Graham Reed

We’re going to talk about the great tech cull of 2023, which is shaping up to be a big feature of 2024 as well. 

We’re also going to discuss how product operations is positioned to support businesses to be more efficient, effective, and focused on delivering great products and services during this time. 

Graham Reed 

People who work for tech businesses have been hit really hard by redundancies over the past 18 months.

We've also had big tech firms experimenting with product managers, some of them reducing, some eliminating, and some rebranding what they call product management. The role of product management as a whole has been hit really hard and has also been the slowest to be backfilled. It's been a bit of a perfect storm over the past two years. 

What's your take on the impact of the last 18 months and what you've seen?

Antonia Landi  

I've recently started offering free coaching sessions to people who’ve been out of work for over a year. The demand has been somewhat overwhelming, but I try my best to speak to as many people as possible.

From listening to their stories, it's very clear to me that the layoffs from 2023 are still ongoing. That's something that's arguably now reducing or somewhat in the past because it is a great reduction in the number of layoffs. However, many of the people who got laid off a year ago or more still haven't recovered. 

We're in the midst of figuring out what product ops really is, and now we're in the midst of refiguring out what product management is. Companies are trying to figure out how to become profitable and how to reduce costs, and all of these things are culminating. It's having a very real effect on people who up until recently were mainstays in the industry.

May Wong 

The thing that hits me the most is when people tell me about the state of their mental health. We spend so much time associating ourselves with our work. You spend eight hours a day, five days a week working. It's a huge part of our lives. In fact, 20% of our adult lives, including sleep, is spent working.

In product, a lot of us feel like our work is actually quite meaningful, and all of that value is suddenly pulled away from us. So, what do you do with it? 

It's hard watching these incredible people not be able to find something else that pays the bills. I know someone who went from being a PM and is now working in a bakery because he needs to pay the bills. 

It's really hard to be able to figure out what it is you want to do when you have all of these societal pressures on you as well. 

In terms of the job market, I do think it's recovering. I'm seeing a lot more job postings and people moving on to new roles, which means the shuffling is happening again and people are taking that risk to apply to different places. 

A lot of people who told me in the past that they were stuck in various roles have moved on to new roles, which I'm really happy about. So, there is that slight spark of optimism again, and I really want to encourage people to cling to it a little bit,

Antonia Landi

I do think you're right. I think that, especially in product ops, we’re seeing more roles. However, there’s varying quality in those roles. Some of the job postings say, ‘You need to know SQL. You need to do some customer service. You need to do third-level support. You also need to be a trained PM and Scrum Master, and you need to have three years of experience in all of these things.’ 

What kind of person are you actually looking for? This sounds like four different roles rolled into one. 

Yes, we’re seeing more roles, and those roles are legitimate. But it's a very strange dynamic where it's 100% an employer’s market right now. And especially as a job seeker who may have been on the market for months, if not longer, at some point, you get desperate and you need to agree to whatever you can find just so that you can stay in this industry.

Graham Reed 

2023 was a very good year for product operations as a whole, maybe not for people in the roles, but certainly for the role as it's starting to settle down. I think it's started to settle on far fewer pillars.

One of those areas on that particular job post you mentioned, Antonia, was around first-line support and triage for incoming problems, and almost universally, everybody we've ever spoken to has said, “That’s not product operations. That’s something different.” 

As you said, it is absolutely an employer’s market for new roles. They’re dictating exactly what it is they want and need as a role to be filled, and just lumping it all into the guise of product operations.

Antonia Landi  

I feel the same about 2023. At the end of 2022, I wasn't 100% confident saying that product ops would stay. I wondered whether we’d just get rolled back into product management responsibilities, but 2023 gave me confidence in product operations. 

But now, as you say, companies are dictating what product operations is, and a lot of people are just using it as a collection of whatever everybody else doesn't want to do. And that once again, worries me a little bit.

May Wong 

It’s a miscellaneous bucket, and it's kind of how most people ended up here, having done all the miscellaneous stuff and realizing that this could be a job. 

When you get there, though, you realize that you need to make this a real job and I think this needs to come from product leaders. They need to realize that this work is a part of their work that no one has time for.

