I can attest to having also experienced it first-hand.
Another key career theme Zheng had was based on “that venn diagram” – meaning the three overlapping lenses in Design Thinking which cover business/viability, technology/feasibility and people/desirability. The specific terms she used might have been a little different, but for me the connection was pretty clear.
Her basic advice was to become proficient and confident in any two of these lenses; although that seemed to be somewhat tempered with her other guiding principle of being customer focused – which suggests the business/viability and people/desirability lenses.
“Product” Means Being Close to Customers
This was one of Zheng’s key themes. Part of this was getting out and talking to customers, which is critical.
It was interesting to hear of her experiences using product “management” (my term, not hers – can’t recall exactly what she called it) as a selling tool. The basis for this was:
- Selling the value of the product, not the product.
- Establishing a 1-on-1 rapport with people, and understanding what kept them up at night.
- Taking the time to really understand that problem from different angles.
As far as point #3 goes, that meant engaging with different people in the organisation to understand the problem from their perspective: technical, marketing, sales, etc; this obviously links back to the three lenses of design thinking mentioned above, and being close to customers – all good sensible product management stuff.
We can also expand this theme out “customers” to “people”. In her experience, product management is more about being people-based than technology based (this was mentioned in reference to a technical product for developers).
There was also a leadership angle: for her leadership was about aligning the purpose of her staff to the purpose of her business. The implication here is to talk with the people on your team and really understand what drives them and where they want to go with their career.
A Quick Note on Persuasion
If you want to persuade someone (such as your product manager – if you’re a tech working on the product, and you have a pet feature you want to add), you need to two things:
- Speak in the language of the audience.
- Back it up with data. This could be qualitative such as customer feedback, or quantitative data showing conversion rates.
Dealing with Product Debt
Something I really liked was how she addressed debt – debt in the sense of technical debt, and even marketing debt, and so on: things which worked but could work better and had gotten to the point that they were affecting the bigger picture. She referred to it (I think) as the “99 issues” or “99 problems” story.
- They got all the issues and logged them into Jira – meaning that they got it all out into the open. Not just development/technical debt, everything.
- Presumably some sort of sizing and prioritisation work took place.
- They then knocked off a number of the items, reducing the overall debt.
The way she spoke seemed to indicate this was an annual event – which didn’t happen every year. Bit of a spring-clean, I guess. Zheng didn’t call it out specifically but based on her other comments I presume space in the teams capacity / product roadmap was allocated to this work.
Another interesting idea which occurred to me as she described this was the technique that Agile / Scrum teams sometimes use, whereby they adopt a sprint goal – something non-deliverable – that they want to improve during the course of the sprint/iteration/timebox. Zheng didn’t explicitly say that was what they were doing but the idea seems relevant. Zheng, if you ever read this I’d be interested to know if that concept was one you consciously used or were aware of.
Items on a roadmap (i.e. the implied promise / expectations set) should be based on two things:
- The teams capacity to deliver them.
- Evidence that a given feature is wanted by customers.
Don’t be afraid to push-back. If a customer requests a feature (for example) that is outside your roadmap and/or ability to deliver then be wary of following the money.
This definitely fits with my experience; I tend to think that at a inter-business level or interpersonal level, the relationship needs to be built on mutual trust and respect – if the other party does not reciprocate then they’re probably not someone you want to be dealing with.
Zheng gave two examples:
- A major multinational effectively tried to bully their 50 wanted features on top of Zheng’s existing product roadmap – “you want our business or not”? To have done so would have caused massive chaos within the company, affecting product delivery and so on. Zheng counter-proposed a different approach which she and her teams could sustain. The multinational rejected the offer and went elsewhere – only to return months later, accepting Zheng’s proposals.
- Another major company approached Zheng with features (she didn’t give specifics but I think we can guess their approach was more reasonable and more adaptable). Zheng recognised that some of these features would be great differentiators for their product, so (presumably) some changes were made to the product roadmap and the featured added – in essence Zheng followed the money, but did so because there was further advantage than just the money.
Final Thought: The Iron Triangle
At one point Zheng told an anecdote about a developer talking with her about code quality. I forget the story but it reminded me of the the old “Iron Triangle” or project management triangle – the one that is made up of scope, quality and cost (or some similar combination; cost and time obviously being closely related). The model effectively states that you can control any two; the implication being that if you nail people down in terms of scope and cost (or time) you have no control over quality.
I asked Zheng if she was familiar with that model and how she approached it. Her answer wasn’t as clear-cut and direct as I would have hoped (which is not a criticism – having presented publicly I know how hard it is to provide an off-the-cuff answer that is cohesive and concise), but seemed to boil down to this:
- Her first substantive reaction was to discuss scope and features, so I would guess that this is her first priority. This would align with her other comments that put great importance on being close to the customer and understanding their needs.
- Her second substantive reaction was to discuss product roadmaps, specifically in reference to their timing and how they are used as the basis for cross-team coordination (marketing and so on), so I imagine time would be her second priority.
By default this would leave quality to manage it self; but we shouldn’t forget the “spring clean” approach, whereby random items of debt (arguably involving quality) can be addressed in a structured way.
- My original hand-scribbled notes from the session: Adrians Notes – Fireside Chat with Zheng Li, VP of Product @ Raygun – Product Tank Wellington MeetUp – 16-Aug-2018