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Industry Insights
 min read

Industry insights from pioneer of Facebook Mobile

Ken Johnstone is the Chief Product Officer at Mettle and has worked in mobile product management for over fifteen years.

He has worked with mobile networks, Three, and Motorola, and started Inc. Mobile - the first company to bring Skype and Facebook to mobile. His most recent start-up is Quikkly, which is a reinvention of the QR code.

How has product management changed over the past 15 years?

Quite a lot actually! When I started out, product management was in the marketing or business function, so it was about managing the traditional four “P”s of marketing. It was about managing the product life-cycle, which to a degree, of course, is still true, but it was a very business- and marketing-oriented function and product managers usually came from marketing backgrounds or consultancy backgrounds, etc.

I think whilst it has always been important to be able to empathise with software developers in technical product management, things have changed. You must be able to win the hearts and minds of developers, especially with new processors. Everyone is basically agile these days and a lot of companies are adopting more lean methodologies as well. You are involved in the day-to-day decision-making and prioritisation of features with engineers, having the debates, agreeing what’s going to happen, and then going in and executing.

I think data and the availability of quality data has massively changed. When I started out, the only data available was basically sales data. Now you can measure every click of every product and get a much more detailed understanding of what’s working and what’s not. So when you do make intuitive decisions, you can back them up with quality data and ensure that you’re doing the right thing.

Design has always been important but now, especially for web and mobile app products, if you haven’t got a great user journey or amazingly beautiful design, you’re just not going to succeed. The bar is so much higher. So to be a good product manager now you need to be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and certainly master of some. You need to be a master of prioritisation, you need to be a master of managing and working with developers, and you need to be able to analyse data, spot trends, and react to those trends.

What’s the future of product management?

I think one of the big changes that I’ve seen is the advent of mobile. Mobile used to be a bit of an afterthought – now it’s mobile-first and possibly mobile only. We’ve entered a phase of relative stability. Smartphones are dominant. Mobile apps and services are dominant, but I think over the next five and ten years we’ll see another change because of 5G, and how 5G is going to be slightly different. 5G standards are still being worked upon, but you’re going to see much more mobility support, much lower-powered devices, and much lower bandwidth devices. This should really kick-start the whole “internet of things” and we’re going to see new types of device and product that haven’t really been imagined yet.

How is product management different between start-ups and corporates?

From a product management point of view, the day-to-day responsibilities at a start-up and at a corporate are pretty similar, but the environment in which you’re working can be radically different.

Corporates tend to have a lot more budget, tolerance for waste as well, resource and a lot more governance and process for decision-making. So I have seen products literally being worked on for years, where the initial idea was a good idea but the signs that things may not be right have largely been ignored. Now, that can be for many reasons. It may just be that the team have been drinking too much of the corporate Kool-Aid and are convinced they’re doing the right thing, or it may be executive sponsorship, or it may be just that the team are reluctant to say, “Hey, this isn’t working, we should stop and go do something else”.

In a start-up, you just don’t have that luxury. You have typically raised enough money to get you to the next business milestone. If you don’t hit that business milestone, you won’t be able to raise more money and, therefore, you’re probably dead. It’s not like that at a corporate where – dare I say it – the level of passion tends to be lower than you would get at a start-up. That can be for several different reasons as well, but you are living or dying by the product at a start-up.

At a corporate, you’re earning a salary. At a start-up, you are probably incentivised more by equity than a day-to-day salary, so you know as a team that if something goes wrong your equity is going to be worth less. If you decide things are going wrong, or you’ve discovered something that’s working in a way you didn’t expect it to, you’ve learned from something and have course-corrected to take account of that learning, it’s much, much easier to bring the team along with you if you think, “Look, the business will succeed if we do this”, or “The business is going to be less successful if we do that”.

In a corporate environment it takes a pretty brave product manager to stand up in front of the executive team and say, “Hey, I’ve done some thinking”, or, “Hey, I’ve uncovered some data that actually says my product is a bad idea, we need to radically change it or kill it” because that might mean they don’t have a job any more. A smart corporate will say, “Great, you have saved us a load of money here, we’ve got a load of stuff there on a roadmap that we won’t want to do, so let’s go focus on this instead”. But I think there may well be an element of fear, in corporates, of saying, “I’m working on something that’s just not very good”.

What’s the ideal size a product team should be to maximise productivity?

In order to size a team, I tend to take a fairly aggressive approach. I like to have a team that’s slightly smaller than it needs to be. I like everyone in the team to have their boundaries pushed and stretched. I have worked, and seen projects happen, where the team has actually been too big and that can be very destructive in terms of productivity.

When you have too many opinions in a room which are unsupported, when you have overlap in terms of skill-sets – people climbing on top of each other trying to build the same things – it’s much, much better to have a little bit of space between everyone and the team. Then it becomes very apparent where you need to add resource and build. Do that at the last minute, don’t do it too soon.

I think the optimum size for any product team is somewhere between four and eight people. If you get bigger than that, it’s much better to split the team and have two, or multiple, teams. You can share some resource, like design resource and test resource, which can be shared across multiple teams. But really, have small teams that are all aligned, which know where they’re trying to get to, and are really passionate about getting there.

What do you enjoy most about product management?

There are lots of things I enjoy about product management. I enjoy the big strategic stuff, setting the direction for where a company or a product wants to go, right down to the future prioritisation, the builds, the releases, the monitoring and tracking of the success of products or individual features, and making the appropriate adjustments to those products and features.

I enjoy big challenging products as well. I like the seemingly impossible product that is broken down into manageable chunks, resourced appropriately, and as you see those chunks come together and the product starts to take shape you get an enormous rush from that.

Data analysis is really good as well. When you do spot a trend, something that you didn’t expect to see, or a behaviour happening that you didn’t expect to see – whether that’s a good or a bad thing – the ability to react to that can be really satisfying.

The other thing I like about product management is that in a career you can work on lots of different types of products because the fundamental skill set of a product manager is consistent. One year you might be working on a social product, the next year you might be working on a FinTech product, the next year you might even be working on a hardware product because the ability to break down problems into manageable chunks, and the ability to define user journeys and components of a product, are consistent. That’s great because it means in the course of a career in product you can work in loads of different industries, with loads of different types of products, which keeps it fresh and exciting.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

The best bit of advice I’ve had has actually been when things have been tough when I’ve been working on enormous projects, it’s all getting too much, and things are starting to go wrong. I had the chairman of the company I was at, saying, “Look, I get why this is hard, we’re trying to do things that have never been done before. But if you do it, you’ll look back on it in ten years and think ‘That is amongst the best things I’ve ever done in my whole life’”. And he was right. When we launched the Three mobile network, nothing worked. But we slowly made things work and we slowly delivered a successful product. It was really tough and seemed impossible at times, but we did it. That was a few years ago now but the bond between me and some of the other team members that were there still stands really strong because we went through that journey together.