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The Biggest Challenge With Building Products is Uncertainty

I was recently asked to share my views on three questions around product management for the UsabilityTools blog. My answers are now published along with thoughts from 46 other product managers and I thought I’d share my response here as well.

The questions were good ones and were worth thinking about. In general, I’ve found that building new things is all about creating clarity and alignment and dealing with the uncertainty.

What is the most important quality a good product manager should have?

The ability to think across disciplines and both understand and communicate needs + priorities between business, technology, design, research, users and other stakeholders.

What was (or is) the biggest challenge you were facing and what you have learned from it?

The ultimate challenge of building products is that it is hard to know what will work. You can have an incredibly well engineered, beautiful, and user centered product and it can still fail. Running a good process is how you steady a team’s morale – keeping it up when things don’t work, and not getting cocky when it succeeds wildly.

How do you measure the effectiveness of your and your team’s work?

The most important measure of productivity is time my team spends working in alignment, with a clear understanding of expectation and goals, on efforts they believe will have major positive impact.

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What is life like for the Asian American man in 2015?

I didn’t really think much about how my own race/ethnicity affected my life until 2011, when I read the ludicriously long piece in New York Magazine. It was called Paper Tigers, with the subtitle: “What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?” and it covered issues I had discussed occasionally with friends but rarely saw elsewhere.

Questions like how come Asians are rarely in leadership positions despite being “so smart”? Or is it possible to maintain traditional Asian values like being humble in a loud, show-off-to-get-ahead world? Or why the hell was dating so damn hard?

I thought Wesley Yang’s article was going to lead to a national conversation about these issues, given that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom by Amy Chua had been all over the media for months. But it didn’t happen. It’s understandable in some respects because he admits that he is “in most respects devoid of Asian characteristics”. While born to Korean parents, he does not: speak Korean, believe in Asian values, date Korean women or have any Korean friends. Maybe this was all he wanted to say about being an Asian man.

And yet, there’s more to our story. Continue reading…

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The Rise and Fall of Product Lines

I’ve noticed a pattern when it comes to the growth of certain popular products — both physical and media [1]. The pattern looks like this:

Company develops a breakthrough product

A unique product hits the market. It looks or operates in a way that feels distinct in an important way. It’s aggressively different from other things on the market.

  • iPod: bigger, heavier and more expensive than the tiny mp3 players on the market, but has a solid battery life and a massive amount of storage
  • Vibrams: shoes that look like gorilla feet, but some people swear it gets rid of their knee pain / plantar fasciitis
  • Marvel’s X-Men: a fictional team of superheros who are ordinary people with mutant abilities – depicted in comic books, tv shows, video games and movies

Continue reading…

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The Difference Between Having Connections and Having Conversations

When I was in DC working as a Presidential Innovation Fellow, one of our objectives was to drive adoption for President Obama’s Executive Order to make all government information open, freely accessible, and machine-readable as the new default. That EO was backed up by a memo from the Office of Management and Budget known as M-13-13. Broadly this entire initiative was known as the Federal Open Data mandate. Continue reading…