What does the role of product ops actually look like? How has the role evolved over the past few years?

We sat down with Sloan Saunders, Senior Product Ops Manager at Evidation Health, a digital health company with a mission to empower everyday users to participate in healthy behaviors. Sloan took us through her journey with product ops; from starting off as a product ops analyst to being a product program manager and now hiring for her own team that she manages.

Here we’ve got the highlights from the Q&A, but if you want to listen to the whole thing, simply click below and enjoy all the insights. 👇

‎Product Ops Podcast: Lessons from over 5 years in Product Ops | Sloan Saunders, Evidation Health on Apple Podcasts
‎Show Product Ops Podcast, Ep Lessons from over 5 years in Product Ops | Sloan Saunders, Evidation Health - 25 May 2021

Q: What does product ops look like at Evidation Health?

A: We're actually at this really interesting and exciting growth phase where we're in the middle of moving from a startup to an enterprise-like operational function as a company.

Previously, the product ops organization was broken into three different areas based on supporting different types of studies. In other words, we have platforms we support as a product organization and the product ops function was broken by those product teams to support the studies or programs launched there.

We've now centralized the team, so we've moved from three separate teams to one central product operations team and we’re now focusing on how we can help our product scale and reduce friction in our development cycle by operationalizing how we develop product and how we launch studies on our product.

The transition from being siloed to specific product areas to then centralizing into one team and focusing on how we standardize and centralize processes is definitely a really exciting time for learning.

As we were growing as a business, the challenges we were facing as a company and trying to bring on more studies in an efficient way, we realized that how we were structured previously as a product team had to change.

Looking into the organizational structure and trying to identify where there were opportunities for improvement mainly came from asking ourselves “do we have a consistent central way of launching studies or programs on our platform” and a lot of that comes to where product operations drive a lot of value of the business right now. The solution here was to centralize and create one function and then try to work on how to standardize our operating procedures in a basic way so that we can efficiently launch our studies.

Our first mission right now is to bring consistency overall and throughout our product processes but there's a lot of opportunities for other things we need to focus on in the future.

Q: How did you get into your first role in product ops?

A: I started off as a clinical project manager for a small startup and I was helping a med device company launch or run through their 510(k) submission, which is essentially an FDA submission to get their med device proven for a certain indication of use.

I enjoyed it, especially the health care and medicine component, but it was very slow moving. I liked the fast-paced activity of tech but also wanted to continue to be grounded in my roots in healthcare so I was looking for something in the healthcare space.

There weren't a lot of digital health companies back then so I focused mainly on any tech startup where I could get some experience and understand how products are built and how product teams function.

Product operation seemed like the best fit because I love to understand how things work from an operational perspective so I found an analyst role, liked what they were doing, applied and I got it.

Q: Is there a reason why you haven't moved into product management and stayed in product ops?

A: When I first started in product operations, it was marketed as an entry role to product management. At first, I thought, well I like management so let's try that out, but as I've learned about the product operations role, I found that I'm operations at heart. I love to look at a problem and figure out how to solve it and make it more efficient or how to build something to scale and to incorporate and align with different stakeholders as well as finding ways to collaborate.

A lot of the core competencies or tasks you complete in an operational role interest me so the fact I can do operations with any product organization is the best of two worlds for me. I don't see myself, at least immediately, going into product management. I would love to help product operations become a role more people become excited about.

Q: Can you explain what a role in product ops initially looked like back in 2015?

A: The main function in my first role as a product operations analyst was to bring efficiency to the manual tasks we completed or process manual tasks we had as a company. In short, we had a system built purely or hypothetically purely on automation and each time the automation failed, we had to process these tasks manually to ensure the system was functioning appropriately. My role was to d analyze these manual tasks and figure out how we could  improve our ability to automate these tasks through process or through additional engineering resources.

I had a team of about four or five people but we were in an operations organization with many other product operations functions. There were about 1.6 product operations teams or six product operations managers with teams of about four or five so a very large team of product operations.

Being a part of a large team was one of the reasons why I came to appreciate product operations because the role was a common one in my industry or at my company at the time. We were trying to solve a lot of problems quickly and efficiently to help our company scale and support the activities and tasks we needed to.

However, every team had a different challenge they were trying to solve within a different area of the product. Solutions were not the same but the activities, the prompts or problem statements were relatively similar. All of the product operations functions reported up to the VP of operations so it was an operations organization that was separate from product but we had a dotted line to the product organization because we had to work closely with them.

Q: Do you feel that your roles and product ops have evolved over the years?

