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Maximizing Your Impact by Building Products for Internal Customers


Episode 057

When we think about building products, we most often think about products for external customers. However, many product teams create solutions for internal customers - those fellow employees who use our products to help them better do their job. These “internal products” can have a huge impact on the business.


In this episode, Sharon Aluma, Senior Technical Product Manager at Amazon Robotics joins to discuss the nuances of building products for internal customers and how to make the biggest impact with these solutions.





 

SHOW NOTES:


Connect with Sharon:


Episode Outline:

  • What do you enjoy most about having your product users be internal to your organization? 3:44

  • How building these products for internal customers has helped increase her scope of impact. 8:12

  • Working with internal customers vs working with external customers. 10:31

  • How do you measure success in these internal products? 15:34

  • What is most critical to consider when you’re solving problems for internal customers? 17:34

  • What resources have you found valuable as you’ve honed your skills in product management? 23:22


Episode Transcript:


SUMMARY KEYWORDS

customers, amazon, products, internal, building, product, question, data, impact, solutions, bit, robotic systems, organization, people, tie, sharon, team, metrics, measure, systems


Intro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 00:03

Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources. To help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests or to submit your product management question to be answered in our special q&a episodes. That's all at product voices.com. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of Great Product Management.


JJ 00:37

Hello, and welcome to Product Voices. You know, when we think about building products, we most often think about products for external customers, those customers out in industry, that article using our products, and that we're building those solutions far. But many product teams actually create solutions for internal customers, so fellow employees who use our products or solutions to help them do their job better. These internal products for internal customers can have a huge impact on your business. So today's conversation is all about building products for internal customers and the value that that can bring. My guest today is Sharon Aluma, Senior Technical Product Manager at Amazon Robotics, Sharon and her team built cloud data and application infrastructure solutions as well as purposeful tools at extraordinary scale for Amazon robotic warehouse operators and Associates. Prior to her current role as product manager, she worked in project and program management roles across a variety of industries, including supply chain construction, and healthcare IT leveraging insights from those experiences to be a better product leader. Sharon, thank you so much for joining me.


Sharon 01:54

Thank you so much for the opportunity. I'm really thrilled to be here talking with you today.


JJ 01:58

Yeah, this is a great topic. We don't talk about this a lot in product management circles. And it's such an important one because again, these these internal solutions for internal customers can bring so much value. So before we jump in, you know more deeply. Tell me a little bit more about your current situation at Amazon robotics, your solutions and and those internal customers set the context for us a little bit.


Sharon 02:25

Yeah, absolutely happy to do so. So as you mentioned, I'm a technical product manager at Amazon robotics, which is actually a subsidiary of Amazon. It was a private company called Kiva systems that was acquired about 10 years ago, and eventually became Amazon robotic. So when we think about the Amazon, customer, we, at least in the the retail and online stores business, we probably tend to think about people like you and me and our family and friends who are, you know, clicking that order button and purchasing materials on the Amazon storefront, but the customers that I'm particularly focused on are actually internal employees to the Amazon organization. So typically, the operations managers who run the Amazon warehouses that have robotic technology deployed and different machines and work cells and software and hardware services installed, to help them deliver services and products to that end Amazon customer more efficiently, more safely, more sustainably, so on and so forth. The products that I work on, are centered around data as the lifeblood, so to speak for how all of those systems and people operate and integrate with one another how these operations managers and reliability and maintenance technicians make decisions about the most important issues to address or what other areas of the operation need their attention. And those products include both data infrastructure, so things like data repositories and streaming services that acquire all of that data from those hardware and software services upstream and funnel them into tools like dashboards and other web applications. So those people can see that data visualized in a way that makes it easy for them to make the decisions that they need to make. There's also a function of our team that does take certain specific business use cases about certain operational areas or maintenance areas and build purposeful tools are done I support applications to drive as much business value for these use cases as possible.


JJ 05:07

That's so interesting environment and organization like Amazon, Amazon robotics, just a really cool place to be building these solutions. So I'm curious, what do you enjoy most about having your product users be internal to your organization? Is there something that makes it a great, a great situation for you?


