About: While attending university for psychology, Justin ventured into project & product management where he took part in internal products creation for Shaw and IBM. He worked on projects with MetaLab on the side starting in 2012 and officially joined the team in 2015 where his formal title is Project Manager, which at MetaLab includes product management as a focus. He’s worked on and launched products for Fortune 10 companies and startups. When not doing this, he’s a big fan of running, music festivals, and continuous learning in all things product management.
About MetaLab: MetaLab is an agency focusing on building world-class digital products for companies big and small. They focus on A+ design and partner closely with their clients in strategy, product management, design, and development. Some notable work from the past few years includes Slack, Notarize, Coinbase, and Sudo with many new, exciting products coming in 2016.
On the web:
Date: Tuesday, March 29
Time: 11AM PT / 2PM ET
Location: #ama channel
To join in on the Q&A, check out our Product HQ community!
How do you keep people motivated who work ONLY on agency work?
We keep teams motivated with lots of freedom and the understanding that they can move to different projects over time. They’re not saddled with one and they have a lot of autonomy to both do the work they know they want to do along with raising their hand when they want to dig into something else.
How do you distribute equity/incentives to employees so they feel they are part of the team when doing mundane stuff?
Equity and incentives come in many forms for us. The mutual respect all members of the team has blown me away, so there’s an inherent desire to feel part of a team. Outside of this, the teams at all levels have a HIGH level of input into products, so we all feel like we’re building something together. This creates a lot of engagement and results in very low staff churn here.
So you don’t feel that there is a misalignment of motivation? If I have a team of 3 developers – we own the product and eat sleep and breathe getting things done vs a consulting firm with it’s own agenda and optimization strategies around making as much money as possible?
This may sound too pie in the sky, but we hire people who want to build cool stuff. That is where we differentiate between a consulting firm and product partner. We tend to work on products that the team is inspired by and wants to work on. This removes much of the misalignment of motivation. We put the product first, everything else second when it comes to the work.
What’s your top tip for a project manager?
Ruthless prioritization. Especially in an agency setting: you have no choice but to constantly reprioritize your to-dos. There are only so many hours in a day.
What is your top interview question to ask junior to mid-level developers interviewing for a role on your team?
“What requests make you the most frustrated and the most uncomfortable from those outside of your developer teammates?” I find this tells you a lot about how they deal with pressure, conflicting priorities, and how they engage with their work. It’s one of many favorite questions to ask devs, but I find this is one question that tells you a lot.
How much time do you spend on any one product and how do you go about addressing their individual KPI’s?
PMs here are on no more than 2 projects. I’m currently on 2 and I’d say it’s about a 60/40 split. One requires more product work as it’s a V1 product so as many here know: that’s a bigger undertaking in many ways. We measure our success by our clients’ success. We partner heavily at a product level so we share research, performance metrics, product KPI’s etc. Start and use that as a team to make products better. Our goal is to partner with our clients for a long term and in fact, we say no to many who want a “one and done”.
I currently work in a digital agency. How is PM work different in an agency environment vs non-agency?
I would say agency vs non-agency is the competing priorities. We work on this by getting our teams heavily embedded with our clients and making it all feel like one team. Outside of this, I find the difference is pace: agency work is WAYYYY faster moving than non-agency work.
What makes a great client?
A great client is someone who treats you as a partner, not a vendor. We do our best work when we collaborate instead of having prescriptive work fed our way. While we respect the clients as we strive to work cultural fits only, we always enjoy working as a partner more than anything.
How do you differentiate project management vs. product management work at MetaLab?
They’re a very blended role currently. Project side of the role is responsible for timelines and budgets and resourcing. Product side is responsible for roadmap, features, and strategy. We have a strategy department so it’s not a solo show where people are spread too thin; it’s definitely a team sport.
What can smaller agencies ($1mm revenue) do to increase revenue? (outside of raising rates) – also, do you think it’s better to focus on monthly retainers or one-time jobs?
Smaller agencies can focus on pursuing clients that will be long time partners and have a product you want to grow with. The revenue comes out of that. I firmly believe one-time jobs are one to stay away from. If the “one-time” job is a means to build a relationship so as to continue working together, that’s great. But if the intention is merely to do something and move on, it dilutes the investment your team has in working on the product.
What was it like to work with Slack during the design process? What design principles did they fight for?
I wasn’t working directly with MetaLab when Slack was being born, but I first met Andrew in 2012 and have done some work on the side with him since that time. I will say that the teams principals on that project carry over to all of our projects: serve the intended user first.
We’re not robots and Slack doesn’t treat people as such. It has a “life” of its own (aka personality) just like the people that use it. Therefore, it creates that connection and it’s grown from there.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Leading a team of Product Managers. I love working on product and seeking out new ways to bring “old” ways of doing things into the 21st century. http://metalab.co/projects/notarize/ is one of my most fav recent examples of this.
Are there any other industries or specific verticals that you’ve personally been interested in when it comes to bringing “old” ways of doing things into the 21st century?
Vehicles are modern in the grand scheme of things, but my god the ergonomics, GUI’s, and UX of those GUI’s are so…dated. That’s something I have a keen interest in. Outside of that, things that are controlled by antiquated companies with antiquated ways of doing things is a big interest. I look to searching, reviewing, signing for, and living in a rented apartment/condo a HUGE opportunity. The ways in which you could streamline that process, make it easier for both renter/rentee (not a word, but going with it) throughout the whole process from moving in to moving out is something I’d love to solve for.
