You may have heard of product operations but how is it different from product management? At a recent joint ProductTank Waterloo and ProductTank Pittsburgh session, Christine Itwaru, head of product operations at product analytics company Pendo, talked about the difference between product ops and product management and how to get the most from your product ops team.
Product ops and product management aren’t the same thing. Both deliver on outcomes and experience, but product managers build features in products and produce value through those product features, said Itwaru. While product managers focus on a product’s adoption and growth, product ops delivers value through process communications and systems — beta management, for example — and focuses on the customer experience.
Product managers have a really hard job with a full plate of tasks, said Itwaru. They’re responsible for solving problems, maintaining collaborative relationships with engineers, focusing on a product’s adoption and growth, and derisking a product as well.
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But it’s not realistic to expect product managers to do all of that and support the business as it grows, she said.
“What if we could allow them to focus on actual business outcomes?” Itwaru asked.
That’s the idea behind product ops, which emerged as a way to help product managers place their energy where it needs to go, said Itwaru.
Part of Pendo’s product operations team’s responsibility is to create a structure that supports modern product management teams. Pendo’s team does that by really focusing on product as an iterative process, said Itwaru.
“I think a lot of people have an aversion to change but change is going to happen,” she said. “The one thing that always helps with conversations internally, at least at Pendo, is that we always say none of this is written in stone. We're doing things to drive to a specific outcome.”
That means sometimes you can’t keep the same process in place, especially if you’re part of a growing company like Pendo, she said.
“I’m not saying blow it up. I’m saying revisit whether it's serving the same reason you set out to serve,” she said.
As an example, Itwaru pointed at how Pendo has changed how it handles customer feedback. When Pendo developed its first feedback process, the organization wasn’t as large as it is now, so it was able to accept a lot more feedback because there weren’t as many people offering it to begin with. But as Pendo grew, so did the feedback it was receiving and the company had to change when and how it would respond to customer feedback.
“It’s good because you make it very clear to the people you're serving why it is that you need to change something and then constantly show them the value of the thing that you're doing by iterating on that process,” she said.
Starting a product ops team
When you start a product ops team or you have someone just focusing on that role for the first time everybody's going to want to throw everything at them, said Itwaru. But resist that, she urged.
“Really think about what's going to help first. What's going to move the needle? Give them no more than two or three things to work on depending on the person because they're there to help but they can only do so much in a short amount of time,” she said.
One place to prioritize? Customer pain, she said.
And make sure whatever process you have in place with product ops is iterative, she added.
“Make sure they’re doing what’s right for the teams as they grow versus doing what's right for where they were when they started that process,” she said.
Any product ops team should focus on a few key areas, such as the health of the product, roadmap updates, alignment, and nailing the voice of the customer — a topic which Itwaru admitted could be its own ProductTank session.
Beta and release management are also important, Itwaru added.
“Make sure you're testing something, going after the (customers) that are screaming the loudest about being unhappy with a certain area of the product and setting expectations with them so you get the best feedback,” she said.
And treat data like currency, said Itwaru. Make sure you have data on hand for the head of products when it comes from a voice of the customer perspective, or a risk perspective. Your head of products is going to want to know how the product is impacting that one area, so help them understand what trade-offs might look like, she said.
Skills every product ops person should have
Be super empathetic. “If you are not going to be in a position where you can understand what’s going on on the other side, it’s probably not a good role for you,” she said.
Be process driven but iterative. That means being a strong communicator so that you can make sure customers understand value just as much as internal people.
Be trustworthy. With any new role where people may question whether it belongs, having someone who’s trustworthy helps create a bond between product ops and product management and product marketing.
At Pendo one of the things the product ops team worked on first was trust exercises with the product manager to make sure they understood that the product ops team’s role was to amplify the work of the product team and act as a buffer whenever the product team needed one.
“It's all about partnership and executing together,” said Itwaru.
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