Sharon 05:28

Yeah, just just so much. But I think the thing at the top of my mind is really the access that we have to one another. And I very much mean that, you know, bi directionally. So if I have a question about, you know, someone's pain points, or their current state experience with a particular part of the robotic system, or if I want to understand different usage patterns of the data that my team is venting to those different tools. If I want to, you know, go visit one of these sites in person I'm empowered to do so you know, that I'm, I'm in the Boston area, there's a few facilities within driving distance where I can go be there on the ground, talk with these associates and operations managers and see these products used in a very much real world environment. But also in today's remote world. You know, if if traveling isn't feasible, or isn't, you know, the right thing to do at the time, I can simply reach out over slack or, you know, an internal messaging system we have called Amazon chime, to ask those those questions somewhat informally, and get feedback, even on, you know, the roadmap that I'm currently working on, and, you know, gauge people's inputs, as far as whether the initiatives and projects that I'm prioritizing within my team are the right ones, or would address the their business problems where maybe those types of engagements and interactions with external customers need to go through a lot more formal channels and in the other direction, you know, I've built the relationships that I have with my internal customers such that they feel comfortable messaging me to say, hey, Sharon, you know, I don't know if this is working the way that it should be, you know, is this something that your team can look into, and, you know, we'll track those issues with different ticketing mechanisms to make sure that they don't slip through the cracks. But you know, those really open communication channels, I would say, it's probably one of the things that makes my job a little bit easier. You know, a lot of teams in organizations will talk about how they want to treat their customers as partners in their development initiatives. But I feel that that very much holds true. When you're actually part of the same overall organization, you feel like you're, you know, marching towards those same overall goals. And you have that same Northstar?


JJ 08:12

Yeah, absolutely. You know, it's, it's interesting that you say that, because I've always thought I've worked a little bit in my, in my past experience, I've worked a little bit on internal products, primarily on external products or products for external customers, but I, I have had some experience with these internal kinds of solutions. And that is definitely one of the key benefits is that you have access to your customers in a little bit more, you know, readily than then external customers, it's a little bit easier to get that to get that feedback. So definitely resonates with me there. You know, I'm curious, on your view, on the impact that you've had one of the things I train a lot and teach a lot of product managers who build internal solutions. And there's, there's sometimes a mindset of it's not flashy enough, it's not cool enough, you know, it's not the one that that gets the marketing campaign. It's not on TV. It's not the the kind of flashy solution that the company is building. But But again, there's so much impact that it can have to the business. So I'd love to hear your thoughts on, you know, how building these types of products for these internal customers has helped you increase your scope of impact, if you will.


Sharon 09:30

Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, I think the nature of the products that I tend to work with being, you know, data centric, has so much impact tied to it in itself. You know, I'm a firm believer that, you know, if you can't improve what you can't measure, it's at a minimum very hard to improve, you can't measure right so even helping Amazon operators have an understanding of how their systems are per forming, let alone what actions they might be able to take to improve them, I find is a very meaningful problem to solve, especially if I can help them reduce the amount of administrative time they're spending, reviewing different tools and dashboards and, you know, set up things like proactive notifications and alarms, so that they can focus on, you know, running their buildings and spending time with their people, and be notified of different anomalies when they arise. But in terms of working with internal customers, you know, something that I've really enjoyed in terms of the impact I've been able to have. And this applies not just within my current role, but working in previous roles within, for example, that healthcare IT spaces that, I find that, you know, when the further that you maybe abstract your focus from that end customer. In some cases, the greater, you know, sometimes exponential increase, you might see on your ability to impact people. So I'm really motivated, you know, by the chance to help as many people as possible with my work in my product. So, you know, if I used a healthcare example, if you're a doctor, you know, you have the opportunity to have a significant impact on the health experience of many, many patients. But if you are working on solutions, or technologies that help doctors or healthcare administrators, you know, you can, you know, 10x, that, or even 100x, that potential impact of you know, how many lives or how many customers, you are directly able to help not that the doctor is not capable of that there's just not enough time in the day to see, you know, hundreds and hundreds upon patients. So, I'm really excited about, you know, having that kind of potential to, you know, within the Amazon context, not just impact, you know, 1000s, or even millions of customer orders, but work on technology and solutions that helps Amazon get packages to people's doors a lot more quickly and impact hundreds of millions of orders on a, on a regular basis. So, you know, just that that sphere of influence, I find, in my experience, has, has grown, the, you know, with each level that I'm abstracting my focus from that, and customer,


JJ 12:44

I love how there's that almost network effect, right? I mean, you're impacting, you know, for every one internal customer or internal employee, or you're impacting and making more efficient to making, you know, better able to make better decisions, etc, etc. They're impacting a huge swath of customers as well. So that's amazing. I love that perspective. So we've talked a little bit about the the good things, and the, you know, the positives and what you enjoy about, you know, having internal customers and internal products, but, you know, what, about the flip side? Are there problems that you face when trying to solve problems for internal customers that may be different than working with external customers?


