I Want To Use Data To Improve My Product. Where Do I Start?

Most technology professionals will probably agree that data-driven business and product decisions deliver better outcomes than simply going with your gut, or worse: with the HiPPO. However, an important challenge remains for product teams trying to become data-driven: where do they start?

Below is a series of steps for navigating the path to data-driven product management. These steps could be applied to an entire product, or to a feature existing within a larger product. Also, while it is focused more on technology products, I believe parts of it could be applied outside the technology industry as well. Here goes:

1. Does your product work?: An awesome app that crashes every single time it’s opened is a worthless app. Therefore, the first set of data and metrics to be collected and analyzed should revolve around product health and operational intelligence. This will help you answer questions like how many hours in a day your product is available, what your crash rate is, and what your product’s performance is like during peak times.
Examples of publicly available product health and operational intelligence tools include Splunk and the elastic stack, or ELK.

2. Is it popular?: Once you get going with analyzing your product’s health, the next step is product and user analytics. This means collecting the data and developing the metrics needed to figure out how many people are using your product, and whether that number is trending up, or down. You also want to analyze your user base to identify your product’s user segments, and to begin understanding which segments are valuable, and what the valuable segments care about so you can tailor your product roadmap and marketing programs accordingly. This is not easy stuff, but getting it right pays huge dividends.
Publicly available tools for enabling product and user analytics include Localytics, Mixpanel, and Amplitude.

3. Are product updates changing key metrics?: Every update made to your product that results in no change in any of the metrics that you care about is probably a worthless update. On the other hand, increases or decreases in your business and product metrics may be as a result of external factors such as the weather or U.S elections. 🙂 One way to improve your certainty around what effects your updates are having on your key metrics is by running experiments. In very simple terms, this involves releasing product updates to a subset of your product’s user base, and then comparing the subsequent behavior of the users who  received the update with those who didn’t receive any product updates.
Publicly available tools for enabling experimentation include Optimizely and Unbounce.

4. Is your product Intelligent?: Artificial intelligence (AI) is all the rage today, as it promises to unleash a new wave of tech-enabled productivity on consumers and businesses. However, a critical ingredient for enabling AI scenarios is data. For example, the reason why Amazon can tell you that people who bought item X also bought item Y is because it has huge amounts of transaction data on both items. For your product to be able to support such intelligent scenarios, you need to collect and organize the relevant data sets, and then employ the right algorithms.
The process of enabling AI scenarios within a product usually involves custom development by software engineers. However, publicly available tools that can facilitate this process include Amazon ML and Azure ML.

Image by www.qubole.com


A Year in Product Management: What I’ve Learned

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my first year as a product manager. Much to my disappointment, I didn’t get a whole lot of congratulatory messages. Only LinkedIn remembered (thanks LinkedIn!).

Self reflection is something that I truly value, so I decided to take some time to think about what I’ve learned about the product management discipline during the past year. I came up with three key findings:

1. Wearing Multiple Hats is the Name of the Game
Before I became a product manager, my thoughts about the role can be summed up in this beautiful Venn diagram from the pm heels blog:


Now that I have a year’s worth of product management experience, I’ve modified this diagram to become something like this:


2. It is Important to Always be Working on the Most Important Things

From my product management Venn diagram, you can see that there is an infinite number of tasks that a product manager can be involved in. Yes those tasks can have UX, business, or  technology components. However, they can also involve random stuff like getting pizza for engineers who are working late (I haven’t had to do this yet but I happily will).

This brings us to the problem of prioritization. Since no one can do everything, product managers have to constantly check to ensure that whatever they’re working on has a higher chance of improving their product’s success metrics compared to other things that they could be doing. In case you’re wondering, there most definitely are some cases where the most important thing a product manager can do is get pizza for engineers who are working late. 🙂

3. Relationships Matter

I once heard someone describe product management as “the grease and the glue of product development”. It’s up to us to rally our stakeholders around a common goal, and to ensure overall progress towards the achievement of that goal. This means that we have to constantly influence our peers in design, development, and marketing. As none of these people work for us, it really comes down to influencing without authority.

