[Podcast] Balancing Discipline and Agility in Product Management

Jeremy Johnson

Agility

Jama Software’s VP of Product Development, Jeremy Johnson, was recently a guest on The Product Launch podcast, hosted by Sean Boyce. In this episode, Balancing Discipline and Agility in Product Management, Johnson and Boyce discussed the following topics:

  • The benefits of a non-technical background in being effective in product management
  • How understanding the functional areas of an organization will help you be a better product manager
  • How to perform product management effectively in a complex environment with a team
  • The importance of effective process in ensuring that product management is done well
  • How sharing responsibility on your product team can affect increase agility and consistency
  • The Jama Connect value proposition and how their customers benefit from using it
  • The importance of receiving feedback direct from customers
  • How to move faster in product development by being more thorough with your product design and testing process

It was a great discussion and we don’t want you to miss the important content that was covered. Below is a recording of the podcast, and an abbreviated transcript.


Balancing Discipline and Agility in Product Management with Jama Software’s Jeremy Johnso‪n‬

Sean Boyce: Hello, and welcome back to the Product Launch Podcast. As always, I’m the host, Sean Boyce, CEO and founder of NxtStep. I would like to welcome my guest to the show today, Jeremy Johnson. Jeremy is the VP of product management at Jama Software. Hello, Jeremy, how are you? And thanks for being on the show.

Jeremy Johnson: Doing well. Thanks, Sean. I appreciate it.

Sean Boyce: Absolutely. We’re excited to talk more about your expertise and product management and an expert level is such that you’re effectively managing currently at Jama. But before we get there, if you could fill in some of the background for our listeners to take us to how you became the VP of product management at Jama.

Jeremy Johnson: Sure, absolutely. So I think really as many, if not most people in product management, I really got into product management by accident. Came here more from a sales and marketing background, had interests since I was very, very young in technology, but didn’t take the typical path through engineering background which tends to be dominant. But got into product management, spent most of my career in product management and in particular product management in general and product management leadership that is. And came to Jama just about one year ago after spending about 12 years in enterprise environmental health and safety software. Really drawn to Jama for a few things. It was a good transition for me, really very interesting product, really very strong market position. And the interesting nuance with Jama is that we work with some of the most innovative companies in the world on their product development.

Jeremy Johnson: So we’re working with companies in aerospace, in electric vehicles, and medical devices and those kinds of industries, and we’re integrated within their product development process. So not only is there a very high level of engagement and satisfaction from a personal work standpoint with the work that we do at Jama, but from us, it feels like an extended family with all of these other companies that we have at least some part of their process to get these innovative products to market. So it’s a very, very interesting company and it’s a very interesting space. And so that really drew me to Jama. I have a personal interest in the automotive space and really brought me here just over a year ago. I was just starting to kind of match names with faces and things right when the pandemic hit. And so that added, of course, an interesting twist to this new endeavor. But it’s been an interesting journey and it’s really a fun place and an interesting challenge from a product management standpoint.


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Sean Boyce: Thanks for sharing your background. It’s interesting to hear you talk about it. And we’ve talked about this before, how you got into product management and I agree. I find the story is fascinating for where we all come from to get into product management. I feel like that’s also telling of the role. Really helps to round out the skillset per se. You had mentioned from a sales background as opposed to a more traditional technical or engineering background, if you will. I would be curious to hear your perspective on that a little bit as well too, because other people… This is a common question that I get quite a bit from aspiring product managers and existing product managers in terms of how important is it to have that technical expertise to be effective in the role.

Sean Boyce: Obviously, you’ve done quite well at it and you come from that sales background. It’s always been my perspective that, to me, one of the most important things a product manager can do is really capturing the essence of the challenges and problems of the customer and making sure that those problems get solved in the product. And I can only imagine that having a sales background can really help when it comes to those things because obviously you spend a lot of time interacting with customers. But anyway, I’d love to get your perspective on that topic because I know that one’s talked about a bit.

Jeremy Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. I think from a skillset standpoint, it’s certainly still beneficial to have a strong technical aptitude and still have a strong technical interest. But I definitely think coming from a sales background, if you’re a good, strong salesperson, any strong salesperson has to be able to listen to what the customer’s needs are. Has to be able to empathize with customers. Has to understand the process they go through. How do they make purchases? How do they go about their business? What are the things that keep them up at night? And those are a lot of the same core questions that product management has to understand and has to really ask themselves. Just the tool set that we have to react to those are different, right?

Jeremy Johnson: We have more ability to shape the product, see where the product needs to go. We’re in a sales background, you’re trying to shape whatever I can sell today, principally to the customer to fit that need. But I think the basic questions still stand. And so that’s really one thing that I think is key. And I even take it a step further in a lot of respects where I think the best product managers are ones that can see not only the customer, but can also see challenges through the lens of all of the different components of the company. So you understand, support and what they do. You understand how things go through finance, you understand all of these things that really ultimately impact the overall customer journey.

