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Lessons from the CEO on Planning, Building, and Managing Product
Percolate co-founder Noah Brier spoke to my “Managing Technological Innovation” class about the company—I applied for an internship position immediately after. The topic of Noah’s lecture? What it takes to build a product-centered company. Upon joining the Percolate team, I witnessed everything he spoke about realized on a daily basis.
At the beginning of my internship on the Product Team, I sat down for a one-on-one with Noah. Over lunch, we spoke about our respective backgrounds, interests, and REST APIs (it was a very informative lunch) before lingering on one topic: algorithms. Most people, myself included, immediately correlate algorithms with math or coding—Noah thinks of them differently. He said, “everything is an algorithm.” From the automated routine of getting ready in the morning, to daily commutes, down to the way we prioritize tasks, everyone follows a systematized pattern, weighted and constructed by an arbitrary scale we individually deem to be omniscient. In the same way, Percolate follows an algorithm, or a set of algorithms, that governs the way products are built.
To provide some context, I’m a rising senior at Columbia University studying industrial engineering with a minor in the ambiguous field of entrepreneurship and innovation. This summer, I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself in the Percolate culture and workflow on the Product Management Team (the first class of interns at Percolate!) During my first week of onboarding, I learned the basic philosophy of product, which comprises the core of everything Percolate builds, big or small. Noah was right; algorithms instruct everything, down to the philosophy that dictates the success of the product. So, what’s the breakdown?
“Ship small, early, and often”
My first month at Percolate fell on the last month of the second quarter of 2015. Product-wise, Q2 was the biggest quarter for Percolate, which culminated in the release of Percolate 6.0. I couldn’t have started at a busier or better time. I witnessed a collaborative commitment to the team by every member. I saw the passion that powered the late night fixes and builds. That was the epitome of Percolate culture and talent: setting ambitious goals and reaching to achieve them.
Shipping small, early, and often is fundamentally where Percolate shines. The recognition and materialization of the fact that shipping is better than not shipping is risky but has tremendous reward. Always. Shipping often comes with challenges, including the chance of bugs. While this is inherently the nature of new software, the quality team works diligently to avoid them. Continuous and incremental steps achieve this philosophy.
tl;dr: Do it quick, do it with a purpose, and do it to the best of your ability.
“Build products that buyers want to buy and users want to use”
One engineer, two product managers, one client solutions manager, and two designers. That’s how many Percolate members were involved in a single call with a client to better understand how a specific feature is being used. These “interviews” are open-ended opportunities to gain insight into how Percolate can make the product better. Initially I was confused by the number of employees involved, then it made perfect sense.
Building product is a collaborative effort. Many things must be taken into account, including viability, usability, scalability, efficiency, and, how it fits into the quarterly, yearly, and long term roadmap. With many moving parts involved, it seems as though the collaborative nature would detract from shipping small, early, and often; however, in shipping > not shipping, quality and scalability must be maintained. Point solutions are vertical, requiring resources to fulfill a single request. Horizontal solutions, on the other hand, are to be beneficial to the majority of Percolate clients. All these things must be considered in building and delivering product for buyers and users. Percolate is product-centered and every department plays a role in its development.
tl;dr: Don’t be siloed in your thinking, be open-minded, think strategically, and scale.
“Balance the short and the long term”
Working as a product management intern, I was able to sit in on a lot of meetings, including the Product Management Offsite. At this half-day “retreat” (realistically a couple blocks away, but Out of Office is Out of Office no matter how far, am I right?), four PMs and Noah planned out the future of Product at Percolate. With Noah at the helm, ideas were developed, teams restructured, visions defined, and short term and long term endgoals outlined. Explicitly defining and agreeing upon one vision, to be reached multiple ways, removes the chance of ambiguity about the direction of Product at Percolate.
To be The System of Record for Marketing (or #TSOR, as we abbreviate it here); that is Percolate’s mission. Someway or another, each action by every person across all teams are unilaterally striving to achieve that goal. Whether a Client Solutions Manager is submitting requests, or interns are building out Quality Analysis programs, or an Account Executive is answering an email from a client, all of these things will collectively enable Percolate to be The System of Record for Marketing.
tl;dr: Be ambitious and confident when setting long term goals and when you achieve something it won’t be a surprise, but leverage to achieve the next.
Yes, Columbia taught me how to analyze data and optimize inventory in factory workshops (applicability still unclear), but Percolate taught me how to optimize an engineer’s time, delegate bugs, write feature scopes, and listen and run with open-ended requests. How does this then translate to school?
Optimizing an engineer’s time = Delegating work on a team project
Delegating bugs = Determining the difficulty of problem sets and allotting time accordingly
Writing feature scopes = Writing executive summaries for class
Open-ended requests = Constructing theses and completing research papers
At the end of the day, just as Noah said, everything is an algorithm. Algorithms are not subjective processes. A work algorithm should apply to all work. A morning routine wouldn’t stop working on Tuesday and resume on Wednesday. Percolate helped me develop my work algorithm, and, subsequently, my school algorithm. I’m confident that when I return to school in the Fall, what I’ve learned as a PM Intern will make me a better student.