The Product Specialist role in a Distributed Team Setup

by Carsten Ernst - 15 Jun 2016

My name is Carsten and I joined Zalando 3.5 years ago as a Product Manager for mobile apps. I’ve spent most of my time with Zalando’s Fashion Store app for iOS, but for about a year now, I’ve been working on a new app product called fleek. fleek is a fashion e-commerce app that connects mobile-savvy consumers with brands, retailers, and influencers.

Since the introduction of Radical Agility, my job at Zalando has evolved: I’ve now become a Product Specialist. Radical Agility is a cultural approach that we follow to keep our big tech organization scaling in ambition and scope. In this post I’ll explain what that means for me as a Product Specialist in my day-to-day work.

Product Management Before Radical Agility

It has been quite a journey for Zalando in product management since I joined at the end of 2012. Back then, Zalando was in the middle of its hyper-growth phase. For example, in 2012, we rolled out the Fashion Store in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Belgium, Spain, and Poland – in every case, huge localization efforts were required. Traffic started shifting significantly towards mobile and some colleagues thought we hadn’t adapted to apps quickly enough.

With tons of topics and engineering teams shipping under full-speed, we spent a relatively limited time thinking about whether we were building the right things for our customers. As a Product Manager, I was very deeply into JIRA, specifying features in a very detailed way and hence, was making sure to keep developers coding fast. I thought everything was under control, and it was in a way. Working like that enables what some people call “Zalando-speed”, and this was perhaps the right setup for the phase Zalando was in.

Looking back from where we are now, there were two major problems: Firstly, most of our developers felt unchallenged because they didn’t really understand the purpose of their work. Secondly, Product Managers were too busy keeping the momentum going to make sure we were building the stuff that mattered.

The fleek Product Team

These days Zalando, and particularly the fleek Product Management team, doesn’t spend any time on ticket specifications. This function lies completely with our Delivery Teams; in particular, with the role of Producer, which is complementary to the role of Product Specialist. The fleek app has four Delivery Teams situated at our Helsinki Tech Hub, while the Product side is Berlin-based.

Dividing work amongst different locations works smoothly if everyone understands the purpose of fleek and where the product has to go. That’s part of our job as the Product Team. If this is clear to everyone, developers can focus on the “how” of product implementation. That’s where Radical Agility and autonomy comes in. Developers have the freedom to choose whatever technology they find appropriate. Product Management, on the other hand, has the freedom to dig deeper into the “what”. During the early phase of fleek, we were able to spend most of our time on user research topics like ideation and prototyping to quickly find and validate ideas. This was followed by plenty of agile user testing for a better user experience. We were doing everything we could to find the solutions that fix real customer problems. Now that we have release the first version of fleek, we can iterate in order to get it right. This approach wouldn’t have been possible in the pre-Radical-Agility era.

While Radical Agility allows teams to choose the process that works for them, this doesn’t mean that every Delivery Team strictly follows Scrum. However, whatever set of principles they adopt, we are selectively part of the implementation process. This method of working is successful because we do the one thing that matters: Ensure transparency. The best way to achieve this is by having all Product Specialists align on a common prioritization and bringing this to regular planning meetings with their Delivery counterparts. In this situation it’s essential to get a commitment from the team on what to build in the upcoming development cycle. This implies, of course, effort estimation and velocity measurement.

Generally speaking, sharing the labour amongst teams like we do has a lot of advantages. However, maintaining several distributed teams at the same time can be challenging as well. All in all, Zalando manages to master it pretty well. We run video conferences on a daily basis for team working in tandem at different locations, including demos and retrospective sessions. Everyone in our team runs Hangouts with specific Producers and developers to clarify open questions. We also take it in turns to travel to Helsinki – I’m usually over there for two days per month.

We still have so much to learn when it comes to team cooperation and our products, but it’s great fun to get both of them right. If you have any questions about the Product Specialist role, or if you’re interested in joining the team, please contact me on Twitter at @ca_ernst.

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