Full stack product leadership. The 5 stages of product delivery
In my last blog post, I discussed the hallmarks, traits, and skills of great teams through the lens of Builders, Dreamers, Operators, and Polishers. In this post, let’s drill down on Product Leadership.
Product Leadership is an art form, not a precise science. During my professional journey, I have worked on hardware products and services and software for B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to consumer) sectors. The software was delivered via floppy discs or CDs when I began this journey. In contrast, now it tends to be cloud-delivered — though despite these technological changes, the core skills that make superior product leaders stand out from those average ones remain unchanged.
This is where what I call “full-stack product leadership” comes into play. This involves a comprehensive view and appreciation of all the requirements for launching, expanding, and preserving a business — from planning, design, and testing through marketing tactics that define how you will reach customers (go-to-market), alongside supervising and managing it all!
As I converse with mentees just starting their careers, one of my first questions is, “where do you want to be when your professional journey concludes?” Most individuals focus on what comes next instead of how their current decisions shape future opportunities. Some opt for a vertical path, while others may seek more lateral movement. Nevertheless, it should always be geared towards achieving long-term goals and aspirations. Simply put, they concentrate on honing their engineering or product manager skills and dedicating themselves to that career path. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, it can limit your potential for advancement in the long run.
I have taken what many describe as the “road less traveled” in my career. While some prefer the traditional path, I pursued a more winding route. From an early stage in my career, it was evident that I enjoyed both the business and tech elements of high-tech products and services. With careful planning, immense luck, and help from inspiring mentors and backers, I picked up various areas of leadership expertise at each step- culminating in where I stand now. Through my varied experiences in leading major product marketing, management, and engineering teams, I have gained an understanding of the intricate connections between these divisions. Today’s Blog is based on my unique experience from this less-traveled road.
During my career, I have observed that distinct areas of the Product Leadership stack often need to communicate better with each other, resulting in unrest as teams strive without knowing about more significant issues such as scale. So, let’s review the five areas of the Product leadership stack:
1. Product Management: Product Managers are ultimately responsible for articulating the vision and creating a minimal viable product (MVP) that meets user needs. By paying attention to customer feedback, they ensure that both design and engineering teams create products that meet their requirements. Full-stack product leaders must have a keen eye for developing a crystal-clear product vision, defining the minimum viable product, and involving customers in the design and engineering process. Product Managers on their teams must also be able to craft compelling stories around their vision so that others can understand what it means to build something beautiful that customers genuinely love! My preferred approach comes from my time at Amazon Web Services and the Amazon Working Backwards process (look for more in my next blog post!) For Product leaders who may need to gain experience in product management, sometimes the work of Product Managers does seem like a dark science. If you are in that position, call on your other skillsets to augment, learn and be curious about that team. You may come from a support or sales background and can help your team work backward from the coal face a seller starts from when they are handed their quota at the beginning of the year! Or have you spent hours on the phone with customers frustrated with technical support issues? You can always find areas to add immediate value regardless of your angle.
2. Product Design & UX; Crafting an optimal product design entails developing a consistent and comprehensive approach across all the elements, both inside and outside the product (e.g., marketing). This extends to creating a seamless user experience through thoughtful visual design. The Product design and UX stage is the cornerstone for launching, growing, and sustaining a business. As a full-stack product leader, you must ensure your design team’s design process is thorough enough to encompass all aspects of the design canvas. This might range from marketing endeavors to user experience and visual layout — whatever it takes! Furthermore, consistency needs to be priority number one if you want the outcome of your product’s success in providing an exceptional user experience. Once this level of attention has been established, customers can truly enjoy what they are interacting with. So, as a product leader, have you yet to gain experience in this area? You could lump design in a UX into the same bucket as many folks I meet. That’s ok, and it’s a common mistake! In my experience, though, product and user experience (UX) designers are similar — sometimes, the titles are used interchangeably. But sometimes they’re not. Broadly speaking, product designers tend to be more involved with the entirety of the design process of a product. In contrast, UX designers generally focus on refining a product’s user experience. Of course, job roles can differ from company to company. Some companies may expect their UX designers to be heavily involved in business processes or their product designers to work exclusively on design. It’s a hotly debated topic, but I enjoyed this blog post on the subject, and it’s worth a read if you want to go deeper!