What I’ve learned in the past year (and from folks like Robert Caldini) is that people who like and respect you are more likely to listen to and understand your ideas. In the same vein, you are more likely to listen to and understand the ideas of people that you like and respect. This insight has led me to always try to make relationship investments up front, before they were needed; by then it was usually too late.

Five Agile Practices That Scale

Since the creation of the agile manifesto in 2001, agile practices like extreme programming (XP) and scrum have grown in popularity with startups, but haven’t done so well in large companies. Some argue that the reason for this is that agile methodologies were actually created for small teams in the same physical location, and therefore isn’t as relevant in the highly distributed product development teams that can be found in most large enterprises.

While agile does work best for small, collocated teams, I recently came across a book titled Scaling Software Agility: Best Practices for Large Enterprises, which argued that there are seven agile practices that can be successfully applied across organizations of any size. I thought of sharing all seven, but decided for the sake of brevity to discuss my top five :). They include:

  1. The Define/Build/Test Component Team: Instead of having the database team, the mid-tier team and the web/mobile team come together to deliver a feature, create a feature team made up of database, mid-tier and front-end engineers, as well as other team members (designers, product managers, e.t.c) needed to define, build, test, and deliver value to the customer. Amazon’s “two pizza” teams are a great example of this practice at scale.
  2. Smaller & More Frequent Releases: Move away from the “big bang” release that is done once a year to smaller and more frequent releases. This enables your product teams to respond faster to customer and competitive dynamics. Facebook is a good example of this practice, with its “move fast, break things” mantra.
  3. Concurrent Testing: All code should be tested code. Test cases should be written up before actual coding is done, and checked-in code should be subjected to a barrage of automated tests. Not sure about which big company is a good example here 🙂
  4. Continuous Integration: The product team is not allowed to say coding is done until the code is in a releasable state. This means that it can quickly and easily be deployed to a production-like environment, using a deployment pipeline that subjects it to a series of automated tests. Google seems to have been doing this for a while now.
  5. Regular Reflection and Adaptation: A company that isn’t learning is a company that is dying. Very regularly, product and business teams need to reflect on what’s working and what needs to be improved, and take steps to implement the needed changes. Our fearless CEO is definitely helping us lead this charge at Microsoft! 🙂

These five practices are mostly self evident, and aren’t really a silver bullet. Teams and companies (especially large ones) that adopt them will still face all kinds of challenges as they try to innovate and deliver value to their customers. Notwithstanding, embracing these agile practices will probably lead to faster product development cycles, with less waste (building stuff that no one wants), and empowered teams. Which company doesn’t want that?

Image by info.110consulting.com

Why Google Gave Android Away for Free: The Business Case for Open Source Software

In 2007, Google unveiled the Android mobile operating system under an open source license. This meant that Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) such as LG, HTC and Dell could access the Android source code, and modify it to suit their specific needs, without paying a penny to Google. Why did Google choose this open source approach, when it could have made a decent chunk of money from selling Android?

While I don’t work for Google, I’ve spent some time researching and thinking about the business case for open source software. I believe that from a business perspective, an open source model might make sense for the following reasons:

  1. Monetization of Proprietary Add-Ons: Open source software is likely to gain market share faster than commercial software as its growth is not restricted by the friction of financial transactions. This rapid growth can then be monetized through the creation of proprietary add-ons. For example, Android now has about 65% market share in the US, and Google monetizes this growth through proprietary apps such as Google Search, Google Maps and the Google Play Store, which power its sprawling advertising business.
  2. Reducing Development Costs: Android’s open source license allows any developer around the globe to improve the Android source code for his/her benefit. These improvements are also available to Google for free, and while Google may not necessarily need the free development effort, it ultimately create a positive feedback loop where Android gets better faster, which leads to more users and growth which Google can then monetize.
  3. Attracting and Retaining Talent: Today’s software developers want to do more than write code that earns them a paycheck; they want to change the world. One way to do this is by contributing to cool open source projects that are used by millions of people around the world. Therefore, a company that releases and contributes to open source software projects is likely to be more attractive to talented developers.

