Dan Olsen is a product management trainer, consultant, and author. At Olsen Solutions, he works with CEOs and product leaders to build strong product teams. His clients include Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, Box, and Walmart. Dan is the author of the bestseller The Lean Product Playbook. Prior to consulting, Dan was a product leader at Intuit and several startups. Dan lives in Silicon Valley, where he founded the monthly Lean Product Meetup which has over 10,000 members.

Show Notes

[02:20] Covid’s impact on Dan Olsen’s work and routine.

[03:20] Countries where Dan sees most Product Culture Growth

[04:25] Who should read “the lean product playbook” today? Who is the book addressing today?

[08:40] Dan’s thoughts on the emergence of No Code.

[09:24] How to Build the Right Thing for the Right People

[11:30] The beginning of Dan’s career, in the defense industry, designing nuclear submarines, the Virginia class submarine.

[17:24] How does product management in large firms like Google and Apple, differ from product management in other environments, and should the philosophy be the same?

[21:26] Tips for people that want to get into product.

[24:43] The Lean UX meetup in Silicon Valley organized by Dan Olsen

[28:50] Q&A: Using Product Management Tools to Design Great Customer Experience

[34:53] Q&A: Changing the mindset on the importance of PMs. How do we convince them to kind of give this opportunity to get more people to falling into the role earlier on, and not just when there’s already chaos?

[40:30] Values design brings to the product and users' experience.

[41:45] Q&A: Breaking into Product Management Roles: Product Manager vs Product Owner

[45:00] Best interface to merge startups

[41:45] Breaking into Product Management Roles: Europe vs the US

A: So what are you working on right now? What is exciting for you these days?

D: Before COVID, I was flying around the world every two weeks giving private workshops, training people. With COVID, I’ve been doing that online. So I’m doing a bunch of private training workshops on product management, sometimes it’s just product teams. It’s cross-functional teams, where we have the developers and designers. Product Management has been exploding as a career in the last few years. Everybody wants to build their skills as a product manager. The demand for training, like my workshops or the masterclass, is skyrocketing. So it’s a lot of fun to get to work with a lot of different companies, and kind of see product management and be evolving over time.

A: Which countries do you see coming up? Do you have any specific geographies?

D: That’s a good question. It’s growing, it’s all over. Europe in general is taking off. I’m at my meetup, we took it online as well and I see a lot of attendees from Germany. Australia and New Zealand. So you see a global evolution of product management, and more people seeking events. I can see that the geography of the events gets more and more diverse every year, which is awesome.

A: Who should read “the lean product playbook” today? Who is the book addressing today?

D: The book came out of my speaking, so I started speaking to product audiences. And this was before there were even product conferences, just tech conferences. So the book came out of that sharing best practices with people.

The book is meant for anyone working in product management or developing products. In fact, there was recently an Amazon review that I really liked, and said “Hey, if you’re new to product management, it’s great to kind of teach you the fundamentals. And like, if you’re already in product management, you want to uplevel your skills, it’s got a lot of good frameworks to do that.”. I think it can also be helpful for people that are not PMs to understand the content. So it’s meant to be a general-purpose book. It’s very few notes right there. It’s very comprehensive. It’s thick, it’s 335 pages. So it covers not only product management but a little bit of UX design, a little bit of analytics. So a lot of people end up finding the sections that are most relevant for them and putting little sticky notes there.

A: That’s what I’ve done myself.

D: Yeah, I love it. There’s a guy who’s read the book and I see it’s got a bunch of sticky notes. I always take a picture of highlights and things like that. So, it’s cool. And then back to the international thing. It’s been published, in Chinese and Polish. Poland is another country. They have a really strong product camp in Poland. It’s in Turkish. So you’re seeing more out of Turkey as well. So, it’s kind of cool.

A: The book has It’s been around for five years. I think it’s pretty much still updated. But in terms of prototyping tools, you’ve seen the emergence of new ones. So Balsamiq is still going strong, but Adobe, xD, Figma, also in the analytics Mixpanel was all the rage in 2016/15. And now you have new players like heap and amplitude and Pendo.

D: Whenever you write a book you worry about it’s gonna get dated. I think, the framework and advice is evergreen, but I wanted to be as helpful as I could. So I listed the resources, now most of the resources are still relevant. But as you said, there are new ones coming out, right? So balsamic remains one of my favorite tools it’s going strong, as far as a low fidelity prototyping tool. I encourage all PMS, to get comfortable with that. It can be good to sketch out your thoughts.

