One of the best parts of working in product is the community: the like-mindedness, the ease of conversation, and the camaraderie around the struggles and victories we experience on the job. So, a few months after I joined my 11,000-employee company in October 2018, I looked for a place where I could meet my fellow product managers, learn best practices, and understand just what product management means at this particular organization.
What I found was that a product community didn’t exist. I asked around, and every person echoed the same sentiment: “It doesn’t exist here. I wish it did. You should make it!” My company is very accepting of grassroots, entrepreneurial-type endeavors, so I did just that. I created a product community from the ground up. In many ways, the process was similar to creating a new product. It involved customer research, launch, feedback loops, and iteration on the original idea.
The first thing I did was send a survey to anyone in the company directory with the word “product” in their title. After a better-than-expected response to that survey, I incorporated the results into my official “launch” meeting for the product community. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. That first meeting had a lot of audio issues due to so many people being on the phone and the poor acoustics of the conference room. We also struggled with timeboxing.
Our next iteration went a bit more smoothly, with a timeboxed agenda and resolved audio issues. From there, I surveyed the group again to discover who would be interested in taking a “deeper dive” with the community and joining one of our working groups. All the while, our Google+ community and e-mail list were open to anyone who would like to provide feedback. I also got feedback through stops at my desk, e-mails, and chat messages.
I consider the product community one big experiment. We will continue to iterate and fine-tune things as time goes on, but for now, I’m proud of what it’s become since the launch in May.
My company now has a healthy product community: 350 members strong and counting. Although our community is new, we’ve already accomplished a great deal. We’ve gotten to know each other (no small feat with a globally distributed team), and we’ve even had workshops and guest speakers. Plus, we’ve had some fun along the way!
Here are some benefits a product community provides.
A Platform for Big Conversations
Like many large companies, we have employees scattered around the globe. Everyone works on a different product and there aren’t many chances to learn about what is going on in other areas of the company.
The product community provides a platform for us to communicate more broadly about the issues that affect us all. This can be as simple as doing introductions. We all learned about products and teams we didn’t even know existed. It can also be a more complex topic, such as introducing a new innovation methodology to support our long-range roadmaps. Either way, we never had a platform for us all to speak the same language.
A Jumpstart for Junior Product Managers
When a new product manager has just been brought on board, they are often seeking ways to learn about their role. The resources that have come out of the product community have helped recent hires understand what the “product ecosystem” is like here. I’ve also been able to match up some new hires with more seasoned product managers. Eventually, I’d like to see us, as a community, develop a guide for getting started as a new product manager.
We’re All in This Together
When you’re working as the only product manager on a team, it can be hard to know whether your experiences are typical or not. The community allows us all to share (and have a good laugh) at some of the struggles of being a product manager. I heard something recently that comes to mind often: “A good product manager is constantly disappointing at least one group of people.” Amen.
Expect the Unexpected
I’m a realist by nature. I started the community with the assumption that it would be a struggle to get participation and membership. I assumed I’d have to pull teeth to get people to speak at our monthly meetings. Imagine my surprise when the complete opposite happened. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm behind this community. People want to contribute, participate, and spread the word. All of our growth has been organic. I always knew product people were my kind of people. This group has proven that to me beyond a doubt.
Just Do It
Our product community is completely grassroots. If I had waited for a vice president to sign on the dotted line, our group may still just be a concept. I wasn’t sure if the idea would catch on, but what did I have to lose? Now that the group is a little bit more mature, I don’t even have to come up with content ideas anymore. Instead, people approach me with things they want to share with the community. It’s like lighting a fire: once it’s lit, you just have to keep putting logs on the flame to keep it going. I hope that the difficult part of gaining critical mass is behind me.
It feels really good to have created something of value from the ground up. If you find the community aspect of product lacking at your company, I encourage you to create one. The benefits gained from something so simple may surprise you.
About the Author
Hannah Sutor is a product manager who has spent her career in various roles in software development: engineering, QA, and product. She enjoys the relationships built through the product role and considers herself a “people person” first and foremost. She is currently seeking opportunities to give back to the product community through writing and speaking.