Good Product Management is brought to you by Scott Colfer. This newsletter aims to find, support, and amplify people doing good with product management - putting people before profit. This month we hear about running meetups for product managers from Simon Manby.
5 Tips for Product Manager Meetups
Hi I’m Simon, a Senior Product Manager at the Ministry of Justice. I organise big and small meetups for product managers in the UK’s public sector. Here are five tips for running meetups for product managers who put people before profit.
1. Make it worthwhile
Product managers lack spare time, particularly now because of the pandemic. Meetups are often what falls by the wayside when we’re busy. It’s important to make them worthwhile if you want people to sign-up and show-up.
I organise large meetups for product managers working in the UK’s public sector. The next one is about identity in the public sector and takes place in a few days on 9th February.
It’s difficult to see what’s going on across the public sector and these meetups are one way to find out. Product managers find it valuable to meet other people working in similar roles. We learn who’s already working in our space so we can share knowledge and avoid duplicating work. Speakers at these events show their work. We avoid ‘circuit speakers’. Commercial meetups and conferences already provide space for these kind of speakers. We provide space for practitioners to show their products. We sometimes extend invites to other relevant professionals. But everyone has to signup with a government email address so that it’s a safe space to share openly.
I also organise smaller meetups, the next one is Thursday 25th February. I enjoy these the most and learn loads from them. Called ‘Product People in the Ether’, they last for 1-hour and have no topics in advance. They’re limited to 25 attendees who decide their own topics on the day. We use the Agile In the Ether format created by Emily Webber, and decide on topics using the Lean Coffee approach. We get mutual support. Share loads of good practices. And realise that we have the same issues, no matter how different our roles might seem. These meetups are also great for finding themes for the larger meetups.
You need around 50 or more attendees to make it worthwhile for speakers. I know that if we get 80 signups then at least 40-70 people will actually attend. Also, by avoiding ‘circuit speakers’ we’re sometimes giving people their first chance to talk about their work with a large audience.
I run these events because they help my own products. It’s OK to go with topics that are valuable for you. I’m currently doing a lot of work on identity. My recent meetups have directly helped with identity Alpha I’m working on. There’s a lack of commonality when it comes to standards, security, and privacy when it comes to identity. With a lack of official, central direction - these meetups have helped nudge some of our organisations closer together. We’re uncovering emergent thinking, technology, and policy. We’re challenging the thinking in this space, uncovering hypotheses and testing underlying assumptions. We’re finding and supporting the people who’re taking risks and making bets. This all increases the chances of success for my own product.
I also get to see what’s going on in our profession. We don’t seem to have got our heads around big data yet. There’s a bit of an existential ‘what is product management?’ thing going on at the moment. I’ve learned that we are our own worst critics.
2. Use existing networks
I arrange all of my meetups under the existing banner of ‘Product People’. It’s for product managers in the public sector Civil Service, and these are my people. It’s an existing brand originally started by Rose Waite and Will Garner in the Home Office many years ago and is now a network and email list of over 900 people. I haven’t created my own network, I’m supporting an existing one.
3. Embrace online
It’s always been the case that meetups in real life exclude a lot of people and are often London-centric. I’d already started using Zoom for small meetups when the pandemic came along, and it led to us moving all meetups online. Online events are the most inclusive format. But there are still significant barriers to technology. Particularly in the public sector, where permissions are inconsistent across organisational boundaries.
It’s important to use the lowest-common denominator technology when publicising events. Email remains the best way to reach product managers in the public sector. Lots of technology remains fire-walled. For the same reason, it’s important to test technology with speakers first. For my first online meetup, two of the speakers couldn’t connect at the last minute because of firewalls. Finding the level of technology is important. You want to choose the best technology you can without disenfranchising people. For the smaller events I use eventbrite to manage attendees and Zoom for the event itself. For the larger events I use Hopin to manage and run the entire thing, including the ability for people to have informal conversations in the periphery of the event.
One of the benefits of online events is getting international speakers more easily. At a recent event we had great speakers including Stefaan and Andrew from GovLab in the US, talking about working with Uber to open data for their local authorities. This wouldn’t have been possible if they had to attend in person.
4. Prepare to spend money
I’ve spent over £3,000 of my own money on kit, rooms, materials, stickers, and software over the last few years. I don’t want sponsorship and don’t want to charge attendees as I want to provide a totally free and safe space. But it’s hard to get funding for meetups and this is a barrier to running them. I’d love to hear from people who’ve found funding for these type of events.
5. You can do it
Noone wants to organise meetups. Everyone wants to attend meetups. I spotted a gap and it was easier to fill it myself than wait for someone else to do it. If I can do it, you can do it.
The Agile in the Ether community has been helpful and supportive. As has Emily herself. Emily’s running a course on building successful communities of practice in March, and her book (which is brill) is available to buy.
Kathy Pham and team ran a meetup called Product Management and the Public Interest Summer Convening that was really interesting. I liked the format and platform they used called Spatial. There were small lightening talks and the ability to talk to people in informal spaces. I’ve not seen technology setup to support informal networking so successfully before.
There aren’t many learning resources catered for product managers in the Civil Service so Rose Waite’s work to create one is great. The course is self-managed and open source, and already being used outside of Government by Local Authorities in the UK. And I still use Rose’s guidance on how to setup and maintain your own community.
It’s really hard to publish roadmaps in the open. Roadmaps have become this panacea for everything and it can feel to risky to share them. That’s why I’m impressed that Steve Messer and the team has shared the roadmap for GOV.UK Pay.
Other good examples of working in the open include the The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Digital blog, the GOV.UK Design System on Github, DEFRA Future Farming and Countryside Programme, and Hackney and Croydon councils.
Name: Simon Manby
Role: Senior Product Manager for the Ministry of Justice
Current product: Modernising lasting power of attorney.
How I got into product management: I never wanted to be a product manager (does anyone?). I come from operational delivery and wanted to improve things. I knew a bit more about tech than everyone else and ended up working with the new Government Digital Service as a subject matter expert in a small team of people trying to digitise the lasting power of attorney in the UK. This was in 2011. Make, register or end a lasting power of attorney became the first GOV.UK-hosted service (although Kaz Hufton took it through its Live assessment!) and I morphed into a product owner.
Why I work in a non-profit organisation: Altruism is appealing to me. I don’t want all of my team’s efforts ultimately going to pay the salaries of the top few people in the organisation. When my work is ultimately about making things better for a citizen, that’s more important to me than getting the biggest salary possible.
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