Ottawa Shows its Product Management Colours

By Walter Knitl – CEO at PraxiemChief Business Development Officer at IoT613

It’s no surprise that the Ottawa area is a top technology hub in North America. With that comes a thriving Product Management community, which was on display at ProductCamp Ottawa 2019, produced by the Ottawa Product Management Association (OPMA). The event, hosted by Invest Ottawa at Bayview Yards, brought product management and related professionals together to exchange ideas and learn from each other about the leadership, development, and the scaling behind successful products.

It doesn’t shock anyone to know that the product management function is critical for product success, but the large spectrum of issues and entanglements with other functions and stakeholders is often an eye-opener for the uninitiated.  After the opening address by Andrew Faulkner, CEO of OPMA, this spectrum, the tone, and theme for the event was laid out by a great opening keynote from David Ross, CEO of Ross Video. The discussions that followed the rest of the day, through a select panel and participant-defined sessions, layered the event with the colours of the product management spectrum. What follows are some of the key areas of discussion.

What’s in a Name

It wouldn’t be a product management event without questioning the definition of the name or the term “Product Management” function itself and the role of a Product Manager. The answer invariably differs, even among product managers, depending on one’s experience in different types of companies (product providers) with different structures, sizes, maturity, and culture.

The consensus, however, converges on product management and product managers seeing the whole product picture and being accountable for product success. This was compared, by Steve Johnson in his talk, to being a conductor of an orchestra engaging the players to ensure the musical piece is delivered to the audience.  A reference to the way that product management engages different stakeholders from development, to marketing, to support, and customers and others to deliver the product to market.

So, with this in mind, what makes a good Product Manager?  David Ross provided his five-point take in the opening keynote – a product manager must

  • understand the customer and their problems,
  • understand the technology needed to solve it,
  • be a good communicator,
  • have a passion for the problem and solution, and
  • never give up even if other people find you annoying.

He added that “you guys and gals have an impossible job”, and managing a product is “like raising a child”. Alternatively, I would say managing a product is like conducting a symphony, and maybe even writing it.

It’s not Either-or

Much is said about the importance of product managers understanding customers and their problems and being a customer advocate. And for a good reason – without solving a real pain, a product will fail. The ways to elicit needs and define features to satisfy customer needs  was duly covered in sessions by Malik Jumani and  Colin Moden. Not to mention frequent references about building product UX that aligns with the customer way of working.

While the above was going on, there were other non-customer related discussions.  That is, about the requirements of the company or product provider – the need to stay in business and provide a return to owners.  To that end, Mark Lindsay provided a compelling discussion on product management’s accountability for ROI (return on investment) and the need for entanglement with internal functions ranging development, testing, procurement, production, and many others.

So, which one does the product manager focus on?  It’s not an either-or answer. It’s clear the product managers must have their feet simultaneously in both realms – the customer’s, and their own company’s.  The main job is to align the interests of the customer and their company to ensure a successful product.

Master Influencer, but Master Not

Given the communicator and the persistence traits noted in the keynote, and discussions around engaging a plethora of stakeholders, it’s a no brainer, and without objection, to say that a product manager must be a good influencer. For example, influencing development on features and prioritization; C-suite or owners on why the company should enter or exit markets; customers on the merits and values of a new product line; and many other situations.

The product manager as a master influencer was addressed by a number of sessions aimed at elevating the influencing skills of ProductCamp goers.

One of the interactive session was headed by Amanda Holtstrom on the importance of the product manager’s status. It included role-playing interactions with stakeholders from simulated positions of low and high status.  Status is important for product managers to be respected and taken seriously.

Another important part of influence is networking, which was expertly covered by Michael Hughes. That is, creating new and cultivating existing customer, partner, and generally stakeholder relationships. The all-important thing to remember, he asserted, is that we buy people first, ideas second, and things last. Consequently, it’s important to first establish a personal human connection by demonstrating a genuine interest in the other person.

Video, as another tool in the influence toolbox, was covered by Darryl Praill. Short videos are a great way to cast out your take on the industry, technology, or products, to provide a platform for feedback into your processes, and generally to establish thought leadership and influence with your stakeholders. It’s important, however, to set an objective for each video and do it with confidence.  The ROI on this is not hard to prove, especially due to the availability of reasonably low-cost video gear.

