In 2013, I left a CTO job overseeing a 50-person product engineering team for the same job at a four-person startup. Upon arrival, I incorporated a few elements from my previous stop into this new endeavor, including a battle-tested Agile Scrum process and the corresponding technology.
Though the new team embraced me, the same wasn’t true for my cumbersome processes. Eventually, we compromised on a lightweight process that aligned with my new team’s size and its UX-focused way of designing and prioritizing new features. This learning experience left me with one seemingly obvious takeaway: The two trickiest variables of early product management are the “product” and the “management.”
Most early startups don’t understand the distinction between the two. Great product teams need vision, experimentation, competitive analysis, and a deep understanding of the pain points they’re trying to eradicate. Management, meanwhile, must remain focused on key features while leveraging a small team and limited resources to efficiently and authentically build a product.
While each side has its priorities, both work toward a positive and user-focused product experience. Keeping this philosophy top of mind during the product management phase is crucial for early stage CTOs, especially when working through backlogs and other barriers that can undermine the user experience.
Manage Your Workflow — Or Else.
For CTOs to properly oversee product management, bottlenecks must never turn into backlogs. When they do, teams lose efficacy in three vital areas that can ultimately hurt the customer: focus, transparency, and predictability.
Most effective teams know that multitasking is actually serial tasking, which leads to lost focus regardless of what you call it. Nothing should trump the task at hand, especially when the mismanagement or underdevelopment of any part of the product can lead to its overall downfall.
I try to remind my teams of one thing: “Today is the dumbest day of your project.” Every day that follows, you’ll know more about your users, your market, your skills, and your competition. If you let your backlogs bloom a thousand wishlist features today, you will inevitably fall victim to multitasking and lose your focus.
Transparency keeps teams in sync. This is an especially important trait for small companies where it’s easy for everyone (including executives) to express their opinions. CTOs, often acting as VPs of product capacity, must develop product specs and then provide them to developers and engineers. As an added benefit of a public (and focused) backlog, business stakeholders know that valuable work is being prioritized and that they can see where their requests sit in the work queue.
Early stage CTOs often overlook predictability, but it’s a valuable asset in thwarting brewing internal conflicts. Without the delivery of features at a predictable pace, it’s natural for sales, marketing, and fundraising teams to struggle to produce. Development teams must build a muscle for reliable estimation and delivery, whether through Scrum velocity metrics or their own approach. Aim for accuracy when items are predictable, and ensure stakeholders understand what’s still in the “discovery” phase.
A well-oiled, user-centric approach to product management requires a careful balance of focus, transparency, and predictability. CTOs must discern between features where a first impression is critical and those that teams can improve iteratively. Customers will always ask for the world, but an effective CTO can fend off potential disruptions — and customer dissatisfaction — by prioritizing features that customers use rather than the ones they request.
Maintain User-Centricity in Product Management.
To ensure that tasks are prioritized, workflows stay organized, and development teams remain productive, early stage CTOs should keep these four strategies in mind:
1. Rely on a monthly hyperfocus theme.
Internal and external feedback is constant for young companies. CTOs should gather that feedback, break it down into digestible bits, and respond accordingly.
Pick a theme and make sure it’s readily visible, whether you write it on a whiteboard or set it as the desktop wallpapers of your team members’ computers. That theme should be your team’s focus for that week, month, or quarter; every task you tackle should advance that theme while streamlining your processes and customer experiences.
2. Conduct regular and ruthless backlog grooming.
At least once per week, your core team should work through a portion of the backlog. Discuss relative priority, effort, and whether all the backlog items meet the INVESTcriteria for great features.
Be ruthless about maintaining focus regarding the most important theme of the month, and aggressively archive items that aren’t likely to happen in the next six months. They’ll resurface later if they’re still relevant, and archiving them eliminates unnecessary distractions.
3. Use lightweight product management tools.
Numerous collaboration tools are on the market, and they exist for a good reason. If short-term product goals aren’t front and center in your daily dashboards and chat, they might as well be nonexistent.
Identify a lightweight tool that allows you to track requests and keep your product backlog in one trusted system. From here, your team should be able to see the task at hand and focus on it to accomplish your goals at a predictable pace. Sound familiar?
4. Maintain great release notes.
Release notes are an engineering team’s “sales gong.” They celebrate progress, boost morale, and provide a valuable record of activity. Release notes hold just as much value because they act as a predictability indicator for your stakeholders. Your team members promise in the backlog and deliver in the product, but they get credit in the release notes.
Product management should always keep the stakeholders (external and internal) in mind, whether you’re working on the “product” portion or the “management” stage. These two steps require vastly different skill sets, but they’re complementary. The best-designed product in the world does you no good if you can’t manage toward a great execution and delivery.
With a user-centric view and the above strategies, CTOs can transform struggling development teams at early stage startups into productivity powerhouses.
Will Koffel leads the Google Cloud Startup Program in the Americas. With more than 20 years of experience as a startup founder, CTO, advisor, developer, and serial entrepreneur, Koffel specializes in working with small- to medium-size teams and focusing on agile product development and technology best practices. Koffel previously served as the CTO of Qwiklabs before it was purchased by Google in 2016. A graduate of MIT, Koffel and his family reside in the greater Boston area.