Meet Our Expert: Cliff Gilley, Product Management Instructor, GA Seattle
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GA instructor Cliff Gilley says, "The importance of the Agile way of thinking cannot be understated in the modern business of software and general product development; its application stretches from development and quality-assurance work up into product design and management, and even into marketing and business strategy. It’s essential for any product manager to understand the fundamentals of Agile methodologies so that they can influence an organization to change for the better or engage more meaningfully with their teams on a day-to-day basis.
"General Assembly teaches Agile methodologies as it relates to software development in our part-time Product Management course, full-time Web Development Immersive (WDI), and in workshops. We focus on the difference between the principles of Agile methods and the real-world application of those methods. Expert instructors, who have used these methodologies to help teams through Agile processes in their own careers, prepare students for the use of Agile through lectures and practical examples from their real-world experiences. In WDI, we reinforce Agile principles through lessons on user stories, pair programming, and more."
A competitor analysis is a way to identify your current and potential competitors and assess their strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge is key in developing a successful product, as it informs you of who you’re up against in the market and helps identify opportunities to set your brand apart from the pack.
Alex McCarthy, a Product Management instructor at GA Austin, says, “Customer development is the practice in which product managers and user experience (UX) designers interact with customers to learn more about their problems in order to create a product that meets their wants and needs. Customers include any current or prospective people who buy, use, or support your product. When product managers understand their customers, their problems, the environment in which those problems occur, and the value of solving them, the products will very likely succeed.
“Customer development is a core practice in developing profitable solutions with product-market fit that customers love to use. At General Assembly, we cover this early in our part-time Product Management course and reinforce it throughout to ensure that students learn how to apply the appropriate tool to match the situation.”
Read "A Beginner’s Guide to Customer Development" by Alex McCarthy.
Having a strong customer focus in a product or organization means putting customers’ wants and needs at the top of your business priorities. This builds a better relationship with your brand and drives better business performance.
Influence Without Authority
Cliff Gilley, a Product Management instructor at General Assembly Seattle, says, “Influence-based leadership is a necessity for product managers because of the nature of our jobs. You need to collect information from stakeholders, customers, and the market — which means that you need access to those people, and that access is gained through trust and influence. Every single day of a product manager’s life involves interactions with multiple people across different levels of seniority. Getting things done without the explicit authority granted by a corporate hierachy requires working with influence.
“At General Assembly, learning how to lead through influence is an essential part of our part-time Product Management courses. Through in-class exercises, homework, and individualized instruction, students learn the fundamental skills necessary to understand and assess how they can manage stakeholders and leverage influence within their current or future organizations. Our instructors bring their real-life experiences and expertise into the classroom, providing unique insights and guidance to their students throughout the course.”
Lean Methodology & Lean Startup
Tricia Cervenan, a Product Management instructor at GA Seattle, says, "Lean became part of the software development lexicon thanks to entrepreneur Eric Ries, who in 2008 began teaching his own methodology to software startups. In 2011, he published the book The Lean Startup. The book’s main premise addressed this shift by introducing the “build-measure-learn” process to test a hypothesis. Essentially, you start with a problem that you think exists in the market (your hypothesis), build just enough of something for you to measure its success among customers, and use that learning to build something new, add on, or scale. Then repeat until the product has reached a steady state and proven that the product is valuable enough to users to have a team of people continue to develop it.
"At GA, we teach lean skills and concepts during the Lean Startup section of our part-time Product Management course. We cover hypothesis development, minimum viable products (MVPs) and experiment testing, and the build-measure-learn cycle. We implicitly practice lean concepts in the way we quickly move from idea to testing with users, to planning future iterations. In a 10-week course, there isn’t time to worry about scale, so students get the opportunity to practice lean skills, giving them the most amount of value from the course with the least amount of waste."
Minimum Viable Product (or MVP)
Cliff Gilley, Product Management instructor at GA Seattle, says, “The basic concept of a minimum viable product is simple — it’s the smallest amount of work you can do to deliver something of value to your market. It’s something that can be used to validate (or invalidate) a specific set of assumptions, to derisk potential complications in your go-to-market plan, and/or to test one or more specific hypotheses about your target users. Understanding what an MVP really is and why it’s important is critical to the success of most startup businesses and for the career trajectory of someone who wants to be a product manager.
“At General Assembly, understanding the concept of MVP is a core component of our part-time Product Management course. Students engage in coursework and exercises that force prioritization decisions, backlog management, and stakeholder negotiation. The course’s final project is a pitch for an MVP solution to a valuable market problem, which sums up all of the skills and capabilities developed over the 10 weeks in class.”
Vince Law, Product Management instructor at GA San Francisco, says, “Leaders rarely stumble into their success; they enter their field with a resolve for how they will make a difference. They see things no one else does. They have a vision. Seeing things no one else can see takes practice. It’s not a bolt of lightning, but consistent practice that allows truly visionary leaders to constantly push the boundaries of what products can enable a better world. Forming a product vision enables you to set the North Star to guide you and your team toward a goal without leading you astray.
“In General Assembly’s part-time Product Management course, students practice developing a product vision as part of their final project. The course guides each student through the steps from identifying a problem in the market to solving that problem — no matter how small the product or feature may be — through the development of the product ideas into a concrete vision, executable roadmap, along with success metrics, and product design.
Read “A Beginner’s Guide to Product Vision” by Vince Law.