Why product ops is a misunderstood function

Graham Reed

One of the fundamental things about product operations is that it’s there to help support the business, but as it has continued to be defined, there’s a very distinct value that it offers to businesses. For me, that’s at a strategic level, being that strategic partner to leadership, having an amount of authority over product teams to go and do what's necessary, and not be bound by silos. 

The level of maturity and confidence needed to talk to people without being biased towards product or against product, takes an amount of experience regardless of who and what you are, not just in product but across the board. 

So, it doesn't feel like this is a junior role, which is against some of these roles and job descriptions that we’ve been seeing recently.

Antonia Landi 

There are junior product ops roles. It's not like we're saying that you have to have been a product leader for X number of years in order to break into product operations. But you need either an established team of product ops people, or you need to have a product leader who’s very serious about making your product ops role a success. 

That's the difference.

We’re seeing this bucket of miscellaneous things that people call product ops, but the difficulty is that product ops is malleable, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's at the service of the product organization and the users at the end of the day.

But these trends are doing us a disservice because you’ll hire people who won't be able to do all of the things you want them to do. You’ll have really strange expectations of what product ops is there to do, and then it’ll fail. You’ll have a bunch of organizations going, “We tried product ops, it was garbage.” And they’ll just go on continuing to think that product ops is useless. And that's what I'm worried about. 

May Wong

Many years ago, someone was telling me about the role of a chief of staff. That person told me there are three types of chief of staff. 

The first one is an executive assistant. They book meetings, make sure your calendar’s free, and push away annoying people. 

The second type of chief of staff is like the first one but elevated. You get to start making some decisions. It's closer to a people ops/HR role, where you start looking into different things but you're still very much in an administrative position. 

I think that role is where a lot of junior product ops tend to be. 

If you know what a chief of staff is and you're hiring for one, those tend to be people who are asking, “How do I change this organization?” 

I think the key word here is ‘change.’ You bring in product ops people to change things. If you want an admin person, they’re a lot cheaper, go hire them. We’re expensive for a reason.

Graham Reed  

Some of these overflow-type tasks are fine in isolation if that's what the business needs. If it's a temporary arrangement or something that needs improving, that overflow isn’t there by design, it's something that needs improving so we don't have that overflow. That's perfectly fine. 

No one in the world would say that product ops is above that or that it’s beneath product ops to solve and to help. Not at all. But for me, it always comes back down to that experience. That experience is needed there. 

People can absolutely come in and learn product ops and move up the ranks, but the function of product ops does need that amount of experience to go with it. 

The 3 qualities to measure when evaluating product operations
There’s a core set of skills that product operations roles can be measured by. These skills can be an effective way to evaluate candidates when hiring for product operations. Let’s go through the framework for this…

Leveraging product ops for business resilience and growth

Graham Reed

Where does product ops help best in businesses that are watching the pennies?

May Wong

I tend to think about it like a mathematical formula. If you think about individuals working in a company, if there’s absolutely no management, they do their thing and it's all over the place. You eventually get to this steady state. 

You bring in product managers and they say, “Let's focus in this direction. Let's build a strategy. Let's align.” 

So, everyone starts working in a similar direction and you start getting some growth. But eventually, you hit another steady state. Maybe it keeps going up a little bit because you're still working together. 

When you bring in product ops, you say, “We're not  just looking at the work that we do in that direction, but also, how do we improve the ways in which we work together?” 

So, it's like a second-order impact on the rate of change that the PMs and also the individuals can provide. Instead of just saying the PMs are leading the strategy or the leadership is leading the strategy, you’re now bringing everyone together and figuring out what makes sense for that organization. 

You're going to get peaks and valleys, and if you have a layoff, it's going to go down a bit because all of a sudden you're changing the way you work again because the people you have have changed. 

So, in terms of a mathematical way of interpreting what product ops does, instead of linear growth, you're looking at more of a quadratic or higher-order growth curve as an impact.

Antonia Landi 

The great irony is that during a layoff, that's when you need product ops the most. You’re reshuffling teams and taking chunks out of your organization. People no longer have this coherence they've built up simply because they’ve lost knowledge. This is exactly where you’d want or need product ops to be there to help you support and understand how you can move forward. 