Prototyping has come a long way. That’s where you’re seeing a lot of excitement. So like Adobe XD, Figma wasn’t out when I wrote my book. The ability to create interactive prototypes, where the user can click or tap, right InVision is still going very strong as well. The ability to kind of take your idea for a product, prototype it and test it with users to get rapid feedback has never been easier. In my book, in my talks — I’m a big fan of testing prototypes before you do any coding. Like why go and code something? What if you don’t know it’s what somebody wants? Let’s use a prototype and let’s test it and iterate the prototype and then the case study. I’ll be giving you my masterclass as an example of how we iterated because we’re doing it with prototypes. Back then Google Analytics and Mixpanel were the main tools. We’ve seen the emergence of a whole new crop of tools and new capabilities, heap, amplitude, and Pendo. You have multiple choices for tools that you can use to help get insights on the analytics to help you improve your product.

A: How do you see no code nowadays? all the rage with no call? Let’s lots of new companies coming in with no code.

D: The same thing on the tech side has never been easy. We can say it each year, with AWS, and no code and all these things, it’s never been easier to go from idea to live product has never been less expensive and takes less time and less work. So that’s funny because, in the early early days, it’s like that was the hard part, as that gets easier, standing up a web app just becomes relatively easy. Then what’s the hard part? The hard part is actually solving customer needs and delivering something of value, to step up and make sure we’re going to build the right thing.

A: That’s exactly what we’re going to do at the masterclasses. You’re going to give a Master Class on May 27 about how to build the right thing for the right pitch. Can you tell us a little bit more about what this masterclass will be about?

D: We have 90 minutes total. So that’s a good amount of time where we’re one I can share in-depth, the lean product process for my book. So in the book, the two key frameworks are the product-market fit pyramid, which is a model for how to make sure you’re achieving it, delivering customer value. The lean product process guides you through each of the steps through the lean to the product-market fit pyramid. So I’ll be covering that process in 90 minutes with some case studies and some, class q&a, to make it interactive.

I always like to make sure the workshops are very interactive. We have real-world case studies that people think about what they would do to put themselves in the shoes of that company and apply the framework. So I like to teach a framework, share examples. And then do a quick class exercise to see if people can understand it. And then, of course, we’ll have time in the end for q&a for everybody. So I’m excited! It’s a lot of fun! And it will give people you know a good overview of the key advice from my book, and then equip them

A: So they are entitled to a book so if they buy The tickets. there you go get the book and having the master class has an entry point is a great way to actually again.

D: The master class would be like a 90-minute movie version of the book that’ll give you an overview. Like the movie version, there’s the book version.

A: Get back a little bit and start and think about your career. You started in the defense industry, designing nuclear submarines, the Virginia class submarine. It still is the US Navy’s latest undersea water platform, although it’s almost 20 years old.

D: The development cycles can be very long for business. And, in this case, defense contractors, so what did you learn from that experience? Which I guess, is at the other side of the lean methodology of doing fast and breaking things, when you’re designing a nuclear submarine that it’s not supposed to be broken?

It’s interesting, because the funny thing is we all embrace agile, and we want to be agile and do continuous deployment. And that’s good in the software space. If you’re building a submarine, or a space shuttle, or a rocket ship, you don’t want to be like: “ the MVP one blew up, Let’s go iterate to version 1.1”. The stakes are a little higher. So yeah, so it is a little more waterfall. The goal is to develop a submarine that has these high-level parameters of speed and operating capabilities. It takes 12 years to go from there to design to build and have it be in the water and tested and ready to operate. I learned about and I went from there, it was very interesting to go from a 12-year development cycle.

And so I went from a 12-year dev cycle to a one-year dev cycle on Quicken. And that was a great shift because it was moving faster, but it wasn’t so crazy fast. We still had time in each phase to do market research, product definition, spec out the MVP, design, and then do user testing. So it was a great transition for me. And the thing that I realized is two things. The reason you can’t move so fast is you’re literally like welding steel together. What’s the risk of a mistake? And the less easy it is to make a change in the product, like in a submarine, the longer the more kind of waterfall it needs to be out. If we make a mistake, we’re going to fix it two minutes later, then you can afford to move much faster and be riskier like that.

So it actually was good training for me in product management defining and thinking about what the product can be and answering all the detailed questions here to make sure you’re kind of delivering value. It also was a very complex product, right? And the submarine is one of the most complex kinds of products. How do you work on a complex product, because then you need a team, you need multiple teams to do that. And you’ve got to coordinate. And you know, obviously, for PMS, cross-functional collaboration is really important. And we often have a matrix organization where we’re dividing and people are in different teams and groups that have to work together. I was very fortunate at that place where I worked. It was a matrix organism It was the most efficient, effectively working organization that I’ve ever worked in. And I’ve seen a lot of places, that matrix doesn’t work too well, people aren’t sure how, who’s where, and what the roles are. That was like a rock-solid one. So I learned early on, like the power of working in an effective matrix organization, and how to collaborate across functions. So those are some good lessons learned that when I got into product management, I kind of already knows how to do these things. It was really just a very technical product management job that I had, even though I was working in a submarine. So it was a great experience.

A: Yeah, you know, people like Steve Blank nowadays, talking about how the defense contractors and the Pentagon should go into more a jail philosophy as well to ship faster.

