Cody Smith is VP of Product at Entrata, a property management software provider. Before joining Entrata, Cody held various product and leadership positions at Domo, a low-code data app platform, as well as Booz Allen Hamilton.
In our conversation, Cody describes how he takes a win-win approach to product management — that is, finding the right balance between creating value for the business and delivering what customers ask for. He also talks about the challenge of balancing tech debt with new feature development and how saying “yes” can be the enemy of a great user experience.
I think the biggest surprise has been how much opportunity there is in the property management space. It’s been really fun to see how successful Entrata as a business has been, but the industry is also very hungry to adopt the latest technology, leverage data-driven experiences and AI, and find how to reduce redundancy.
The customers are huge fans of the product that we’re providing and they want more. I’ve seen that in the past but it was more that they wanted us to solve a problem. Whereas, here, customers love it because we’re making their lives easier. I think that’s been really insightful.
The mobile experience is really interesting because it’s the tip of the iceberg to the end consumer experience. But in the entire platform, regardless of what mobile application you have, there’s an engine, services, and a lot of things that are powering the end consumer experience. My experience being on mobile has helped me understand and be able to navigate all of those different areas.
I’ve previously had to be that central nervous system because all these other services were built to power what appears to be a simple experience. But that simple experience has a lot going on behind it. Taking those and providing an elegant, intuitive customer experience on mobile has really informed how I think about it. Now that I am overlooking our data platform, our APIs, webhooks, etc., I think of it not in how we measure the service we’re providing, but how we measure it through the customer’s eyes.
A win-win approach means making decisions that will help the business grow and give customers what they ask for.
To do that, I believe, fundamentally, that anybody who’s on my team or within product management needs to be successful. That sounds obvious, but what I mean by that is they need to be set up with the right tools, environment, and work-life balance so that they can be successful.
If any of those things are amiss, we need to genuinely be able to have the conversation in a way that’s safe and that they can talk about it. If we’re not having those conversations and it’s not a safe place to have that conversation, those things don’t go away. They just hide. That person will be less effective or less happy.
Creating an environment where they can genuinely share concerns, it’s not a right or wrong thing. It just is a reality. In embracing and acknowledging that reality, there are two things I think are really important. One is building that trust because, without it, they’re not going to have that conversation with you. And the other is before-event trust and after-event trust, where “event” is when they’re able to come to you about something that you need to improve on or work with.
One thing I do immediately with my team is ask them to give me some weekly update that represents the health of their product area. That can be intimidating because some people may have a lot, and some people have nothing. But I preempt that with the thing that’s most important to me is that we’re making progress and that we’re moving. You may have nothing, and if so, that’s fine. But what I would like the first week is a list of questions that you have that we’ll then talk about.
First, are those the right questions? We’ll then iterate and, slowly but surely, we grow. All of a sudden, we have the right questions, but then we’re like, “We’re not measuring those things.” So then we’re measuring them. Well, we’re not measuring them right. Then it starts getting more sophisticated. We have a whole go-to-market measurement that we’re doing. Are we making sure we’re enabling our sales team to have the right conversation with an upcoming customer?
We’re going through that process, and preempting their vulnerabilities or fears makes it an OK environment to start, meet them where they are, and then go forward. We’ll figure out where someone is and work with that. Based on their performance and their tenure, some will go faster, and some of them will go slower and there’s room for opportunity.
Sometimes, we scope out an entirely new feature that we’re all really excited about, but then we don’t have enough money or time, or we have a conflicting priority. Inevitably, we end up needing to cut scope or pivot.
Pivoting or cutting scope and enabling this other thing — which, in essence, is a win-win because we’re able to address multiple concerns — can be difficult. I’ve run into that a lot, especially in fast-growing companies when you’re trying to get out there and you’re racing against the market.
Something I’ve found important is, based on the seniority of the individual or the team you’re working with, to treat them like adults. Give them the information they need to understand the decisions that are being made. Now, you can’t have everyone be a chef. Not everyone can make the decision, but they can be informed and they can understand. And by doing what the business needed and being competitive, they were doing their job effectively.
Intuitively, product people want to say yes. So do engineers. But sometimes, saying yes can be the enemy of a great experience because you’re not investing in yourself or the platform.
You have to build trust with your customers. They have to rely on your product, and they have to know and trust that what you’re providing is going to be relevant. When I joined Entrata, we had an opportunity to build more trust with our customers in a specific area. Identifying that from the product side and saying that was our number one job freed up our engineers and product managers to pause some new feature work so we could invest in other areas.
It’s a way of building value so that everybody can understand and be happy about it. There’s not a formula for it. It’s a conversation, a give-and-take. You need to intimately understand your system, your team, and tradeoffs. A lot of teams aren’t going to have natural inclinations and over-rotate to one or the other, so you need to be able to identify that and then help center based on where you are.
There are a lot of frameworks and models out there. The approach I’ll take is very specific to where we’re at as a company.
I think you need to look at the framework, where are you at as a company? What are you trying to achieve this fiscal year or next fiscal year? Within that, are you growing? Are you looking for more users? Are you looking for revenue? Are you looking for new logos? You need to identify what those big things are and how you can affect that the most.
One of the problems we were trying to solve was helping our customers understand what the Domo platform did. We found that when they adopted and deployed Domo (a comprehensive cloud BI platform), they were really successful. But trying to talk to a new customer or lead to explain that Domo does everything was really difficult.
Our sales team highlighted this problem for me, they shared how difficult it is to help people understand what Domo does. Based on that, I went back to the team and said, “Guys, one of the biggest problems we have is people just being able to test drive Domo, understand it, and make it personalized.” We’re showing demo data, but when you’re looking at data, your eyes just glaze over. You just don’t understand it.
One of our engineers on our team had an idea and suggested that we pair the app with the health information on Apple and Android devices and graph out steps, distance, and stairs climbed. So as soon as somebody downloads the app, they can test it with their own data. Immediately, they’re able to get these interactive visuals and charts that they can understand.
I think that’s probably twofold. One is that change is inevitable. The most successful people are the ones who understand how to identify and build value. Frameworks always change, but in the end, if you’re able to identify and provide value, that’s where you’re being successful.
The second is the ability of customers to understand the importance of data-driven experiences in their lives, how that data is an asset to them, and how data in and of itself is becoming a product.
I’ve been fortunate to have some really great mentors, career coaches, and people that I report to. And similar to how I encourage my team to have trust, I try to be vulnerable with them too. Finding those people, whether you report to them or if they’re peers in the industry, and reaching out helps so you don’t learn from failing. There’s probably nothing new in the industry at this point that people haven’t already gone through.
There’s also tons of literature, blogs, there’s tons of things out there. I love actually getting on and reading. Big companies like Apple and Google, as well as a lot of small ones out there, will have product managers or product marketing get on and write a blog post about how they built something. What went right? How did it go? And just reading through those things is really informative as well.
Go on the internet, look at all the jobs out there, and see what the job requirements are that they’re hiring for. Do you have those skills? The ones that you don’t have, figure out what those skills are and what’s interesting to you. It’s a crystal ball in the future where people are hiring and where the demand is right now.
Now that’s a short-term thing, but it’s a way to stay relevant and on skills. Another thing is to do brown bags. Any company you’re at, set up an informal environment where you have brown bag conversations with other PMs, engineers, or other people in the industry. Sometimes there are events locally, and if they’re not happening, just start one. We do brown bags on my team and that’s the starting point for them to continue their own journey and learning.
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