Sharon 13:26

Yeah, that's a great question. You know, I can't think of many challenges that I face when working with internal customers that, you know, I don't also face when working with external customers, but I would say the biggest nuance to me is in the types of problems that I am focused on solving for those customers. So, you know, for thinking about, you know, typical external customer interactions, maybe we're, you know, maybe a lot of our focus is driven by the need the desire to be you know, first to market and you know, gaining market share and you know, having that friendly competition with other potential vendors, especially, where, you know, money is exchanging hands and there's potential to, you know, either win or lose out on certain contracts, right. But that tends to be a little bit less of a focus or a driver when you're solving for internal customers who are already part of the same organization you are so I would say that the the types of problems that I tend to focus on for solving for these customers, especially when you consider the scale at which Amazon operates is you know, scalability. So you know, rather than identifying you know, potential new revenue streams and focusing on being first to market I'm I'm really laser focused on trying to help these internal Amazon operations teams, improve their gearing ratios and reduce you know, operating expenses cap All expenses, especially in today's economy, there's so much pressure to do more with the same resources or even fewer resources in some cases, so that scalability really tends to be the name of the game in terms of the value or the return on investment of the products that I and my team focus on building out so that we can help that Amazon operations function just at, you know, broader and higher scale and in various global contexts.


JJ 15:34

You know, it's interested about how you measure success in these particular internal products. And so you mentioned a couple of things, metrics and KPIs and that sort of thing that that you measure yourself on. I bet that's an interesting way. And I'm sure that you found a good way to do it. But so often external products, kind of the key Northstar is revenue and usage and, you know, and profitability and those sorts of things. So tell me a little bit more about some of those things. You You mentioned, how do you how are you measuring success of these particular products? Is it are the employees, you get to use the product? Is it operational efficiency, tell me a little bit more about that. Sure. So


Sharon 16:14

I would say, when establishing success criteria, or key performance indicators related to the products that we build, you know, it is important to keep that and Amazon customer in mind, because why I do what I do very much ties into why my internal customers do what they do, which is you know, to help offer new deals to Amazon customers to get, you know, products to their doorsteps more efficiently keep that customer promise, right. So, you know, tracking metrics and key performance indicators around how our solutions help those operators deliver more on time more efficiently, more effectively, you know, ties into a lot of the work that we do, also saving how much it costs Amazon to process, you know, one item through all of the various facilities and trucks and systems that it passes through before it gets to the customer doorstep. So that variable cost tends to be one of those higher level key performance indicators that we try as much as possible to tie back to the work that we're doing. You know, of course, with different services and solutions, there are other indicators or metrics that can help you gauge how those products and systems are performing. So if there are, for example, different, you know, operational targets for things like throughput, how many orders can be processed by a given facility, within a certain timeframe. That's the sort of thing that you know, teams building new robotic systems and work cells and other solutions will measure to give gauge the effectiveness of those products, especially also, safety metrics, there are robotic systems that are specifically focused on making these warehouses safer environments. And, you know, those are also very serious metrics that we track very closely. So I think one other area that is maybe a little bit harder to measure, but you know, I really look at closely when I'm prioritizing different initiatives for my products, is that that user experience and I would also tie into that developer experience, because it's not just data consumers that I'm building products for, it's also data producers, who are those, those owners of those upstream robotic systems that are producing this data? So, you know, I want to make sure that, you know, regardless of kind of what's happening with all of those different key performance indicators and supporting metrics that, you know, it's also easy and simple for them to navigate through these different tools and onboard, you know, new technologies and services to this data infrastructure. So, you know, that's where I think having that easy access to each other really comes into play. You know, for one example, my team actually hosted a developer bootcamp last week for one of the web application platforms that we own to not only show different software developers how they might more easily build applications on the platform, but also use it to gauge their feedback about how that experiences for them today anything that we can do to further streamline or automate that process. So So it gave me a large handful of data points as far as you know, what that user experience and developer experience looks like today and how we might be able to improve that down the road. So I'd say it's a fair combination of both quantitative as well as qualitative feedback that I, you know, evaluate, and compare when I'm prioritizing new initiatives.


JJ 20:24

That's amazing. It sounds like you've really gotten a good handle on what success looks like, right? And and what you're trying to measure, but also creating that community of, of customers, right. And then, again, internal or external, it's still creating that that, you know, customer community where they're freely sharing feedback with you, and you're learning from them. And that's amazing. I love that. Thank you for sharing that. So, one other question I've got about kind of your, your environment. In your experience. I, you know, you've mentioned some things that I think probably fit into to an answer to this question. But what is most critical to consider when you're solving problems for internal customers?


