MENA PMs #3: The Art of Product Management With Eat App’s Product Director | Joseph Boston | by Shehab Beram | Product@MENA | Mar, 2023

MENA PMs #3: The Art of Product Management With Eat App’s Product Director | Joseph Boston | by Shehab Beram | Product@MENA | Mar, 2023

Our third guest of the Product@MENA series is Joseph Boston. Joseph is one of the most active product influencers in the MENA region, and he runs a YouTube channel to explain critical product management concepts. Joseph has led many product teams in the MENA region, including Talabat’s post-order experience team. That said, let me give the floor to Joseph to introduce himself.

Part 1: All About The Star of the Show, Joseph

Shehab: Who is Joseph?

Joseph: I started my career as an engineer in 2010 and pivoted into product leadership in 2015.

  • I led the building and deployment of Dubizzles first mobile app and incubated a mobile chapter there, helping to transform the company into a mobile-first company.
  • I created communication tooling and led products for customer messaging at OLX for a while.
  • I led product for Talabat’s post-order experience for a while
  • I worked as a growth hacker and community manager at a YC startup called Ramen VR, focusing my time on product tooling to enable scalable community growth.
  • Most recently, I have been the Product Director at Eat App, focusing on B2B and B2B2C for restaurants’ dining experience and table management software.

Shehab: What is your superpower? And How did you gain it?

Joseph: My superpower is the ability to quickly read through the lines of cost and impact due to my technical background and reduce the chance of failed experimentation.

My other superpower is ensuring companies succeed by flipping companies with scalable product-led org structures and strategies; I gained this through years of reading theory and practicing it, as well as learning from many failures and successes.

Shehab: Let’s go back to the start. Tell us a bit about what you studied and where your career journey began.

Joseph: My career first began when I started building computers when I was 12 and selling them to friends and family. I realized that people also needed software, so I started an e-commerce shop for ‘small tools and how to guide ebooks.’ Back then, I burnt these to discs and sold the discs.

In 2008, I realized that building software was way more fun and started building and hosting websites. I eventually moved into app development in 2010 and successfully built and launched my first profitable mobile app in 2013. That’s how I got into the startup and SME tech world.

Shehab: Which part of being a product director is the most challenging for you?

Joseph: Making sure people are focused; even with the right tooling, it can be tough to ensure that we truly focus on the right opportunities. This isn’t just about gaining the buy-in of stakeholders or convincing people with the right data points; it mostly comes down to how you balance your time, delegate, and empower your team to make the right decisions with the right advice and knowing when to go completely hands-off.

Secondly is making sure people are practicing; what I mean by this is that company team members are not reactively working but proactively thinking carefully about how they spend their time on building. This requires a practice of frameworks, usage of tools, cadence, and communication at the right time.

Balancing the line between discovery empowerment and guidance; It’s quite easy when you are in a position of decision-making and focus facilitation to accidentally top-down initiatives. There will always be learnings from your past you want to communicate to your team, but communicating them succinctly without accidentally doing the work for your team can sometimes be challenging. For example, stating problems may not be enough and will lead to outcomes that might not really align with the key strategic opportunities the business faces. In these cases, it’s always better to overcommunicate and make it clear to your squads that they can overrule your suggestion, and you’ll be totally fine about that. Ultimately, what is important is the what and why encouraging candid and continuous discovery and communication together to make sure the show brings the intended value to your customers.

Part 2: Managing Product Teams Effectively

Shehab: I know Eat App is a hot company in the region right now. Tell us more about it. What problems do you solve? And what products are you building?

Joseph: I actually generated an article on this yesterday using ChatGpt and a good 50 different ‘value statements’ for each of the product offerings we have. As a 1 liner, eat app aims to be the world’s best, most loved guest dining experience platform covering everything from the moment a guest walks in the door to when a guest pays the bill, gets up, and leaves, focusing on increasing the number of first time and returning reservations through guest experience enhancer mechanisms. You can see ’12 ways eat app does this’ (generated via ChatGpt and lightly edited because ChatGpt is the cool new toy at the moment).

Shehab: How many product teams do you have? Do you structure your product teams around products, user types, user journeys, outcomes, or something in between?

Joseph: We currently have 3 tribes; Activation (top of funnel focused; focused on helping customers get value from eat app in their very first week of usage), Retention (bottom of funnel focused; focusing on helping customers with the longer term usability and delight) and Enterprise (focused on making sure we can help larger customers who have specific tailored requirements without creating feature bloat). We have Product and Design in each, focusing on strengthening our funnel and go to markets. The size of the company is so small, so although we would love to branch out the squads into specific user personas, suites with product market fit, and new verticals, we have to be quite multi-hatted and bring the most bang for our buck to the org too. This means that a funnel-based approach to tribes works best for us in our current growth stage.

