Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The Good and the Bad of Google Product Management

I don't often pick up stuff from the news - I don't really consider what I write here as commentary - but this one I couldn't resist because it's such a good segue into something I wanted to talk about anyway.

In a way it's a little sad to think that these harsh economic times are starting to have an effect on even that most hallowed of engineer-driven organization. Still, there are those of us probably a little less melancholy - I can just imagine how much fun serial cloud hater, John C Dvorak, is having - "told you not to keep stuff in the cloud, one day they just switch it off and then what do you do?"

The decision to shelve a product is a difficult one, and one that inevitably leads to some degree of unpopularity both internally and externally. What I wanted to do here was take a look at what this article tells us about product management practices in general.

Good Stuff

• Willingness to take risk. Especially in these times, it can be tempting to stick to safe territory. That can be good advice, but what are you missing out on? Another way to look at it is when everybody else is playing it safe, it’s easier to stand out with something unique.
• Recognise the capability gain in products even if the product itself doesn’t work out in its current incarnation. Taking what they gained from Dodgeball and turning it into the Maps add-on Latitude is a great example of the sort of utility you can get from something that doesn’t work out in its initial form.
• Customer feedback. Accessing the community through techniques like product development blogs and using that knowledge to shape the features and user experience is a powerful way to make sure your system ends up meeting expectations as closely as possible.
• Attitude to failure. Viewing things that don’t work out as contributing to overall success rather than detracting from it helps you really internalise what you learn and encourages the innovation that fear of failure will crush.
• Internal testing. Eating your own dog food is always helpful, after all, if you find your product difficult to use then what are you asking of your customers?
• Opportunity cost. I liked the part where they consider the opportunity cost of a project as well as its real cost; i.e. what is the value of the things that the engineers are not working on because they’re working on this?

Bad Stuff

• Incentives. Paraphrasing, the article talks about difficulty attracting engineers to work on certain products. There are some reasonably well publicised shared reward schemes in place, and in this free market-like environment management needs to consider how it might need to provide external subsidies to make sure that less glamorous, but perhaps strategic, projects get attention too.
• Perpetual betas. I really couldn’t decide whether this one belonged in the good or the bad section, so I let the need for balanced paragraphs drive the decision. On one hand, I think there is no better way to refine user experience and focus the tail end of your development efforts on polishing the things users like the most, but on the other hand there are circumstances under which you need to show the commitment of a production-ready seal of approval.
• Communication. While not exclusively a product management issue, communication across geographical boundaries was a major issue here. This shows how important collocation is in a product development process.
• 20% time. I think we’ve all heard mixed reports about how this really works, but regardless of that, if you have a product that you’re committed to and have set targets for then you simply must formally assign it resources. Relying on product management to recruit people from their 20% time is setting it up for failure.

The article also mentions internal performance targets for new products, and in all businesses objectives and measures are the true meat of how product decisions are driven, so it's a shame we didn't learn more about that. Also some kudos due for how they ended Jaiku, the Twitter clone, it's good to see them pass that on to the community rather than just confine it to the shelf.

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