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How to prioritise your product development roadmap – advice from Intercom’s Maria Gutierrez

April 11, 2019

Written by Lucy Fuggle

“As a business grows, it is really impossible to centralise decision making,” shared Maria Gutierrez at Turing Fest 2018.

As head of Intercom‘s engineering team in London, Maria Gutierrez is a seasoned pro at determining effective product roadmaps. For Maria, this starts with a strong team that can be accountable in a transparent work environment.

At the time of her Turing Fest 2018 session, Maria was VP of Engineering at Edinburgh fintech FreeAgent. Over a 20 year engineering career that has also included stints at Adobe and LivingSocial, Maria has honed her teams’ ability to juggle multiple priorities, approach work intentionally, and diligently use the right metrics to inform their roadmap.

Here’s how she makes it work and answers the complaints that engineering leaders loathe to hear, from “I want to build new features, not fix customers’ problems” to “it’ll be done when it’s done.”

Involve your team in decision making as early as possible

“You hired a team because you want to use their skills to help you be successful,” says Maria, “not to tell them what to do and how to do it.”

“A handful of people around the exec table are not in a position to be able to make the right decisions about everything in the business. They are just there to set the direction and set goals. They rely on the expertise of the people in their teams to be able to think about priorities, identify threats and opportunities, and make things happen.”

Every person in a business needs the tools to come up with their own conclusions, make decisions, and learn from those decisions, says Maria.

It starts with an effective onboarding process that introduces new team members to the core mission, values, and goals of the business. This influences everything that follows in their work.

Book recommendation: Maria recommends The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business by Patrick Lencioni.


Cultivate transparency & accountability

As a leader, your role is to be as transparent as possible. For others, it’s to be accountable, says Maria – to make an effort to “understand the context of the business.”

“As engineers, simply focusing on our technical expertise just doesn’t cut it. You are going to have to pay attention to way more than just your coding jobs or the technology you would like to use to solve a certain problem.”

During Maria’s time at FreeAgent, they held a weekly Friday Town Hall to talk about big topics as a team. “It’s a great opportunity for us to reinforce where we’re going as a business, what problems we face, and to get everybody on the same page. Everyone in the business gets to present to everybody else.”

“We even invite some of our customers to come and talk to us about how they’re using the software and any problems they have. There’s nothing stopping you from getting to know your customers.”

Determine your roadmap by balancing key priorities

Maria encourages us to continually ask, “what’s important now?”

“When it comes to prioritising work in product and engineering [at FreeAgent], we do it by trying to find a balance between three areas,” says Maria. These are:

  1. Strategic work — Thinking about product and technology strategy, so you can continue to be relevant in a competitive market and ensure your product can survive over the years.

  2. Improvements — Investing in continuous improvements to the functionality that customers are already using. Making sure customers are getting value and don’t churn.

  3. Housekeeping – Keeping the systems at the level of service, quality and productivity that is necessary for a growing and premium product.

“Neglecting some of these areas in the past has caused us quite a few problems,” says Maria. “We try to find a good balance.”

Optimise for momentum and predictability

Maria optimises her teams for momentum and predictability. This allows them to set clear expectations with other teams that really depend on product, like marketing, sales, or support.

“To encourage momentum, we constrain ourselves on the time available to work on a type of product. We have to be ruthless scoping the work we do. It has to be meaningful enough so that it provides value, but small enough that we can ship it quickly and learn from it, without compromising on quality.”


Use KPIs & OKRs to inform product direction

“The way we measure quality is through our scorecards,” says Maria. “Where things are in the red, that’s a clear call to action for us to go and do something about it.”

Maria is clear on what they do with the performance data they collect, which “everyone has access to at any point in time”:

“With all that information, and with all business goals at hand, each team individually goes away and comes up with a proposed set of work for the quarter that will align with those business goals but also with the mission and with the strategy of the team.

All product managers, engineers and design leads then get together about a month before we start the quarter to discuss each team’s work around our strategic, tactical and clean-up work.”

Based on team capacity and priorities for the business, they prioritise work across all of the teams and check resources are in the right place. “Together, we rearrange things to see what we can make happen and help each other out,” says Maria.


Visualise your shipping cadence

After defining what to work on, Maria emphasises the importance of clear timeframes. “When we plot the expected delivery date for a piece of work, it helps us visualise our shipping cadence across the whole of engineering.”

“This is all about the momentum. We can also see the balance between strategic work, more tactical work, the investments we make in our platform, and keeping things maintainable. Delivery dates inform the big launches we do with marketing, as well as how to communicate small improvements with customers.”

“Sales, marketing and support are part of our roadmap sessions so they have awareness of what we’re doing, but also to help us prioritise. In our little bubble, we don’t have all the answers about what’s most important.”

“It looks like a lot of processes and a lot going on,” says Maria, “but they are all just tools to provide clarity to a team, so they can then truly go and operate anonymously, knowing that they are actually focusing on the right things, and that everything that they do counts. We are all in this together.”


Be intentional

“Be intentional about where you spend your time. Start those curious conversations with your team and actively engage with everyone in the business, not just your fellow engineers,” says Maria.

“Without understanding the mission, the priorities, and without spending the time understanding the risks and the problems that a business faces, whether with colleagues or your customers, you will fail to make the right decisions.”

“Will you go and fix that customer problem? It might not be what you enjoy, but it could be the right thing to do for the business.”

Maria also encourages team members to get involved in their business’s processes. “They are not there to get in the way, they are there to give you clarity and help you get your job done.”

“Provide and seek feedback from others. And please, please don’t forget to help and support others in the process. Only then will you start to really influence what you will be working on going forward.”

The takeaways:

  • Involve your entire team in decision making, not just the exec table.

  • Cultivate a culture of transparency and accountability.

  • There are no excuses for not involving your customers in your roadmap.

  • Nor other teams that depend on you, like sales, marketing and support.

  • Be ruthless about scoping. Make a release meaningful enough to provide value, but small enough to ship quickly and learn from it.

  • Use scorecards to indicate where attention is needed in the next sprint.

  • Set clear delivery dates to plot shipping cadence.

  • Work intentionally. Don’t forget about your company’s mission, values, and big goals.

  • Help, support, and involve your whole team – always.

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