How to be a Product Leader - AMA with John Cutler

Hello folks! Welcome back to our weekly AMA series. This week we were elated to invite John Cutler, Product Evangelist & Coach at Amplitude.

John is a graduate from NYU who has worked as a former UX researcher at AppFolio, a product manager at Zendesk,, AdKeeper and RichFX, a startup founder, and a product team coach. He is now working as a Product Evangelist & Coach at Amplitude. 

John is a multiple hat-wearer who loves wrangling complex problems. He has a  perspective that spans individual roles, domains and products.

So let's jump straight into it!

How to be a Product Leader

In this AMA John answered questions about long term careers for junior PMs, common mistakes that product managers should avoid and how to get started with setting up the right metrics and choosing the right analytics tools. Find out more below!

How should a junior PM look at the long term career and define a path for themselves? Also, what set of skills should be acquired?

John started by suggesting that you should treat your career like a product. First, you should start by thinking about your own vision for your career, what are your career goals, the change you may want to see in the world, and what's your WHY for being a product manager.

When it comes to a long term career in the 5-10 year range, the first thing that you should think about is getting repetitions. A lot of PMs don't think about the elements they need to practice. When you're practicing, you’re basically going around the Build, Measure, Learn loop. You're getting something out there and you're learning from it. In terms of defining a path, yeah, everyone has their own paths. Some PMs look at product management as a stepping stone to something else, few want to get into another part of the business, while others think they just want to startup one day. So the key here is really to get down to your own personal why of product management.

Coming to the skills one should acquire, John shared that you should find an environment where you can get reps, because if you're getting reps every six months, you're going to only learn at the rate of every six months. But if you get reps every one month or two weeks and are constantly getting stuff out there, you're going to acquire skills much faster as a PM.

How does a PM go about adding features suggested by customers on reviews or support?

Every customer request has a kernel of wisdom and information along with a valuable context coming from them. Customers tend to think in terms of requesting a feature. They don't frame those requests as context. They frame them as requests for things. So it is not really wise for you to believe in going through the motions and knocking out every single feature. Rather it is better to acknowledge that customer request and give them context about how it fits into the product roadmap.

For example, assume that someone says he/she needs a way to be able to export this into Excel. Well, okay. That's good information. What do you need it for in Excel? Why do you need to be able to do that?

So to summarize:

  1. Don't build all the stuff that the customers ask for
  2. Don’t ignore the request at the same time
  3. Acknowledge the request, put it in the context of how you think about the product, and then use it as a kernel of information.

What are some common mistakes young PMs make while getting started in Product Management?

The number one mistake in product management and analytics specifically is not focusing on why you're measuring things. A lot of young PMs and even very experienced PMs approach the problem by pondering over What they should track exactly? What is everyone else doing? What metrics should I use? Instead of thinking deeply about why they are going to use these metrics, they just attempt to copy everyone else and reach a conclusion that this is a completely solved problem.

So some of the key questions a young PM needs to ask are 

  • Why do I need to measure this?
  • What decisions do I hope to make? 
  • What assumptions do I have? 
  • Where do I need to reduce uncertainty? 
  • Where do I need to measure progress?

Such a strategy will yield much better results.

Another big mistake that young PMs make is that they make it about them and treat the team as their team. Instead of thinking about success for the customers, it's predominantly a sort of theatrical driven product management wherein they act like the task master for the team and feel that the team is there to serve them instead of the opposite. So they take a pretty selfish view and that's the mistake that they fall into. Now, that may sound really terrible in some ways but it is the harsh reality.

What is the biggest learning in your PM journey so far?

“Dysfunctional companies often have very common patterns, but functional companies often work in very different ways.” It's easy to kind of point out anti-patterns across companies. But when you are looking at a company you think is successful, one way is to think, well, I'm going to just copy what they're doing, because that must be how it is done. But instead, the trick is to think deeply about why that's successful in the given context.

How does one decide on what more features to build to have a better product-market-fit for a product in its developing stage?

First and foremost, do anything possible to connect with your customers. I meet a lot of founders who say, well, we've got a small number of customers and I can't use the metrics. But the same people haven’t spoken to any customers when asked about the number of customers they met last week. Now, in some cases, it is difficult to connect with them; but you must find a way around it. 

Furthermore, there are ways to use kind of in-app feedback channels, have them put things on your calendar, entice them into conversations or lunches and focus groups. Early on, the metrics are going to tell you very little about large trends. But the metrics about any particular customer's journey could tell you a lot to zero in on what particular customers are doing.So people think we don't have a sample size and therefore the data can't tell us anything. Well, that's true for certain aspects of the data, but not others.

How did you decide that you want a job in product? Did it click at your first job or did it require some switches beforehand? 

I probably hopped around jobs a little bit too much in my job searching quest. I tried my hand at being a musician, a video game company, big and small companies; you name it. There was more to learn at the individual jobs that I had. So I think that the first thing is, even if you don't know the big picture of what you want to do in your life, spending enough time at a job. There is always a lesson at every job, and there's always opportunities to expand yourself.

You also need to find people who know you. The idea that you yourself are going to suddenly see it and everything will be clear is often a little suspect, but when you have friends who really get you and see what you're about; they can take a different perspective and nudge you in the right direction.

What metrics help you to decide whether to replace or delete an ageing feature in the product?

The first way to approach this is to get situational awareness. It comes down to metrics and measurement. So measure a lot about what's happening and then there's many different techniques to doing it. Ideally you should set a north star for your product and understand the key capabilities of your product. Then you can start asking the question, How much does the usage of this feature contribute to the overall ability for people to be able to get their job done and do their job?  Moreover, you need to evaluate the complexity of that product and feature area, and really think deeply about the effect of that complexity on the rest of the experience.

You know, this question is often very qualitative and has a lot of nuances, a little bit of an art to think of it, but how does this relate to the future vision of the product?

Now, what I mean by that is that features end products come and go, you know, you solve the problem like X today, and in six years, you'll solve it with Y what you think needs an interface today.

How to build a product team that is indeed super collaborative with other functions?

To keep it very brief here, you need to mirror the collaboration patterns you want across all levels of the organization and mirror that on the team level.

Engineers are incentivized to ship projects and Product Managers are aligned to do X. The lack of collaboration between developers and other functions is because there's an effort to load up teams a hundred percent and which keeps developers busy all the time, trying to do collaboration in addition to the day job, which can be complex.

How should one refuse to take decisions under direct influence of leaders? 

The first goal is to get the linkage between your product strategy and business. Strategy manifestation should be persistent and not time-based. You could use OKRs for time based or North Star framework for goal orientation with Stakeholders.

You need to carve out boundaries for an opportunity, ideally and prove out on the small, how this type of thinking can work.

How should one get started with Product Analytics? 

The way I tend to think about it is you've got to build the muscle in that company about tracking the things that matter and you care about in a format that makes sense.

The first and most basic muscle you need is to get clean data. Your success is a function of the following:

  • The data you collect the usability of that data 
  • The rate of insights
  • The quality of your insights
  • Your rate of action
  • The quality of your action.

What are some of the most important resources for someone breaking into Product?

Gopractice is a training tool which uses Amplitude as an underlying technology. They have a really good blog that I am enjoying lately, so even if you don’t use their products, their courses are known to be pretty valuable.

Couple of books that you could refer to include:

  • How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business by Douglas.
  • Lean analytics by Alistair Croll - What metrics to track and use based on the business model.
  • Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters by Richard
  • Simon Wardley - Read Wardley Mapping for some good insights on strategy.

Want to join the next conversation? We’ll be having another Product Chat soon, get your invite to our Slack community to get all the details. See you inside.

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