Shehab: How do you think departmental silos affect your product teams? In what ways do you build and maintain relationships with stakeholders from different teams?

Joseph: When I joined Eat App, my first job was to remove departmental silos by making every department think about how customers use our product across the board. Everyone in the company agreed to flip from a departmental style org and join tribes focused on the best opportunities for the org. This means that although sales, account management, customer support, and marketing all have their day-to-day work to do, they are actively involved in what we build, why we build it and discussing what is valuable for customers as well as internal enhancements and scalability. We aimed to be silo free after 9 months, it’s been 18 months, and I would say that we are nearly completely silo free.

Part 3: Strategy Talk

Shehab: How do you align your user needs with the company’s vision and your product strategy?

Joseph: Speak to them every day! I do blind spot check calls to newly signed up customers, and regular customer visits every day. Luckily we are selling restaurant management dining experience solutions so we can test our own product and do customer research every day while getting the best food in town! A great motivation factor to ensuring we get customer feedback all the time.

To make sure it’s aligned with our company’s vision, mission, and tribal OKRs, we always visit restaurants with the intention to validate or invalidate experiments continuously. We may even launch experiments we have already launched before. These continuous exercises help to make sure we are never building for the sake of building.

Shehab: How do you align your team on the strategy and the vision? How do you make sure that everyone feels heard?

Joseph: We do brainstorming once per quarter, usually involving everyone in the business. That includes internal ways of working, how we show value to customers, and how we create delightful product experiences. We use techniques such as OST mapping, cost vs. impact mapping, and JTBD mapping for our personas as well as internal personas and general brainstorming. This way, everyone has a chance to bring the opportunities they think are most valuable to the table. Two great examples of how this has worked recently are enhancements to our core reservation management experience, where we have reduced the time it takes our users to perform core tasks by more than half! Impressive for 1 experiment! There are many other small enhancements and problems that have been solved by simply giving each and every one space to throw ideas and opportunities on the table.

Shehab: How do you set the strategic priorities for your product teams?

Joseph: We first assess the landscape; surrounding businesses, adjacent, parallel, as well as key competitors and then see where value can be brought to customers the fastest and with the biggest scale (a TAM/SAM/SOM thought process but also taking into consideration where you are placed across the landscape; are there adjacent opportunities we can grab at too and avoiding anything high cost or low impact with a cost vs. impact map). Of course, this is a simplification; sometimes, opportunities come to the table out of nowhere when we are doing user testing that we would have never expected. Even sometimes, when we are out trying our own product, we notice clear value drivers that are missing that we can adopt, and they also get assessed as part of our strategic priorities.

Ultimately, the most important thing after assessing what to focus on strategically is that the way we set our Vision, Mission, and OKRs allows for every single departmental lead and individual to feel motivated and understand how they can play their part. There’s no point in setting a strategy if it leaves half your employees feeling left helpless. People have to be considered just as much in how they help make your product the world’s best just as much as the size of the opportunities you run with.

Shehab: It is crucial for product managers to focus on strategic thinking. Is there anything you are doing to improve it, and if so, how?

Joseph: I am constantly reading books, more recently, carefully selected LinkedIn ‘influencers’, and I ask advice from a few CPO and product leaders who act as voicing walls to speak your mind to.

Some of my favorite books for product-related roles recently read are: ‘Who moved my cheese?’, ‘Empowered’, ‘Inspired’, ‘Loved’, ‘Measure what matters’, ‘Hooked’, ‘The product-led organization’, ‘Continuous discovery habits’, ‘The Cold Start Problem’.

Shehab: How do you perform product discovery? What tools/techniques/methods do you use? Do the results affect your product strategy?

Joseph: Product discovery is the difference between building something that nobody needs and something that everybody needs. If you don’t do it, you’ll probably have been lucky or just straight-up fail.

Product discovery goes back to a few classic rules for me:

