Building a Successful Product Operations Function
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
Episode 002: In this episode, Diana Soler shares key learnings from her efforts in creating the product ops function at AppDirect, where she is Senior Product Operations Manager.
"Simply put, Product Operations enables the Product Manager to do their best work. This is accomplished by ensuring they have access to the right tools, access to the right data and that the processes they follow make sense and are optimized to help drive customer happiness."
JJ: Hello. Welcome to Product Voices. Today's topic is a hot one. Product Operations. I'm sure you've heard a lot about this lately. I'm not sure that there's a common understanding of it quite yet, so I'm really excited to be chatting with my guest on this. She's been building out product Ops in her company, and so she has a lot of learnings to share. Diana Solar is Senior Product Operations Manager at App Direct. Prior to pivoting into Product Operations, she was Program manager at Airbnb, where she built and led host Success for Airbnb Lux. Diana, thank you so much for joining me.
Diana: Thank you, JJ, for having me. I'm really looking forward to having this conversation about what is Product Operations.
JJ: Yeah, I think it's a very important one to have these days, isn't it? Let's start there. We hear a lot about Product Operations, lots of content written, lots of webinars, et cetera, et cetera. There's lots of things being talked about around Product Operations, which is great, but as we've said, there's still some confusion around it. So let's just start there. Tell us what is Product Operations.
Diana: Absolutely. So I can tell you what Product Operations means within App Direct, because one thing that we have understood is that every company, as they hire and build product operations, might look a little differently. So in my case, Product Operations enables the product manager to do their best work. So what does this look like? It's optimized collaboration between the product team, engineering team and customer facing teams for the overall experience of the customer. And this is accomplished through improved alignment, communication and processes, and, of course, making sure that we have access to the right tools, access to the right data, and that everything aligns just to make sure, again, that we are optimized to help drive that product manager success.
JJ: So that's really an important definition there. We all know anybody who's been in product management more than five minutes understands the inherent cross functional nature of it. Frankly, sometimes chaos of it because of all of these hand offs and workflows and people coming in and out. And so basically, product operations is a function or a group or an ability for an organization to optimize all of those moving parts. Is that a good way to maybe summarize it?
Diana: If you look at everything that the product manager is responsible for, there's quite a bit on their plates and ask companies scale as team scale. You really need to bring in someone to help make sure that the path to success is well defined. And as I mentioned before, giving them access to the right tools and the right data is really only the beginning.
JJ: So let's look at it from a leaders perspective. If a leader in an organization is responsible for product management or responsible for something in the ecosystem of product management, how do they know it's time to implement Product Ops? Would they get started if they did want to move down that path.
Diana: Great question and one that I've asked my boss multiple times. So I would answer by saying that product operations is for a mature organization with a well established product team. So at a direct the need was identified because the team of product managers was growing and it was growing across the globe. So we have product managers in Canada, in the United States and in India. So we needed to improve the product manager onboarding and continuous training. So that was the first flag.
The second one was that the deliveries were becoming more complex. So what does that mean? Some of the features and functionality and capabilities that we were going to market required the inputs and development of multiple scrum teams of multiple product managers. So we needed improved alignment and communication between these teams. And remember, a lot of them are remote. So even more, an additional layer of complexity comes into play. These teams needed guidelines on documentation and team enablement. So if we go to market with a product that is in beta, it has a different level of internal and external documentation than once it advances to general adoption and availability and the level of training that the various account teams needed also varied. And so what I do is I make sure that these differences are well outlined, well understood, and then start to develop templates and guidelines and curriculum to make sure that we are again collaborating cross functional well so that we are delivering to the customer at the right time.
And then other flags was that they needed improved tracking and reporting into deliveries. So where are we with the delivery of X feature? X functionality? So I would say end to end. It was the need to just optimize the product development process was starting to become really evident and they just needed someone to come in, help uncover those gaps and propose improvements.
JJ: I love all of that. That's a really good way to lay that out for leaders to look for those certain triggers or those certain things that are happening really. Like what about onboarding PMS and making sure there's a consistent way for that, because I think so many organizations kind of fall down in that area. They hire new product managers, which are such an important role in the organization. Inadvertently, I don't think anybody does this intentionally, but then they just kind of throw them in there and say, okay, good luck. And I think that having that structured way of getting people not only involved in understanding the culture in the organization itself, but just making them feel like they're part of that team. So I think that's awesome. That's a really important one, along with all the others that you said.
Let's take it from a product manager perspective now, thinking about that one piece of it being kind of on boarding and making sure they're clear on everything. But, you know, as I said before, product managers have to work with lots of different stakeholders and lots of different teammates, and putting another one in the mix in product ops may intimidate them or certainly confuse them on how they should best work with these new teammates in Product Operations. So product managers, what advice would you give to them on how they can best collaborate with the product operations group?
Diana: Great question. So first and foremost, ask product Operations again and how I am building and developing it, along with the product leaders at App Direct. How we're building it is that meet Products Operations. My number one customer are the product managers. I work with roughly 20 product managers, again, located across the world. And so. When I started, I made sure that I spoke to every single one to uncover what their friction points were, what are their pain points on a day to day and then start to work with them to identify ways to address it. So how can they collaborate with product Ops? It's really participate in open and candid conversations about what is wrong with the organization. I will not go and share maybe some very candid comments about how things are working with leadership. They can trust me. They can come and say I am getting pinged too much by leadership to work on things that are distracting so they can trust me. They can come to me openly and candidly and know that I will work with them to identify ways to address the core issue.
