2024 – The Year of Product Management and Product Leadership

I’ve been building digital experiences for as long as there have been digital experiences and I’ve enjoyed evolving as the platforms & underlying technologies have evolved. I came to advertising in the ’90s from a background in technology, computers and computer science, so I began my career with “software development” as my frame of reference.

In the early days of building out these brand-new digital capabilities for agencies that had no experience “building things that needed to DO things” I advocated for a need to take a software development approach. The success of our efforts were going to be gauged by how well the things we built accomplished the stuff that our clients wanted them to DO (book a reservation, book a tee time, sign up for communications, etc) as well as how well they were designed. We had to broaden our thinking beyond how things looked and include how well they performed as well. This led to rigor and process; a good start.

At the time, we were considering them products but we weren’t necessarily calling them products, and as a result we’re weren’t putting product thinking behind them.

Fast forward a decade or two and now you’ve got entire classes of products (web apps, mobile apps, custom enterprise apps) that exist to solve operational challenges, drive growth, provide a value as a service, increase revenue, decrease friction, and contribute to a positive brand experience. Make no mistake, they’re very real products in every sense of the word and warrant the appropriate strategic product approach.

Fast-Forward…

As a result of banging the “digital transformation” drum the last 10-15 years, we’ve all collectively benefitted from essentially the combination of free money (in the form of low interest rates and the venture capital faucet), the anxiety of transformation FOMO, and the philosophy of “let’s just get all the platforms and products in place and our business will transform into this digital behemoth that’ll be unstoppable” and lost sight of the goal… the outcome.

More importantly we’ve lost sight of the accountability to the goal. Everything was driven by the need to sell and install bigger and bigger platforms, driven by bigger and bigger ideas (“data is the new oil!”) and drifting further and further away from the need to focus on what the resulting products need to do in order for the business to consider them successful (whatever that metric may be).

So I think it’s entirely appropriate that, in the current climate of post-covid economic correction/contraction, we’re seeing an increasing focus on the role of product leadership. It makes perfect sense. Didn’t you BUY all of these platforms and tools to create opportunities for growth? Aren’t you looking for ways to reduce friction? Acquire new customers? These are real goals that have a real impact on the business, far more than the somewhat vague and ambiguous “transformation” goal. Transform into what? For what reason?

Where Product Minded Leadership Steps In

And it’s in this context that I think the key to future success for most businesses will be to wrap their heads around the notion of product management. By focusing on outcomes, the tools and platforms fall into the background and become enabling capabilities to support business success.

What are you looking to DO with all of this technology? How will you determine if it’s successful? How will you pivot if it isn’t achieving the goal you’re seeking? How will you operationalize innovation as a need-to-have in order to create competitive advantage rather than treating it like an add-on? How will you expand into the white-space that grows your business? How will you solve your customers’ challenges and provide value? What makes you unique and why should I care? What differentiates you from your competitors?

These are some of the most important questions facing businesses today, and one of the best ways to get a handle on them is by focusing on outcomes while iterating over your products to ensure that you’re holding yourself and your goals accountable.

So What’s That Got To Do With Me?

Glad you asked. As I said, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed evolving, and my whole career I’ve embraced change, evolution, and transformation as the life-blood of a healthy mindset. I’ve sought ways and opportunities to challenge myself to keep my natural curiosity and marry it with a spoonful of straying outside of my comfort zone. It’s why I made the leap from Creative Technology, Advertising and Global Brand work to Consultancy… the meat and potatoes of the “build shit” world. I wanted to level-up my ability to build and deliver solid, well-crafted mobile products, and so I joined the right organization at the right time.

Now, as 2023 comes to a close, and 2024 starts up fresh, I’ve decided to once again take a leap, invest in the future, and formalize the product mindset. I’ve enrolled in Product Management Certification and Product Leadership Certification at The Product School, one of the premiere learning institutions in the world for codifying and certifying the growing field of Product Management.

In January and February, I’ll participate in the Product Management Program Certification Course, and that’ll be followed by the Product Leadership Certification Course in February and March.

