Product roadmaps are an extremely important tool for companies. Often times, the difference between success and failure depends on the quality of the roadmap – how thoroughly it’s been vetted, how well trade-offs have been handled, and how tightly coupled it is with the overall vision. Through my experiences, I hope to share with you my recipe for going from zero to roadmap in the first 3 and a half months of taking on the reigns as “CEO of the product”.
In my past experiences in product management, regardless of whether it was a young product being built in the wake of an acquisition or a growing product that had just broken into a mainstream market, it always seemed like I had walked in on a roadmap that was already planned and in motion for the next 6-9 months. I had great opportunities to influence it, but not to create it from scratch. I get the sense that this is a scenario that most product managers find themselves in when they join a new gig, unless you are one of the first product team members in the company. So the opportunity to build, or dare I say, craft, a roadmap from the ground up rarely ever presents itself.
I joined Platform9 a little over four months ago, to lead two of their young and soon-to-arrive products. Turned out, one of these products, Platform9 Managed Bare Metal, was a raw product that was waiting to find the right problem to solve. Great technology, and even better productization (nah, I’ll say “SaaSification”) of a popular open-source project (which is no easy feat). But there was no roadmap; the product had nowhere to go from here. No destiny. As a freshly hired product leader, I had the opportunity to take this product from zero to roadmap during my first quarter at the company, resulting in a vision and execution plan that the entire company is now not only standing behind, but also excited about.
The Journey To Crafting a Solid Roadmap
So what does it take to go from zero to solid roadmap? The trick is to keep it simple (stupid!) and not lose sight of the broader journey. At the end of the day, it’s all about solving hard problems for people and creating value. While there is no perfect path and certainly no one-size-fits-all approach to being successful at this, these are the steps that worked well for me in crafting a product roadmap for Platform9’s Managed Bare Metal offering.
Step 1: Wander. Listen.
Especially if you’re new to the company or organization or team or market, there isn’t much you can do with your intuition alone, no matter how experienced or smart you are. This is because there will always be contextual factors that you don’t know about. Keep your eyes and ears open, and talk to as many people as you can.
At Platform9, I started my first month talking to as many people internally as possible. This allowed me to learn from their perspectives and experiences, and also understand how I could get in front of customers and prospects quickly. Once I got those opportunities, I focused on listening, and frantically taking notes to make sure I recorded the users’ qualitative inputs, and more importantly, their lingua. This underrated trick has helped me time and again to break through in conversations with users and customers, since you really need to have a human conversation with your users and buyers in order to actually get meaningful feedback. Under the pretense of a “product idea conversation”, you will most probably fail the Mom Test and end up with a roadmap that guides the entire company towards a north star that doesn’t exist.
Step 2: Look for trends
Once you’ve listened carefully to a number of people, both internal and external, for long enough, it’s important to pro-actively shift towards a “trend-seeking” mindset. This is a mental shift. You started out wide, now you’re looking for spaces to go deep.
How do you know you’ve listened (i.e. gone wide) for long enough? No straight-forward answer, but my trick is to keep a tab on how often conversations and viewpoints are being repeated. When I’ve reached a point where different prospects are telling me a lot of what I’ve heard before, I keep an eye out to notice if I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Once you’ve recognized this situation, it is time to shift gears. For the next gear, the focus is not on absorbing every bit of information coming your way, but rather on taking a step back and identifying patterns in the data. Easier said than done? You bet!
I started noticing that the “bare metal management tools” market was extremely crowded and that most IT teams at large organizations were already aware of this, if they hadn’t tested some of the options out already. What I also started noticing is that most of these teams didn’t end up opting to use a tool for bare metal management, despite the plethora of options they were aware of. All of them expressed that it was annoying to manage bare metal manually and that “it would be great to have a tool that took away all of the overhead”. But that’s just it…. it was a nice-to-have. It wasn’t a pain.
Step 3: Evaluate “suspect trends”
A suspect trend is a trend that seems like it could be:
- true, and
- meaningful enough to matter.
You will most likely need to have multiple suspect trends being evaluated simultaneously because you have presumably given yourself a finite amount of time to finish this roadmap crafting exercise. The key is to continue listening, yet shift the focus to corroborating or disproving suspect trends.
