7 Essential Skills for the Full Stack Product Person

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Meet Alex Cowan, entrepreneur (5x), intrapreneur (1x), author, and instructor at General Assembly. He’s also the author of ‘Starting a Tech Business’. When he’s not teaching at GA, he’s often found advising companies and posting instructional materials for innovators and instructions on alexandercowan.com.

I’m always pushing myself to be the best possible product person I can be, and these days I tend to earn a lot through my work as an instructor. My classes are on the interdisciplinary topics of product design and venture creation, so I get to work with business people wanting to understand the technical side and engineers wanting to learn the business side.

Often times, students from the business side are thinking of learning to code and students from the engineering side are thinking of going to get an MBA. While both might be advisable in certain situations, I’ve found that there are a few simple foundation skills that drive the interdisciplinary cooperation at the heart of so many successful projects:

the-full-stack-product-person-v4

I think that since none of us want to look stupid, we spend too much time trying to out-expert others. Instead, we’d be better off learning how to frame and ask each other the right questions.

Here are some notes on foundation skills that I think will help you ask those questions and drive the right kind of discussions.

FOUNDATION CONCEPTS

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Skill

Answers the question…

Good for…

1

DESIGN THINKING

“Who are we doing this for and do we know what makes them tick?”

Focusing your efforts on an actionable, testable view of the customer.Creating a robust interdisciplinary tool set you can use across product development and promotion (sales, marketing, etc.).

2

LEAN

“How do we figure out if this is going to be a hit before we waste a lot of time and money?”

Balancing the uncertainty of a new venture with the structure you need to stay focused on the right things. Avoiding waste. Learning quickly.

3

CUSTOMER DISCOVERY

“How do we create an actionable understanding of our customer, one that we can use to build the right product and promote it efficiently?”

Finding out what really makes your customer tick vs. ticking them off.

4

AGILE

“Where’s everyone at and are we progressing to our objective?”

Creating inputs to product development and promotion that link back to your work in design thinking and customer discovery.

In my experience, these tools will help you and your team steer away from distracting tangents and stay focused on what will really help your project succeed. Product and business education is realigning around new practices and ideas, the above being some of the most important. You can see this happening with the emergence of new terms like “growth hacker” and the growth of interdisciplinary programs like a “design MBA.”

As far as an introduction to these topics, there are a lot of great resources online, but it’s a bit of a “choose your own adventure” situation at the moment. The last section here lists a few resources from this site.

If you don’t have a coding/technical background, here are three foundation topics that will give you a useful starting point for engaging with technical folks.

TECHNICAL LITERACY

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Topic

Answers the question…

Good for…

5

Model-View-Controller

“What area of the development program is this, what’s important about it, and how does it fit in with everything else?”

Decomposing the complexity of software development (into three different areas, anyway) and thinking about the kind of questions that might make sense.

6

App. & Platform Integration

“What exactly are we building and how does it fit in with the rest of our ecosystem/operating environment?”

Understanding the different chunks of your extended product and the general implications of different approaches to building your application.

7

Roles & Systems in a Technical Team

“What’s the difference between a UI designer vs. developer vs. QA vs. sysadmin vs. devops?”

Understanding what everyone does and the different types of talent you need to get where you want to be.

I would never discourage anyone from learning to code. Even a few hours invested in learning the basics will earn you perspective and useful skills. That said, there’s a lot of intangible learning and judgement that an experienced developer brings to their work.

That’s why it’s a good idea to balance an understanding of coding with a general perspective on what your project’s looking to accomplish, framed in a way that lends itself to constructive interdisciplinary discussions.

RESOURCES

There are a lot of great ways to learn these skills and, generally speaking, more is more – these aren’t exact sciences so the more perspective you can get, the better.

Here are a few general resources:

  • I teach a ‘Venture Design’ class at GA SF – next session in June 22nd
  • I offer a Venture Design and product design curriculum online

There are a lot of great ways to learn these skills and, generally speaking, more is more — these aren’t exact sciences so the more perspective you can get, the better. Here are a few resources I offer:

Here are some specific resources by topic:

DESIGN THINKING

Short & tactical:

  • Tutorial on the use of personas & problem scenarios
  • Workshop on storyboarding
  • ‘Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking’ (Stanford d.school)
  • Wallet Project’ exercise (Stanford d.school)

Extended & strategic:

  • The Design of Everyday Things’ by Donald Norman
  • Visual Explanations’ by Edward Tufte

LEAN/STARTUP

Short & tactical:

  • Your Lean Startup
  • Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything’ (HBR)
  • B2B Hacks – Getting from Consulting to Scalable Products

Extended & strategic:

  • The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries

CUSTOMER DISCOVERY

Short & tactical:

  • Day in the Life Exercise
  • (see above items from d.school)
  • Steve Blank lectures for Kauffman Foundation

Extended & strategic:

  • The Startup Owner’s Manual’ by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf

AGILE

Short & tactical:

  • Your Best Agile User Story

Extended & strategic:

  • Agile Excellence for Product Managers’ by Greg Cohen