Afropreneurship with Sim Shagaya

I recently came across this video interview of Sim Shagaya. Sim is the CEO of Konga.com, a fast growing ecommerce startup in Nigeria. The first thing I observed about this guy was his top-notch academic and professional credentials. Sim bagged degrees from George Washington University, Dartmouth College and Havard Business School, then did stints in investment banking (Rand Merchant Bank) and technology (Google) before pursuing his dreams of entrepreneurship within Africa. What I like about the video is that it provides a pretty good insight into the choices he has made so far with respect to starting and growing a technology startup in a developing country like Nigeria. Enjoy!

Kellogg Tech Trek

After completing the roller coaster ride of first quarter exams, the next item on my business school calendar was the technology trek to Seattle and San Francisco. I wrote about this trek in my business school essays, and was actually very excited to be one of the thirty Kellogg students chosen to participate. I understood that the trek in and of itself would not help me get an internship. However, I believe that the knowledge and experiences gained from directly interacting with – and learning about – prospective employers could be valuable during the recruiting process for summer internships.

For those who may be wondering, the trip wasn’t financed by Kellogg. Each student was responsible for his or her transportation, lodging and meals. Our trip was 5 days long, and filled with visits to some of the most admired technology companies in the world today. Our daily agenda looked something like this:

Day 1 (Seattle): Amazon, Microsoft, Expedia

Day 2 (San Francisco): Apple, Cisco, eBay/PayPal

Day 3 (San Francisco): Flextronics, Facebook, Google

Day 4 (San Francisco): Intel, Intuit, Box

Day 5 (San Francisco): Airbnb, Evernote

Other companies which I would have loved to visit were Adobe, LinkedIn, and Workday. Notwithstanding, I thought we had a pretty impressive list. Although it was nice to be physically present at great companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon, the companies that I really enjoyed visiting did one of two things well:

  • They engaged us in very lively discussions about the changes in their industry and how they plan to respond to those changes. The companies that I think did this quite well were Intuit, PayPal, Box and Flextronics.
  • They gave us some sort of insight into next-generation technologies that they might bring to market in the long term. The most impressive company in this regard was Intuit. I also enjoyed visiting the Intel museum and immersing myself in the history of this great technology company. You would think that the companies that would really shine in this regard are big players like Google, Facebook and Apple. However, I’ve come to realize is that the technology industry is so competitive these days that no one wants to ‘show their hand.’ This makes sense, but It was still disappointing to not get to see all the cool stuff being developed at these respective companies.

An unexpected benefit of participating in the technology trek for me was the chance to spend a substantial amount of time with my classmates. We spent a fair amount of time in transit as we moved from one company to another, and this provided me with ample time to meet new classmates and interact with those I already knew on a more personal level. This turned out to be one of my best parts of the entire trek.

I made a slide deck of some of the pictures I took during the trek. I didn’t take as many as I should have so they don’t tell the entire story. Still, as the saying goes, a picture is worth more than a thousand words.

The Next Big Thing: Smartwatches

With worldwide smartphone penetration crossing the 1 billion mark, and smartphones overtaking feature phones in worldwide sales for the first time in 2013, you will agree with me that these devices have indeed come of age.

The bad news is that after quantum leaps in innovation from this (Nokia Communicator 9000):

nokia communicator

to this (iPhone 5) :


smartphone innovation in hardware seems to have plateaued. Sorry folks, but it seems like henceforth, all we can expect from Apple and Samsung are thinner phones with bigger screens and better cameras. The good news is that with growth slowing in the $358 billion smartphone market, the hunt has already begun for the next big thing: a new “screen”. This screen will not sit in your living room, neither will it be carried around in your backpack or pocket; it will be strapped to your arm.

I must confess I was initially quite skeptical about smart watches. In my mind, watches are just too dumb and too small to do anything cool. Once I came in contact with the Pebble, a smart watch created by a startup, my skepticism faded quickly. The video below provides a good window into the potential of this awesome device:

After my Pebble encounter, I am glad to say that I have become a big believer in smart watches becoming a significant driver of the next wave of technology innovation. This leads to the billion dollar question: who will dominate this emerging category? Is it a smartphone incumbent like Apple or Samsung, a smart watch first mover like Sony or a late underdog like Pebble. What do you think?