What’s your approach to building a roadmap with a client? Even when we stay really flexible, the client tends to want some sort of agreed-upon feature set very early in the process. How do you balance that?
We usually get all of the intentions out of the way first and then from there: who are the intended/goal users? What does success on this product look like? etc… Once everyone is on the same page there, I find it is much easier to get buy-in on a product roadmap that serves those needs. There are always competing priorities – you just have to be proactive about that vs. reactive. Board members, competing stakeholder ideas, etc. all have to be accounted for. It’s a balancing act, but I find that defining the user and success first are keys to roadmap success.
We use the strategy time together to either reinforce a feature request or make it clear that’s not a good/high priority right now. Questions to a client/stakeholder such as: what is the business value for this feature? does it solve a problem for the intended user? is it differentiated or competitive in the market? is it a building block to a major, future feature?
Questions like this tend to allow the client to figure out for themselves if a feature they want is indeed a feature they need.
We tend to assign “Business Value” and “Technical Complexity” rankings to product features. That way, it’s clear if something is 4/5 value and 1/5 tech complexity, we can all agree that we pursue that. If it’s 1/5 biz value and 5/5 tech complexity, it tends to be easy: “let’s not do this right now”
Tech feasibility is a big one. I’ve learnt the lesson the very hard way: engineering teams need to be involved at least somewhat at the strategy/product roadmap phase to define if a feature (even at a high level) is feasible in the launch timeline.
How do you track employee hours/work?
Harvest is our go-to for that. We respect the time that the client has paid us for and we respect the autonomy that we strive to provide staff so we work to balance those.
How often do you have internal workshops concerning product and strategy? Who is involved and are these recurring events?
We tend to do a lot of internal, informal knowledge sharing on Slack. We have an entire research channel in Slack where PMs, Strategy, and design leads post things often and share thoughts around product & strategy there. As for actual workshops: that’s something we’re working on implementing. The team has more than doubled in the last 6 months, so it’s something we believe to be essential but just have to find the time to make happen.
I appreciate the template of questions you have given for talking to a client/stakeholder. How have you gone about handling intense disagreement over strategy? Body language, or other stakeholders to back you up to come to mind or communication styles?
Because of the way we strive to frame these questions (we’re working to build a great product vs. turning it into an us against them approach) I find that the stakeholders tend to take it well. When it’s clear that the intention of the question is to serve their product more than anything else, it dilutes the intensity of the conversation. There have been occasions where you just know that there are certain hills you don’t need to die on but I believe that goes for everyone working in product, everywhere.
When clients hire your team to go in and help with product, what is the big pain point or need that they’re experiencing which results in their decision that it’s time to get serious about having agency help? In a way, what is the problem that Metalab, as a product, is tackling? How did work with companies like Slack come about?
Q2: Most work we do is referral from great partners we’ve worked with in the past including that project. As for the other questions: There are so many answers to that, to be honest. Sometimes it’s that the client doesn’t have the resources/capacity to do the product work in the timeframe they want to get it done, sometimes it’s that they’re new to the consumer product industry but have a great idea and need assistance with product and execution of getting that to market, and sometimes it’s because they have a large team and we help that large team with complex needs sort out what makes the best product. I wouldn’t say there’s a standard reason, but a mix of all of those.
If you could recommend up to 3 books/thought leaders to follow/articles for someone new to the world of PM, what would they be?
Book-wise, I’m a big fan of: Hooked & On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Yes, a book on writing by Stephen King. That doesn’t seem important but with the amount of written communication that a PM has to do, this is an essential read. As for articles, I would point people to medium.com and type in “product manager”. There’s a wealth of resources and I think it’s more about what resonates with each PM. There is no clear, one way to do things. Every situation we’re put in as PMs is different so I think it’s finding what works for you and learning from others along the way.
That’s a vague answer, but it feels as many are in search of that one article or book or person to guide them when it’s a collection of guidance and insights from many different areas and applying it in a way that works for you and your role and your team.
At Meta Lab – you did end-to-end product development – so clients mainly come to you with an idea at the back of a napkin? what do you cover in the first meeting?
It really depends on the stage the client is at. I’ll put it this way: with my two current projects, one is a Fortune 10 and one is a startup launching V1 of their product. Both had to start with a discussion around: who is the product for? what problems are they trying to solve? and what excites them about the possibilities of their idea/product? From there, you have a good idea of what they want and what they’re trying to achieve. Then the product is fleshed out from there.
So no matter the size of the project & client, it depends on the stage the product is at and understanding what the goals are.
How do you work with founders or executives who have a strong personal opinion about product/feature, but it is not based on user research/feedback, only on their gut?
Illustrating very tactfully and respectfully why idealism and guts are right far less often than research, user interviews, feedback from target groups, etc.
Everyone has seen The Social Network and thinks, “His gut was right! Mine will be too.” But illustrating why that is the exception, not the rule is key.
Not that all of our clients think that, but in all aspects of product development, showing why research, data, and targeted feedback are the way to go is essential I find.
Someone who has a mature product and traction/DAU’s to support their guts findings in the past is a different story, but again, that is the exception, not the rule
And I find with exec level, pure bullet points of findings are key. Give them all the dates, but they want the results, not the context of it. That’s purely personal experience, but helps sell the ideas better I find.
Every startup office needs a poster giving a 10-second explainer on confirmation bias and how to avoid it.
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