Best Practices for Building Technical Products

Here are 10 best practices for building technical products that we’ve come up with following our chat with Justin Hutchings, Director of Product Management at GitHub.

Tiwatayo Kunle
November 23, 2022

1. Be flexible on scope

This is especially important if you’re in a product area where you have to be date driven. For example, Co.Lab cohorts usually run for about 8 weeks at the end of which teams are expected to present an MVP. Consequently, students are constantly being advised to reduce their scope and ship a product.

On the other hand, if you’re working on a product that’s quality driven and the dates aren’t of topmost priority, be clear on your scope. Decide what the MVP is, figure out the ways to iterate and think carefully about the decisions that can help you make the right trade-offs.

2. The Product Manager should have a can-do attitude

When asked “can we do this?” The Product Manager’s answer should always be a variation of “sure, anything is possible, but what other things will we be unable to do if we choose to do this right now?”. Realistically, there are certain issues that even a can-do spirit cannot get you out of, say, limited Engineers within the company.

So, while the Product Manager should always be up for a challenge, the final decision as to whether or not they choose to take on a project, must be based on what trade-offs the Product Manager shall have to make to handle the project, and whether or not they’re worth it.

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3. Manage customer expectations

Customers will always want the next one. There’s no world in which you present what you’ve come up with to the customer and they don’t ask for more. That’s why it’s your responsibility as a Product Manager to focus on the features of the product that demonstrate the story you want to tell, finish the use case and solve the customer problem. 

You can bolt on more and more over time but you have to focus on the minimum scenario that achieves what customers need. You’ll eventually get it all done, just not likely at the exact time that you want.

4. Admit what you don’t know

In Justin’s experience, the most successful Product Managers are those that aren’t afraid to admit what they don’t know, and go ahead to learn the skills they need. While having a tech background can make it easier to be a Product Manager, and acquaint you with some transferable technical skills, those with non-technical background still stand an excellent chance to make it as Product Managers as long as they’re open to learning, reading, practicing and networking their way into the profession.

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5. Preserve customer relationships

Many Product Managers make the mistake of speaking tech-first instead of focusing on the most important task at hand – solving user problems. The Product Manager’s number one assignment is to do what’s best to serve their users wherever they might be.

By asking reflective questions, users are more likely to give you a values based answer which the Product Manager can use to create a comprehensive and coherent strategy to tackle the user problem.

6. Say no to customers

The irony of encouraging Product Managers to say ‘no’ to customers right after advising them to preserve customer relationships is not lost on us. However, learning to say no is a necessary skill that can preserve the integrity of your business. If you know that you’re not in a good position to create a product for a customer, or the customer’s demands do not fall within the scope of what you consider necessary to work on at that time, explain this to the customer in clear, direct terms.

By being honest, you take away the uncertainty from the customer and provide room for them to consider other options available to them. True, you might lose them as customers but it’s infinitely better to tell them, “I don’t think we’re a good fit for you” than to let them buy your product and figure out it’s not a good fit. Customer relationships broken down by a lack of trust are notoriously hard to repair.

7. Be an effective storyteller

This storytelling often begins with your resume. If you’re looking to break into the industry without much Product Management experience, acknowledge this fact, at the top of your resume if possible. “I am a person with X background, seeking to get into product.”  

Highlight the things you’re doing to make yourself ready for that job whether that’s attending Product Management School or performing Product Management duties in your current job. It gives you more credibility than someone seeking to break into the industry without any mention of product on their resume or any indication that they’re willing to learn.

If you were in a B2B company that sold stuff to other companies, talk about the companies you worked with, the products you sold and the challenges, how you prioritized trade-offs, the solution you settled on, how you delivered it, and how you improved.

The actual subject matter is less important than the fact that they’re showing excitement about the things that are important such as the storytelling, users and their problems.

8. Build in Public

As much as you can, endeavor to do things out in the open as it allows for discovery and it makes it possible for others to add on to your work and give you more perspectives. It is easier to overcome challenges when the burden is shared, so involve your team. Bring in developers and designers if you need their help too and share your work internally so that others can point it out if you missed anything.

9. Use the product

Quite frankly, it’s always pretty obvious when employees of a company use the company’s product. There’s a certain customer empathy that can only be developed if you’re a user yourself and that’s why Product Managers should be the best users of their company’s product.  

Don’t be afraid of the product and don’t be afraid to do the kind of things users would do with the product so that in the end you can arrive at the best possible version of the product.  

10. As a manager, create teachable moments

Interrogate the choices of those on your team to make sure they get the principles behind the steps they’re taking and they’re not simply carrying out instructions mindlessly. Teach them the most important things to go after, what to prioritize and what not to.

Spend time with mentees, coach them, make them better at the craft and build new Product Management talent, there’s room for everyone!

To learn even more best practices for building technical products, register here to join the next Co.Lab Product Management Bootcamp. If you’d like to watch the full chat with Justin, visit our YouTube channel.

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