How does product management in large firms like Google and Apple differ from product management in other environments, and should the philosophy be the same?

D: I would say the reality is, most of it, similar. At the end of the day, you need to understand who your customers are, no matter what size company you’re in, make sure you’re solving the right problems, prioritize the opportunities, work with design, development, and marketing. I think that the big difference is in bigger companies that tend to have more resources. So, as I like to say, it takes a village back to the matrix across cultural organizations, to develop a great product, it takes a strong PM, visual designer, front end engineer, back end developer, right QA, DevOps, marketing, all these other teams. So typically, in larger companies, but not always, those tend to be staffed. More so than in a startup, as there might be a PM and a developer, but no designer, and no QA. So usually what happens is that the PM needs to have a broader role, to stretch out and fill the gaps. Which means you may not be able to go as deep in certain areas. The flip side, in a startup, is you also end up having more autonomy, or degree of control, because, in a smaller organization, there are usually fewer people, less need to go around and check with everybody, fewer dependencies on other parts of the organization. But again, there can be times in big companies when you’ve got an autonomous team, and you’re able to kind of do things on your own more. Whereas if you’re in a big complex product, say it’s got like 20 scrum teams that are all working on this product, there’s going to be a lot more cross-team communication and collaboration. The last thing in a startup is that you may have an opportunity to drive some of the foundational things, like, if your startup is not using analytics yet, you have to be one to say, hey, guys, I think we should install here and get that going. Whereas in a big company, those other things are probably all in place. So I think that’s an exciting thing about being a startup.

A: So for people that want to get into product nowadays, what kind of tips do you have for them?

D: If you’re trying to break-in, the first question I get is, how can I break-in? The easiest way to break in is for your company to take a chance on you. For some reason, companies perceive it as less of a risk. The challenge is when you want to get a PM job, but they only want to hire people that have PM experience. As far as building your skills go, conferences like Productized, Webinars like this, my meetup, are events where you can learn a lot from Product leaders and also from other people that you can network with. There are books, like my book, the Lean Product Playbook, and other good books out there. There’s a lot of videos on YouTube, there are podcasts, I know, productize has a podcast, too. So that’s kind of the foundational thing.

One of the biggest pieces of advice I have, if you’re trying to break in, is just getting your website going. It’s not crucial, but it’s just a way of demonstrating your product management knowledge and passion, short of not having that job title. So get a website, start reviewing products, and in that way, they can see how you’re thinking.

The first thing I do, if I’m interviewing you, is google your name. And if you have a website, it’s going to come up and then I’m going to be able to see your thinking. So if they won’t give you the PM role just yet, you can offer to help out the product management team. Product Managers, as we all know, they’re super busy. So that’s a way to kind of sneak your way over and hang out and try to get in there. And then when a product role does open, they’ll be like, oh, you have been helping us out, he’s been doing a good job, let’s give him a shot. Right?

A: So you’re the founder of the Lean Product and the Lean UX meetup in Silicon Valley. Can you tell us a bit about that? How was the transition with COVID?

D: I started seven years ago, in 2014, when I was working at Medallia, helping them grow their product team.

I’ve always been a big fan of building communities and sharing best practices. And they had a wonderful auditorium. So we partnered up and each month I would host a top speaker.

We just recently crossed 10,000 members, which is awesome, we’re one of the biggest product communities online.

With COVID I remember I was like What am I gonna do? But it has been amazing. I do think a lot of times when there’s a challenge, there’s also opportunities. So within an hour or two of posting our first online event, I started getting all these tweets and messages on LinkedIn saying this is awesome because they’ve always wanted to go but couldn’t make it to Silicon Valley.

Online the reach is huge, instead of having to physically be within 30 miles of where we hosted in Mountain View. Now, anybody online can join and in fact, we get a lot of people from Australia and New Zealand, as the time zone works out well for them. We also get people on the East Coast, we even from Europe. So it’s been awesome.

My speakers don’t have to be physically here either, so now I can get the world’s best speakers, and we have no physical constraints for the number of audiences. Our physical room was only able to hold 180 people and for our event in December, with Marty Cagan, a friend of mine, we had over 500 people online. So it has been a win-win.

A lot of meetups and other events have been canceled with Covid, so people are seeking while stuck at home, more educational opportunities, more networking opportunities, and luckily, lean product meetup has been there to fulfill those needs. So it’s been a lot of fun.

About Productized Masterclasses

The Productized Masterclasses are 2 days of hands-on masterclasses and insightful keynote speakers. On 27 & 28 May you’ll enjoy 4 masterclasses of your choice, get practical tips, and network with your peers. Come and meet Dan Olsen, Kandis O’Brien, Radhika Dutt, Ken Sandy, or Daniel Zacarias, among many others and get ready to be inspired to learn more about Enterprise Product and Consumer Product! SAVE THE DATE — MAY 27–28 2021

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