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Experience Design

Product Hero: Dr. Matt Poepsel, VP of Product at The Predictive Index

Product Hero: Dr. Matt Poepsel, VP of Product at The Predictive Index

Product Hero is our bi-weekly series to highlight outstanding members of the product management community. These industry leaders share tips on processes, team building, how to be a better product manager, and who they are outside of their careers. This week our product hero is Dr. Matt Poepsel, Vice President of Product at The Predictive Index.

Dr. Matt Poepsel is a seasoned Product Hero who is well versed in technology and business strategy. He’s connects those two disciplines together, translating business objectives to code to create powerful products. Currently, he serves as Vice President of Product at The Predictive Index, managing the company’s product roadmap. Matt taps into his customer base regularly, using a variety of research techniques to inject the voice of the customer back into the product. His dedication to the product world, ability to understand product intimately from business goal down to technology needs, and product roadmapping expertise makes Dr. Matt Poepsel our Product Hero.

I had the opportunity to ask Matt about his path into the product world, how he manages roadmapping, and his take on the industry. Below is a revised and condensed transcript of our conversation.

C. Todd: I am here today with Dr. Matt Poepsel, Vice President of Product at The Predictive Index, a workforce analytics company in Westwood, Massachusetts. Three million job seekers and employees complete PI workplace assessments every year, and more than 5,000 clients worldwide use PI’s software platform to hire, onboard, and develop people more effectively. Thanks for joining me, Matt. Can you tell me about your role?

Matt: Sure, C. Todd. My job to create and maintain the company’s product roadmap. For us, product is a combination of psychological science, technology, and the management workshops we deliver to thousands of participants each year. We have been in business for over 60 years, and we’ve had a technology-based assessment platform for over 12 years, but now we have an opportunity to really make some new investments in our core technology and in science. So it’s that forward-looking roadmap – trying to find the best ways to help solve more of our clients’ problems – that is my primary responsibility.

C. Todd: Tell me a little bit about the journey of how you got to The Predictive Index. How did you get into product?

Matt: I began my career with 6 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps, which was a great experience. After I separated from the Marines, I attended Boston University’s School of Management. I decided I wanted to study business and computers so I got my MBA and a second master’s degree in Management Information Systems. It was pretty funny because when I had pulled my resume together, at the very bottom I included that I had done some programming in ColdFusion.

I got a call from a recruiter looking for ColdFusion developers. I didn’t see myself as purely a developer, but I decided to go talk to them. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to have a balance in business and technology, as far as my day-to-day responsibilities, because I liked them both. When I showed up to the first interview, I explained that I didn’t want to write code full-time. The development lead needed a real programmer, so he suggested that I speak to the president of the company. We hit it off, and I took on a new role as a technical project manager for a software platform that they were improving. That was really my first foray into that translator role, trying to figure out what the market opportunity was, what the clients wanted, and what the technologists would end up building. Over time at that company, the project management title gave way to a true product management title, and I started to become more senior.

Then I became a director and I had a team of 3 or 4 other product people working underneath me. I got to do more product line management, and I started working closer with our sales teams. Eventually I ended up running pre-sales and post-sales consulting as well as product, and I was flying all over the world interviewing clients and helping support large deals and the sales teams out in the field. It was a really great way to see the market’s need all the way through to what would produce results to how it’s actually sold and distributed in the market. It was a really great education for me.

I’m very much at my best when I can be talking to clients, figuring out what their problem is, and then coming up with all of the solutions they’re going to implement.

C. Todd: It sounds a lot like a product market or marketing research role. You were out there listening to all of your customers’ needs.

Matt: Exactly, and definitely that research part of it more so than anything around writing copy or designing campaigns. I have working familiarity with the digital marketing landscape now, but I’m very much at my best when I can be talking to clients, figuring out what their problem is, and then coming up with all of the solutions they’re going to implement.

C. Todd: What’s your relationship with your users? How often do you go talk to them? How often do you use results from testing?

Matt: We have a couple different ways that we talk to clients, and we’re looking to enhance these and make them scalable now. We have thousands and thousands of people who use our software every day so it’s a very rich source of information for us if we need something answered. We also are fortunate that we have workshops that we run all over the world. So we can take that opportunity to take some of these learners who’ve come into our classrooms and ask them questions about the nature of their jobs or the problems they’re having, challenges, things that we’ve considered … they help us prioritize.

We also perform one-on-one client interviews. We have client volunteers who say, “We’ll get on the phone with you or we’ll get on a WebEx and talk about whatever product ideas you want.” So that’s what we call a front-end customer survey (FECS) process, and we’re just constantly looking to find ways to make it more scalable and get that customer voice free throughout all phases of our product development process.

