Ciara Peter leads product at BetterWorks, and is on a mission to make work processes more data-driven, engaging, insightful, and fun. Ciara has been recognized as a top inventor in the technology industry. She sat down with KPCB’s Chief Product Officer Bing Gordon for a Q&A on product management.
BG: Ciara, let’s talk about the magical art of product management. What do you need to think about in the product design process?
CP: I love the idea of redesigning something that’s important to companies, but loathed by users. When there’s inherent value in the process, but the solution hasn’t been cracked. I think about the balance between designing something simple enough for 80% of the population, but incorporating power user features in a way that doesn’t alienate either group, and taking a strong stance on the amount of complexity that needs to be uncovered and who takes the biggest hit for the presence or lack thereof. I look at consumer companies that have teams with hundreds of people that have solved a design problem for a product used by millions or billions, and see where I can apply those principles or inspiration. Finally, I want to help everyone that uses a product I have designed save time and money.
BG: How do you balance the buyers’ requirements and the users’ requirements?
CP: Having a set of clearly defined core principles helps us answer most of those questions. At BetterWorks, we’ve defined a system called Goal Science, encouraging companies to be aligned, supported, progress-based adaptable, and aspirational. I’d add to that a few more dimensions we adhere to related to design such as simplified workflows and streamlined options. If a customer asks for something that is not aligned with our principles, we politely recommend another workflow. If a lot of customers ask for something that’s not yet planned but is in alignment, we’ll likely move it forward. And if a lot of customers request something we don’t think is aligned, we make sure to discuss its merits and use it as an opportunity for growth.
BG: So, do you have a regular meeting with say, the head of Engineering and the CEO and the head of Sales where you hammer out the priorities?
CP: We do product planning on a quarterly cadence and execute with monthly sprints. Typically, a few weeks before end of quarter, me and the PMs get together and look at feedback from the field including our backlog of customer feedback and incoming sales prospect data, and come up with a set of features and improvements that will help with customer acquisition and retention. Next, our Technical Co-Founder, Head of Engineering, and I will evaluate the scope of work that needs to be done related to scalability, security, performance, and other tech improvements. Finally, there is this third category which I call “things our customers will never ask for”. Basically, innovations. The final step is a meeting with myself, the Engineering leads, Head of Customer Success, and CEO, where we make the hard decisions and trade offs.
BG: How can you tell when you’re doing great work?
CP: When we want to use it internally. Of course there are other metrics like new business, renewals, upsells, and engagement. We know we’ll only be successful if end users are finding value on a daily or weekly cadence, and push ourselves to engagement numbers that are aspirational, to say the least, for an enterprise product.
BG: What would your advice be to a CEO on how to be a great enabler of a product team?
CP: Use the product all the time. Channel your experiences as a user. Curate your feedback so that it’s digestible and impactful. Schedule an ongoing cadence for conversations with your product leader to walk through high priority feedback from the field, as well as usability and technology issues you as a power user might notice. Be clear to the product leader when something is urgent or if you just want to get it off your plate. Be available to participate in stakeholder meetings, but be open to exploration.
BG: What I know about you is you’re great at a whiteboard. What do you try to accomplish?
CP: Whiteboarding is really about helping the entire audience sift and digest all of the ideas on the table. It helps people to frame the outputs of the meeting. Collect ideas in the first 15 20 minutes and the themes will emerge. Once there is some definition, redefine the end goals of the session now that there is new context, and record the outcomes in a note. Follow up and clear next steps, preferably in real time, are absolutely critical. Having a dedicated note taker typing it up live who can pay attention to all participants is key to gaining any momentum after the meeting has closed.
BG: You just released a version 2.0 of Betterworks. Was there any particular whiteboard session that changed the momentum of the product team during the 2.0 process?
CP: When we decided to start working on this thing, the product team got together for 2 days of innovation at this quirky art event space in the Mission for an offsite where we could completely disconnect and get it all on the table. The first day, we collected and organized all ideas from the team, founders, and customers. We looked for trends, outliers, and the opportunity to consolidate or enhance ideas. Then, we began to deep dive on the most complex ones. We were re-architecting our goal model from the data to the pixel. Through this whiteboarding exercise we realized the problem was much simpler than we thought. The common theme was that our system was made of boxes within boxes, that could be connected in various ways to other boxes. This seemingly simple realization lifted all preconceived notions about app behavior and opened the conversation up at a technical level, so the entire cross functional team could truly collaborate on the architecture of our platform and application, and additionally find opportunities to further break down complicated elements into pieces digestible enough for their own thought exercises and design sprints.
BG: As the company grows and you start building a team, what do you look for in an entry level product person?
CP: I want to know that they’re detail oriented, able to set the right expectations, and have interacted with enough people either in their lives or in other work scenarios to understand and have empathy for the challenges others face. I look for evidence such as team projects or extracurricular activities that they don’t prefer to work in a bubble. They also need to be able to accept and thrive on constructive criticism. I want to see they are deeply passionate about technology and understand something about business organizations. Finally, the ability to clearly articulate a problem and a proposal is #1.
BG: When you’re interviewing new PMs, what’s your best interview question?
CP: “Tell me about a time you convinced a stakeholder to buy in to your alternative approach to a problem.” This uncovers a lot about their thought process, and how they work with others. If they can articulate scenarios in which they had to convince someone to approve their approach, while staying true to their own principles and executing on that decision with the extended team, they have proven the capacity for logical decision making, and organization across multiple moving parts.
BG: When you hire is there something you’ve learned to lookout for?
CP: I look for people with GSD (Get “Stuff” Done) attitude, who have done their research, care about the problem we’re trying to solve, and are all about working with the team to execute on a tight timeline and bring value to the market and our customers. I look for people who want to do something great, and cannot wait for the opportunity to create a new category and build things nobody has thought to do before.
BG: Best advice you got from your first or any PM mentor?
CP: I got my first job in technology not because I was looking for it, but because I helped someone on the hiring team create the brand for a nonprofit campaign he had done the previous year. I was hungry and took any opportunity I could to participate in projects, help those who valued my skillsets, and learn from people who knew more than me about business. So the advice is take every opportunity you can to work with people of diverse professional backgrounds, as the benefits and learnings will positively impact the rest of your career.
BG: If you could turn back the clock knowing what you know now and you’re twenty four again, would you do anything different work wise?
CP: In my twenties, I really wanted to prove how self sufficient I was at work, and that I could be depended on to do anything, on time, with little to no management. This guarded attitude disconnected me from my peers, and lots of learning opportunities which I could have benefitted from earlier than I did. Asking for advice and feedback is not a sign of weakness, but an indicator of curiosity, confidence, and willingness to learn.