My top suspect trend, as you may have guessed, was that pure bare metal management was a vitamin, not a painkiller.
Step 4: Product positioning
Positioning plays a big role in the determination of a roadmap. One of my big cultural takeaways from my time at Nutanix was to start by thinking about the end. What set of people is the product providing value to? What are their problems? How does your company’s WHY align with solving their problems? This third question is the most important of the lot. Once you have a final set of trends that have been vetted and validated, use them to find an alignment between your target market/users and your company’s WHY.
At Platform9, the company’s mission is to make it simple to deploy applications anywhere. They do this largely by providing a control plane to manage Kubernetes clusters in private cloud and edge locations. I noticed that the generic “IT teams who are managing bare metal servers” group was always aware of the plethora of bare metal tools available and their largely similar feature sets, and the conversations with them mainly centered around supporting capabilities that spanned a huge breadth of bare metal management problems. Our product never seemed to be enough, and we didn’t have the bandwidth to cover all of these use-cases. However, I also came across more modern IT teams who saw a ton of value in deploying Kubernetes on bare metal; they simply couldn’t do it because of how hard it is to manage. They weren’t looking to do feature by feature comparisons, they were simply looking for a service that could help them get more value out of Kubernetes by deploying it on bare metal, and they hadn’t found one yet. Bingo. This was not a vitamin use-case, this was pain.
So through a positioning exercise that I began describing in a previous article, I narrowed the positioning of the product down to a service that makes deploying Kubernetes on bare metal seamless. Deploying Kubernetes on bare metal. These five words became the powerful north star for our bare metal management roadmap. The product was no longer something for everyone. And it’s roadmap journey was now focused, aligned, and realistic.
Step 5: Prioritize the backlog
The most overstated and yet, ironically, underrated element of a product roadmap is prioritization. Once the north star is in place, work within the confines of the positioning of the product to identify core capabilities of the product.
- Start out by imagining the final version or MVP of the product and then work backwards
- List out capabilities at a higher level, then add more detail to each
- Interact with engineers to figure out rough work estimates, to make sure you have all the information you need while making important trade-offs
Prioritization is a topic worthy of a whole series of articles, but the outcome of this exercise should be a decent “first stab” at your product backlog. This should corroborate the story your product will tell.
With all the high level information at the tips of my fingers, I was able to imagine a product that would solve the bare metal management problem for this niche, yet growing, set of IT teams.
Step 6: Pitch internally
Pitching internally is an extremely important step towards developing the roadmap into one the company can stand behind.
There are several advantages to doing this:
Formulating your product story
While pitching your roadmap, focus on the problem space instead of the solution space. Inspire your peers and execs, let them lean in and wonder about how to solve the problem, and then tell them about how your product will create value. There is no better storytelling playground than this. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s totally worth it. Thanks to the pandemic, my non-techie wife now has my spiel about today’s inefficiencies of IT operations memorized even though it’s been almost 6 months since I’ve left Nutanix!
Getting early buy-in
The other upside of this step is to get buy in at this early stage. If there is a deal-breaker or issue, this is a good time to discuss it or learn about it. The CEO may differ on the importance of the problem, the engineers may not agree with your list of priorities… always better to thrash early. I was met with people who had huge problems with my story and the validity of it (after all, it’s an unproven hypothesis at this stage). This forced me to think of how to cover potential gaps in the product early, before we started building it.
Starting the product machinery
Good execs will question you on the broader goals and impact of the product vision. Good engineers will point out technical feasibility issues, risks, and gaps early. Good marketers will question your positioning (although you should have ideally collaborated with them for positioning in the first place). Good sales leaders will ask important questions that may influence the product to make it easy to sell. Great designers will start discussions around how the product can be made easy to consume. All of a sudden, everyone who has been inspired by your story will make it their own and start thinking about how they can help make the dream a reality. An important step 0 towards the creation of any great product.
