My 2018 Product Retrospective

Winding down for the New Year in a remote village in Alentejo, I thought I might try being radically open about how 2018 went for me as a human being doing Product, and what I’m expecting for 2019. Regarding 2018 I’m not only showcasing achievements, but also being open about what I’ve struggled with and what I’ve learned anew. I hope you can also benefit from that.

Let’s go?

A look back into 2018

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

2018 began with the aftermath of two crucial projects in the product line I was responsible for at Onfido. Both had deadlines around the turn of the year, and one of them:

  1. was not a typical arbitrary deadline, rather a do-or-die one,
  2. involved cross-functional efforts (from legal aspects to client comms and service changes), and
  3. would have had significant revenue impact if gone wrong.

Despite not being new to this and having a track record of delivering on time, Impostor Syndrome kicks in. At the same time, it was the first Christmas in the lifetime of my first child, so the pressure I imposed myself was double. I didn’t want to screw up at work and I didn’t want to screw up such a special Christmas in the process.

It all turned out okay, but this meant I began 2018 significantly worn out with respect to my mental health. I discovered dark corners of my mind that I would gladly not have. That’s when I gave another go at coaching—first with Eva, and then by taking advantage of the Sanctus coaching that I’m fortunate Onfido provides as a perk. Coupled with other ways in which Onfido supports work–life balance and bringing your whole self to work, the (more or less) monthly sessions with Shayan (all but one done remotely with him in London and me in Lisbon) were fundamental in regaining my balance and trust in my abilities.

H2: a new challenge

In the second half of 2018, on the back of both some strategic moves and a fellow product person leaving the company, the perfect change opportunity materialised. After about 1½ year with the same product area and team (a personal record). I am now (since beginning of Q4) the product manager for Onfido’s Service Platform — the set of user-facing tools and back-end mechanisms powering the manual aspects of Onfido’s hybrid approach to online identity verification. Despite not being a customer-facing area of the product, it plays a key role and has really exciting problems to solve. Shortly after joining the new team, we’ve embarked on a (literal) trip to be on the floor with our tools’ users for a week. The experience was humbling, and made wonders in creating product sense and customer (user) empathy in all of us.

As an interesting bonus, I get to apply some of stuff I learned and created when I was doing my PhD thesis on real-time scheduling . This is 4+ years after leaving academia (and the real-time scheduling topic) to become software engineer and later product manager. Who would have known?

Posts published

In my career as a product manager, I’ve learned a lot from reading ideas and points of view fellow product people shared with the community. As such, I find myself with the moral duty of giving that back by sharing my experience, learnings, etc., through articles and talks (more on the latter below).

In 2018 I’ve published:

  • A Product is a Product: product management is not just software!” — on the back of my combination of Martin Eriksson’s and Marty Cagan’s definitions, I show how you can apply these essential principles of product management beyond software, despite being heavily biased thereto.
  • Constraints are cool” — a bit of fun after seeing a writing prompt on Reddit. I took the constrained writing challenge one step further, so the story not only obeys a constraint but also is about constraints (with a focus on how to take advantage of them in product management). Spoiler alert: the constraint I imposed was all sentences beginning with the letter C (while still trying to make a coherent point).

Furthermore, my late 2017 post “Marty meets Martin: connecting the two triads of product management” has gained some renewed popularity throughout 2018, being repeatedly shared in social networks and cited as “an interesting view on how these [product decision-driving] professions, roles and remits overlap” and “a helpful model to refer to”.

Talks delivered

In 2018, I’ve delivered two talks at meetups.

I’ve also repeated in April the experience of delivering “What the heck is a product manager?” to undergrad students at my alma mater.

Events / talks attended

For the second year in a row, I’ve attended Mind the Product London. Of the messages delivered there, two inspired me particularly.

  • Martin Eriksson’s keynote on impostor syndrome (something which I related with), and
  • Kim Goodwin’s strong reminder about the human beings using our product. Coming from being the PM for a product line that helps people get verified in order to apply for a job, and now picking up on a set of tools that help identity verification analysts do their job efficiently but also competently, Kim’s point on values-guided with the people’s needs in mind really struck a chord.

You get head over to Vimeo to check both Martin’s keynote “Embrace Your Inner Impostor” and Kim’s “Human Centred Products”.