Do you hire one more PM? Or do you hire a product ops person who’ll make all of your PMs 10% more effective? If you have four PMs, maybe that doesn't add up, but if you have 20 or 50, that's going to have more impact across the entire business, and I think that's what we're aiming for. 

To me, it seems nonsensical to stop focusing on product ops at a time when everything is so in flux.

Graham Reed

You've both said it so well. In that redundancy, everything is thrown out the door. 

In my last role, for example, we went from nine product teams down to two. I can't sit here and justify two product teams in a business that’s lost 60% of its staff. Is product ops still vital if you're watching the pennies? In that situation, I can't say that with all honesty. But I think that’s because the business has scaled back down to startup-size numbers. 

When did product ops have the best value? It depends on the business and what it needs. But if you're ever looking for those numbers, it's probably at that scale-up size stage where it fits best. They've just tipped over from startup to scale-up, you’ve brought new people in as opposed to lost them, and you're looking at 5-7 teams.

If you've gone into that stage, that's where a lot of that change has happened, and you're bringing in new people with new ideas. Of course, if you scale back down to well past that stage, maybe that's not the most important thing, especially when you're looking at your bank balance. 

It's that stability, and again, it’s that experience. Hopefully, someone with a good level head on them can help right that ship.

At the end of the day, product leaders are going to have a hard enough time dealing with the fallout of what's just happened without having to continually think about all those logistics that still need to happen in a business.

Antonia Landi

It genuinely makes me angry because you’re in a position right now where you need to do more with less. That's why you need such intense alignment and strategic direction. 

Why are you not investing in this right now? This should be your top priority, examining how effective your organization is and optimizing for that as much as possible, so that you deliver continuous value to your users in a way that works for your business. And you do it more cheaply than you did it a year ago, two years ago, or even three years ago. Why is this not something to invest in?

Graham Reed

Is that because in a crisis, people refer it to type or what they know? As opposed to looking at this as an opportunity to go, “How can we be more efficient?” Or, “How can we continue on this line and ride this wave a little bit.” 

As opposed to people referring it to type and going, “Right, let's slim down everything we need to, but we need people on the ground. We need the developers and the engineers coding, and we need the product managers fully focused on delivering, and everyone just needs to focus on all of that.” 

Is that is that part of the problem as well?

May Wong

Any time the size of a team changes by 40%, you have an entirely different company. Forget the team, the whole company has changed now. And you’re not just cutting one team by 40%, you're almost always cutting support, the agile team, and design. Let's face it, those are the teams that get cut. 

When those teams get cut, everyone else has to change how they work. And who does that restructuring? Corporations invest so much in growth.  When we scale back, it's a huge amount of change. Your strategy has to change now because your organization has changed. How you align yourself and how you make decisions has changed. Everyone is also depressed because they're thinking, Am I next? 

All of these things add up, and you suddenly have a very difficult organization to work in. And if you're trying to squeeze productivity out of those who remain, you're not going to get any productivity out of them.

I think product ops has the greatest opportunities in great times of change. I'm framing it that way specifically because any time I've been able to get anything huge done, it's because there was a crisis, and you can leverage it to make something else or everything else a little better. 

If there’s a layoff and you keep your product ops person to figure out the layoff, you're probably not going to have that job for very long. You get everything back on track, and then the time of change is over and it's back to steady state. 

I think it's worthwhile thinking about whether you should keep the product ops person on a little longer, but they're also probably figuring out that they're up next soon. So, it's a little bit of that dynamic, but most of us do things because we want places to work a little better so the employees are less frustrated.

Antonia Landi

This opens up an interesting question about whether product ops should be done fractionally or in the interim. Is there a scope to have somebody two days a week or for six months? Or is there scope for somebody to guide an organization through a transformation for a year and then bow out? 

This is something that we’re exploring in product ops, but at the same time, we’re also reverting to old patterns. Product ops is a luxury. Research has become a luxury. UX design, to a certain extent, has become a luxury. If you go down to the bare bones, you need a CEO and some engineers. Everything else, to a certain extent, has become a luxury.

