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Hard Decisions – What it Means to be a Product Manager with Steve Gogolak

Hard Decisions – What it Means to be a Product Manager with Steve Gogolak

Editor’s note: In our Steering the Ship series, we chat with product leaders in various industries. Today, we’re sharing a conversation between Alex Fedorov, VP of Design at ADK Group, and Steve Gogolak, Product Manager of the Client Portal at Boston Private Bank. 

In this post, you’ll gain some of the best advice in the industry for product managers, courtesy of product guru Steve Gogolak. You’ll gain insight into 

  • Design, marketing and product tips and tricks
  • Managing many moving parts
  • Accepting compromise, and more.

Steve Gogolak is the Product Manager of the Client Portal at Boston Private Bank, where he manages the messaging of product functionalities and capabilities in tandem with the sales and marketing teams. Gogolak has blended his experience in marketing technology and operations with communication management to bring clear messaging and action to Boston Private.

What does it mean to be a product manager? Product management has pretty broad job criteria. For Steve Gogolak, the broadness is part of the gig. He breaks it down, describes the various applications and disciplines product management touches on and provides practical advice to anyone in the industry. 

What does it mean to be a product manager?

Gogolak works on specific interaction points of client-facing digital products and platforms. In other words, anytime a client touches a digital product, the product manager’s job is to capture that interaction, either qualitatively or quantitatively, and turn it into meaningful and applicable information. 

“My role is to manage the functionality and the underlying systems, understand the capabilities that they have, and then make sure that translates into the way that our marketing team articulates what those capabilities are.” Gogolak expands. Product managers not only need to know their users, but they also need to know their product’s purpose – what it does and why. They then need to communicate that effectively so the sales members, marketing team, and product customers can be on the same page.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. One of the difficulties, but also joys, of product management, is overseeing the extensive set of technology, integrations, and vendors. Coordinating every piece of the product that users don’t see “certainly keeps me busy,” Gogolak laughed. Especially when it comes to multiple product sets and services. The “ecosystem” of Boston Private’s products, Gogolak says, means many products have specific use cases and functionalities that also intersect. It’s easy to get lost in the woods as a product manager.

To stay organized, Gogolak recommends thinking of related products like a hierarchy. Start broad, then break them into categories, and then individual products. Not only will this help sales and marketing better promote the products, but it also helps the product team question and refines product offerings. The hierarchy technique keeps function, capability, and purpose front and foremost at all times.

Marketing Applications

It’s not uncommon for product managers to originate in marketing. In truth, product and marketing are highly related. Gogolak began in marketing technology and marketing operations, which means his mindset centered around systems, user experience design, user interfaces, and communication. Having a similar background is helpful in a product because it will allow you to consider how any particular message encourages or discourages a user’s digital interaction. Does this message result in the desired outcome? Is the message unclear?

For Gogolak, both marketing and product management involve “getting familiar with the company and the way that it works and what it does.” In both disciplines, you need to determine how to modernize communication and then use the underlying technology to help deliver the message and track results. In marketing, this may involve rebuilding the product’s website, altering the messaging strategy, or highlighting new functions. In product management, it’s about improving all of the digital interaction points once someone is a client. The work is similar, but the difference is in the lifecycle stage of the customer.

The common required thread for all product and marketing work, as Gogolak describes, is “the love and enjoyment in building new things, getting them out, and seeing how people like them. And then, working to continuously improve them.” Regardless of the product or brand you work on, in order to be an effective product manager, you need to enjoy the process of building, sharing, and reiterating. 

Research and Design Lessons

Like marketing, there are many lessons of design and user research that impact successful product management. But first, design means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To Gogolak, “fundamentally what design is all about is understanding what the true user need is, and then trying to understand what’s the way in which you can fulfill that [without] friction.” It’s not necessarily just beautiful interfaces, it’s about intuitiveness. 

Listen closely to user feedback. Whether that’s through support channels or even the sales team, you’ll soon find pieces of information that build up into guiding product directions. By analyzing trends, especially at specific user lifecycle stages, crucial points of friction can be identified. 

If the design is the sail on a product’s ship, user research is the compass. User research points to the horizon and says, “I want to go there,” design is a tool that can get you there. 

A significant component of design is in expectation setting. Users need to understand what to expect from a product more broadly, as well as with each interaction point. Design is what encourages a user to navigate a product correctly, and to ask yourself – what do users need to do and why? This lesson of design, Gogolak says, should “inform your overall product and prioritization.” Design helps you determine what task to accomplish next because it’s the most important thing to your particular customer base. For example, if there is a high number of dead clicks on a particular part of the product, this design insight can steer the priorities of the product team to address this and improve the user experience.

Design becomes important for a product again in dealing with a multi-vendor-based platform. The multiple vendors prevent product owners from having full control over the interface. As Gogolak previously mentioned, much of the product is seamlessly integrating various technologies and vendors, and to do that, design needs to create an intuitive flow even if you do not have control over every aspect from the ground up. 

How do you do this? According to Gogolak, it’s by “making the right choices about what to enable and what not to enable. And so from a design perspective, it’s a little bit of a different twist because you’re not necessarily starting with a blank canvas, you’re handed a bunch of stuff and you have to figure out what’s the best way to assemble it so that it makes sense and accomplishes the goal to get the user what they really need.” In other words, it’s taking lemons and making lemonade. 

