December 15, 2021

Lesson 14: Data or Tada

Lesson 14: Data or Tada

Who doesn’t like a good magic trick?

Every magic trick is essentially the same. The magician presents the audience with some ordinary thing, like an adult woman lying in a box. Then something dramatic happens such as when the woman gets sawed in half. And then there is a resolution when the lady is put back together and climbs out of the box in one piece.

"Tada!" they announce.

We all stare in jaw-dropping awe and the seeming miracle we just witnessed.

Now let me ask you this…

…are you ready to perform some jaw-dropping miracles?

Make no mistake. Your organization leaders expect you to be a magician with product data. The data you materialize for them — seemingly out of thin air — they are convinced will create game-changing business efficiency and insights as deep as Loch Ness…

…and yes...

...finding Nessie might be a more achievable goal.

Yet you know that you are no magician, nor are you a mythical creature hunter. You are just a confused bystander who stumbled upon the stage but has no idea how the magic trick is supposed to work.

“I should be in the audience,” you say to yourself as you stand there, the spotlight nearly blinding your eyes. “I guess I just wave my wand over this hat?” you think to yourself, feeling a little bit ridiculous. You then utter the words “Tada!”…

…no rabbit pops out.

You are left standing there like a fool…

…the audience boos…

…it ain’t easy.

It would be impossible to enumerate the number of articles that claim data is the key to being a successful Product Manager, and at least once a week you will hear someone tell you that you need to be using data to make decisions.

"The new coffee shop is way better than Starbucks," you say casually to your colleague early one morning, not knowing anyone higher up was listening in on you.

"Ah. Ah. Ah," an executive will pop out of nowhere, making you spill your better-than-Starbucks coffee all over yourself. She's shaking her finger back and forth like Dennis Nedry's password screensaver in Jurassic Park. "Show me the data that supports such an outrageous claim!" She will then demand an excel spreadsheet to support anything and everything you say on company time.

"Data" is indeed the magic buzzword that you will need to get past the executive's figurative screen savers. Unfortunately, as you journey deep into the man-eating dinosaur infested woods of your Product Management career, you'll soon learn that people will only demand data when they disagree with you and only when they know you don't have it.

This data mind game has become known as Data Driven Decision Making, or DDDM, as it is known in the tech community. Yes, it is yet another acronym you need to memorize and embrace, because for your company, it is the latest attraction in the data buzzword theme park...

...and unlike other data fads, this one is sticking around.

You see, over the past decade or so, data fads have come and gone. Until DDDM, it was all about data warehouses, and data lakes, and data mining and, of course, the Tyranasourus Rex of all data concepts…

…Big Data.

Big Data was a big deal with a big promise. Every company, regardless of the bigness of their data, launched a Big Data initiative. But after every company across the globe collectively poured billions of dollars into big data initiatives, the end result was actually just a few bar and pie graphs.

“So what you’re telling me is that our data actually isn’t that big and that nobody cares and that big data isn’t going to make my yacht payment?” most leaders finally admitted.

So now Big Data isn’t quite the hype it used to be.

Now don’t get me wrong, some companies really did have big data and they figured out how to use it for their own profit and world dominance. Those companies are now what are currently referred to as Big Tech. At one point in the past 5 years it was reported that 70% of internet traffic ultimately went through Google and Facebook companies. Pretty much all information, including the manipulation of public opinion is now controlled by big data algorithms.

"I'm so informed," we all think think, unaware that our minds are being controlled by big tech advertising algorithms.

So unless you work in “Big Tech”, your company probably sucks at gathering, organizing, and manipulating data in any meaningful way. Your data is likely scattered across a bunch of poorly structured databases and you’re just trying to put it all together by begging people to run one-off queries so you can manually create your own excel spreadsheets.

“Can you please run that one query for me?” you sheepishly ask an engineer every Monday during the daily standup. The engineer rolls their eyes to make sure it is understood how inconvenient this request is. You are then given a lecture on how all these requests are not part of their sprint tasks and how these need to be considered as part of their total available capacity. The rest of the dev team nods in agreement.

“Tada!” the engineer says after he takes 10 seconds out of his busy day to run the query. “You made me late for my ping pong match,” he scolds.

That engineer vows to play an extra game of ping pong today to mentally recover from all the hardships you have put him through.

This is the world most of us operate in…

…we are the fledgling group of small-tech small-data misfits…

So what do we do about the magic trick. Remember, you are definitely expected to make data driven decision even in the face of a complete data dearth. You will never be able to win in the arena of ideas if you can’t back up your ideas and priorities with data.

I like to imagine product ideas as a WWE match.

“And in this corner we have a business executive with mighty industry experience, business muscle to make any decision he wants, and a mean corner office with a fridge full of Bubly Sparkling Water.”

“And in this corner we have a product manager with the strength of a JIRA login, no data to support any of his ideas, and he works in a 3 x 3 cubicle on an IBM ThinkPad.”

This fight would be like Hulk Hogan vs. Pee Wee Herman.

If you don’t know who these 80s references are, then it would be like Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift. I mean, seriously, what is poor Taylor going to do?…

…write a revenge song about how unfair life is.

“My castle crumbled overnight
I brought a knife to a gunfight
They took the crown but it’s alright”

Little did you know how much you have in common with Taylor Swift. Competing in the ring of product ideas without data is like bringing a knife to a gunfight…

… or giving a weakass speech at the MTV Music Awards.

So here’s the lesson. First, there’s no excuse for not having data, and you have to do whatever it takes to get it. It is very unlikely that it will be presented to you in a tight little package with a pretty bow. It’s going to take work. Nobody else is going to know how to get the data and you are going to have to perform a magic trick.

Here are just a few of the problems you are trying to answer:

  • Am I prioritizing the right value for our customers?
  • Am I positioning the product effectively in the market?
  • Am I meeting the companies financial and business goals?

Primarily this data will come from doing the hard work of talking to people and gaining insights from the real world, talking to people inside the company to understand the company’s business model and strategic plan, and talking to people to stay on top of general tech and market trends. In other words...

...don’t just be a nerd who stares at an excel spreadsheet.

Do these hard things and build your product ideas on a solid foundation of data and you will have much greater chance getting past the Dennis Nedrys of your company.

“Tada!” you’ll exclaim.

And who can argue with a miracle they can’t explain?