I’m beyond excited and I plan on pouring that excitement here. Over the Winter and Spring I’m going to be learning a LOT and I’m going to be very excited to share. In the coming months I’ll be looking to expand on some of the following ideas and concepts:

  • What’s product management?
  • How do we understand and set product objectives?
  • Understanding customers and their challenges
  • Creating and validating opportunity hypotheses
  • Defining your product
  • Developing your product
  • Marketing your product and understanding the marketing landscape
  • Product Iteration and delivery

This is a huge personal and professional journey for me (not to mention a significant investment which is where the leap of faith meets the asphalt), and I’m really looking forward to all of the thoughts and conversations that this’ll experience will spark. I’ve enjoyed writing about comic books, music, cycling, and video games, but this will be something a little different. I don’t really know where this expedition will take me, but I know at the end of it, I’m going to be smarter, better, and more prepared to lead the types of strategic conversations that drive real outcomes.

Look out 2024!

J. Walter Thompson

“Walter”

Ran across this and chuckled a bit. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for all things Walter and this design, commissioned from one of the “Archer” animators who were housed over on Williams Street at the time, is my all time favorites. We used this illustrated version of J. Walter in several Atlanta Office in-house efforts during the early 2010’s and it was a really fun identity to work under. With the demise of JWT, feels like a good opportunity to showcase some of the fun history of the agency that may quietly disappear over time.

J. Walter was a Marine, and in 1947 the Agency began one of the longest client relationships in all of advertising that continues today. I was proud to work on that piece of business, and it led me ultimately to VMLY&R to work on the US Navy.

It’s funny how the world works sometimes.

My Last Nirvana Show, 1991

In late 1991 I was back in Oak Harbor visiting shipmates and spent some time down in Seattle partying and catching as much live music as I could. A group of us lucked out and scored Halloween night tickets to Nirvana at the Paramount Theater. It was about a month or so after the release of “Nevermind” and the buzz was pretty intense. I distinctly remember we didn’t dress up (after much discussion about whether or not it was cool to dress up for Halloween), it was a great show and we went out afterwards to Pioneer Square and maybe Re-bar…

I recently ran across this limited edition vinyl of the show, snagged it without even giving it a second thought and it brought back a flood of memories. I absolutely recall Kris scolding folks for not dressing up and the show was as much of a banger as I remember it being. This is definitely one of the live shows I cherish most because of the hype and energy at the time.

I later had plans to see ’em in August of ’92 when I was back in town, but alas that show was canceled due to Kurt and Courtney welcoming Frances Bean into the world. As a result, this wound up being the last time I saw them live.

I was pretty lucky… I had a somewhat charmed life living out west and got to devour a lot of great experiences, with this one being right up there near the top.

Building Transformative Muscle Memory for 2024

I have to admit, I had a pretty good 2023. At work, we’ve started down a path of internal movements that have begun to take shape around how we manage and offer Product Management services, and I’ve had a front-row seat. I may or may not exactly jibe with everything about how you pitch/offer, support, and strategize around the concept of product management, but that’s okay… this is a long road and we’re getting it done for sure.

But one thing I’ve been struck by is how big of an opportunity I think it is, and how many businesses we talk to just don’t have their heads wrapped around it. It reminds me of the early 2000s and the rise of “agile” as a methodology. Similar to “digital transformation” it’s quickly becoming one of those well-worn catch phrases that everybody wants to drop into their Powerpoint deck, and all the heads nod in the room, but you can’t help but feel like a mutated child of Inigo Montoya and Phil Connors, stuck in an endless loop of, “you keep using that word…”.

Inigo Montoya Meme
“Product Management”

As a result, I’ve decided that I’m through sitting on the sidelines waiting for someone… anyone… to wrap their collective heads around the notion and gain my own clarity. I want to lead on a lot of this and I see so many opportunities for real leadership on the consultancy side. If you follow conversations around Product Management, there’s terrific leadership from within the Software/SaaS/Startup world – and rightly so. However it’s very much less so within the halls of Corporate America, where it can really make an impact on the bottom line. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, there are a lot of eyeballs on the bottom line, and any business looking to provide services, support, and leadership are all being grilled on the basic question of, “how is all this going to positively impact my business?”. Rightly so, I might add.