  • Focus on outcome over output; you could change some text and get a massive uplift in whatever metric creates value for your company, or you could build a 3-month project and get no value. Ultimately, it’s about realizing that it’s not about the size of the experiment that counts; it’s about the value it brings. When you speak with customers, make sure you are focusing on their problems and opportunities to save them pain on <job they want to complete>.
  • When you speak with customers; summarize and categorize the feedback and focus on quantity as well as the value that piece of feedback brings. Remember also that when you are asking unbiased and open-ended questions and putting the customer in a position where they are okay to rip your product apart completely, you still may not hear some obvious glaring issues with your product. This is because your product was built with a goal in mind, and sometimes more valuable goals can be found along the way, so listen carefully and actively and make sure that you don’t miss the golden low-hanging fruits that sometimes get mentioned.
  • Opportunity solution trees; as simple as it sounds, sometimes just breaking down opportunities into minimizable steps makes a big difference. If you want to understand and define the opportunities, you need to break them down into smaller chunks first. That’s where opportunity solution trees come in handy. Teresa Torres has some great advice on this, so I recommend following her on LinkedIn or reading her book continuous discovery habits. It’s also the simplest method to make sure that you are focusing on outcomes for your customers over random shiny output.
  • Always start with empathy; Ultimately, your customers are the ones paying for your product. If they think your product is bad or it doesn’t make their life easier, they won’t pay you, and they definitely won’t be happy. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes, empathize with them, and they will tell you what the true problems are and help you identify those golden opportunities.
  • Qualitative data is just as important as quantitative data; don’t just rely on quantifiable ‘statistical significance’ to make decisions. It can work well for obvious wins, but if you change something simply because ‘it converts better,’ you run the risk of accidentally churning customers because you didn’t read into crucial qualitative survey data, user testing sessions, and other data that can sometimes be more emotionally driven.
  • Why?Why?Why?; Always dig deeper when speaking with customers and reading feedback. You will have to make a leap on a hypothesis at some point, but as Marty Cagan preaches, you need to reduce the risk of your experiment failing as much as possible, and the best way to do that is to be able to assess feasibility, value and surrounding factors and its much harder to do that going on a hunch — Deploying a rule of thumb to ask why when it doesn’t feel like the complete story will help you improve the confidence of success and choice in experiments.
  • Job step mapping; originally, when I started using this methodology, I felt like I was bastardizing it and overusing it… but over time, I realized that it’s just an amazing technique that I was taught many years ago, and it’s stuck with me since. Job step mapping exercises with your customers allow you to make sure that when you are speaking with your customer, they don’t forget the small and important details that waste their time day to day. There is gold hidden in those details, and it never fails to bring value.
  • Discover with your OKR in mind; It’s easy to get sidetracked by valuable things which actually just are valuable in a way that doesn’t move the needle. It’s okay to assess them, but always remember that you are making a product with an objective in mind, and if the value prop doesn’t match the result you are looking for, it’s probably worth moving down that priority list. I have a great video on how you can fit OKRs into your org here: Product Management Applied — OKR’s.
  • Don’t skip it!; It sounds stupid, but product discovery is skipped way too much by too many companies. If you skip product discovery, you’ll likely be building the wrong thing. Here’s a video on how to build the right thing: Product management Applied — Building the right thing.

Shehab: How do you engage with the product teams to break the strategy into initiatives and features?

Joseph: The product teams break the strategy into experiments. We don’t really talk much about features but more about how overall, they will help reach our OKRs. We assess weak points in our funnels and then do experimentation to improve that. When an obvious opportunity or gap appears in our funnel, that becomes a larger experiment or set of experiments, and we categorize them into epics that we map within the theme for our quarter. Saying this, we use OKRs to help us focus. Still, OKRs are never spoken about enough until you find measurable leading indicators to match against / slice success indicators of your OKRs.

Part 4: Getting The Execution Right

Shehab: How do you ensure efficient execution? What methods do you use with your teams?

Joseph: The golden ingredient for me over the years has just been to keep work in progress limited. As soon as it gets too much, look back and reflect. You can use points-based measurements to determine if someone is being overloaded with work. It’s best to let your engineers set their own capacity and create a culture and environment where they can challenge themselves to do the best they can.

Shehab: How do your product/design review meetings work?

Joseph: They usually happen after standups and in bi-weekly product and design chapter reviews where we discuss upcoming experiments and UX/UI changes. We apply (loosely) a 30/60/90 rule where if something isn’t quite complete and agreed on, it cannot be ’90{64d42ef84185fe650eef13e078a399812999bbd8b8ee84343ab535e62a252847} complete’. Nothing is ever 100{64d42ef84185fe650eef13e078a399812999bbd8b8ee84343ab535e62a252847} complete, after all.

Shehab: In a word, what makes a PRD or a user story effective?

Joseph: A PRD is successful if it aligns everyone, and everyone walks away understanding the What, why, and at least the high details of the how by the end of it.

A user story, on the other hand, is effective if the intended individuals to read it understand the expected outcome for the user explicitly. I think it’s also great to use user stories as a way to create UACs (user acceptance criteria) better too.

Shehab: How do you usually guide your product team to avoid falling into the trap of product edge cases?

Joseph: Proper and candid discussions of SAM, value, and cost; it’s very healthy to say something is a weak idea, even if they put a lot of time into it. You need to nurture a culture where people are okay saying, ‘actually, it’s not great like this.’

Shehab: Thank you, Joseph, for taking the time to have this interview and to share with us all of these practical tips!

Joseph: Thank you, Shehab!