A: I was in this first role in product ops for some time and the problems and the solutions changed. I was able to get a little bit more of a leadership role as well. One of the things I found to be extremely helpful was to have close proximity to the product organization to drive some of these problems or solutions while also being aligned with the mission or end goal.

From there, I transitioned into a product program management role, which seems slightly different but looking back, a lot of the activities we were doing in that role were more aligned to product operations. We were supporting the product organization to support and launch some of our larger product forward programs so developing templates and introducing stronger communication and feedback loops. We were also focusing on how to bring more efficiency to our overall launch and development process and adding more streamlined processes there.

Although the role title was different, it was very closely aligned to a product operations role. When I was going interviewing way back, I found the titles can be hard to pinpoint what's a true product operations role if it doesn't have the product operations title. Pay attention to the job descriptions if you're going through hiring and also to the problems introduced during the interview process to get a good sense of if this role is similar to or a product operations role.

Q: Did moving from an analyst to a leadership role and then into program management help bring you to your current role or were there any other steps along the way?

A: When I was ready to find this digital health role, there were a lot of companies establishing themselves as strong leaders in the industry. I've always been fascinated with digital health, especially with my background in healthcare and medicine.

I came across Evidation Health through a recruiter who was trying to recruit me for another role. I was really excited by Evidation’s mission and the things they were doing and they were hiring for product operations so I found it to be the perfect time to throw my hat in the ring and thankfully was able to take the role.

In those roles, I have constantly had to socialize and advocate for why product operations is important. It’s an exciting challenge and there's a lot of ways you can do it. The role is constantly evolving over time so the narrative of what you're weaving to the rest of the business will change.

Q: What are some key lessons you've learned about product ops?

A: Product operations is a role that means something different for every company but the theme of what is product operations will remain the same. What a product ops role would look like depends on the state or phase in which your business is currently in and the problems you're trying to solve to get to the next phase.

Product operations should fit or sit under the product organization and focus on reducing friction within the product development process. These friction points can be defined differently for any other company and the role of product operations is to define these friction points and collaborate with the product team, whether it's product or product management or product design, to understand where these challenges are and work with the rest of the business as an intermediary to solve them in a successful, consistent and viable way.

In order to be successful in this role, you need to love solving problems and be able to navigate an ambiguous environment. Ambiguity is really important because to my earlier statement, product ops is constantly changing and it means something different for every role or organization. These friction points as they're changing mean that your role may also be changing so you need to be comfortable in that environment.

Q: What are the key challenges you're currently facing in product ops?

A: Something I’m currently facing in my role, and I would say it's more of an opportunity than a challenge, is the fact that there's still a lot of confusion about what product operations does vs. what product management does.

Being in a company that is a healthy mix of technical industry leaders, clinical regulatory and academic leaders is fascinating. It’s great to have this company with diverse people and backgrounds but the product operations organization and our role is very new to them because it's more of a tech-forward role.

This means that we’re constantly working with our team and our stakeholders to make sure that the role differentiation between product and product ops is very clear and that we understand and help to better socialize.

There’s an educational component of how we ensure the role makes sense to the rest of the business. From a leadership perspective, people know we drive value but how do we ensure that the people we're trying to help reduce this friction with have a common narrative of what is product operations.

It’s also an opportunity for us to be creative with how we achieve this and will be a constant thread that we're trying to pull on and resolve.

Q: What tools or resources have you found to be most helpful in navigating product ops?

A: There's so many tools out there it's hard to pick one. One of the problem statements we have is how to scale our product knowledge across the business and our product is in high growth. We need to have clear documentation and clear location or visibility into what the product does, how it functions and what are the capabilities.

We're leaning on some wiki or content tools. We have Confluence and Jira which are the main Atlassian products and they have been extremely helpful to build a source of truth the rest of the business can go to and can comment on asked questions as well as centralizing our product knowledge. If we create the right templates and the right way of sharing and maintaining this documentation, it then creates this culture environment of how we make our product scalable from a knowledge component.

Q: Why do you still enjoy this role and working in product ops?

A: I love that product operations is about bringing order to chaos, meaning:

  • How we look at all of the problems we need to solve, all of the things that need intervention or assistance.
  • How we prioritize.
  • How we define and how we ensure the things that need help get the help.
  • How we communicate with the rest of the business to come up with a solution that will be viable and that will fit the needs of everyone.
  • How do we navigate those different and sometimes difficult conversations to ensure we have a good sense of what the solution is.

I appreciate all this work and I enjoy knowing that my role will be different in a month or a year. Having a team I can empower and build to get creative and think through solutions in a way that may not be obvious and build up that way of operating as a function really fascinates me.

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