Hard Decisions

A huge part of product management is making difficult decisions. A lot of the time, this means compromising and assigning priorities based on intuition and user feedback. Gogolak described, “you can intuitively understand, based on the population of the user base that this would affect and the frequency of the anticipated use, and you can make good judgment calls.”

Gogolak recommends having guiding principles on how to prioritize decisions, and to keep these handy when loud voices in the room may try to sway you otherwise. In particular, he recommends considering the following questions: Are we affecting a wide population on a frequent and important interaction? Could we realistically improve this? Is it specialized? How much value is this going to add relative to another choice? Clear guiding principles and questions can help determine where to allocate resources.

The second way to make hard decisions easier, according to Gogolak, is to have a system for logging all tasks, decisions, and priorities. It doesn’t have to be complex, but it can’t just be jotting down thoughts on a sticky note, either. Gogolak stresses the importance of staying organized so that you can produce the list when needed and apply a backlog grooming session with your principles in mind.

Analytics can help with this. Gogolak prefers to look at two kinds of analytics. One is user flow, like website analytics, where you try to understand and assess usability. The second centers around understanding utilization and penetration of features amongst the customer base. This involves determining how many specific users behave in a certain way, at what frequency, and at what sort of dollar volumes. In doing this, Gogolak claims, you can “assess the importance and value that each particular feature within your product brings to the user base.” And if you know what’s important, you will know what decision to make.

When it comes to build versus buy, Gogolak is a self-proclaimed skeptic of build. He recognizes the “siren song of build, that we can make it whatever we want.” But he knows it’s a lot more difficult than most people appreciate. With build comes maintenance. There’s management and documentation, support and training, and troubleshooting. Build often has hidden costs that do not get factored into the decision. 

Gogolak suggests caution. “The costs are pretty transparent when you’re going to go buy something because somebody is literally giving you a contract. The costs are very murky on the build side. And there are a lot of unknowns there. So if you can’t tell by now, I’m not particularly a fan of build, unless you’re truly ready for it. I think when you want to build your own stuff you can get a better outcome, but it’s a lot easier to get a worse outcome.”

On the other hand, choosing to buy often means compromises. It may be tough to find something that has enough configuration capabilities or an open architecture to allow you to build additional components. Product management decisions are not binary. Instead, Gogolak advises striving for intelligent decisions based on long-term goals. If your company is not the expert, trust the experts. Then focus on what you do best.

Once you’ve made your decision, regardless of what it is, you’re likely to be working within vendor-based constraints. And that’s one of the big compromises product managers have to make. With so many vendors, aligning timelines, coordinating, and integrating the pieces will require immense project management skills. Gogolak likes to bring more questions to the table here in order to clarify the process: What is the project scope? What are the roles and responsibilities? By bringing that project manager mindset into the product, you can better accept that there will simply be some aspects beyond your control, and you can do your best with what you have.

Tools, Tips & Tricks

In the broad role of product management, with all it’s interdisciplinary cross-sections and hard decisions, one of the simplest ways to improve outcomes is to find tools that work for you. For Gogolak and Boston Private, this is the Atlassian suite, including JIRA. According to Gogolak, “JIRA is great because it points you in a direction. What kind of project are you managing? Are you managing software? Are you managing a team? Are you managing a service? And it has these templates that help guide you in the right direction.”

But it’s not necessarily the tool that brings success, it’s how you’ve decided to use the tool. As long as you have some way to make your work visible, you’re already halfway there. The other half is learning how to effectively use the tool. Gogolak recommends focusing on how to categorize your priorities: this is broken, this is crucial, this is a nice-to-have. And once you can see and categorize all your work, you can better balance the scope and capabilities with the associated costs of your product.

Balance… sounds a lot like compromise. You’re not wrong. Gogolak admits, “you can never really get to a hundred percent of exactly what you want. And even though it feels like you should be able to, if you’re in digital products, if you’re in any products, the key aspect of what you can do is to figure out what compromises are you willing to make.”

Knowing what to compromise on is crucial. This is where tools and prioritization can again help alleviate that challenge. Gogolak recommends starting with an “appropriate” vision of what you want your product to be. Then, accept that you will inevitably run into limiting factors. Once you accept that, you can determine what you’re willing to compromise on to move forward, and what you can’t compromise on because it disrupts the integrity of the product. 

Gogolak reiterates: “You’re never really going to get to that one hundred percent perfect. And that’s okay. You’re going to get just as high a level of satisfaction if you get 95% of what you want, versus if you get a hundred. There’s not a lot of incremental satisfaction that goes into that last 5%.” 

We’re always on the lookout for the unsung heroes of product strategy. If you’re interested in sharing some hard-earned lessons, set up a conversation with Alex Fedorov, our VP of Design by reaching out here.

Steve Gogolak is the Product Manager for the Client Portal at Boston Private Bank. Boston Private brings together a full spectrum of wealth, trust, and banking services designed to give customers one trusted resource to help simplify and strengthen their financial life. Gogolak has a background in systems, user experience design and communications.