We've even seen it in product management. People who still have their jobs no longer have time to focus on things like user research and discovery. They’re now just delivery machines, just like most other people who got to stay behind. 

It's a very interesting but huge discussion of what we're seeing in the market and how organizations are behaving. Where does this leave us? Where does this lead us? 

So many people have been laid off in the last 16-18 months. There are just not enough jobs right now. So are we going to be working in bakeries? Are we going to be pivoting out of tech because that bubble has burst? There are so many questions on the horizon right now, and we find ourselves in the middle of all of this, It's tough to tell what the next 12 months have in store for us.

Product ops is critical to fixing silos

Graham Reed 

I think that product ops is more needed than ever. If you’re going to change the way that your business operates, if you’re going reduce your workforce on the tech side of the business permanently, you're going to still demand the same level of outcomes and outputs, or at least an adjusted version that probably doesn't marry up with the workforce that you've actually got. 

So, what do you do with it? How can we be more efficient and effective in what we do, what we produce, and how we produce it? That's product ops 101. 

So, I really do believe that in this time, there’s an even greater need to use product operations people to augment your new reality within your business, rather than just trying to cobble it together and revert to type.

May Wong  

I think a good way to decide if you need product ops is, do you ever use the word ‘silo’? 

If so, that means something is intrinsically broken about the way you work together. Scaling down doesn't help with that unless you go below 50. 

There's a magic number in an organization, around 50 to 70, and when you get to that number, everything breaks. When you get below that number, any conflict can be solved with one or two conversations. Above that number, you have much more need and maybe a slight hierarchy, but it needs to be a little more intentional. 

If you're dropping below that 50, unless you're extremely dysfunctional, you might need some help. But generally speaking, good leaders can make it work. Above 50 is where it gets messy, and above 100, there should be someone doing this kind of work. 

A thing that I often tell PMs when they ask me what I do is, “You probably do some of this work, but it's non-promotable work because it's not a part of your job.” 

It's not recognized, even though a lot of it is actual leadership and change management. but you don't get recognized for that work. So why should you do it? 

I think it's important to recognize the work that we do, and if you don't have product ops, someone is doing product ops, and if people who aren’t specialized in product ops are doing product ops when you need them to be doing something else, then you're not efficient.

Antonia Landi

That's such an important point. If somebody is doing product ops in your organization, but also this reverting to type, they’re saying, “Well, product ops is a luxury. We'll just have our product leaders do it. They've done it before, it's a leadership thing, they have all the agency they need, let's just have them handle it.”

But then you get into situations where an initiative that would’ve taken two weeks to start testing takes over a quarter, and then we're back to this efficiency problem. 

Yes, of course, you can get other people to do this stuff. It's not rocket science. If you have enough product management experience and you're a decent leader, you’ll be able to do these things, but you also have a different full-time job that’s very important.

We see organizations meander through this necessary change, and people are saying, “Yeah, we'll have somebody look at it. I didn't have time this week. I'll look into it next week. I spoke to some tool vendors and, they'll send me a demo. I forgot to follow up.” 

And then it's the end of the quarter and nothing has changed. You're in exactly the same position you were three months ago, except you're now even more frustrated.

Product ops is the lowest priority elephant in the room

Graham Reed 

Product operations has always been a thing. The function and the things that we look after have always been here, and it’s always been the responsibility of product leadership. But it's never had the attention that it needs, which is why eventually product operations has become its own role over the last five or six years. 

So, it's very interesting, the idea of putting it back onto product leadership because they were doing it for a while before. No, they weren't. The fact is that this was always being missed. 

What we're saying is that we’re no longer valuing the efficiency and effectiveness that product ops professionals bring to a business, and also the sheer function of it is now secondary to continuing to pump stuff out the door to keep earning money as quickly as possible. 

But what's the effect of that? 

The role of product leaders fundamentally doesn't change. They're still scrambling around with the vision and the strategy. They may now have to be more hands-on than they were before. They're still having to deal with an ever-increasingly frustrated board and C-suite team.

