Category Archives: consulting

What I’ve Been Up To Lately

Some of you have noticed that I have dropped off the conference circuit and I haven’t been very active publicly for a while. Here’s what I’ve been working on lately.

In December 2013, I left the testing field and started working full time as a product manager and a software/user experience (UX) designer. My consulting work had evolved so that I was doing a lot of product management and design anyway, and it was time to make a complete transition. It has been quite the ride. I have worked on products and services for web, mobile, smartwatches, wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT) in several industries.

What is a product manager anyway?

Sometimes product managers are called “the CEO of the product” or “mini-CEOs” which means you have responsibility to package a product and/or service into something that can be marketed, sold and solves a real problem for real people. You try to help the organization determine the right thing to build, at the right time, at the right price, using just the right technology.

The product manager doesn’t do this alone, and when we get it right, the team gets the credit. When we get it wrong, the product manager has ultimate responsibility for the product or service, just as a CEO has ultimate responsibility for the organization.

It’s not an easy job, and one of my mentors told me that if I didn’t experience times when it seemed like everyone in the organization was angry with me, I should worry I was doing something wrong.

In the book The Art of Product Management, p. XIV, Rich Mironov describes:

… the product manager is responsible for the long-term development and health of a product, and is constantly faced with co-workers (or customers or partners or company executives) who want short cuts to good results.

The role requires a lot of diplomacy as well as a willingness to make difficult decisions to help do the right thing for the product, the customers and the organization. It’s enormously challenging, but hugely rewarding.

What do you do all day?

Product management varies a lot from organization to organization, and from person to person. It can be as unique as the person in the role, and different people have different aptitudes, interests and strengths. Some of my colleagues do more work on the business and marketing side, and some of them are more big picture strategists with a lot of team members doing the hands on work. Others have more of a role in day to day project management. I tend to focus more on UX and design as well as typical product management activities.

Todd Birzer from Kevolve describes four areas where product managers work:

  1. Market Intelligence
  2. Product Strategy
  3. Product Development
  4. Lifecycle Management

When I am doing work in market intelligence, I may be doing market research, customer research, competitor analysis, technology analysis and I am constantly keeping up with media and trends.

Product strategy work involves product/service idea validation, determining differentiators for a product/service, developing a monetization strategy and financial analysis. At this point I am also helping find the right technology fit and validating technical, legal and business requirements are all in alignment. Usually I start to create initial product roadmaps at this point to help us determine a focus on what we would like to deliver when. Sometimes we prototype or build a proof of concept, and I may do the initial app designs and UX work here as well. A lot of work at this stage involves making sure there is an entire product from a marketing, sales, support, pricing and technical implementation. It is really easy to end up with a “bucket of features” at the end of a release rather than a real, quantifiable product. A bucket of features is incredibly difficult to sell because it is vague, and doesn’t have a clear differentiator from the competition.

There are a lot of business and sales areas to explore here as well as the technical implementation. Analyzing financials and forecasting by testing out revenue models is important. In an early stage startup, I am actively involved in business model validation and helping with business plans, investor pitches and other funding applications.

During product development, I often do hands-on activities such as business analysis (requirements work, modeling, etc.), planning, setting up a project management practice, but mostly I do a lot in UX, design and gamification. In some cases I oversee others doing the work, and on smaller projects, I am heavily involved. I also assist product owners on Agile teams, helping them write stories and epics, figure out testable requirements and quality criteria, and make sure they have support from other areas of the business and enough to do.

Lifecycle management involves analyzing metrics and financials and helping stakeholders make decisions about products/services that are out in the market. You combine your market intelligence and product strategy and customer experiences with metrics to determine enhancements, bug fixes, what features to add, what features to cut, etc. You also look at the lifecycle of the product in the long term and plan for obsolescence. Ongoing funding and cost vs. revenue analysis is also important here as well as measuring ongoing customer engagement. The information we provide is helpful for teams as they plan out future development and other activities.

Why don’t we see you at conferences anymore?

When I decided to make a career transition, I tried at first to work in both worlds. For a couple of years I spent some of my time doing work in testing training and consulting, and the rest of my time doing product management things. The transition got stuck so I cut out testing and made the leap to full time product management. Previously, most of my public appearances were for testing topics, or for conferences heavily associated with quality and testing. Now I speak exclusively about product management, design, UX or gamification. So you won’t see me at the same conferences I used to attend.

On a personal level, I have had some health challenges that have been slow to heal which have made frequent travel difficult, and my wife and I welcomed our son (our first child) into the world. Not travelling very much meant we were able to start a family and I can spend more time with them. It is amazing to be around to see our little guy grow and change before our eyes. Cutting travel down significantly is also much healthier for me overall.

I also started feeling strongly about building more locally. Supporting local organizations can be better for the community we live in, for the people we see around us in our daily lives, not to mention the environment. I have been working with companies in Western Canada, and started a local meetup for Calgary-based software product managers.

What’s next?

One of the most difficult things about a career transition like this is that I don’t see most of you face-to-face anymore. I am now exploring options for more remote work so I can collaborate with more of you and share ideas and learn from working with different people and teams.

I am writing more based on what I have learned, so you will see more from me on topics that I described above. I wrote an article on designing for wearables for Smashing Magazine: Designing For Smartwatches And Wearables To Enhance Real-Life Experience and I have more to come in this space.

I will also slowly begin to explore opportunities for more public events, but sorry, no more testing conferences.