And then that goes into the other point, which is to give honest and frequent feedback about what I'm building. Often times I need to deliver a quick fix per se because we need to deliver an update to senior leadership or what have you. And therefore I don't have that time to sit down with each product manager and get their feedback. And sometimes I go to them with a second iteration and just if it doesn't make sense and I need to go back to the drawing board from the get go, have that honest conversation with me because my success will be measured through their productivity.
JJ: Oh, wow. I like that. So, you know, for product managers out there who now have a product Ops group that you're working with, really, really good advice there. And especially I love how you said the product Ops person, they're customer is the product manager. From a product manager's perspective, the product Ops group is your partner or your vendor. And so that honest feedback, those real conversations about your needs are going to be very important, just like you would any other provider. A service provider, a software provider or whatever, you want them to understand your needs so that they can then solve those problems and partner with you in a better way. That's a great way to think about that.
Diana: Absolutely. And similar to the product development process, it's getting that customer feedback going to them with various demos, getting the feedback again. And until you've reached a delivery that they can adopt and that they're happy with.
JJ: Yes, absolutely. I loved that. It's basically product management, right? It's discovery of what they need.
Okay. So we talked about leaders and their perspective. We've talked about product managers and their perspective. Now let's talk about folks who are in the product operations role or may want to get into this product operations role. You just outined one of the things that are important for them to have as a skill set, which is discovery and needs discovery, et cetera. But what are some other skills that someone who may want to get into a product operations role should have?
Diana: So communication skills and storytelling. Why? Because you need to get that feedback within the product organization. So from your product managers and from your product leaders, as well as across the organization. So you need to be able to clearly communicate what are your goals and how does it benefit them. And I go on a tour of my roadmap across the various departments to make sure they understand what I'm working on. So communication is key.
The other one is project management and planning. Product operations will work on multiple initiatives and programs at any given time. And therefore, having a strong project management background is important and will help you arrive at success sooner.
Time management, of course, is critical. Again, because you are working on so many items, you need to be able to time block yourself. You need to be able to know where you're spending your time, what percent of time, and just be able to prioritize.
And, of course, navigating ambiguity, especially if you're the first person in that role within the organization, you're often times not going to know exactly what your next. Is you're going to have a lot of information. So you'll just need to navigate through what the various departments need and prioritize based on that. So navigating ambiguity.
JJ: Yeah, that's amazing. And a lot of those those skill sets are transferable between product manager roles. And so I can see a lot of folks in the product operations role being in and around product management. So thank you for that. That's really good overlay of what a Product Ops person needs to be focused on.
So final question for you. I like to ask all of my guests this. What are your go to resources for learning more about this topic about product Operations. How have you learned more about product apps?
Diana: Yes. So, number one, Google, product Operations love it every day, if not every week, because there's so much content being published by great, let's call them product houses out there. And by product houses, I mean a lot of organizations like the Product Lead Alliance and others that publish content, medium houses, content and articles for any topic. But there are a few product operation leaders that have started to publish articles on how they got started with product operations, how they're scaling their teams, how do they identify their OKRs and KPIs. So Google, of course, I signed up and I received the newsletters of a lot of these product houses.
And there are two Slack groups that I'm part of that have Product Ops community. So a Slack group dedicated to product operations. And I go on there every day and I engage with other product operations professionals. We share content. We share a lot of articles and opinions. We've created monthly meetups virtual meet ups where we just talk about what challenges are we having. So because Product Operations is still a fairly new function, it's still being built. And as I mentioned earlier, it might look in various industries in a various companies. So it's important that we just continue to share best practices and just get out there.
JJ: I love that. That's a really important point. Make it your own, learn from others, but make it work within your organization. So thank you for those resources. A couple of other folks that I have followed as well. And I know you and I've talked about this, too, Diana. Melissa Perri and Denise Tilles are writing a book about it. I have a friend and colleague. Yeah, that's going to be a good one. I think it's coming out this year. My friend and colleague Chris Butler, head of product operations at Cognizant. So I've tried to tap in and learn from you, Diana, and lots of other folks out there who are really kind of at the Vanguard.
All of those resources, by the way, will be on the podcast website, Productvoices.com. We'll have links to all of the resources. You can get the transcript of the episode as well as the audio.
Thank you so much, Diana Solar, senior product operations manager at AppDirect, for being here with us today and sharing your wisdom and your expertise.
Diana: It's my pleasure. Thank you again for having me. Thank you so much again. And don't forget to check out those resources on Productvoices.com. And we will see you next time on the Product Voices podcast.
Product Led Alliance Product Ops Portal: https://www.productledalliance.com/product-ops-portal/
Melissa Perri & Denise Tilles' resources & info on their upcoming book: https://www.productoperations.com/
Dragonboat - Becky Flint has hosted many webinars on the topic of Product Operations: https://dragonboat.io/blog/webinar/
Product Growth Leaders has a Product Ops Cohort: https://community.productgrowthleaders.com/groups/5343649/about
Connect with Diana