Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

This post is part of Boston Product Spotlight, a series from Boston Product, where I chat with inspiring product managers in the Boston community to learn about how the role varies across team, industries, and business models. Originally posted on Medium.

In our first session I spoke with Greg Achenbach, VP of Product at SnapApp. We covered what it’s like day to day on his team, his “anti-roadmap” of themes, and how he instills a customer-centric, data-driven view of the world among his team.

What’s it like at SnapApp?

  • SnapApp allows marketing teams to accelerate their growth by creating deeper, more engaging interactive experiences.
  • Greg oversees SnapApp’s product roadmap, strategy, and user experience. His team currently consists of two Product Managers and a Product Designer
  • Located in Back Bay, they prefer face-to-face communication over anything digital.
  • The office has an awesome hang out area that feels like a patio on a summer day.
  • Product managers spend about 60–70% of their time with engineering and the rest with customer success, marketing, and sales.

Jenny Miller: What is SnapApp doing to help marketers today?

Greg Achenbach: The goal of SnapApp is to unleash the potential in every marketer. To simplify things for other product folks, the SnapApp platform is essentially a content builder and analytics tool. The core of what we’re working on as a product team is SnapApp’s build experience. The PMs here take on a lot of other responsibilities too. It’s not just working with the engineers; there’s a lot of cross section with the customer success department, support, marketing, sales, and the executive teams.

Greg Achenbach, VP of Product at SnapApp

Jenny: Where does that put you on the classic PM Venn diagram of technical, UX, and business?

Greg: For us it’s not so much on the technical side, I tend to lean towards more customer-focused areas. My personal background is technical, but once I got out of college I decided that I didn’t really want to be an engineer. I spent a good part of my professional career in client facing roles so I was—before the term customer success was popular—more of a project manager doing a lot of onsite implementation for heavy, very complex enterprise software. I spent a good chunk of time out in front of clients until I hit my quota and wanted to go back into creating things. It’s important to me that there’s a deep sense of empathy for the client because I’ve been on the other side where you’re physically sitting in their office and they’re complaining about something the product doesn’t do. I like having a more customer centric view for the product team.

It’s important to me that there’s a deep sense of empathy for the client because I’ve been on the other side where you’re physically sitting in their office and they’re complaining about something the product doesn’t do.

Jenny: That’s such an important factor and one of the things that a really good product manager does well—acquiring and maintaining empathy for the customer. How do you bring that back to your team? Is there a process that you go through, a story that you tell that allows you share that experience?

Greg: There’s a bunch of different ways. The first is I personally try to get in front of clients as much as possible and I’m always pushing our PMs and designer to do the same. Whether it’s dedicated feedback sessions, usability testing, or just shadowing calls with sales. There are plenty of opportunities to do that throughout the day. Then it’s really about going back to what we’re trying to accomplish and making sure we’re actually still focused on the right problems. We’ve migrated towards the anti-roadmap camp for our planning, using more of a theme-based approach. When we’re digging into what a theme is, that’s the opportunity to go into the pain points or opportunities that we’ve learned from being on the front lines as much as possible and bring to light the problem to solve.

Jenny: You dropped a great term there, anti-roadmap. How did you start that approach, did you accidentally discover that you were following it versus an intentional shift?

Greg: This is coming from someone who’s both a PMP and a Scum Master in good standing: I don’t like process. Process has a good place but I’m more about just getting stuff done. I’ve tried to learn how to get it done via many different avenues in my career. The Agile methodologies—the core of why they were created—I really do believe in the flexibility and the fast moving nature. Trying to adhere more to that style of creating things has lead me to believe that creating a detailed plan for what we’re going to accomplish in a long period of time is just unrealistic.

There’s been plenty of opportunities we’ve encountered in the last few years here where being flexible has allowed us to take advantage of things a lot sooner, and I want to capitalize on that. So while we as a company have a vision as well as short- and long-term goals for the product, we want to remain flexible for opportunities as they arise and not be very rigid. I don’t always want to be saying, “We’ll get to that thing in six months,” just because it’s not on the roadmap. Also, as the person who has to create some visualization of a roadmap, I don’t want to have to spend time every week tweaking some new version of a Google Doc showing now this week we’re going to do this instead of that.

Jenny: Speaking of tweaking, if it’s not a roadmapping tool in your case, tell me a little bit about the PM stack. What do you guys use here day to day?

We want to track two sets of data. There’s the data on how people are using the product, then there’s data on how the content being created by the product is performing.

Greg: Well, we’re always trying new tools out. For communication, it’s Slack and email. Slack is a great tool but you also have to watch our for people being too reliant on it, leaning too much on Slack. Sometimes we have to force people to get out. Trello gets used for a couple different things. We use it to track client feedback and idea generation; we have a board set up so people can see what’s coming in. We also use it for a bit of the roadmap explanation, so internally people know what we’re working on now and what’s next. Jira is for working with the engineers. We use a combination of kanban and scrum-ish setups for that. I think those are the core things.

