4 good reasons why you should go to the goto conference…or any other quality conference

Going to conferences is often considered an expensive form of entertainment and more or less a waste of time, but I think this really misses the point. Conferences are one of the very few activities that help you attain multiple objectives: if you take a course you will just learn a new skill. If you go to meet ups you will just network and meet new people. If you read magazines like wired and blogs like signal vs. noise you may get inspiration and following specific groups on LinkedIn or quora may help you spot some trends, but going to a conference will provide all four things in one experience and more concentrated. It will also be something you will remember years from now (which most of the others aren’t)

Soon I am going to the GoTo conference, so let us take that as an example.

Skills
Like most tech conferences Goto conferences have several days devoted purely to training. Here you can keep up to date with the latest techniques like Continuous Delivery, new technologies like AngularJS or more soft areas like usability for mobile devices. This is a really good opportunity because the trainers are usually internationally acclaimed authorities in the field, who are also speaking at the conference. Chances are that training of this calibre is not something you find at your local community college.

Network
Meeting people and expanding your network is always a good idea. First of all you will probably learn something from them, second they may in one way or another lead you to your next venture. Rumour has it that David Heinemeier Hanson, creator of Ruby on Rails and Jason Fried Co-founder of 37 Signals met at a GoTo conference and thereby laid the foundation for a true powerhouse in web development that gave us Basecamp and Highrise. It could also occur that you met a real moron that provoked you to think of something you hadn’t thought about before. Either way growing your network is a good thing at conferences.

Inspiration
Few places offer better chances to get inspired than good conferences. It could be that discussion about Doctor Who after the fifth pint of Guinness in the wee hours of the night, the presentation of a new technology in a booth or overhearing a heated argument about the best distributed database on the market. It obviously could also be a presentation at the actual conference, but inspiration in my opinion comes in unexpected ways and during a conference you are out of your normal (comfort) zone so you are more alert and exposed to new ideas.

Trends
Following trends and what is happening can be very difficult if you are not tapping into the right communication lines (and these lines are constantly changing), but at really good conferences you will very quickly spot what the trends are. You can do this by looking at the booths at the conference, listening to the conversations of others and generally looking through the program to find words that are repeated across different presentations and training offerings. These days it seems that Big data and Agile is on top.

So, if you are not going yet then you have four good reasons to convince your boss or yourself to go to the goto conference or other quality conferences.

What’s around the product?

Today and for the last 10-15 years we have seen an increased focus on the product and bringing it to market ever faster. Lean, Scrum and agile methodologies champion this view. But maybe it is better to extend this narrow focus on the product to reflect on what is around the product instead.

This is the point that Steve Johnson is trying to make when we talked to him recently. Steve is the founder of Under 10 Consulting, a product management consulting company based on the belief that minimal processes and simple templates will result in world class products. Steve was educated in computer science and marketing. He started in programming, but moved into product management and later joined Pragmatic Marketing, where he worked for 15 years.

Focus on the product!
Product focus is, according to Steve, a good thing, but there should be more to product management than product. What about the promotion, selling, support, and services? These are all part of the “product” from the customer’s perspective. An example is Lean Startup where the focus is on making changes to the MVP in order to make it more and more attractive to the customer until you achieve product market fit. But, just because the response is not as good as we’d hoped, maybe we don’t need to change the product or add another feature. Maybe the problem is the promotion of the product or the positioning. For example, you could make the best action film with car chases and plenty of explosions and still get bad response from customers if you happened to promote it in a children’s film festival. That doesn’t mean the product is a failure; it doesn’t mean you should pivot.

The MVP is often too minimal

“Lean Startup will take you up to version 1.0, but what is interesting comes after. The MVP is the bare minimum product, but you don’t get joy from that. We saw that with the iPhone. What they did with the first version was clearly minimal. They didn’t deliver every possible feature in a minimal fashion; they delivered a few critical features brilliantly. And it set a new expectation for all phones. We all knew that future releases would include photos and video and more apps”.

According to Steve, today’s obsession about product means that not enough thinking goes into developing the whole product, and how it is promoted and sold.

The history of product focus
Since he is a veteran I asked Steve whether it had always been like this, but that didn’t seem to be the case. Back in the eighties there was plenty of awareness that a product had to be marketed and positioned. There was an understanding that product management involved business understanding. In “Crossing the Chasm” Geoffrey Moore saw the product manager’s role as bringing the product from idea to implementation, and then a product marketing manager took it from implementation to market. In the mid-90s, the team behind Scrum created a great framework for producing software where a product owner was supposed to give guidance on what to build. Unfortunately the product owner role turned into something that was carried out by a junior person or work someone would do in addition to their “real” job. This has had the effect that the product manager has been pushed back to the technical side of the job and the business side is not adequately represented in product development:

“If you ask developers what they need in a product owner role they say they want to understand more about the market and users. Marketing want people bright on technology. Sales want someone who is an expert on the domain. Executives expect someone to run the product as if it were a business. Those are very different views on what product management is.”

Therefore focus comes to be on the product in isolation. The effect is that what gets built is not always an optimal product, not a product that will delight customers. Johnson uses the metaphor of a movie:

“ In a movie the developers are the artists. Similarly programming is an art form. The product manager is like the director. Let’s say he walked around the set and the caterer says to him ‘I would like to have some cute bunny rabbits in the film,’ the producer demands car chases, and the actors put drama into it although it is supposed to be a comedy. The director, who may be straight out of college or doing it half time on his way home to dinner with his family, just lets them have their way. That would probably not end up as a film customers would love.”

It is unfortunately the process followed by many companies today, where product owners and the process by which they work are not highly prioritized. Quality often comes as a third or fourth priority, according to Johnson.

Favorite product
As a final question I asked Steve what his favorite product was.

“My Kensington remote control for presenters. I do presentations often and usually the organizer will bring me a remote that is actually a mouse. I often use some gags as the first few slides, so just taking the remote I have already gone through the first three or four slides by accident. Kensington is great because it is specifically designed for presenting. You can go forward to the next slide or back. That’s it. That is just so simple! It is also relatively heavy. I used to have one that was very light but I often dropped it because I forgot I had it in my hand. Another great feature is that they put 2GB of data on it, so I can bring the presentation within the remote. It just does one thing, but it does it really well. I do wish it had a super bright laser pointer though. That is the only complaint I have with this product.”

If you want to read more about Steve’s ideas and views buy his book “From Fragile to Agile: The business of agile product management.” It is out on Amazon in both ebook and paperback. Definitely worth a read.
You can also read more about his company Under 10 Consulting
Steve will be speaking on “Have we LEAN’d too far” at the Business of Software conference in September 2014.
Photo by flickr user James Willamor