Jeremy Johnson: And from a sales standpoint, you tend to get that visibility, right? You work through the contracting process, you understand how leads come in through marketing. You understand some of the back office things when you have a challenge to work through with the customer. So having a very holistic view of the company, how you work and how you interact with the customers in more of that broad, again, that broad customer journey, that’s a very, very strong asset for product managers to have.


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Sean Boyce: I’m glad you mentioned it in that way. I don’t hear it said as often as it probably should be. You’re absolutely right. I’ve always felt very similarly to, as you described where I think effective product managers need to know enough to be dangerous with all of those various functional areas, because it’s not just about the tech and it’s not just about the customer, right? We’re doing everything as a team. All of those roles are important and they all play a critical role in order to make sure that everything’s kind of going to plan, right? And we’re bringing a great product to market and we have happy customers and the process is working. So it’s important to take a vested interest in all of these things. And the other way I describe it from time to time too, there’s always 50 things to be done at any given point in time, it’s a matter of figuring out, what are those top things and making sure you’re spreading the love around a little bit to make sure that you’re not leaving anyone in your team, even if it’s not your immediate team in the dark.

Jeremy Johnson: Yeah. That’s absolutely right.

Sean Boyce: Awesome. Next thing I was going to ask you about, what you alluded to as part of that response as well too was kind of the product development process at Jama, right? So you have a team of product managers under you. Curious to learn more about from the perspective of ensuring that product management is being conducted effectively as your team grows and becomes more complex and then also as you have a product as complex as yours as well too, which is a lot of moving parts, a lot of intricacies to it, a lot of variables, all these types of things. There’s a lot to have to manage and that’s at an even more significant level than just being a sole product manager within a small software team. So if you could talk to us a little bit about what your product development process is like and how you ensure that, that’s conducted effectively at Jama, that would be awesome.

Jeremy Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. And we definitely do have, I would say, some unique challenges or some unique things that we manage through. And I think some of that is pretty consistent with what a B2B software company looks like. And particularly when you work with large enterprise customers, that adds a layer. What I would say is kind of the third layer for Jama Software is most of our companies are highly regulated, they’re focused on safety, automotive customers that are looking at functional safety of their designs, medical device companies that are looking at the safety and efficacy and FDA compliance and things like that. And so we have to have a very rigorous process in order to best align with those types of companies. And so we still maintain that agility. This is said a lot, but I think it’s important to reinforce that for us, agility is a mindset and a philosophy, it’s not a process.

Jeremy Johnson: And so we have to have a level of structure and rigor in our process to make sure that we go through certain gates in research, calculating return on investment, making sure that we have strong alignment with our customer requirements. Make sure that the way that we’re developing and delivering is not going to be disruptive from a change management standpoint. So we have this uniqueness of customers wanting us to move fast, but not too fast. So the way we really accomplish that or part of the way that we accomplish that is really looking at how we actually physically separate our teams and the way that we work in some cases. We have a portion of our team that’s focused on things that necessitate a quick response. From a true process standpoint, they’re Kanban, and they still have that agility.


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Jeremy Johnson: They’re taking feedback in either from a quality standpoint or a small enhancement standpoint. And they’re working very, very quickly to meet customer needs and in a very more typical agile way, I would say. Then we have a portion of our team that is focused on larger roadmap projects. And that’s really where we get into this level of rigor, where we have a fairly strong, structured process from a research standpoint, calculating the return on investment based on customer interest and the cost of that investment. We go through gates with the chief product officer and these get formally approved and put on the roadmap. And there’s various measurements and tracking very closely the progress on those projects. I would say for some people that would come into that environment, probably drive them crazy. And there’s a lot of rigor and a lot of things we watch. But again, because of this type of company, because of these type of customers, excuse me, it’s really necessary.

Jeremy Johnson: They expect that. They frankly have that level of rigor in their business. And we have to align as close as possible with the way they expect things. All the way down to our processes are actually ISO certified to the same standard that, for example, our automotive customers use for functional safety. So we’ve gone and gone through the process that’s audited regularly. We have a compliance department in our product development team that helps us and ensure alignment of our release process. So it’s tremendously rigorous compared to somebody that truly has that agility. Now, the balance though continues and particularly from my team is looking at continuing, how do we innovate? How do we find things that we can deliver to customers quickly? How can we adapt the product in that fairly rigorous environment? And so it does put an additional level of… pressure’s probably not the right word, but responsibility on the product management team.

Jeremy Johnson: And we’re also fortunate enough to have a specific group for user experience and product design. And in my opinion, frankly, even today in 2021, that’s still an underutilized and under-appreciated discipline within the overall product group and in particular, enterprise software. And we ask that team to really do a lot in their research, working with customers, helping simplify things when we introduce them, helping really map out how we can incrementally deliver something that can add tremendous value to the customer when it’s delivered in whole, but do it in such a way that it delivers incremental value and doesn’t have the same level of change management concerns that would really disrupt our customers. Because again, they’re simply highly sensitive to that.

Find out more about balancing agility and discipline in the product development process by listening to the full podcast here.

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