Many people reading this will be thinking about or in the midst of developing a product team. It’s helpful to speak with people who have been through it, especially those who have stepped away and had time to reflect.
Ramin Beheshti has done just that. As group chief product and technology officer for Dow Jones from January 2017 through February 2021, he led a staff of 650 people worldwide. He was responsible for global technology strategy, delivery, and operations across all of the company’s customer-facing products, including digital product development, software engineering, cloud infrastructure, and information security.
In our interview, I ask Ramin to outline his thinking and give some advice.
Jodie: In your experience and from what you have seen elsewhere, where do you think product is best to sit within a news organisation?
Ramin: I have spent a lot of time on this over the years. It’s less about where it sits. I think organisations have a huge overreliance on reporting lines as a way of making things happen. I’ll come on to that. With regards to products’ role in news organisations, in our industry we are slightly deluding ourselves if we do not realise that the content is a key part of the product. So the relationship between the newsroom and product is key, but there has to be respect both ways.
I see a lot of respect and deference to the news department, but too often the role of product is not understood or properly appreciated. They should be the group that helps the content connect with the audience and to monetise it effectively. In reality, this means they have to be able to work with all aspects of the company, yet because of the fixation on reporting lines (I’ve experienced) it often sits somewhere neutral. Tech is often the most logical “neutral” place (maybe I am biased), but I would argue that product should have it’s own seat at the top table of a news organisation and be recognised as its own discipline.
If you do that, you have to create the right dynamic between product and technology. Because while product should work with all departments, it’s relationship with technology is absolutely paramount to building great digital experiences. I’ve seen a number of instances where there is a lot of friction between CPO and CTO that trickles down and can really slow forward progress.
In summary, product needs to be in a neutral part of the organisation that’s either with technology or, ideally, as it’s own function with leadership at the top of the organisation — but watch for the dynamic with tech.
Jodie: Who, or which department, is best to “own” the relationship with the customer?
Ramin: Honestly ... everyone! I really think everyone in the organisation should feel a sense of obligation to understand their customers better. I appreciate that’s not practical, but as a culture or mindset it has to be true. The more people in the organisation that can look at data, hear from, meet with customers the better the products will be. So “own” the relationship should be a collective exercise.
That said, product has probably the most significant role in the relationship with the customer. They should be able to assimilate all of the different data points/feedback into a coherent understanding of the customer — developing different customer profiles and segments that the products should be targeted at and ensuring the focus of the product is equally on solving what those segments need, not just what customers say they want. This is critical in being able to develop world-class products. Often the focus is solving what the customer said they wanted, not trying to understand what needs they have and helping to solve that.
Jodie: We’ve talked a lot about goals and metrics in the product initiative. Do you have a preferred framework for aligning goals?
Ramin: It starts with clear and translatable business goals. These should be leading indicators that are business priorities. By that I mean if you achieve them, they lead to an increase in revenue. There shouldn’t be many, one maybe two.
For example, increasing the number of days per month a subscriber engages with your product is a clear goal that you can translate to all products, and if you increase, it will lead to less churn and therefore higher revenue. That’s not to say that other metrics like time spent, number of articles read are not important. But you could decide they are not AS important as that one and having ONE clear goal provides crystal clear focus for the organisation.
You can have all parts of the organisation then work towards moving that number, and each product can determine what they need to do in their product to influence that goal. You can break down that goal further to smaller goals, which ladder up to the overall goal. For example, increasing the number of days per month a specific customer segment uses a product. It then allows you to build features that are designed to drive return visits and to measure this through experimentation.
As a leader, having this consistent focus means you can get out of the team’s way, and you can bring together cross-functional teams as you are aligned around the same goal. Even better if you can align incentives around moving that one number, it becomes incredibly powerful tool.
Jodie: You’ve managed cultural shifts within news organisations. What advice can you give to INMA members when going through similar changes when implementing product as a discipline?
Ramin: A few things. First of all, define what product is and isn’t in your organisation. I’d spend time on that, as for each organisation it can be nuanced and everyone has (wrong) preconceptions. Next, if you find yourself spending most of the time debating organsational structures, it’s not going to be successful. The shift shouldn’t centre on moving teams reporting lines around. It’s disruptive and not how work (should) get done. Finally spend your time as a product leader on how you can create clear goals, enable teams to work on aligned outcomes, and then get out of there way.
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