C. Todd: How do you synthesize that information to pull out insights and feed them back into your product?

Matt: Yeah, we’re blessed to have a very open office space so we tend to use our walls a lot. We go through the feedback and we just pull all of the comments out. Then we’ll go through it. Luckily, we’re a psychological assessment company, so we have a lot of experience coding open text and doing lots of those types of techniques. It’s simple to draw the story out and then we’ll start to cluster similar comments and feedback points and try to really flesh the story out of the data.

C. Todd: How do you know what’s right? How do you measure the success of your product?

Matt: Ultimately, for our product, it’s all about adoption and usage. Are people going to take advantage of the tools we’ve provided? The biggest thing that we really want in terms of our mission is to help our clients make The Predictive Index cultural in their organization. This means that it’s used across multiple different phases of the full life cycle of employment from hire to retire, that it’s just as useful in the boardroom as it is on the front lines. There are lots of different techniques and ways to do that. Our product is a key way of making that happen. If it’s easy to use, if it’s a pleasurable experience, if there’s real insight that could be had, we have the opportunity to really change people’s lives at work. The product is really key to helping us do that.

C. Todd: How do you measure whether your product is easy to use?

Matt: A lot of times we’ll just collect anecdotal feedback or we’ll ask in the form of survey questions. We’d like to find a better way of doing that through watching user behavior, and we’re looking at some tools now to help us do that. Sometimes we’ll ask the question straight up as in, “How much do you agree with statements like this?” In terms of anecdotal feedback, after people have been using our software for a little while, whether they’re power users or novice users we just ask them point blank, “What was your experience like?”

C. Todd: How do you work with the product design team? What does the partnership look like amongst product design, development, engineering, sales and your third-party resellers?

Matt: Yeah, it’s interesting. The product team that I lead is made up of two primary components. One is a learning team of 3 people who design our workshops and all of our core curriculum, they produce materials, etc. Then we also have 2 people who are software people: one is focused on our internal business systems and one is focused on the external client-facing software. They serve as the product owners for those types of systems. The final person on my team is a translation specialist because we have 20 different languages that we support in the software, and as many as 80 languages that we support in terms of our assessments.

This core product team is made up of a series of specialists in different functional areas, but in terms of our relationship with the other groups, we definitely have a strong relationship with user experience. We have a User Experience (UX) designer who works with us on early concepts, and at each stage of the product development process.

I would also say that our software product owner in particular, she works most closely with our development team. We have a development lead and we have a series of other senior engineers who do a full range of front-end work through back-end work. We jointly work through the actual software development process through a series of agile sprints. Our software product owner uses all of the classic coordination techniques such as being well-versed in terms of the user stories and how they make their way through the development process all the way to the live production site.

The reason we publish a 15-month roadmap is that it recaps what we accomplished during the quarter prior.

C. Todd: You mentioned earlier that your job is to ultimately control the product roadmap. What role does product roadmapping play in your process? How often you do it?

Matt:  The role that the roadmap plays is to really show what our vision is of where we’re going. I think we’re doing some pretty innovative things in this space and to be honest, a lot of our competitors are not – they’re sort of stagnant by comparison. For us, the roadmap is really the culmination of how we expect to grow into our vision. We produce it once every 90 days. The first week of each quarter we’ll produce the latest version of the roadmap. It’s actually a 15-month roadmap.

The reason we publish a 15-month roadmap is that it recaps what we accomplished during the quarter prior. This is huge for us, because sometimes it’s hard to keep up with an organization that is moving very quickly. To answer the question, “What did we just do again?”, we include a 90-day in arrears of what we just delivered, and then we outline a forward-looking 12-month forecast as to what we believe we’re going to be able to deliver within specific time frames so our partners can be aware of what’s coming and make sure that they’re fully versed in that.

C. Todd: You’re one of the first people I’ve talked to that does a roadmap that includes 3 months of what you just did.

Matt: Yeah, and part of that’s because in our lifecycle of business right now, we’re changing very, very quickly. We’re making a lot of changes. The company was acquired just over 18 months ago and a new round of investment has meant millions of dollars going into our science and technology, so there’ve been a lot of changes. It’s very hard to keep track of all of the change so that’s why we included the 90 days in arrears, “Here’s what we just did,” just so we don’t forget, and we can see the connecting links between what we launched and what’s coming out and how this is growing us toward our long-term vision.

C. Todd: Can you share a story where roadmaps have been really helpful?

Matt: I’d say that at The Predictive Index we use roadmaps when we bring on some of our new partners and distributors because it’s a really great way to generate a lot of excitement about the vision that we have. It creates a lot of clarity and even pride that they’ve just joined an organization that is forward-thinking and is aggressive in terms of the problems we want to go attack. That’s been a very positive use of roadmap for a very specific audience, one that’s very, very important to us – people who have just made a decision to join our team. We really want to make sure we get them off on the right foot.