Step 7: Factor in work effort
Now that you have an initial prioritized roadmap, and buy-in from the company and your peers, it’s time to start thinking about feasibility and pragmatism. This step is important since the roadmap is not meant to be aspirational alone (like a set of OKRs). It is also meant to guide the rest of the company on what is going to be built and when it is going to be built. External facing teams like sales and marketing will rely on the roadmap to communicate to customers, partners and the market at large, about what to expect from your company and product. Internal teams will plan around your product deliverables too.
Work closely with designers and engineers to understand detailed work estimates. This could influence your initial backlog priorities, and there may be some intense discussions at this stage around trade-offs. It’s important to keep the final story in mind while thinking through these practical trade-offs. Often times it becomes very easy to get caught up in the realities of what is doable and what isn’t and lose sight of what you set out to do. Review your final roadmap to make sure the story you’re now telling isn’t different from what it originally was.
Example of how work estimates can influence priorities
As a simplistic example, imagine your story is that of a product that helps developers build great applications quickly, and you have a prioritized backlog that looks like this:
- Bare bones product without a proper interface
- Out of the box integrations with other products in the ecosystem
- Simple user interface
- Amazing user experience
- API support
Now let’s say your engineering team comes back with estimates that indicate they only have the bandwidth to do: (a) 1 and 5, or (b) 1, 2, and 3, or (c) 1,3, and 4.
Yes, it would be amazing to have a product with a great web interface and a 1-click experience. It would also be lovely to have a product that meshes seamlessly with the users’ ecosystem. In fact the imagined product has all 5 of the above listed capabilities. But with the constraints at hand, it is important to prioritize the capabilities that will tell the story best and corroborate your WHY. In this case, there is no combination better than (a) that would do that.
The art is in dissecting the pieces of your story, understanding which ones tie directly to the core value of the offering, and prioritizing those above all else. At Nutanix, I found that sometimes even demoing a raw version of a prototype to our friendly and loyal early-adopter customers was enough to get their (literal) buy-in. This speaks more to the amazing reputation and sense of customer loyalty that Nutanix has created over the past decade than any product management skills I’ve deployed, but the point here is that prioritizing based on core customer value is invaluable when compared to features that are not core. In the example above, user interfaces and integration support are not core, but a bare bones product and a way to use it (i.e. API) are certainly core to providing the value of “helping developers build great applications quickly”.
Step 8: Create the roadmap
Once you have a prioritized backlog that is realistic, adheres to the positioning statement of the product, and has internal buy-in from all the stakeholders and execs, it’s time to create the actual roadmap.
The roadmap should have a temporal list of specific product capabilities and advancements that anyone in the company can understand. The best kind of roadmap tells the story on its own. Consider using product management tools like Aha! to help not just list out your backlog, but also illustrate your roadmap. Aha!, in particular, has worked well for me during the roadmap crafting exercise that I’ve referred to throughout this article.
Step 9: Share it with the company
The last thing you want at the end of three and a half months of work is to create a document that is just lying around gathering dust! What’s more, at this point you may have internal buy-in from stakeholders, but that is certainly not enough to inspire the company. The roadmap on it’s own also isn’t enough. There needs to be a catalyst, and one of the best ways to do this (i.e. get the entire company on board and validate the final, polished roadmap) is to find an opportunity to present it to everyone and answer questions.
In my case, the timing was such that there was a company-wide product roadmap session where I had the opportunity to showcase the roadmap and field questions from the company. Presenting a roadmap to the company is another topic that makes for it’s own article, so I won’t get into depth on that here. But the best result from this step is that after this, there is 100% clarity on:
- the problem the product is trying to solve
- how the product is going to solve it
Always Be Roadmapping
Final takeaway – all of this is actually only step 1! Although getting here takes some effort, the journey is hardly over. Your roadmap is the artifact that will be used time and time again as a north star, guiding different teams in the organization on what product to build. Great roadmaps last the test of time and are continuously being kept up-to-date. People will come and go, company plans will change, markets demands will fluctuate. The roadmap must always serve as the single source of truth. Once you have created this starting point, return to the roadmap bi-weekly, sprint-ly, or whatever cadence your company adheres to, and make sure it is always in the same top-notch condition it was first created it in. The success of your product depends on it.