Another fantastic talk I attended was Neha Datt’s “5 things I learnt last year as a product manager and coach” at Agile Connect Lisbon (which I co-organise). She shared her views on sustainability, learning safely, being creative, and taking the user’s social and emotional needs in product discovery. You can check the talk on Youtube.

Books read

2018 has been a good reading year. From the several books I’ve read this year, here are some I recommend.

  • Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.  Three years ago in a conversation with Ricardo Fiel he put the issue of communication as I never forgot. “Communicating with each other is what we most often need to do to be successful, and yet we learn jackshit about it in school/uni”. While this is still the case, Difficult Conversations is a must-read to bridge that gap.
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: a Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life.  I’ve read it twice. Beyond the bait title and its categorisation as “self-help”, it’s really a fruitful read. The backbone of the book is a set of five principles which, though not ground-breaking, are presented in a really thought-provoking way.
  • It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. I actually read two books on time management that came out at about the same time — this one, and Make Time. I found It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work to provide more generalisable (hence useful) advice. Make Time felt too focused on specific techniques the authors use, but start to fall flat as soon as your context differs from theirs. (This is more or less how I feel about David Allen’s Getting Things Done too).
  • Lateral Leadership: a Practical Guide for Agile Product Managers— Product Managers permanently live in this conundrum of responsibility without authority. Hence the lateral leadership: we need to take the helm of a ship of peers, not reports). Tim Herbig provides practical advice on how to get around this through strategic alignment and empathy, and wisely using conflict escalation.

I’ve also learned a lot reading stories on Medium, but it would be a daunting task to highlight those here. For an idea of what caught my interest there you can check the stories I applauded.

2019 roadmap

Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

It’s only been three months since I’m full-time(ish) in my new product team, so there is still a lot to do and I’m very excited about what’s to come. In this first quarter (Q4) I’ve led the team to

  • deliver on ongoing epics, and
  • focus on an outcome-focused roadmap, and I can’t wait for us to bring it to life.

In Q1 the remnants of my previous responsibilities will subside, so I’ll be able to scratch that “(ish)” and consider myself focused on Onfido’s Service Platform team full-time. Besides driving the strategy and roadmap for the Service Platform, I expect to split the responsibility for other non-customer facing tools into a new team.

Stories in the making

In no particular order, here are the stories that I have lined up. To be honest, they’re in varying stages of maturity.

  • A follow-up to my “Marty meets Martin” post (and to the respective Productized Talks presentation). My goal is explaining how to use my proposed approach to assess product organisations, and inform stakeholder management and communication.
  • My personal story of mental health challenges as a product person (which I briefly mentioned above in the year in review), and how I overcame them (and keep striving to keep them in check).
  • Rules for healthy arguments — some patterns I started to pick up from (un)healthy arguments (personal and professional). I created the draft in August, and before I got to write it up I found some echo of what I felt when reading Difficult Conversations.
  • Cross-functional OKRs—a real story about how I’ve used OKRs at Onfido. Driven by outcomes (and not outputs), to ensure alignment between functions with different ways of contributing to a shared goal.

Talks to deliver

Right now the only talk I have lined up is a proposal for Pixels Camp entitled:

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Product Managers*
(*But Were Afraid To Ask Yours)

Thinking about the event’s audience, this talk is not for product managers. It’s rather for people working with product managers (especially development team members).

Though still in baby steps, I’m also exploring an idea for my first product-related workshop.

If you run an event and think you’d like to have me around to speak, please do reach out.

Books to read

Here’s what’s in my Kindle queue right now— in alphabetical order (so no preference or priority implied). I haven’t bought all of them yet, so I might end up not reading the ones marked with (?) — but at least you get an idea of what I’m considering reading.

(I’ve been using “Download Sample” as a trick against the impulse buying Amazon makes so damn easy.)

  • 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos (? — this book is so not-me, but I’m tempted to read it just to know what the fuss is all about; as we say in Portuguese, “o saber não ocupa lugar”)
  • Atomic Habits: an Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (?)
  • Competing Against Luck: the Story of Innovation and Customer Choice (?)
  • Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
  • Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value (?)
  • Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (?)
  • Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results (?)
  • Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Fell free to comment if you have related book recommendations, or if you have anything to add about the books I’ve listed.

I hope you have enjoyed this personal look back at 2018 and forward into 2019. It’s somewhat “me me me” but, well, I’m not notable enough to have someone write my memoir. ? I wish you a Happy and Prosper New Year!