A proto-persona is a tool for aligning a product team on a shared conception of the user during the initial ideation phase for an idea; it’s lightweight compared to a marketing persona based on extensive research. A proto-persona allows us to document our inherent assumptions about what our users care about so that we can continuously refine our understanding of the users and their problems.
Danny Setiawan, User Experience Design Instructor at GA New York, says, “Prototyping is a quick and cheap way to simulate a product experience in order to reduce risks. Prototypes can be really close to the final product with all of the features that will be included when the product is launched. But designers often start out by making a rapid prototype, the quickest and easiest way to prototype, in which the designer tries to mimic the experience without actually building or creating anything. In software development and product design, rapid prototyping refers to techniques used to simulate the experience of using the software. In most cases, these techniques involve no coding in order to optimize speed and minimize cost. The goal is still to reduce risks — in this case, having to do with the product’s efficiency and effectiveness.
“At General Assembly, students in our full-time User Experience Design Immersive and part-time User Experience Design course (on campus and online) learn hands-on how to create a rapid prototype by using Sketch to create the screens, then InVision to connect those screens and make them interactive. This portion of the course happens right before the students learn how to conduct usability testing to make sure their design work well. Students in GA’s part-time Product Management course also learn to create rapid prototypes; after drawing drafts of their wireframes on paper, students turn to platforms like Sketch, InVision, and more to digitize their designs and create interactive prototypes.”
Read “A Beginner’s Guide to Rapid Prototyping” by Danny Setiawan.
Risks and Assumptions
Identifying and testing assumptions and risks is key in the product development cycle. Assumptions are statements you believe to be true about your product, which you can then test using a hypothesis statement. You’ll often prioritize which assumptions to tackle first by the risk they represent, i.e., what will happen if your assumption is incorrect?
A product roadmap is used to illustrate a product’s primary goals, themes, and features, and keep all stakeholders aligned throughout the development process. It’s typically oriented around time (e.g., weeks, months, quarters), and encompasses both long-term projects, milestones, and small wins.
Stakeholder management is all about handling people — specifically, internal and external stakeholders such as developers, marketing and sales teams, executives, managers, customers, and funders. It’s one of a product manager’s most important functions, involving communication, status updates, tracking feedback, running effective meetings, resolving disagreements, and more.
Jason Reynolds, User Experience Design Immersive instructor at GA Boston, says, “SWOT is a strategic planning method structured on four elements of concern — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. SWOT can be terrific tool for strategic planning, and it helps to better manage the future of a product or organization. It’s often used by product owners, marketing managers, and business analysts, but may be undertaken by entrepreneurs and other business decision-makers as well. A SWOT analysis can benefit a business at any stage, and its popularity has driven its use to noncommercial organizations, industries, and even entire countries.
“At General Assembly, students learn about SWOT analysis in our User Experience Design Immersive in the unit on business analysis. It’s also covered in our part-time Product Management course, as it’s key in understanding the path to product-market fit. Students are taught to be aware of the competition and what they are doing, but to not let that be the only determinant of what your product should be. They must also appreciate the assets they have to leverage and how it all fits together.”
Read “A Beginner’s Guide to SWOT Analysis” by Jason Reynolds.
Shebani Saxena, a UX Design Immersive instructor at General Assembly Hong Kong, says, "Usability testing is an integral part of user experience (UX) design that allows us to get feedback directly from users, thereby making a product that’s not only functional and user-friendly, but also provides value. It’s often done at the beginning of a design project, with an intention to check the design structure’s efficiency, the organization of content, and whether the design direction is in line with the users’ 'mental model,' motivations, and satisfaction. When incorporated towards the end of the design process, usability testing helps validate and evaluate whether the product’s design goals are met.
"At GA, usability testing is covered extensively in our User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) program, and on a basic level in our part-time User Experience Design course, on campus and online. Students learn the detailed methodology and relevant tools, and have ample opportunity to practice it in class as well as in projects. In class, students learn usability testing methods through practical exercises; in UXDI, for example, they do this by roleplaying as the moderator (test conductor), the participant (user), and the note-taker. Then they practice testing as part of virtually all their projects, including with real-world clients. By the end of the course, students are able to immediately apply their usability testing skills to new projects."
Tricia Cervenan, Product Management instructor at General Assembly Seattle, says, “A user interview is where product teams go out into the world and talk to people who fit their product or service’s personas, observe their behavior, and ask them questions. The goal of an interview is to discover what problems users have that product teams might be able to solve. This is done by visiting users in the environment in which they use the product or a competitor product, or where a problem is occurring; watching their behavior; asking them questions about their behavior; and then drawing conclusions from what they observed.
“In General Assembly’s full-time User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI), part-time User Experience Design, and part-time Product Management courses, students get firsthand practice conducting interviews. We first discuss how to interview and learn best practices for being effective. Then we jump in and start interviewing. Students draft questions and an interview script, practice with one another, and get immediate feedback from their peers. Then they set out to find and talk to real users who have the problem they’re looking to solve. In UXDI, students work with real-world clients and conduct interviews with their current or potential users.”
A wireframe is a visual guide for a website or app used for planning, communicating, and testing ideas. Wireframes are key for communicating with stakeholders, testing your product with users, focusing on functionality, and more.
“GA helped me understand marketing and creative storytelling: How can I tie together my product with compelling marketing and bring my product to launch? Each week I was able to bring what I learned back to my team.”
Chris Place, Product Management Graduate