Herman Man is Chief Product Officer at Bluevine, a digital banking platform for small businesses.
Originally a computer scientist and engineer by trade, Herman quickly earned a reputation as “one of the few developers with a personality,” throwing himself headfirst into solving complex technical problems for business users who crave simplicity in their fintech solutions. In addition to leading the product function, he also oversees design, which he says ensures a seamless experience for customers and empowers the wider organization to approach problem solving from a user-centered perspective.
In our chat, Herman offers his take on why engineers are becoming more invested in the user experience and seeking to understand the “why” behind the software they’re building. He also speaks to the challenge of making fintech solutions more convenient and intuitive without making them less secure and describes his approach to doing short-term planning based on long-term goals.
I’ve always been more of a product-focused person, even as an engineer. I remember early on in my engineering career, I spent a lot of time at what they called EBC — the executive briefing center — where I talked a lot with customers about the things I was building. Someone once described me as one of the few developers with a personality, which I found funny.
I really loved algorithms, so I naturally gravitated toward solving hard technical problems. Over time, I realized I really enjoyed the “what” and the “why” more than the “how” and the “when,” which is essentially what engineers and developers do. I became impassioned on understanding why I was solving things, and understanding the business impact of what I was doing relative to the bottom line through OKR alignment.
From there, I transitioned to product management. I started managing product managers through my career as an engineer but I’d say, in earnest, I really didn’t focus solely on product management until I moved to the Bay Area.
Much like the technology stack, things have gravitated more toward the user experience. When I started in the late 90s and early 2000s, the cool thing was to get as close to the hardware as possible. So it was really cool to be in Windows and writing the OS, thinking about kernel mode versus user mode and issues like that.
We’ve seen things evolve over time: we went from commoditizing an OS, to commoditizing infrastructure platforms such as networking services, to now being more focused on business services. Today, end user experiences on mobile and web are critically important to both the success in this role and the success of the companies you work for.
There will always be a place for hardcore engineers who want to just work on algorithms and build large language models. However, because a lot of the technology will be commoditized at the services layer, more and more engineers need to fully understand why they’re building something in order to truly deliver an application or a service that is even better for the user. No matter the hierarchy you are working in, as a product manager, the user always needs to be at the top.
So, yes, I think we’re seeing a shift where engineers want to understand the why rather than just build.
I think one of the hardest parts about being in fintech is building a great user experience in a regulated environment. At Bluevine, we take a different approach to solving the problems customers typically experience at traditional banks. In such a highly regulated environment, how do we create a frictionless experience where customers are delighted to use our platform while also implementing the technical underpinnings to eliminate fraud?
Let me give you an example. Let’s say a small business wants to open a small business bank account. They would traditionally go into a branch but, instead, they come to Bluevine online. Then they want to deposit their first check — let’s say that check is $100,000. How do we enable them to not only deposit that check in a way that is really easy but also avoid placing extended holds so they can get access to the funds sooner, all while mitigating fraud?
There’s a push and a pull. The challenge is to do that effectively and efficiently in a scaled manner.
There’s proactive and reactive data that we get. We do a whole bunch of customer research, either quant or qual. For example, we might either do surveys or qualitative interviews to get answers as we’re ideating about what else to build. We’ll have in depth customer interviews on different design options to solicit feedback.
And then, of course, we look at data and how they’re actually using the app. We use that data to tell us what is working and what isn’t resonating. For instance, if we have two ways to enter the same product flow, we’ll work to determine which way are they choosing and why?
We also leverage the internal teams. Customer support and sales, for example, are great ones to work with. Customer support will always tell you, almost from a chronological perspective, the most recent issue that popped up. And sales generally will tell you the things that give them the biggest opportunity to close a sale — which is a very different objective, so you take it with a grain of salt, keeping all these inputs in mind.
I think it really boils down to prioritization. It’s always important to establish a rubric in terms of how you think about things because it’s then more predictable and repeatable, which is really important. You don’t want your internal partners thinking it’s completely arbitrary what ultimately makes it onto the roadmap. It also helps the team scale, because they know how to think about it in a more structured, consistent way.
But at the end of the day, I would say there’s a gut check, too. It just needs to make sense, so you don’t want to take away the human aspect of applying common sense. We generally run a version of the RICE framework, which is really a simple multiplier to produce a guesstimate. The number itself is less relevant; what really matters is the relative positioning of it, because that helps you prioritize.
