How These Local Product Teams Are Staying Ahead of the Curve

As great product managers expand their skill sets, juggling stakeholders, data and the product lifecycle makes for an increasingly complex role. Built In Chicago heard from three product leaders about how their teams continue to innovate and advance.

Written by Brigid Hogan
Published on Jan. 27, 2023
How These Local Product Teams Are Staying Ahead of the Curve
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Every product manager is constantly juggling the needs of the business, the tech and the user experience. For great project managers, the exercise extends far beyond the simple three-ball cascade.

As best practices are refined across the industry and methodologies and tools become more sophisticated, a product manager’s role might be better compared to juggling torches while riding a unicycle. A mastery of the skill set involves pushing one’s team forward while adapting to trends and advances in their fields.

According to both Brian Brower, chief product officer at Tovala, and Shafiq Shariff, SVP of product and innovation at Pangea, using rich data sources and deep analytical tools are a cornerstone of the evolving product manager role. For both product teams, this data focus has helped move away from an iteration-first approach to development and toward more meaningful and focused product tests.

At Attain, Nick Wieczorek, head of product for growth, this data-centric approach is focused on understanding the business’ profit and loss reporting. But new tools mean that understanding the profit and loss report goes far beyond monthly projections, and instead offer deeper insights across tech, finance and product teams.

“The days of end-of-month lifetime value calculations are long gone – now we can get real-time metrics to help us move faster,” Wieczorek said.

Built In Chicago heard from Brower, Wieczorek and Shariff about how their product managers are continuing to demonstrate excellence — and what they’re looking for as their teams grow. 


 

Brian Brower
Chief Product Officer • Tovala

Tovala’s product team works across hardware, software and food creation to help their customers enjoy quickly and simply enjoy healthy meals in their own homes.

 

In your experience, how has the practice of product management evolved over the last few years?

Three key changes stand out. First, test-driven methodology. Quickly testing ideas is increasingly a core PM competency. Before investing in development, the expectation is that PMs test new concepts to identify potential friction points, identify opportunities to improve and understand if proposed products or features will deliver against both customer and business targets is essential. Creating prototypes and structuring meaningful tests is key to successful product leadership.

Second, data as a primary insight source. Product teams are creating rich feedback loops to understand their customers better, then structuring data correctly to be a critical source of insights and opportunities. Great PMs regularly use data to inform roadmaps and make tough priority decisions.

Third, continuous learning and improvement. Once they have created a continuous feedback pipeline with data and direct customer feedback, the best PMs tap into that pipeline to enhance their products continuously. They never see a product as “done.” 

The best product managers are constantly evolving their product to meet heightened customer expectations.” 

 

What kinds of technological or operational developments have driven or enabled those changes, and how has your team adopted them in your own work?

First, rapid prototyping tools have made it easy to put representative prototypes in front of customers and quickly get insights and feedback. Second, machine learning is essential to most product roadmaps and allows product leaders to create more personalized experiences for their users.

 

How does your team empower and encourage product professionals to explore new technologies and practices?

We encourage participation in industry meetups and report back on best practices. Some of the best product practices come from learning the challenges other product professionals are dealing with and how they address them.

Online learning makes it easier to dive deep into product practices with individual product learning plans and explore related technologies they might be interested in. For example, our team has used online learning to learn more about machine learning, IoT and data management.

 

 

Nick Wieczorek
Head of Product, Growth • Attain

Attain’s consumer-facing financial services app, Klover, powers the company’s work building a more equitable financial ecosystem.

 

In your experience, how has the practice of product management evolved over the last few years?

Within Attain’s product organization, we strive to engender the startup mentality, even as we grow. Product managers must be extremely familiar with both the company profit and loss report and their specific product profit and loss report in order to be successful, as our features run through a rigorous financial projection process. As companies tighten their belts and move from optimizing for revenue growth to optimizing for profit growth, these skills for PMs have become more important than ever.

 

What kinds of technological or operational developments have driven or enabled those changes, and how has your team adopted them in your own work?

Making backend data more operational generally leads to more business-driven decisions from a product organization. There have been advancements in third-party technologies like Looker, that allow for product teams to easily manipulate data in order to run analyses. These new technologies also allow tech, finance and product to operate off of the same data set in real-time. 

Autonomy allows all teams to explore new technologies and frameworks that work best for their team’s needs.”

 

How does your team empower and encourage product professionals to explore new technologies and practices?

Ultimately, Attain believes in giving product professionals complete autonomy over their section of the product. Autonomy allows all teams to explore new technologies and frameworks that work best for their team’s needs. As a full department, we collaborate on what’s working best and advise on how to adopt the tool to make it efficient and effective. Team retrospectives allow us to assess tools like Miro, FigJam and EasyRetro. Our PMs are encouraged to use what they are most comfortable with, but brainstorming together allows us to determine what will help us reach our goals in the best possible way.

 

 

Shafiq Shariff
SVP, Product & Innovation • Pangea Money Transfer

Pangea helps people move money around the world, allowing users to more simply transfer money internationally to support friends and family.

 

In your experience, how has the practice of product management evolved over the last few years?

For a long time, product management was almost entirely defined by lean-agile methodologies which assumed a low cost of development for digital products, and all that was needed for product market fit was sufficient technical iteration. As distribution costs of consumer digital technologies have increased and digital products become more sophisticated, I’m seeing fewer viral hits and a shift toward richer customer research and data-driven customer insights to power rigorous articulation of product strategy. I also see increased product attention on building tech that improves marketing promotion, attribution, ad platform data integration and pricing to more efficiently acquire new customers.

The industry maintains many of the lessons from lean-agile in terms of implementation, including definition of minimum desirable products and releasable product slices, as well as many of the product led distribution patterns that have proven to be effective.

I’m seeing a shift toward richer customer research and data-driven customer insights to power rigorous articulation of product strategy.”

 

What kinds of technological or operational developments have driven or enabled those changes, and how has your team adopted them in your own work?

The cost of consumer research has decreased dramatically with numerous online panels that can target very specific customer segments. For instance, we need to survey U.S.-based immigrants who send money frequently to a broad range of countries regularly and have been able to find prospects relatively easily. We run internal and external surveys often to test hypotheses and to influence prioritization of product roadmap.  

One needs to be careful in interpreting the natural bias on these online panels. That said, they have been an invaluable tool for the Pangea product team to understand the drivers of competitive selection, pricing, differentiation, go-to-market and churn.

 

How does your team empower and encourage product professionals to explore new technologies and practices?

One of Pangea’s core values is introspection. As a matter of ongoing practice, our product team A/B tests all consumer facing changes from UX to new feature releases to pricing and publishes learnings as part of our monthly product update.

Pangea is extremely supportive of all employees continuing to build their professional skill sets.  A few members of our product team took the Reforge six-week product development program last year, where students learn emerging best practices from others in the industry. A few attended Money 20/20, the premier fintech annual conference to stay abreast of emerging fintech technologies, and a few stayed local and attended several conferences in and around Chicago including ChiWitCon and ProdCon 22.

Employees are required to plan out their conference plan prior to attending and publish their learnings for the rest of the team after returning.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images via Shutterstock and highlighted companies.

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