We know full well that all of this stuff is a full-time role in itself. So, their role hasn't changed and the demands on them have gone up if anything. So, where is the time that they can now go back and do all of this stuff when we've merged this role back into them? It's not there.

3 signs your team is in need of product operations
The role of product ops is easiest to understand when looking at the lifecycle of a growing tech startup. Many startups build their product teams by starting out with one or several product managers.

May Wong

The way I describe the role of product ops when I'm trying to sell it or explain it to product leaders is that a product leader has five jobs, and they can all be full-time jobs if you want them to be. 

The first one is people management. 

The second one is product strategy, making sure your people are doing the right thing in the right direction together.

The third one is stakeholder management, up, down, and sideways. That could be 20 jobs really. 

The fourth one is higher-level strategy. You need to make sure your group is still relevant in the context of the higher-level strategy. The higher-level strategy might not exist, so you might need to be the person who leads the formation of that. 

And the fifth job is, how does my team work together? 

Out of those five things, what is the lowest priority? I always say that product ops is the lowest priority elephant in the room. If you deal with the elephant, everything's going be so much better, but it’s never a priority. 

So, investing in product ops is saying, “I‘m going to invest in dealing with this elephant and make the elephant work for us, work with us, and make everything happen.”

If you talk to any PM, they’ll tell you how frustrated they are, especially in places without product ops. There's a reason why 66% of senior PMs in the US want to quit their jobs. That's an insanely high number for a job that pays so well. 

And it's so expensive when a PM leaves because training takes at least three months if not six to learn that market context. Hiring takes even longer sometimes and takes time out of your day, so retention is important. 

Product ops make people a little happier so they stay a little longer. Imagine how much money you'd be saving if your average tenure went up by six months across the company.

Graham Reed

Product operations must pay for itself in that respect. If you have the capacity to help product folks be more efficient at their role just to retain those staff at a difficult time, that’s real money-saving there. The cost of hiring somebody else and retraining is many thousands of pounds.

Antonia Landi

I almost feel like we have a little chip on our shoulder because we keep telling folks it's hard to measure. I think that's something to be challenged. 

It's also important to remember that even in product ops, there’s a wrap-up phase. Training a product manager takes three to six months. Now, imagine training somebody on the unwritten, unspoken rules of your organization and then asking them to change that. That's going to take time. 

We should be spending at least the first month just speaking to folk and not even trying to form opinions. Just observing and taking things in. 

Yes, there’s a return on investment with product operations, but there is a ramp-up phase. Let us arrive and not start breaking things as soon as we get through the door, because nobody wants that at the end of the day.

Graham Reed  

I've spoken to so many product ops people who say exactly the same thing. What does your first 90 days in product look like? It's very easy - discovery. You're talking to as many people as you possibly can. 

In that first month, you don't do anything. Depending on the size and complexity of the business, your first quarter could mostly be filled with talking, understanding, gathering, and analyzing your feedback. One team could tell you something, but what impact is that going to have on other areas or the whole business? 

You need that very broad vision of the company, what it looks like, and how it operates, and that can be very complex at times, so you don't go in and change all this stuff. 

That's sometimes a little bit difficult for businesses to accept, especially in times like this. Yes, I could start making changes on day one, but that's not going to be sustainable or a good way to approach this. Product operations is a longer-term investment in your company. 

May Wong 

When I talk to product leaders about how we’d work together, I say, “Well, I’d partner with you to get to the vision that you want to build. You have a team, your team is working towards that vision. let's get there faster. Let's figure out how we do this better. What are the obstacles in the way to getting to your vision?”

Most PMs want to do their job, so let’s let them do their job. How do we get there? 

It's that partnership that lets the product leaders focus on the really important things that they do, and the teams focus on the really important things that they do. It's all the little things that come together that help things make sense, bring clarity, and help people learn about their market in their context. All of those things come together. 

That's what builds that organizational culture. We don't talk enough about culture when we talk about product ops. I firmly believe that culture is what people do on a day-to-day basis. Culture is what people actually do and how people react to certain situations. 

So, if you build the culture in a way where these particular teams work together, and if they have a conflict, we train them to figure it out themselves or do a retro on it, and figure out how they work better together. We have managers to help facilitate these interactions, and sometimes you have to move people around. But how do these bigger teams work together? 