The roadmap is not produced for the sheer fun of making it. It has a certain purpose that you’re trying to accomplish with it.

C. Todd: What advice would you offer to an experienced product manager who wants to be even better?

Matt: The first thing is you really want to know the audience for your roadmap. The roadmap is not produced for the sheer fun of making it. It has a certain purpose that you’re trying to accomplish with it. I think knowing the audience: Who’s going to be consuming this information? What they are going to want to take out of it is really important? Those answers allow us to look at our roadmap and determine the boxes that we include and in which quarter different things are going to appear.

We actually added a second panel that accompanies the roadmap that says, for each of these items that you see, what are the goals behind it? What are the key features or capabilities that are going to allow us to achieve that goal? What are the metrics we’re going to use to measure whether we were able to achieve it or not? It was important to add that because internally we knew this stuff implicitly, we knew all of these things, but the people who were communicating the roadmap didn’t know those things, they didn’t have that knowledge.

We used a classic lean technique where we put together a roadmap prototype, and I added another section with this basic information in it. I showed it to key stakeholders  and I asked them, “Is this information overload for you is this actually helpful?”

I didn’t frame quite like that, but they basically came back and said, “This is fantastic because now we know exactly what’s coming, what it’s here to accomplish, how you’re going to measure its success, and how we can help be a partner to you in making sure that happens.” As a result of that positive test, we continue to include the second panel to this day.

C. Todd: What do you think is missing from the conversation around product management today?

Matt: I’ve found a ton of well structured research, guidance, and discipline around agile and scrum. When we went looking for stages earlier than product development, there didn’t seem to be as many generally accepted detailed frameworks of, “Here’s how to do it.” There are a lot of people with opinions and a lot of great writers and authors and bloggers who talk about the art of product management, but they just haven’t had as much … I don’t know, I guess it would be inertia. They just haven’t had as much of a movement that’s really landed. There are things like lean which as a concept is really being applied in a lot of different, interesting ways.

I just felt like it was a more of a, “Well, hey, write your own path. Here’s a bunch of Legos but there are no instructions, so go figure it out.” In the end, I think that’s probably a good thing because I think there’s more of an opportunity to tailor your own product management process to the needs of your market and to the maturity and stage and capabilities of your organization, but it doesn’t make it a very comforting thing to have to do as a product leader – to try to forge your own path.

I think as a young product person I would have really struggled to define, “Here’s how we need to do product here,” but I think having been a product person for so long, and now constantly thinking strategically about what we need to accomplish and then how do we set ourselves up from a capabilities perspective to do it, the self-authoring path is really important.

C. Todd: Do you have any daily or weekly rituals that help you set the tone for the day or week?

Matt: As a product team, we get together every day at 8:30 for a stand up meeting. Our business is moving very quickly right now, so that meeting is critical. It usually only takes about 15 minutes for the 3 product people to make sure that we’re fully versed in anything that’s changed over the last 24 hours. We enjoy that meeting because if we don’t have it one day for whatever reason, we feel a little out-of-touch. In terms of the other sorts of rituals, because we’re in the agile sprint process, we participate in all sorts of milestone meetings, whether it’s sprint planning or priorities or retrospectives.

Personally, I get in early to clean out emails that have come in from the international groups overnight. I catch up on what’s going on in our space to make sure I’m up-to-date. I use the quiet time before that 8:30 meeting to look at my calendar and prepare for the rest of the day. Before I leave for the day, I determine the five things I want to accomplish the next day. One of the things I like most about being a product person is that I interact with about 80% of our organization on a daily basis. It’s totally cross-functional, I feel I’m at the center of everything, and I would say product leads the way, and I like that very much. It also creates tremendous demands on your calendar. Choosing five things to accomplish helps me put focus in my day.

C. Todd: What do you like to do when you’re not in the office?

Matt: My home life keeps me very busy. I’ve got 3 kids who are all in high school, and that’s very time consuming. They’re very active. It’s funny, we actually created a Slack channel for our family because it was easier to communicate that way and take advantage of all of Slack’s capabilities. The #dinner-ideas chanel is my favorite. I also try to stay fit by moving my body every day. For the most part this means doing some light triathlon training workouts.

C.Todd: Matt, thanks for joining me and sharing all of your valuable knowledge!

Interview notes:

  • Advice for fellow product managers: know your audience at all times when creating and sharing your product roadmap. Keep them at the center of your process.
  • On product roadmapping: Matt and his team publish a 15 month product roadmap – 12 months of what is coming up and 3 months of what was just pushed live. Tracking those 3 months is important for his team to stay organized and focused.
  • Connect with Matt on Twitter and LinkedIn