“The code is live in the production environment!”
This Slack message from my engineering team marked the culmination of a ten-week-long effort to ship my first product. The feeling of having led the development a product that increases customer delight by helping reduce delivery times for online orders for millions of customers was surreal. It is one that I will always cherish.
Over this summer, I interned as a Product Manager (PdM)at Nordstrom in the Merchandising team, where I focused on inventory deployment.
Wondering what it takes to bring a complex solution to market. Let’s take a tour of my eventful two-and-a-half months at Nordstrom. We’ll start off by taking a closer look at the problem statement of the project that I worked on and then move on the meat and bones of the role. Here, I talk about the various tools I used and the challenges I faced. For those considering pursuing higher education for breaking into Product Management, I’ll talk about the classes I have taken in the course of my Masters’ program at Georgia Tech that helped me in the role.
‘To place inventory closest to the customer by utilizing our network of fulfilment centers’.
This is the mission statement of the inventory deployment team of which I was a part of during my internship. Here, I had to lead the creation of a tool that improved data operations and contributed towards achieving the objective mentioned above.
As I reflect on my internship, I realise that my contribution to the project broadly falls into the following four buckets:
WHAT TO BUILD?
One of my key responsibilities was to decide the functionalities of the solution that would be built. This decision was guided by an in-depth understanding of the problem statement and customer needs. I spent most of my first week going through documentations provided by my mentor and meeting him to clarify my doubts. A comprehensive understanding of the problem area was key, as it inspired customer-focused solutions and ensured that I was able to back my solutions if I received pushback from anyone. In the entire product development process, the PdM acts as voice of the customer and ensures that the features being built address the customer’s needs in the most effective manner.
After the capabilities of the solution were determined, my next pivotal task was to prioritize the features that we had planned to build. I started by identifying the features that would form the backbone of the solution and help us unlock value quickly. This version of the product is called a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). My objective was to deliver an MVP that addresses major user pain-points and allows us to iterate on it in future releases without introducing technical debt. In the process, I had to deprioritize several feature requests from the end user; although they increased usability of the product, they did not meet MVP requirements. The features that got left out from the MVP got added to the product backlog to be prioritized in a future release of the product. I ensured that every time I reprioritized feature requests, I did so by keeping the user in the loop to effectively manage expectations.
Throughout my internship, cross-functional leadership was necessary to ensure the successful shipping of the MVP. It was my responsibility to keep the business user abreast of the progress and take feedback from them. We used JIRA, a project tracking software solution, to capture feature requests and assign tasks to the engineering team. I regularly met with the program manager, initially to groom JIRA stories and later in sprint meetings to understand the progress made in the product’s development.
Having a 360-degree view of the project from both business and technical sides was important as it enabled me to make informed decisions when I had to solve unforeseen problems. For instance, due to the steep learning curve of a new programming language, the engineering team fell almost a week behind. To ensure the timely release of the product, we either had to bring in more engineers or revise the scope of the release. The program manager, who is responsible for allocating tasks to engineers, informed me that all the engineers were occupied in higher priority tasks. Therefore, I could either delay the release or reduce the scope. Since, the timeline of the project was fixed, I removed a feature from the current release and added it to the product backlog.
EVANGELIZING THE SOLUTION
As a PdM, you are the cheerleader for your product. I spent a lot of time initially understanding the impact of the solution that I was working on. Through the course of the internship, I honed my data-driven storytelling skills as they were necessary to showcase the impact of the solution to the business leadership. I worked along with a business analyst to get data points relevant to the operations and used them to create Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which were instrumental when communicating with product and business leaders.
An aspect of product management whose importance I was relatively less aware of before the internship was effective written communication. From writing detailed product specifications in JIRA to creating a one-page executive presentation, I spent a lot of time creating artifacts for different audiences. One of the first things that I did during my internship was creating a one-stop-shop document on Confluence that had information about each and every aspect of the project. That document had everything, including the problem statement, product roadmap, listing of all stakeholders involved, and all the Slack channels needed. Once the product was developed and tested by the engineering team, I created test cases to conduct User Acceptance Testing (UAT) with the business user. Once the product went live, I created a knowledgebase article for Service Now to ensure smooth production support.
When I look back at the internship, I can see how various classes that I took during my MBA and MSCS programs helped me navigate this role. I used my knowledge of Balsamiq, a tool that I acquired in Collaborative Product Development and later used in the Human-Computer Interaction course, to create wireframes for the MVP. These clickable prototypes acted as a good proxy for an actual developed user-interface. Using these wireframes, I was able to explain the desired workflow to the engineers effectively. Based on the feedback I received, the engineers preferred the wireframes over written specifications.
In the various practicum courses that I took, namely Strategy Management and IT Practicum, I got the opportunity to work with real businesses and solve real-world problems. In my previous semester, I worked with a Chief Data Officer of a leading digital payments platform company, to find a viable path for cloud adoption. Having the experience of communicating with senior corporate leaders honed my stakeholder management skills and gave me confidence when I was doing the same during my internship. The MBA program has definitely changed the way I approach problems.
Solving case-studies in almost all my MBA courses at Scheller College of Business has definitely enhanced my critical thinking and problem-solving abilities, qualities that Forbes lists as the most sought-after skills in corporate America.
If I had to condense my role in one statement, I would say that product management, to me, is all about creating efficient and scalable solutions to business problems in an empathetic and collaborative way. All in all, I was thrilled by the magnitude of change that my solution was able to create. It will help improve the positioning of tens of millions of units annually which will lead to reduced shipping costs and quicker deliveries to Nordstrom’s online customers.
I hope you enjoyed the second instalment of this article series. In the final installment of this series I will interview Product Managers from different industries and bring their insights to you.
Priyansh is a dual masters MBA-MSCS candidate at Georgia Tech. He is passionate about building technological solutions for real-world problems using a customer-centric approach. He is a die-hard cricket fan and a foodie who likes to talk to new people about their experiences.