What does a Head of Product do?
I’ve been involved with FutureLearn for almost exactly three years. Initially, I was one of a small group of people involved in building the company and was tasked with establishing a product vision and creating a plan for how it might be delivered.
Since then, my role has continually evolved through hiring and product managing a small team to launch a Minimum Viable Product, to leading alongside our CTO Joel Chippindale and Creative Director Lucy Blackwell, a team of more than forty brilliant developers, designers and product managers engaged in developing and delivering our product.
On my third anniversary, as FutureLearn enters a new chapter of growth, now seemed like an appropriate moment to reflect on and rearticulate what exactly it is that I aspire to do. Hopefully this will be useful to those that work with me but might also be useful to people in a rapidly evolving product leadership role.
Together, Joel, Lucy and I provide leadership to those involved in delivering our product to ensure that we ship the right things to our learners and educators, as efficiently, effectively and creatively as possible.
Between us, we represent the three core disciplines of technology, design and product management, at management level and set the stage for collaboration, creativity and delivery across all of our cross functional teams. It is our job to set the tone, create a fertile environment and keep it healthy.
My own role is primarily about communication and coordination, and providing direction and focus.
Storytelling and inspiring
I tell the story of the our product. To everyone who works at FutureLearn, our partners and the world. Working with the rest of the management team, I’m responsible for establishing a vision for FutureLearn and communicating it in simple and inspiring terms. Along with others, it’s my job to think about the future, help the company gain a taste for it, and understand what we’re building to in the longer term.
I make sure that that our successes are celebrated and shared and that people feel a sense of pride in their work.
Providing purpose and direction
My role is to help provide an overarching sense of purpose and direction. I need to ensure that the teams always feel like they are moving forward and going in the right direction.
Through how we organise the teams and set their missions, I help provide a high-level prioritisation and focus. I work to ensure the teams feel a strong sense of ownership over their own mission and goals and also have support from the CEO and other stakeholders about how they go about achieving them.
I help guide the direction by providing suggestions of what the destination might look like and how we might know when we get there. I make sure that that the road is clear, help people understand where on the journey we are and support the team when a change in direction is required. I always makes sure that the teams are the ones doing the driving.
Exploring and reporting
I gather information from the across the business, our partners and the world in general, make sense of it and share it with the teams. It’s my job to help find and highlight the opportunities and problems and explain the reasons why we might do things in simple terms that make sense to all.
By ensuring that everyone understands the problems and opportunities we need to tackle, I empower our teams to devise and deliver effective and creative solutions. It’s also part of my role to inspire everyone to think bigger and bolder than they are necessarily comfortable with and help to remove the sense of fear when taking risks is what’s required.
I may also do some early exploratory and investigatory work into new areas, informing our strategy and helping the business understand how we might make them a reality before passing them on to others better placed to work out how best to execute.
Listening and explaining
I help build empathy across disciplines and teams. I need to listen to everyone’s input, ensure everyone who needs to be involved in product decisions is and also buys into what the teams are doing. I need to speak everyone’s language and communicate why we’re doing things, who’s doing them and when, to remove the potential for misunderstandings or any sense of secrecy.
It’s my job to ensure that through user research and data analysis, the learners are at the heart of all product decisions and promote this way of thinking. It’s my responsibility to champion right over easy and simplicity over complexity in order to protect the coherence and long-term sustainability of our product. This may involve saying ‘no’ but always by explaining why.
Supporting and empowering
I lead, coach and mentor the product management team. Inspiring our product managers, supporting them, helping them prioritise and providing challenges and nudges where required. I provide them with a fresh pair of eyes, give them back up when it’s needed and help them see the bigger picture by playing a coordinating and a holistic role across the whole of the product. I provide the breadth, whilst they provide the depth.
My team better understand the problems they face than I do, so it’s my job to help them find solutions and not propose them. I do what I can to make sure they feel empowered and supported, with a sense of independence and autonomy.
Coordinating and collaborating
It’s my responsibility to identify impediments to creativity, collaboration and delivery across the teams and work with others to remove them. Ultimately, it’s my job to make sure that the product teams are able to regularly ship by providing clear direction and focus, clearing a path and helping to removing obstacles in the way.
Along with the rest of the management team, I need to be attentive that a brilliant culture continues to develop and evolve and help foster effective collaboration.
And as FutureLearn continues to grow, I need to be mindful to keep evolving what it is that I do. It’s a challenge I very much relish.