5 Tips for Managing Products Remotely

After reading A Year Without Pants I became interested to know more about remote work and specifically how it works with product management. What qualities are required? What are the advantages and disadvantages? so I did some research such and interviewed a couple of my colleagues who work remotely as Product Managers. I like to share what I learned along the way with you. Let’s get started:

The practice of working remotely has been on the rise for sometime. In US alone, number of people who regularly work-at-home has grown by a whopping 103% since 2005. (For more interesting data take a look at latest Telecommuting statistics). There is no denial that work from home is a real attractive option and if you need more convincing reasons just read the book Remote. I myself dream of working from home where I don’t need to commute to work everyday (specially in winter time), I can get something done without getting interrupted multiple times and have flexibility over my schedule.

However most of the telecommute jobs I have seen are for well defined jobs such as software engineers, designers and customer support members.  There are few remote product manager jobs out there and I have always been wondering why? Can it be that there is no need for product managers in companies where work is done 100% remotely?

I believe the answer lies in company’s size and maturity and not on how it’s distributed. In small companies with a single product and  a small team, different team members take on additional responsibilities to divvy up the work. Usually the founder who is also the CEO takes on responsibilities such as talking to customers and defining product vision. Then designers and developers are responsible for turning that vision into workable software. In this setting, the product management role is distributed among the team and no single person is responsible for the job.

However as soon as the company grows and the product becomes more complex the work itself becomes too much of an overhead to do for designers, developers and founders on top of what their main responsibilities. Someone needs to clarify Who we are building for and Why to free up the rest of the team to focus on How. This is when Product Manager is added to the team. (Take a look at black box of product management article for an in-depth explanation).

So if being a remote team as oppose to a co-located one has no effect on having a product manager role, how does remote product management work? What qualities are required? What are the advantages and disadvantages? I sat down with three of my colleagues who all work as Product Managers remotely to get answers to my questions.

For my first interview I talked with Alex whom I had the pleasure of working with for a long time at OANDA. OANDA’s main focus is currency trading and its popular online trading platform known as fxTrade enables trading volume of several billion dollars a day. Alex has been working remotely for the past 6 years and he currently manages fxTrade across all platforms (Web, Mobile Browser, Mobile App). Design and development are all centrally done in Toronto. Alex travels every 2-3 weeks from San Francisco to Toronto and stays for a week.

Then I sat down with Barbara who works as Product Manager for Mozilla. Barbara works on Firefox browser for Android app. Her development team is geographically dispersed across the globe. Barbara is based in Toronto but she travels once a month to one of Mozilla offices in States and stays with the team for a week.

My final interview was with Saeed who works in Product Management at Informatica. Informatica provides solutions around data for the Cloud, big data, real-time and streaming. Saeed is based in Toronto but his team is spread across India and in northern California. Except for annual planning meetings in Informatica headquarters he does not travel.

Top 5 observations about working as a remote Product Manager:

Here are the most interesting things I learned through my interviews:

1. We all work remotely to some degree

“Business expand across locations. With the exception of small companies, where everyone is in one location, as a Product Manager you have to work with remote people and teams… and of course, customers and partners are NEVER at HeadQuarter. 🙂 “

When you come to office even when you are co-located with the development team, you need to work with other parts of business such as Sales, Marketing, and Customer Care which may be at different locations and time zones. So being able to work with others through email, phone, chat or whatever remote communication channel is a must no matter how you work.

2. Communication and Collaboration

“None of the team members I regularly work with are in the Toronto office, pretty much 99% of my meetings are held over Vidyo (a video chat system used at Mozilla)…We [also] heavily use IRC and Slack, as well as Bugzilla and email to communicate.”

Email, phone, video conferencing and instant messaging (Slack being the most popular one) are used for communication with team members. However what is more important than choice of tools is to make sure crucial information isn’t lost between colleagues. Barbara and Alex find traveling at least once a month necessary to make sure that everyone in the team is in-sync.

For collaboration, screen sharing software like WebEx, project management tools such as Trello and wiki softwares to quickly edit content like Confluence and Google Docs are all part of the remote toolbox. Good written communication is the single most important skill to make sure everyone has a shared understanding of what the ask is and how to provide a solution.

3. Trust is the Key

“I have built a close relationship with my team over time and now I trust my them to know my vision really well… I’m confident that they will be able to represent and defend this vision to others during a meeting when I’m not in the room.”

Product Manager has to earn the respect and trust from the programmers and designers. With trust, PM can discover how to get the best possible work from the team. If there is clarity on the goal and a criteria that defines it, then we can speak the same language about what we need to do to get there. This issue becomes even more important when you work remotely as you need to build relationship over time and and you need to make sure you can effectively convey the vision to everyone on the team.

4. Biggest Advantages

“I can be more productive because I’m working somewhere else. I don’t get pulled into meetings where I can’t contribute mostly because I’m not in the office. As a result, until something important comes up that needs my attention I don’t get called into meetings.”

One thing that stands out in addition to all of the advantages of remote working, is the fact that you don’t get tied up with unnecessary things to do inside the office. Instead you can use that time into do some strategic activities like talking to customers, delving deep to understand the problem and figuring out product/market fit. These tasks require long and uninterrupted attention which is something that gets harder to come by when you work in a room with 10 other team members and a constant flow of chatter and calls.

5. Main Drawbacks

“There are advantages to working in the same office as the product team. It’s very easy to get the group together to discuss an urgent issue. The proverbial “water cooler conversations” are only possible when you are co-located. There is a lot of information that can be gained simply through casual discussions, having lunch with someone or even “overhearing” something in the hallway. And quite honestly, having timely information IS very important managing products.”

This quote definitely captures two themes that keep coming up. The first one is you can’t walk into an office and give a brief about what was just decided in another meeting. This disconnect can lead to informational asymmetry and misunderstanding. You have to be very disciplined in dispersing information. Sometimes you need to set up multiple meetings just to convey the same info because it’s hard to set up a meeting that works for everyone. Another important thing is to have a central knowledge repository where everything is organized and be vigorous to keep it up-to-date.

Finally emergency situation or when a project needs a lot of coordination from multiple teams having an on-site team is so much easier than orchestrating activities between multiple time zones, and only being able to rely on chat, phone and video to work things through.

Conclusion

All in all I think working as a remote product manager is not fundamentally different from working with a co-located team.  There will always be a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) when dealing with remote teams, so over-communicating is often better than assuming team members will find things out through other means. You also have to work harder to build the relationship and get used to different working styles of the team.

Note about this post’s image: It is taken from Trello blog which has an insightful article about remote working.

 

 

 

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