The Master Plan

I’m going to take the bull by the horns and work on developing a real professional understanding of the impact that product management can have in organizations that have typically not flexed those muscles. And to continue stretching this already thin metaphor, you wouldn’t hire a personal trainer who wasn’t fit, so I’m going to have to start “working out” so I’m appropriately “fit” when it comes time to offer up strategic advice and leadership.

The plan so far, is that early next year and into Spring, I intend on spending a lot of time in the mental gym. Part of that process is going to be working on building the muscle memory around taking everything I’m learning, along with the process of learning it, and documenting it.

Here.

So stay tuned. My hope is that this becomes a truly transformative experience and takes all the lessons and experience I’ve had over that last 20 or so years working as a Digital Strategist and Creative Technologist and turns them into a delicious cocktail of personal growth and development. I’m excited and optimistic. Bring on 2024!

I Always Pause On This Day

My view from the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk, on the way into Pearl Harbor. A solemn reminder of the men and women doing their jobs on that fateful day. (Photo: Jeff Small, 1986)

I never forget about today.

Of all the days of the year, this one in particular is a little more special than most and it goes all the way back, not to 1941 but to 1986. The story of how I joined the Navy isn’t that special. I wish I could tell you that sailing the world’s oceans working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier was my life’s calling, but it really wasn’t. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia and when I was 17 I couldn’t wait to get out of that town. At the time I thought it was a small town (Chesterfield County, south of Richmond), I hated high school, I didn’t want to go to college and I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. So I did what anyone else with no direction or purpose would do, I went and joined the military.

I walked into my local recruiting station and there were literally four doors I could’ve gone into. One for the Army, one for the Navy, one for the Air Force, and one for the Marine Corps. If memory serves, one door was closed, one door ignored me, the guys standing in one door were assholes, and the guy in the Navy recruiter office extended a hand and asked me what I wanted to do in the Navy. A question I hadn’t given any thought to until that very moment.

Fast forward a year or so later and I’m working on the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk as an Aviation Ordnanceman in an A-6 Intruder Squadron (The World Famous VA-165 Boomers). I couldn’t have been happier, I was having the time of my life traveling the world working on jets. I hadn’t really ever dawned on me exactly what I had signed up for.

That all changed the first time I pulled into Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

There’s a tradition in the Navy called, “manning the rail“. Basically, the crew lines the edge of the ship in their dress whites (or dress blues depending on the time of year) at “parade rest” as they make their way into port and I had done it once or twice before. The route to the dock at Pearl Harbor is kinda long and as it slowly winds its way into the harbor, you pass the monuments to ships that were sank on that Sunday morning, ultimately arriving at the USS Arizona Memorial.

It was in that moment that I realized on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941 those kids that woke up that morning, whose lives were changed forever, were no different than me. They were doing their jobs, same as anyone else that day. They woke up with plans to go to Church, or maybe go to the beach, or play ball… they never imagined that they’d be fighting off almost the entire Japanese Navy in what would be one of the deadliest attacks in American history.

As I slowly made my way into that harbor and passed those memorials to those sailors, my decision to join the Navy, and the sense of history and pride that I felt in that moment changed me forever. The gravity of that decision finally dawned on me.

I never forget about today. I hope you don’t either.

Diamond Head, O’ahu

Puka shell necklace, bucket hat, Birdwell Beach Britches… quintessential late 80s/early 90s beach attire. I think that’s my Tag Huer I bought over in Hong Kong that I wore to death. Petty Officer Small… just a sailor doing sailor stuff.