With the pervasive influence needed in many directions, it might seem easier at times for product managers to delve into narrow areas themselves for apparent expediencies – such as, for example, do detailed R&D budget planning, or debug code. This would be wrong.  An overwhelming consensus says that a product manager cannot be, nor should be a master of all areas. This would be akin to, as Steve Johnson put it, the conductor playing the trumpet if the trumpet player doesn’t play their part correctly. The conductor’s influencing role is to set the piece objectives and help the player understand their role in it and to understand their problem, but leave it to their professional skill to interpret and execute.

Yes, but don’t SaaS me

Software as a Service (SaaS) has become a dominant way of delivering applications and software-based services. It leverages the ever-growing network performance and capacity to offload much of the previously needed on-premise IT functions into the cloud. In the process, it provides better cost performance, service/application continuity between desktop and mobile devices, and many other benefits.

It’s no surprise, then, that a panel on SaaS Product Ecosystem was an important session at ProductCamp, and of great relevance to product managers.  The panel moderated by David Mennie that included Catherine CormierAaron EvansLibby Robinson, and Kari Simpson also discussed the role of UX.  One of the takeaways was that UX isn’t just about pretty panels, but also a way to build relationships with stakeholders. Furthermore, properly designed, UX can help discover innovation opportunities by assessing its impact through continual measurement.

The panel also concurred that an effective and sustainable SaaS road map should have three areas – to grow the business, defend it, and explore new possibilities. Tracking feature requests to opportunities is also important, as is tracking deal wins/losses with or without features.

With all the talk of SaaS greatness, one might conclude SaaS is the only way to go for all software solutions.  But, don’t sass me about SaaS. That was the sentiment expressed by David Ross, as SaaS still doesn’t cover many solutions. One assumes he comes from a place where specialized hardware in the solution is needed to do high-speed processing with stringent real-time response. Here SaaS, with limiting cloud compute performance and long and non-deterministic delays, just won’t cut it for real-time on-location video production. He contends that selling software and maintenance contracts is still a valid way to go.

Shares or Sharing

Undeniably, to bring products to market or to grow a business requires resources and money – a well-trodden and inescapable quarter for product managers. A common form of money is external investment, such as by Venture Capitalists (VCs), which, while offering faster growth ramp potential, results in diluting founder and existing owner equity, by shares issues to VCs.

But, you don’t have to go down this road – you can grow through profit reinvestment. This, likely slower growth rate, can be accelerated through debt. Get to know your banker. They want to see you succeed.

There are two types of companies, according to David Ross. Carnivores that acquire companies for growth, and herbivores that grow organically.  While acquisitions are not entirely unavoidable, remaining herbivorous has its advantages. Forming partnerships among herbivores for sharing development, IP, and other resources can provide huge leverage to organically amplify product portfolios. This may also be possible with competitors in a co-opetition relationship.  Further, customers can also potentially finance scale. Growing herbivorously like this, without VCs, reduces risks and various associated problems such as founder dilution, having to know your exit date before starting, and others.

It’s a Community

ProductCamp Ottawa 2019 is a proof point of the Product Management community and talent that exists in the Ottawa region.  This well-attended event was the product of many in the community, but the driving force behind the event and much thanks go to Hala Hawa for her organizing expertise, perseverance, and long hours.

The ProductCamp would not be possible without the participation of the keynotes, guest speakers, sponsorship, and support from the following companies:

Assent Compliance 

Bayview Yards


InGenius Software

Invest Ottawa



Pragmatic Institute



Tweet Beam


And, of course, kudos goes to the Ottawa Product Management Association and its leadership and volunteers who run monthly networking and learning events. They provide continuity and a hub for the region’s Product Management and related professionals, which culminates in the annual ProductCamp.

Product Management is not a linear process but a space with several dimensions that product managers breathe and live in, in their quest for product success and accountability.

Come out to the next event, and join OPMA to SHARE your knowledge, LEARN from others, and GROW yourself and the region – and in the process, become a true Product Management space navigator.

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