“Don’t let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘done,” Kevin Patel, head of technology products at VillageMD, said.
Patel discussed how a product director should be a product’s champion and the person most invested in it. Part of that investment means having a general understanding of popular technology — machine learning, new coding frameworks or automation tools, for instance — and how that tech might affect a product or the developers building it.
Despite their crucial role in delivering quality products to market, directors of product are just as responsible for supporting and empowering their direct reports. Directors should offer their team the resources they need to be successful contributors along the way.
“A good product lead can do the job themselves — execute well, set a solid strategy and get people excited to be part of it — but mostly works on making other people better at the jobs,” Lily Jolly, a 10-year product veteran and director of product at VSCO, said.
Patel’s professional journey has taken him from developer to founder to product lead. That breadth and depth of experience helped Patel understand how important it is for product teams to work in tandem with the engineering department. And in order to do that well, product leaders must be conversant in emerging technologies.
Career path: I started my career as a software engineer working on large-scale projects. I wanted to understand, work with and deliver data insights, so based on these principles, I founded a company to do exactly that. Afterward, to increase my knowledge breadth and desire to see how business was conducted, I took a role in business development at a data-focused startup in Chicago. Ultimately, this blend of engineering, entrepreneurial drive and business acumen led me to my current role in product.
You want to know everything there is to know about your products.”
A typical day: I am responsible for the company’s docOS technology products. There are three types of work that I do on any given day. First, I make time to understand what is happening in the market, industry or on a specific topic we are considering for our product roadmap.
Second, I think about our team, our operations and how to ensure we maintain maximum velocity. Typically this can include hands-on work with different teams, jumping in as another hand on deck when needed.
Third, I spend time with our highly cross-functional teams in operations, executive, legal, analytics and application users to learn what is important to them and how to deliver our best products. The time allotted to each area changes, but I always find time to do all three.
Best skills for product leadership: Being the person most invested in the product. It is important to know the big picture and industry trends, but also be aware of the details of individual products. Know when taking care of bugs should be a priority or whether a solution already in the market provides similar functionality. You want to know everything there is to know about your products.
Technical acumen and the desire to dive into details cannot be overstated. It’s not necessary to know everything about all technologies. Rather, the goal is to be conversant and to quickly learn about the tradeoffs of a given technology and the implications technical decisions can have on a product. This understanding will enhance product decision-making and gain the trust of engineering teams.
Finally, having a bias for action is beneficial to getting products out the door and initiating the feedback process. Don’t let “perfect” get in the way of “done.”
There are a lot of pleasant surprises that can happen in the workplace, like finding out the work you’ve been doing on a “special project” is actually the basis for an entire department. Jolly experienced this at a former startup, and realized she had fallen into the role of product manager. Since her revelation, Jolly spent a decade working in the field and learned a number of lessons, including the importance of giving a product team agency so they can advance their skills and develop their careers.
Career path: I was at a startup that forecasted trends for fashion brands, doing a made-up job the CEO called “special projects.” I spent a lot of time doing user research and working with the engineering team to figure out what to build. Eventually, someone told me I was a product manager — a job I didn’t know existed — and I decided to believe them!
I spend time defining our strategy, making sure we have the right resources in place.”
A typical day: More than anything else, I’m responsible for making sure our product teams have what they need to make good decisions. So I spend time defining our strategy, making sure we have the right resources in place and working with people through questions they’re stuck on.
Best skills for product leadership: A good product lead can do the job themselves — execute well, set a solid strategy and get people excited to be part of it — but mostly works on making other people better at the jobs. They bring clarity to everything they touch and help make sure others can do the same.