Or ‘Why I’ve never met my Product Team (and that’s OK).’
I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never actually met my Product Team. Actually, I met Yaro (our UX Lead) one time when we were both in New York. But that’s about it. I’ve never met Alex and Ivan (our engineers), or Vlad (our Head of Engineering) or Max (our lead designer).
And I know them really, really well. And I have a huge amount of respect for them. They ship more or less constantly at exceptional quality. But I don’t really know much about them. We work and we ship. And then we go and spend time with our families. At least that’s what I do.
Remote working and distributed companies are nothing new. Automattic (WordPress), Basecamp and Buffer amongst others have been talking the talk and walking the walk for some time. But this goes beyond distributed companies. It’s about product management meets the demand economy. It’s the Uber of Product. It’s Product Management 3.0.
Once upon a time, before the age of digital product, when this industry was called ‘software’ or (God forbid) IT, it was fashionable for teams to be in different locations. Back then it was known as ‘offshoring’ and typically referred to outsourcing engineering to India to cut costs. Business people and money people lived somewhere in the West. They were the ones with ‘the Big Idea,’ so called the shots. Actually executing ‘the Big Idea’ was regarded as a commodity so the cheapest option usually sufficed.
This arrangement then became incredibly unfashionable as companies run by engineers (think Google and Facebook) became the benchmark for the New Economy. These companies, more than any other, have defined the playbook for explosive growth made possible by the internet and the phenomenon now known as the ‘startup.’
In a typical startup, engineering is the company and the culture. The founders and leadership team are engineers so there’s no question of anything being outsourced or ‘offshored’. Co-location has become a central tenet of startup culture. The synergy that occurs when smart, technically minded kids get together is the secret sauce. More so than ‘the Big Idea.’ If the idea is wrong you can always pivot. But if your founding team doesn’t gel, you’re doomed.
This formula has been evangelised, perfected and repeated with frightening consistency by Paul Graham and the good folks at Y Combinator; the ultimate startup incubator. But the grim irony of the Y Combinator / Bay Area startup model is that, despite a relentless focus on the subject, it just doesn’t scale.
Silicon Valley is a unique alignment of planets: an exceptional aggregation of world-class product and engineering talent and capital investment in one place. As Y Combinator accurately observe:
“The Bay Area is for startups what LA is for the film industry.”
But Silicon Valley cannot be replicated anymore than Hollywood can be replicated, although billions has been wasted trying.
Product Managers who find themselves in the unfortunate position of not living in the Bay Area, or having the means to relocate, must follow a different path. Because, unlike The Social Network and HBO’s startup parody, most product teams don’t share houses, Jaeger-bombs and bong hits whilst coding for 18 hours a day. More often that not, they are in different time zones and on different continents.
Steven Sinofsky remarked recently that “quality is the new cool…and testing is the what’s old is new again.” The same is true of the on-demand Product Team.
The offshoring concept has been replaced by the distinctly more fashionable ‘talent platform’ which is less about cutting costs (although that’s definitely a factor) and more about product teams ‘as a service.’ Great engineers, designers, growth hackers and UX-ers can be located via UpWork, Toptal or Growth Geeks and connected like an API.
The bleeding edge of this trajectory (in 2015) are companies like Gigster who deliver product teams as a managed service or (in their words) a ‘full-service development shop’. You send them your brief and they send you back an app. Andreessen Horowitz are investors, clearly hedging their bets that the Bay Area model is reaching the limits of its ability to serve the global need for software solutions to the world’s problems.
Of course, there’s a chasm of difference between an app (or a website) and a product. And the difference is the level of commitment, investment and the time horizons the team are working toward. It’s the difference between looking after your niece and nephew for the weekend and having kids of your own. Gigster can provide the child, but they can’t make you a real parent.
Newsmart, the brand for whom I am Product Manager, is a digital service that teaches business English with premium news from the Wall Street Journal. It is not a startup. But neither is it a corporation. It’s an example of the on demand / service model applied directly to digital product.
The permanent team on Newsmart is just 4 people. But our on-demand model means we can scale up to dozens whenever necessary. Product Management for me means next to no face to face communication at all. It means being permanently dialled into Slack, Aha!, Google Hangouts, Skype or Zoom. And it means English (of course). That goes without saying.
Although headquartered in London, Newsmart was birthed in New York by PreHype (who deliver ‘startups as a service’ to more established organisations) and was designed and engineered by Castle who are evenly distributed between New York and Samara (that’s Russia, folks). I’m not sure Castle’s service model is that different from a range of other agencies and suppliers, they just execute better than anyone I know.
As a news-driven educational service, Newsmart also has a Learning Team who bring the necessary publishing and pedagogical skills into the mix. This role is currently performed by ELTJam (again headquartered in London) who co-ordinate a team of teachers and writers distributed all over the world. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never met most of them yet we work hand in glove on a daily basis, publish content daily and ship every week.
Newsmart also relies on a host of individuals and freelancers, primarily via UpWork or Sketchdeck, for graphic design, webscraping, exercise creation, digital marketing and lead generation services on demand.
If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound much like The Social Network, you’d be right.
The Product Team only connect in real time for just under an hour every week via a Zoom videocall since we abandoned Google Hangouts for reasons of reliability. There are no all night beer and pizza sessions. No hackathons. No bro-mance. And we don’t get together every year at a different exotic location for a team summit. We can’t afford it.
The $64,000 question is: is it possible to ship products with a remote team that compete with those of co-located teams?
Clearly I’m biased but I’m convinced that, with the emergence of common platforms for communication, English and Google translate, and a shared understanding of software development, distributed product teams can collapse time and place and operate as effectively as anyone.
Product Management 2.0 was all about influencing without authority in a world of senior management and peers but no direct reports. Version 3.0 means becoming a spider at the centre of a rich web of different specialists handpicked from the global marketplace.
And with scale on your side, it should mean the balance of talent ultimately shifts in your favour.
Working distributed requires Product Managers to hone their communication skills and be always ‘on’ as never before. As Andy Grove taught us: “Only the paranoid survive.” With no face time or over the shoulder feedback, communication must be clearer, less ambiguous and more efficiently maintained. When you’re working across half a dozen time zones, there’s only a short window each day to connect; so you better make it count.
So for Product Managers outside of the Bay Area, my advice is: don’t bother complaining about the dearth of good engineers in London. Or Paris. Or Sao Paulo. Don’t waste your time lamenting narrow-minded immigration laws, the technophobia of your state education and all the reasons you can’t replicate the exact circumstances of Silicon Valley. You’re missing the point.
It’s much better to make movies that Hollywood (by dint of its economics) could never make, instead of derivative blockbusters that only draw attention to their inferiority. Product Managers in that overlooked space they call the ‘rest-of-the-world’ need to develop their own models. Ones that accommodate their different circumstances and leverage the incredible pockets of talent that exist in the most unexpected corners of the globe.
Tap into the global Product Team. It really, really scales.