If you would like to keep in touch, feel free to contact me. I always enjoy hearing from anyone who I have met in the past, or people who have read my work and want to chat about it or to just say hi.

Elisabeth Hendrickson on 15 Years of Consulting

Elisabeth has been in business for herself as an independent consultant for 15 years. She has a great blog post about it here: Happy Birthday Quality Tree Software. In the post, she describes the workload and the challenges. I’ve been an independent for about half as long as she has, about 7.5 years, and my experiences mirror what she describes. I too get queries from aspiring consultants who ask for advice. Elisabeth talks about long hours, hard work, and challenges. This quote in particular resonated with me: “The bottom line is that running a business, any business, is hard.”

If you are curious about going out on your own, this is a good piece to read. As a business owner, you are constantly looking at ways to be profitable, and dealing with challenges and changes in your environment. What do you do when you work very hard at a new revenue stream and it doesn’t work? What happens when a popular source of revenue loses favor in the market and you have to start over with something new? What do you do when people copy you, and your business model and a reliable source of revenue slows to a trickle because of market saturation? It is a balance of looking at your cashflow, looking at your financials and adjusting, taking risks, failing, succeeding, and adjusting some more. Also, a lot of what you do as a business owner is tedious – the logistics of running a business can be a big time sink, so you have to balance activities constantly to keep up with market forces. Elisabeth is correct, when you get it right, it is incredibly rewarding, but be prepared to put in time and effort, and to be able to motivate yourself through the boring parts, the low parts and the really hard parts. And sometimes, you have to reset your business and start over again.

Consultants Camp Report

In September, I attended Consultants Camp. This was my first time there, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had the camp handbook, and read a post by Dale Emery describing Camp. (It’s worth a read, like all of Dale’s writings.)

This was about all I knew of Camp when I flew out of Calgary. Now that I’ve attended Camp, and have had time for reflection, I have something to share. Camp had a big effect on me, and I got a lot out of it. I came back home and Elizabeth said: “This has been good for you. You’ve come home rested, energized and full of new ideas.” I struggled with a good word to describe what Camp meant for me, and found an article called Renewalby fellow Camper Rick Brenner. “Renewal” describes what I felt after attending Camp. Rick says:

Just about every year I attend a conference called Consultants’ Camp. It’s a group of consultants, IT specialists and process experts who meet annually in Mt. Crested Butte, Colorado, for a week of self-organized collegiality and fun. In some ways, it’s a conference like any other — there’s a continental breakfast, days full of sessions, and there is a program. By the end of the conference many of us feel tired and full. Learning is everywhere.

In other ways Camp is unique. The setting, the Colorado Rockies, is inspirational. Attendees give all sessions. There is no sponsor. Every day, there’s a long break in mid-afternoon, which today I’m using to write this essay. Lunch isn’t provided, but most of us ante up and share soup and sandwiches and stimulating conversation. For me, and I think for all of us, there’s a feeling of belonging.

Renewal is a time to step out of the usual routine and re-energize. I feel good to be here, with these people — colleagues and friends. Renewal can be a large block of time, as Consultants’ Camp is, or it can be a few minutes. We find renewal in weekends, vacations, days off, even in a special evening or hour in the midst of routine.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Camp had some times of joy, and there were difficult times we experienced with sadness. I talked with other first-time campers, and a common theme emerged: Consultants Camp is a community that is not only highly intellectual, but also understands people’s humanity and emotion. This is a community that cares for each other.

One of my favourite parts of Consultants Camp was the opportunity to spend a lot of time with James Bach. James generously offered to spend time with me talking about the testing craft, and having me work through testing exercises. I learned a tremendous amount from the time we spent together, and I have renewed direction on improving my skills as a tester.

I’ve followed James since about 1999. I had been testing as an intern student for a few months, and was in a unique position of leadership. I found I was struggling to explain what I was doing when training other testers. I realized I was too focused on technology and I was drawing from other disciplines when testing that I hadn’t realized. Since I had studied Philosophy and Business as well as Technology, there were non-computer related influences I didn’t realize coming through in my thinking about testing. I had studied Inductive Logic in university, and found when I read James’ work, the correlation of software testing with philosophy I had been bumping up against was spelled out already for me. I was pleased to see James recommend books on Abductive Inference, and I started reading everything I could that he had written. What he was saying was matching my beliefs and experience, and he had a lot of great information for me to use.

James continues to be an influence because I greatly respect his commitment to teaching testing skills in the software testing field. Furthermore, my experiences show that what he says is true. We tend to think alike when it comes to testing, and I have the benefit of his knowledge and experience to draw on in my own work. I (and other testers) are indebted to his willingness to share great ideas, and teach what he knows.

I have used James’ Heuristic Risk-Based Testing strategy ideas a lot, particularly on agile teams. However, it wasn’t until I worked with James that I really began to own the concept of heuristics, and developingmnemonics to help remember and apply my own heuristics when testing.

I was pleased when I was finally able to meet James in person for the first time last year, and during Consultants Camp we picked up where we left off. James posed problems, I worked on solving them, and he continuously challenged me to push myself harder as a tester and as a thinker. I learned a lot, much like I have from other great (and very rare) teachers I’ve had who have challenged me this way: Dr. Michael Kubara, Dr. John Rutland, and my Father come to mind. We also spent time working on the motivations behind the Context-Driven Testing School principles, and talking about testing, working and life. I appreciate the time we were able to spend together, and have a lot of work to do and new areas to explore in my learning.