“The code is live in the production environment! ”
This Slack post from my engineering team marked the culmination of a ten week effort to ship my first product. The feeling of having led the development of a product that increases customer enjoyment by helping to reduce lead times for online orders for millions of customers was surreal. This is the one I will always cherish.
During this summer, I completed an internship as a Product Manager (PdM) at Nordstrom in the Merchandising team, where I focused on inventory deployment.
You wonder what it takes to bring a complex solution to market. Let’s take a look at my hectic two and a half months at Nordstrom. We’ll start by taking a closer look at the problem statement for the project I worked on, and then move on to the meat and bones of the role. Here I am talking about the different tools I have used and the challenges I have faced. For those who are considering pursuing graduate studies to get into product management, I will talk about the courses I took during my masters program at Georgia Tech that have helped me in this role.
“Place stocks as close as possible to the customer by using our network of distribution centers”.
This is the mission statement of the inventory deployment team that I was part of during my internship. Here I had to lead the creation of a tool that improved data operations and helped achieve the goal mentioned above.
Reflecting on my internship, I realize that my contribution to the project is broadly divided into the following four areas:
WHAT TO BUILD?
One of my main responsibilities was to decide on the functionality of the solution that would be built. This decision was guided by a thorough understanding of the problem statement and the client’s needs. I spent most of my first week going through the materials provided by my mentor and meeting with him to clarify my doubts. A holistic understanding of the problem was essential, as it inspired customer-centric solutions and enabled me to support my solutions if I received a rejection from someone. Throughout the entire product development process, the PdM acts as the voice of the customer and ensures that the features being built meet the needs of the customer in the most effective manner.
Once the capabilities of the solution were determined, my next essential task was to prioritize the functionality that we planned to build. I started by identifying the features that would be the backbone of the solution and help us unlock value quickly. This version of the product is called a minimum viable product (MVP). My goal was to provide an MVP that solves major user issues and allows us to iterate in future releases without introducing technical debt. In the process, I had to deprioritize several end user feature requests; although they increase the usability of the product, they do not meet MVP requirements. Features that were excluded from the MVP have been added to the product backlog for prioritization in a future product release. I’ve made sure that whenever I re-prioritize feature requests, I do so keeping the user in the loop to effectively manage expectations.
Throughout my internship, transversal leadership was necessary to ensure the smooth dispatch of the MVP. It was my responsibility to keep the professional user informed of the progress and to get their feedback. We used JIRA, a project tracking software solution, to capture feature requests and assign tasks to the engineering team. I met with the program manager on a regular basis, first to prepare the JIRA stories and later in sprint meetings to understand the progress in product development.
Having a 360 degree view of the project from both the business and technical side was important as it allowed me to make informed decisions when I needed to resolve unforeseen issues. For example, due to the steep learning curve of a new programming language, the engineering team was almost a week behind schedule. To ensure the timely release of the product, we had to either bring in more engineers or review the scope of the release. The program manager, who is responsible for assigning tasks to engineers, informed me that all engineers are busy with higher priority tasks. Therefore, I could either delay the output or reduce the range. Since the project timeline was set, I removed a feature from the current version and added it to the product backlog.
EVANGELIZE THE SOLUTION
As a PdM, you are the cheerleader of your product. Initially, I spent a lot of time understanding the impact of the solution I was working on. During the internship, I honed my data-driven storytelling skills as it was necessary to show the impact of the solution on the direction of the business. I worked with a business analyst to obtain data points relevant to operations and used them to create key performance indicators (KPIs), which were instrumental in communicating with product managers and managers business.
One aspect of product management that I was relatively less aware of prior to the internship was effective written communication. From writing detailed product specifications in JIRA to creating an executive one-page layout, I’ve spent a lot of time creating artifacts for different audiences. One of the first things I did during my internship was to create a unique document on Confluence with information on every aspect of the project. This document had everything, including the problem statement, the product roadmap, a list of all the stakeholders involved, and all the necessary Slack channels. After the product was developed and tested by the engineering team, I created test cases to perform User Acceptance Testing (UAT) with the business user. After the product went live, I created a knowledge base article for Service Now to ensure smooth production support.
When I think back to the internship, I can see how various courses I took during my MBA and MSCS programs have helped me navigate this role. I used my knowledge of Balsamiq, a tool I learned in collaborative product development and later used in the human-machine interaction course, to create wireframes for the MVP. These clickable prototypes acted as a good proxy for a truly developed user interface. Using these wireframes, I was able to effectively explain the desired workflow to engineers. Based on the feedback I received, the engineers preferred the wireframes to the written specifications.
In the various practical courses I took, namely Strategy Management and IT Internship, I had the opportunity to work with real companies and solve real world problems. In my previous semester, I worked with a data director from a leading company in digital payment platforms, to find a viable path for cloud adoption. Having experience communicating with senior business leaders honed my stakeholder management skills and gave me confidence when doing the same during my internship. The MBA program has definitely changed the way I approach problems.
Solving case studies in almost all of my MBA courses at Scheller College of Business definitely improved my critical thinking and problem-solving skills, qualities that Forbes lists as the skills most in demand in US businesses.
If I had to condense my role into a statement, I would say that product management, for me, is about creating effective and scalable solutions to business problems in an empathetic and collaborative way. Overall, I was thrilled with the scale of change my solution was able to create. This will help improve the positioning of tens of millions of units each year, resulting in lower shipping costs and faster deliveries to Nordstrom’s online customers.
Hope you enjoyed the second installment of this article series. In the last installment of this series, I’ll interview product managers from different industries and bring you their perspectives.
Priyansh is an MBA-MSCS dual master’s candidate at Georgia Tech. He is passionate about creating technological solutions to real world problems using a customer-centric approach. He is a die-hard cricket fan and foodie who enjoys talking to new people about their experiences.
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