That creates a structure that's a little bit more organic because we're all humans. You bring humans together and it gets messy. In a way, we're pretty cool with messy. 

Also, people who ask, “What’s your framework?” There is no framework. Humans come and go and change. All of these things come together to make things complex, and you have to embrace it a little. 

Graham Reed

I love what you said; culture is a massive thing. Product operations is so much around the people that you're working with. There's as much psychology and core change management concepts in terms of what we do. 

How is an individual going to react to the changes that we're putting forward? How can we help them individually? How do we help teams that might feel worse off through something that we're going to go and do in this context? How are we going to help these teams that have just been impacted by a massive change in the business? 

We need to understand a little bit about their mindset. On an individual level, how is one person feeling about this versus others who would be usually really up for improvement and change? 

We have to adapt to those circumstances, and a framework is notoriously very unflexible for that. 

Alignment is the top priority in times of crisis

Graham Reed

Is there anything that product ops would look to focus on in a time of austerity, big change, and redundancy? Would there typically be anything that we’d focus on to help that business? 

Antonia Landi 

Broadly speaking, it depends on what the business is struggling with at that moment. But after a big upset like mass layoffs or even an acquisition, the top priority is alignment. It's making sure we’re still going in the right direction and we're all going in the same direction. 

That's also why we can’t just put product ops on the plates of product leaders in that situation. They need to give us that direction, and then we’re there to amplify it and build it into the systems that are already in place. 

May Wong

In a world where things are changing, there's so much strategy work that needs to be done. If you've just lost 15% of your team, your roadmap is changing, and you're going to need to tell the sales leader or the CEO that they're not getting that feature they wanted. You just lost 15% of your delivery capacity, so what does that mean? 

You have to focus on the stakeholder management, the change in the higher level strategy, and the change in your portfolio strategy. You don’t have time to figure out how your team is doing right now. 

At the end of the day, your people are the people doing the work, so people management is the first job, and you have to do that work and you can manage them and make them feel better, but the alignment piece between your strategy and the actual work they're doing is still a giant gap.

People are struggling to figure things out. “If my Scrum Master has gone, what do I do now?”

How much time are people spending trying to figure out what to do now that everything has changed?

We've lost everything about how we work together. If you’re slimming down for efficiency reasons, you have to invest in rebuilding that efficiency so your smaller team can still at least deliver something.

What does 2024 hold for product operations?

Graham Reed

What do you think 2024 is going to hold for product operations?

Antonia Landi

I think we might see a democratization of product operations where product ops specialists might not necessarily be doing the product ops work, but I think we've done a good job of amplifying our role in 2023 and helping people better understand why it exists and why it's important. 

Investing in product operations is investing in your people, investing in their happiness, investing in their well-being at work, and investing in their careers. I think this is something that we need to remember and keep holding on to as the year progresses.

May Wong

I’m choosing to be optimistic. We're mostly realistically optimistic because oftentimes, we go into companies that aren't perfect. There's no such thing as perfection because markets change, people change, and products change. 

I think that there are lots of opportunities for people doing the work of product operations, not necessarily a full-time dedicated person, but at the end of the day, if you need massive change, you need to bring in someone who knows how to bring about massive change safely.

If you're going through an agile transformation, you need to bring in someone who knows how to do that change on the product side, not just the development side, because that's what a lot of that focus is on. 

Are you trying to figure out how your company works together? Then you probably need someone to do that work because you don't have the time to focus on it. Let's be completely realistic. You need to invest in that organization if you want people to be a little more efficient, be that a short-term consultant, a permanent employee, or an entire team to help focus and build that craft. 

It's also important to recognize what it is that you want to build. I talk to a lot of product leaders and I say, “What’s your vision for what your team looks like a year from now?” 

Most of the time, they’ve never even thought about that because they think about the vision for the product and the strategy. But the team that builds it is also part of that equation. 

So, think about what you want to build, and if you don't know how to get there, you probably need someone who knows how to get there. And if you have the funds, then great.

Check out the full episode to get all the deets on product ops and the recent swing of layoffs.

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