3. Product Engineering: Product engineers strive to craft the codebase, architecture, and, most importantly, an MVP that aligns with the overall vision. As their career advances, they devise a technology strategy that identifies better platforms and tools for improving product quality while speeding up future feature implementation. Full Stack Product Leaders are in their element at the product engineering stage. They bring a unique skill set to the table and have the experience necessary to ensure that the product’s codebase and architecture are rock solid before takeoff. They know the importance of good design, rigorous testing, and intelligent development of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) plan that will help make sure the product vision is achieved. On top of this, they can also define cutting-edge technology strategies with advanced platform and tooling capabilities that will ensure maximum scalability of production quality and provide high velocity for future feature expansion. For product leaders without deep technical backgrounds like me, the thought of having responsibility for engineering teams can be daunting. While I am technically deep enough to understand the general direction, when I first started running engineering teams, it was an excellent opportunity to invoke the “learn it all,” not “know it all” line of code in my head! By asking and framing your questions through the other elements of the product leadership stack, I could quickly add value to the engineering teams without professing to understand every line of code.
4. Product Marketing: Product Marketers are essential to success, and their roles involve launching the product, assessing customer feedback, and measuring performance data. They outline the value of your products in a way that both customers and sales teams can understand while clearly defining their positioning message. I often refer to Product Marketing as the “jelly in the donut” because it is a field with tremendous opportunity and many intricate elements. From releasing products and tracking customer feedback and performance metrics to establishing product positioning for customers and sales teams, it takes knowledgeable individuals who understand market trends and how they work together with the product’s value proposition for success. Having full-stack product leaders on board in the marketing team is a great asset, granting invaluable insights from other elements of the leadership stack. This helps organizations make intelligent decisions that will give them an edge over competitors. Having done my share of product marketing throughout my career, my time in marketing gave me more competencies in leading different aspects of the leadership stack; this has been immensely useful for me as I moved ahead in my professional journey. For example, In the past, product marketing teams had a more straightforward job due to the waterfall software delivery method; they could plan for a launch date that was relatively far ahead in time. Nowadays, though, with Agile and the continuous feature release cycles, product marketers’ roles have become more multifaceted and intricate. Product leaders who comprehend these modifications can contribute instant value to their teams just as quickly! When I ran engineering teams, I realized the impact of the change from waterfall to agile, and as a result, I was able to connect those teams better.
5. Product Sales and Go to Market (GTM): These teams deliver the revenue outcomes and are the voice of the customer into the product team. Product sales and GTM prioritize customer care above all else; having a good understanding of how users interact with your product will help generate desirable outcomes. An experienced full-stack product leader has the insight to ensure continuous success — from marketing strategy building to market positioning, directly engaging customers, and outreach activities. Comprehensive product leaders can bring together the perspectives of all key stakeholders to realize a successful end-to-end solution that meets customers’ expectations. Acknowledging and valuing customer feedback from sales, these specialists can implement their knowledge and skill set to turn this input into tangible success. In my experience, the best product leaders spend a lot of time with sellers. They live the day in the life of a seller, understand the quota and revenue pressures sellers are under, and roll their sleeves up and help close deals. Oh, and here are the other things. As my old boss and mentor, Jon Roskill used to say, “a product launch isn’t just about getting a bunch of customers in a room for an event, feeding the shrimp, and hoping they will buy your product” The term “launch” can be widely misunderstood by product leaders who haven’t traversed the entire stack of product leadership. They understand that the “launch” is just getting started once the code has been released to production and the glamourous launch event is over.
Pursuing a career as a full-stack product leader has been a fantastic journey. My experience through the highs and lows of learning what it takes to enjoy this road less traveled has taught me that full-stack leaders can be invaluable resources for driving the success of a business. Of course, there will always be limits to how deep a product leader can be in each area, and it’s down to you as a leader as to how deep you decide to go in each. In some cases, Unicorns appear. For example, I have had individuals on my team with computer science and business degrees, giving them a unique ability to dive very deep. I’ve also seen some of the best product managers come from design and UX backgrounds.
In summary, experienced leaders who are well-versed in all aspects of product development are precious assets for any organization. They can build strong team relationships, devise effective strategies, and collaborate with industry professionals throughout the entire process, from concept to launch. It requires immense commitment and skill to take on so many roles at once, but someone has got to do it! After all, who else is better to take a business from ground zero than somebody with access to all the pieces?
Ambitious product visions will only come with roadblocks and challenges. But with the right mindset and leadership, there’s no limit to what we can achieve as product leaders.