On the analytics side, this is a fun conversation that is always evolving. Our biggest attribute for analytics is actually a homegrown system because the nature of product gives us two tracks of data we care about. There’s the data on how people are using the product, then there’s data on how the content being created by the product is performing. We have this internal analytics report that is created every morning—that is more valuable to me than anything else. I’m also a huge advocate for Fullstory as both a support tool and for usability on the fly. It’s a quick and dirty way to watch how people are actually using your product. We also have Google Analytics for the stuff it does well.

Jenny: Speaking of data and analytics, one of the last Boston Product events was focused on being data driven. So tell me about some of the ways you guys use data to prove success of a product. Is it KPIs? What are the various metrics that you track?

Greg: We’ve got these evergreen statistics that go month to month, the core usage KPIs. We want to make sure people continue to get into the product and create content. That’s just a heartbeat for us. Then for every project we under take there will be success metrics underneath them. These help us make sure that we’re making the right decision as we implement a feature or improvement, how should we go about creating it, the timeframe for measuring it. Those differ quite a bit depending on what the nature of the project is. We look for metrics that answer questions. If it’s a usability improvement an example is: “Did the active use of the product get better?” One of the big things we look at is the amount of time people spent creating content. Others are:

  • If we introduce a bunch of usability changes that we expect reduce time, did it actually reduce the time?
  • If we introduce new functionality, how many people are using it, how quickly is it taking off?
  • Is the functionality we’re giving into the build experience impacting the performance of the app?

There is a whole variety of things we’ll look at depending on what the actual project is. There are no five simple KPIs for us because every theme of work has its own flavor of success.

Jenny: How do you share these metrics internally? What sort of communication tactics do you use to get people aligned?

Greg: The most effective way to work in general is just face-to-face. We’re all in the same building so it’s a lot easier to just walk over and have a conversation. That comes from the background of our last office which was one big room, there were no walls. For good and bad you hear and see what’s going on and we’ve tried to carry that on now that we’re in a bigger space. You might’ve noticed when you walk around we’ve tried to remove as many walls as allowed by the building managers. When we moved in here a year ago it was a very old school financial set up, tons of offices, wall spaces, very claustrophobic feeling. We tried to remove those physical barriers as much as possible because it’s a lot more useful and efficient to stand up and have a conversation with someone. That’s central to our culture here. Also the fact that the marketing team is a SnapApp customer itself, it’s a great internal resource for us to talk about ideas that we have. If we roll out a whole new UI update we can walk over and watch them use the product.

Jenny: What would you say is your superpower as a product manager?

My superpower as a PM is being grounded in reality with the problems that we’re trying to solve here at SnapApp.

Greg: Well I’ll go back to the idea of having empathy. Having worn those shoes, I have a tremendous amount of respect and empathy for anyone that has to be in the front lines as part of their job. It’s extremely rewarding being the person who is out in the wild making sure people are using the product that the company has created, but it’s also very stressful and can be very hard. If I have a superpower, it’s being grounded in reality and trying to solve a problem for clients. With technology today, you can build whatever you want, right? It’s easy to create really cool things very quickly, but if you’re not building them under the guise of being useful then it’s a waste of time.

Jenny: Now for the opposite: if there’s something that was your kryptonite, something that you’re working on trying to improve. What’s that for you?

Greg: I have a deep allergy to bullshit and all its different incarnations. For someone who’s got a tremendous amount of time in a classroom studying process — process for the sake of process has always just annoyed me. Process for the sake of solving problems I’m very much a fan of. I want to use my time as efficiently as possible so don’t mess around, don’t get in my way. But if you need something, just tell me what it is. This comes from my years of experience dealing with clients. Everyone has an agenda whether they realize it or not. Trying to spin things to get someone to be sympathetic towards you is just a waste of everyone’s time. Just be dead honest, tell me what you need, and let’s do it. If I have a kryptonite, it’s being stuck in meetings about meetings.

Jenny: What are you reading right now?

Greg: I tend to have a couple different books going on simultaneously. I just finished the Bruce Springsteen autobiography. I’m not necessarily a diehard Springsteen fan but I found the story fascinating. I read Shoe Dogs last year by Phil Knight, and that sent me down a rabbit hole of other autobiographies and how the concept of overnight success is so artificial. This weekend I picked up The Third Wave, Steve Case’s book. It’s part biography part prediction on the next wave of technical innovation. There are a lot of correlations to the early days of the internet where you could create anything but that thing needed to be plugged into everything, so we’re back into a deep sense of partnership and integration with everything.

Jenny: To wrap up, is there anything else that you want to share, some words of wisdom for the other PMs out there?

It’s okay not to know the answer. It’s okay to say, “Let me get back to you,” rather than force an immediate response.

Greg: A good one — It’s ok not to know the answer. That’s the biggest piece of advice I would give people. With the speed at which things move now there’s always the expectation of instant gratification. You don’t always know and it’s okay to say, “let me get back to you” rather than force an immediate response.

I don’t remember where the quote comes from, but this has been a big one for me in recent years: “In order to become successful you need to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” Like a lot of people in product, I’m naturally introverted. I’m only now getting comfortable being in front of other people and all the other fun communication that come with being a PM. Earlier in my career, a lot of that stuff was frightening. Where I’ve gotten the most personal growth and experience is by putting myself out there. I’ve taken that into a lot of other avenues professionally. If I feel like I’m not comfortable going into something, that’s how I grow.