I’m a firm believer in having a rubric, but at the same time, the framework is very subjective — avoiding garbage in helps avoid garbage out. The framework helps inform my thinking, and then I’ll gut check against the business objectives we’ve set out to solve to make sure it makes sense.
The tricky thing about product is that everyone always has an opinion on what can be done to improve it, whether it’s right or wrong. So for me, it’s really making sure I give candid yet respectful feedback when I talk to people. That way, they are engaged and can better understand the reasoning behind why we designed things the way they are, and why their suggestion may or may not be feasible. Through that process, I learn as well. There may be things I’ve overlooked or hadn’t considered, so it is important to keep an open mind.
Great product ideas don’t always originate from the product team. It could originate from anywhere. We’re not the only ones thinking about the customer journey and user experience — good ideas come in from all across the business. I have no ego. All I care about is ensuring Bluevine builds great experiences for our customers.
The key is to understand the core problems and build a solution that meets that need.
For example, when we look at our business checking for small businesses, we understand that a lot of the small businesses that open up accounts with Bluevine haven’t had a great experience with those other, bigger banks. A lot of the experiences require them to go into branches to do work. They feel like they’re nickeled and dimed across the board for many types of fees. They feel like they don’t really have a relationship with the bank; they’re just another number.
The feedback we’ve gotten from our customers is amazing. I think one customer I interviewed actually said, “Your app is like an iPad; it’s just so clean, beautiful, and powerful when I click into it.”
When he first said, “It’s an iPad,” I was confused, but he meant it in the most positive way: we sweat the details. At the end of the day, I think that’s ultimately how we drive business value, because we build a solution with all those details in mind and our customers notice.
You need to approach how to make it better than your competitors’ products both from a UI/UX standpoint and from an infrastructure perspective. How do we help improve their cash flow? Money is a pretty sensitive subject and, in many cases, their cash flow is what really matters.
At Xero, the one thing I learned is that many small businesses fail not because they don’t earn more income than expenses, but because they can’t balance the equation — the money in and out does not line up, so they become negative at discrete points in time.
So, how do we make cash flow better for them? We make sure they can hold onto cash longer; ensure their receivables come earlier and make payables as efficient and quick as possible through various rails. And if you need access to working capital to support you in the meantime, we can do that as well.
We also think beyond just the small business owner. While the owner is our core customer, we also realize that they have accountants and bookkeepers in many cases, so we strive to efficiently support them as well. We do that by having accounting tools that are, as an example, integrated with QuickBooks Online directly within Bluevine.
And we’ve built a portal for accountants to manage their Bluevine clients on our platform. They can log into a dedicated accountant dashboard and see all their clients listed, and manage them directly from there. They can also delegate tasks to other accountants or bookkeepers in their firm if they want.
Establishing a planning process is really important because product drives planning within the company. Some companies do an annual process. Others do planning bi-annually, while some do quarterly. At Bluevine, we do quarterly planning from an execution standpoint but always in the context of goals against the full year. So we’ll start doing 2024 planning and basically work backward.
In fact, I’d say we actually have a five-year plan: each year, we’ll re-evaluate our five-year plan window and work through yearly assumptions that need to be true to get there.
From a quarterly planning cycle, we do a roughly 90-day planning cycle. We use about a third of the quarter to plan for the next quarter. So, in December, we’re planning for 2024 Q1, and in March, we’re planning for 2024 Q2.
I would ensure the company is aligned against the goals first. When things get hard, it’s important to be on the same page in terms of the most important metrics that we want to drive and the most important problems we want to focus on. Then, be maniacal on that focus and jettison everything else. Focus is exactly what’s needed during challenging times.
Lean in with your team and try to motivate them to really put in extra effort. I think we’ve all been in crunch time situations where we all need to roll up our sleeves and get things done. So, for me, it’s really about leading by example. If we’re asking teams to work the weekends to push something through, I want to be there with them.
One example comes to mind. At Bluevine, we were launching international payments and we were short on PM staff, so I ended up writing five specs and working with our tech leads to define it. I was really in the weeds. It was fun being in there with everybody and solving problems. I think it also made people realize that we should all operate as owners, which is actually a value that we have at Bluevine. I’m no exception — as a team, we’ll all lean in and try to solve problems together.
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