Knock Knock…

I have no clue. There’s a door behind me over my right shoulder, I believe that’s my Aviation Ordnance Space (the Ordy Shack) on the USS Kitty Hawk. If memory serves, the Aviation Fire Control Techs (AQs, they work specifically on the radar systems) shared a space with the Aviation Electricians (AEs, they worked on all the OTHER electronic systems – except weapons systems – on the plane) so this was probably taken by my best friend at the time, Mike Stover, who was an AE. I can only guess they were troubleshooting something going on in a pilot’s helmet… but you never know.

And yes, I was “Small-slice”. Augie Dog Hamilton wrote that on my float coat when I got to the ship.

A Sailor’s Prayer

I randomly ran across this on the internet this morning. I’m about 99% certain I’m the sailor on the far right. The sailor on the far left is Greg “Soupy” Campbell, next to him on the right is Craig “The Boz” Bosley, and between us is an AD (engines/powerplants) whose name I can’t recall… but I’m about 99.99% certain I’m the one on the right, and this was taken in Hong Kong on my first cruise in the VA-165 Boomers onboard the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk (CV-63).

We lived life like you’d expect us to, way out there and 100 mph at all times.

Whether I wake up in Thailand,
or Norfolk or Guam
or wake up in Subic with half my stuff gone. 
wake up in a hot tub, butt-naked and drunk,
lord, let me find my way back to my bunk

The Greatest Final Paragraph Ever Written

“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”

— Jack Kerouac – “On The Road”

Work – The JWT Holiday House – 2013

The JWT Holiday House, featured in AdWeek

In the Fall of 2013, I was made director of the Dallas Technology office of JWT / Atlanta. One of the first things I wanted to do was create an environment of innovation, experimentation, and creativity. So I bought everyone in the office a new (at the time) Raspberry Pi microcontroller and told them to go nuts.

The result was this brilliant little bit of fun that we delivered to both the Atlanta and the New York office, to connect the two with a little Christmas Spirit thrown in. It was a huge success and wound up making the list of best agency Christmas cards for that year.

Frank Miller’s Speech to the 1994 Diamond Retailers’ Summit

[Full Audio Below]

I bought this the morning after the GEM Awards show. I knew it was a historic moment, and I’m so glad I not only bought it but somehow saved it in a box of comic book odds and ends.

In college, I was hopelessly addicted to comics. As is the case with most addictions, it doesn’t take long before you realize that the easiest and best way to fuel your addiction is by becoming a dealer. So around my junior/senior year of college, I decided to form a “Comic Book Co-Op”. I had some friends in college who shared my passion for comics and had the requisite monthly appetite. I got myself a Tax ID, a Diamond account, and began ordering books for myself & friends and passing along the 40-50% discount. It was pretty cool while it lasted, and I made a little money on the side selling exclusives, variants, and whatnot at a time when those things commanded a decent price in a hot collector’s market.

It also got me into retailer-only events, one of which was the annual Diamond Retailers Summit. In 1994, this was a huge affair. This was the year that Dark Horse Comics debuted its “Legends” imprint, which at the time, was a SuperGroup of comic imprints. Jim Shooter was also in attendance to promote his new “Defiant Comics” brand, after having just been ousted at one of the hottest publishers of the day, Valiant Comics. It was a crazy time to be in comics, underscored by the fact that the first great talent of my youth, Jack “King” Kirby had just passed away and it truly felt like an era had ended, and here, in this convention center, was the future of comics unfolding before us. So there was excitement tinged with melancholy.

So it was with tremendous anticipation that I looked forward to that year’s annual banquet, hosted by Steve Geppi, with none other than Frank Miller… yes, the Frank Miller giving the keynote speech.

It was classic Frank. To set the stage, at the table in front of him sat most of Marvel Comics’ senior editorial staff, and to the right of them sat DC Comics. Keep that in mind while you listen to one of the best, “angry men” in comics at the time (long before Alan Moore made it fashionable to be a comic book curmudgeon). It was also the first time I ever saw a crowd of people give a comic book creator a standing ovation.

For some odd reason, Diamond saw fit to sell tape copies of the night’s hijinx, and I was fortunate enough to have purchased a copy. I saved it in a box of comic odds & ends and recently saw fit to digitize it and post it for posterity. Enjoy!