Sharon 21:05

Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think what comes to mind is that, at the end of the day, even if I'm working with data and information that's being generated by different robotic systems, the products that I'm building are for people, and humans who are making decisions and interpreting different operational performance trends from that data. So I think one of the most critical pieces to consider in terms of the the products and the services that my team is designing is to make sure that we are using those human centric design approaches and working backwards from those customer needs and customer pain points, even if they are internal to our organization. It's it's an interesting dynamic, because you also want to be careful not to over engineer anything, if you're, you know, designing, for example, a workflow for a team of software developers, you know, it's worth asking yourself and your team, do you actually need a, you know, web based user interface with a lot of bells and whistles for this type of customer persona, or would something like a simple command line interface or CLI tool, serve the need without, you know, having diminishing returns on what you're actually investing. So those are really interesting problems that I talked about with my team in terms of making the trade offs that we think maybe should be made, you know, we know that we've as much as we'd like to give everyone the complete optimal experience, you know, we do have to be cognizant of, you know, the bandwidth that we have to prioritize all of those different initiatives and across different sets of problems and, and use cases, I think I would also just re emphasize what I mentioned a little bit earlier, which is, you know, even if you are designing or building products for internal team members, or employees, don't lose sight of that end customer, right? Because that's something that could be lost in translation, when you're diving really deep into those internal customer problems. If, if you're having a really hard time tying that work back to the overall end customer that your internal customers are serving? I think it brings into question, you know, the overall importance of, you know, how it fits into that bigger picture.


JJ 23:47

Great points. Yeah, really great advice there and great insights, especially that last point about, you know, tying it back to the why of the the external customers and their problems and how it how it solves, you know, some some need for them. I think that's really important to keep in mind. So final question for you. Sharon is just a general like what resources have you found valuable as you've honed your your skills in product management, be it for internal external products, etc, any any resources that you would like to share with the listeners that that you have found particularly valuable as you've been learning and growing and product management?


Sharon 24:29

Yeah, I think one, you know, not not to embarrass you is actually this podcast. Soon as I discovered it. I've been listening to a lot of the conversations that you've had with, you know, other product leaders and found them, you know, really relatable to the work that I do. I think there's a few resources that can think of, you know, internally to my organization as you know, knowledge sharing mechanisms, if you will, that I that I do To find valuable as a resource, you know, one, for example, is there a different communication channels that we have with product managers across all of Amazon? So, you know, if you think about the overall number of employees we have, that's, you know, in the 1000s. So, when I have a question about, you know, whether somebody has come across a template for a roadmap or a product requirements document that I could leverage, instead of starting from square one, you know, I have that that channel where I can ask those questions and have them answered and, you know, benefit from the insights that other experienced product owners are sharing similarly, within within our robotics organization. In the last several months or so, we started up a community of practice, which I have found extremely valuable, you know, it has its own single threaded owner who, you know, sets the agendas for the types of conversations that we have, and, and focus areas where, you know, either we think something might benefit from being standardized across the different product lines that we own, or it maybe it's even educating each other about what we're building and maybe some some impacts that it might have on on each other's products. But it kind of ties into that product operations function. But you know, I really love having those forums, within the especially with other product managers who work on, you know, similar or Integrated Technologies, where I can ask them questions and share knowledge, not just about product management overall, but product management within the context of robotics and robotic order fulfillment at Amazon and have a tie really closely to the work that we do every day.


JJ 26:58

Yeah, that's really great advice. For those folks listening who don't already have that community of practice or something similar. I'm a big believer in that. So I love that you brought that up, whether you have three product managers in your organization, or 3000, it's always a good time, a good idea to get together once a month, whatever it may be, and just talk about the the issues you're having the successes that you've found, because we're all going through very similar things, even if we're in different kind of domains. And we can just learn from each other. So I love that I love that you've got those resources internally. But even for those of you who don't work at Amazon don't have that internally. You can find it right, and you can build those so you can start your own right, take the initiative. Absolutely, definitely. And I've found the most successful product teams and product organizations are the ones who continuously learn from each other and what whatever that looks like, right? If it's a quarterly, you know, half day session, if it's a monthly luncheon, learn if it's whatever it is just having something continuously, you know, available to each other, in addition to those kinds of ad hoc questions that that you may have, you know, over time, so, love that advice. I think that's really important to again, keep learning from each other. And thanks again, for the shout out. I'm lucky that I get to talk to so many great people like you, and learn every every episode, I learned something. So Sharon Aluma, this has been so much fun. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, your story, and your advice for us on how to build great internal products for internal customers and have a really big value on the business. Thank you so much for joining me today.


Sharon 28:45

Thank you so much. This has been really awesome.


JJ 28:48

And thank you all for joining me on product voices. Hope to see you on the next episode.


Outro (the incomparable Sandra Segrest) 28:55

Thank you for listening to Product Voices hosted by JJ Rorie. To find more information on our guests resources discussed during the episode or to submit a question for our q&a episodes, visit the show's website productvoices.com And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform.


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