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An Introduction to Agile Methodologies for Product Management

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By Cliff Gilley

Agile methodologies in product development are those that embrace the principles of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, a set of guidelines created in the late 1990s by a group of software development professionals seeking to revolutionize the business. These methodologies focus on performing work in small, iterative steps that allow a product team to validate its assumptions and test hypotheses frequently. Examples of these methodologies include Scrum, Kanban, and Extreme Programming.

These Agile methodologies are often contrasted with “waterfall” approaches, which focus on defining as many of the requirements as possible before the project can begin, in as much detail as possible, so that there is no question as to what will eventually be delivered. The biggest downside of a waterfall approach is that it requires a large amount of up-front work and long development times before anything useful and testable is actually completed.

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. While Agile began as a solution to a very specific set of problems developers were facing, it has grown into its own culture that permeates every aspect of modern businesses. 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.

Scrum: The Most Commonly Used Agile Methodology

In practice, the most popular Agile methodology is Scrum, one of the first methodologies designed to deliver software products following Agile principles. In Scrum, the product manager creates a backlog of “user stories,” simple statements of the problem a development team is being asked to solve. Each user story gets stored in a “product backlog” that the product manager prioritizes according to business and other needs.

The development teams, usually sized between five and nine members for optimal effectiveness, look at these stories, estimate their complexity, and take some of them into a “sprint” as a commitment to deliver. A sprint is a two-to-three-week period during which teams work to deliver their commitments. During a sprint, the product manager and development teams work together to discuss, clarify, and deliver all of the previously agreed-upon stories. At the end of the sprint, each development team demonstrates to the product team and interested stakeholders what it has completed. Once the team has iterated to the point that the product team believes the work is worth sharing widely, a release can be created and push out the product updates.

Kanban and Extreme Programming

There are other Agile methodologies, besides Scrum, that are important to understand given that many companies may pick and choose from one or another to build their processes. Kanban focuses on limiting works in progress, only allowing teams to take on a set number of stories or efforts at any one time, then working them through to completion before taking on more. Extreme Programming, on the other hand, is a very hands-off methodology that puts most of the power and authority on individual developers rather than taking a full-team approach. This methodology stresses that constant pairing and test cycles ensure quality outputs from the teams.

Why Agile Methodologies Work

The main value of Scrum and other Agile methodologies lies in their focus on atomic units of work. The Scrum team commits to a small number of user stories for each sprint, which means that, at any time, the future work can be reprioritized, or even abandoned or added to without affecting the team’s work in progress. At the beginning of the next sprint, they look at the next set of priorities and commit to delivering another set of work. This is the opposite of “waterfall” methods, which establish a large commitment over the course of many months and apply strict processes for changing those requirements.

The other value in Scrum and Agile methodologies lies in the testing overhead required to validate the work the team completes. Because the team is delivering small sets of functionality, each of those sets can be tested during the sprint. This reduces the kind of massive, overarching integration testing required with a waterfall approach, in which everything is “done” only at the end of the entire project.

Agile Methodologies at General Assembly

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.

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Meet Our Expert

For nearly 15 years, Cliff Gilley has been a product manager and Agile coach at a wide variety of companies across many different industries, and is currently working as a technical product manager for the K2 corporation in Bellevue, Washington. He teaches General Assembly’s 10-week, part-time Product Management course, as well as shorter-form product management courses at GA’s Seattle campus. He also blogs regularly as the Clever PM and is an active board member with the Pacific Northwest Product Management Community.

Product Management is the ultimate “jack-of-all-trades” role in a healthy organization. It’s one of the few roles where you’re likely to be needed to contribute to the success of so many other teams.

 – Cliff Gilley, Product Management Instructor, General Assembly Seattle

Meet Prepd: A Sleek Product That Raised $1.4 Million on Kickstarter

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We all know that bringing lunch to work is the smart, healthy, and financially responsible thing to do. We want to bring delicious lunches to work, but then motivation is always low. So we end up buying something or settling for whatever boring thing we could find in our fridge, wishing we could be better.

Enter Prepd, a lunchbox with modular containers and a corresponding app to help us be the lunch-bringer we always knew we could be.

We spoke with co-founder and GA Hong Kong alumnus Chris Place a few days before his goal-busting Kickstarter, which raised over $1 million, closed.

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5 Hard Things You Have To Do When You Redesign

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Members of the Buster team mapping out their redesign. Photo by Adam Brodowski.

We recently completely redesigned Buster, our online booking site for buses, limos, and vans, after the first version (v1) of our website had been live for about a year. It was our first big review of what had worked in our early product, and what hadn’t, and our biggest chance so far to refresh our thinking about the business we’re growing. Rethinking our product was both cathartic and grueling. Here are the hardest things we had to do to make it happen.

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How To Win Your First Product Management Job

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Nice work. You just scored an interview for a product manager position—one of the hottest and highest-paying roles right now according to Glassdoor. Companies know that product managers play a key role in their success or failure. And they are making sure that hiring the best is a top priority.

You probably have no idea what to expect from this first interview—especially if you are trying to transition into the field from engineering or marketing. How can you pivot into this new role? What qualities are they looking for, and how should you present yourself?

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How to Say “No” to Your CEO’s Random Product Ideas

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Here is how it happens. You see the CEO in the hallway and he stops you. He then says, “I was thinking about this the other day—I have a great new idea for a feature.” You nod politely and walk back to your desk—feeling sick to your stomach along the way.
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3 Ways TripAdvisor Stays Ahead of Customer Needs

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Due to the rapid evolution in consumer behavior when browsing travel destinations online, TripAdvisor is a brand that is constantly working to stay on top of their customers’ desires, expectations, and digital behavior.

In the video above, Ravi Meta, VP of core consumer product at TripAdvisor, highlights three key methods for staying ahead of customers through both quantitative and qualitative feedback: Continue reading

How To Have an Awesome Product Launch

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It feels invigorating to build awesome products. If you are a product manager, you have the unique chance to lead an idea from conception through completion. This opportunity inspires product managers to get out of bed excited each day.

A major achievement for any PM comes on the day that they launch their product. This is the day when months of hard work is placed into customers’ hands. There is little more rewarding than watching an idea come to life for end users.

But make no mistake — product launches are stressful. Product managers are pulled in several directions at once and have endless people to please. In the lead-up to launch, this can cause burnout.

Before you get in over your head, take a moment to step back and reevaluate. Product launches are most successful when you plan ahead for them from the start — well before your product goes to market. Continue reading

3 Components of Every Great Product Strategy

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If you are a great product manager, you know a secret that others ignore: managing relationships is essential to your job. As the “mini-CEO” of your product, sometimes it might seem like your main job! Teams from sales to engineering all have a stake in your product. And they often want to see updates presented “their way.”

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4 Must-Have Attributes of Amazing Product Managers

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On a January day fresh out of grad school, I was transitioning into the world of work. I had accepted a role overseeing a B2B video web series run by a small consultancy. I was this project’s first full-time hire, which involved everything from growing subscribers and HTML editing, to scripting interviews and analytics management. When it came time to figure out a title for my new role, I suggested that I be a digital strategist.

The boss considered my idea for a moment. “How about ‘product manager’?” he concluded. “Because AppBeat is the product.”

Without a clue about what product management was, I had suddenly become one. My story is not uncommon; product management is a career people often fall into, without formal training or education.

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What Does it Take To Be A Product Manager?

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Despite how common the product management role has become across numerous industries, there has been a lot of debate and discussion about what a product manager actually does and how to do the job effectively. It doesn’t help that the responsibilities often vary from company to company, and even within a particular team.

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