Bo Ren's framework for creative thinking in product management
“If you told me that a nonconformist-liberal-arts-law-school-dropout-three-startups-survivor could become a PM at Facebook five years ago, I would have called bullshit,” wrote Bo Ren this past June. In her farewell letter to Facebook, on the very virtual canvas she helped launch, Bo reflected on her nontraditional path to product. It turns out she proved herself wrong.
She wasn’t always Silicon Valley-bound. After deferring law school, Bo took her first job as a customer service representative at a solar energy company, which is where she discovered that PM was not just an option, but a career she aspired to. Having studied behavioral science in college, Bo was determined to construct her own credentials and teach herself the ropes, hyper-aware of the fact that she wasn’t a traditional PM with a CS degree or an MBA.
Bo’s unique path to product has been her greatest source of strength, rather than a weakness. After stints at three different startups, Bo was accepted into Facebook’s acclaimed Rotational Product Management program, and it was there that she discovered her purpose in product.
Unafraid to speak out against the status quo, she penned “Diversity is a broken product in tech. FIX IT.”, calling out the tech industry’s failure to include people from different backgrounds. As she lives, builds, and writes, Bo exemplifies how diversity in tech is not just about the inclusion of different races and genders, but also nontraditional training and schools of thought.
“I’ve always believed that constraints breed creativity,” Bo says. “The less you have to work with, the more you have to think outside the box.”
I spoke with Bo as she was packing up her San Francisco apartment. After several years in the Bay, she was New York City bound, weeks away from embarking on her latest PM adventure at Tumblr. On the precipice of another journey into product management, just as her article was going viral, Bo shared the ways in which constraint has been the well of creativity she’ll always go back to, and how a nontraditional path to product has set her apart from the rest.
Humble and agnostic beginnings
“Before I began Facebook’s Rotational Product Management Program, I told myself that I will stay humble and agnostic to what I’m going to work on. It was like going to product school, and ultimately, I was looking to find conviction and passion in a mission I really cared about,” Bo says.
During her time at Facebook, Bo managed a breadth of products that challenged her nontraditional skill set and technical acumen. She helped configure Android’s deep-linking on Facebook’s News Feed, protected minors from inappropriate content on Instagram, and launched Facebook Notes, the latest platform for self-expression.
“The beauty of a rotational program was being able to understand my strengths as well as my weaknesses, and avoid growing in a crooked ways,” Bo says. “When I was on the News Feed Interfaces team, addressing Android’s deep-linking capabilities was very out of my comfort level. It was a challenge to fully comprehend, but it also forced me to figure out how technical I needed to be as a PM. What do I need to do to support my team instead of getting super deep into the code?”
Grappling with these questions, in theory and in practice, helped her identify a unique approach to product management. She came to the resolve that it isn’t her job to be the number one technical expert in everything she managed. And she wasn’t going to let that hold her back. Instead, Bo learned that what she is responsible for is teasing out the right questions to ask and the surest way to get from point A to point B, no matter the team.
Each rotation at Facebook came with its own set of challenges. However, nowhere was Bo’s thesis on product management – that constraint breeds creativity – tested more than when Facebook partnered with Apple to launch the compatibility of an entirely new feature called Live Photo.
Launching Live Photos
“Following a tight schedule was and is always going to be one of the biggest constraints in product management,” Bo says. “But the good thing about creativity is that it usually requires some pressure or deadline.”
With the release of iPhone 6s in late September 2015, Apple also revealed a new feature called Live Photos, a file format designed to capture three-second moving images within every photo. To help popularize this new type of photo, and help share them, Apple partnered with Facebook to build out Live Photo’s compatibility on The Social Network.
The pressure was on. Bo was selected to PM this blended Facebook and Apple team, and they had three short months to turn an idea into a reality. Time was going to be the forcing mechanism for a creative solution.
First, Bo walked through a few of the team’s problem statements: “We had to figure out how we could deliver a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that was going to offer the same consumption experience on Facebook News Feed as in the photo upload,” Bo remembers the team asking each other.
“With this very time-bound project, we had to think about all the potential features that they wanted to include, and then strip it down,” she continues. “We knew we had to put a limit on where we could go. If we went super high fidelity, it was going to take us a long time to build, and we were going to miss our mark.”
Bo focused the team on expediting the process, both internally at Facebook and with Apple. It was only then that she realized that her allegiances weren’t just to Facebook users. She had several different stakeholder groups to consider: There were the users, her team at Facebook, and then the engineers and leadership at Apple, many of whom held the keys to the kingdom. With such a tight deadline, every conversation was critical to ensure such a massive project got off the ground. Navigating the relationships and code switching between different group needs was a vital component to the team’s success.
But first, Bo had to set the team up with a strong foundation. “One hurdle we had to clear as a team was upgrading Xcode for all our engineers so everyone had the same developer’s toolkit. It was a basic necessity but it was a logistical challenge because our engineers were spread throughout the company. Ensuring the right people had the right resources was vital before we moved forward,” remembers Bo.
Once a team recognizes the problem, and the questions they are trying to answer, then comes the difficult (and political) part of figuring out how all the pieces, and people, are going to work together.
What many product managers learn with experience is that following a strict timeline is often dependent upon how successfully one orchestrates, organizes, and communicates the work that needs to be done. Standups, scrums or checkins are helpful for staying on track, but for the product manager, it’s also about encouraging individuals in unique ways. Helping team members stay motivated and focused day-to-day is what gives a team the endurance to chip away at what might feel like a larger-than-life initiative.
In these cases, “facilitation” is often used as a nicety, but the “soft” skills of communication and process don’t always seem so “soft” when they are the very things between the problem and getting the job done.
The art of detangling
As the clock ticks down, a product manager must identify where resources are, who are the stakeholders that “own” those resources, and how to encourage those people to move an agenda forward. Like the tedious work of detangling earbud cords, streamlining people, process, and information doesn’t always sound like a party, but, for some it is uniquely satisfying.
“For my role, it was about understanding, why is my team blocked? Why is it taking a couple weeks to complete a task instead of a couple days? Finding that point of contact to demystify this notion that something can’t be done in a week, rather two weeks, was critical to stay on track,” Bo continues, “As a PM, you have to dig into a problem that you think is a barrier and see what is the source of truth.
“Facebook’s compatibility with Live Photo was a lot easier than we had originally anticipated. I remember it was just one engineer who was telling everyone else it was going to take longer. However, once we were able to expedite the process, we gained an extra two weeks on our timeline.”
As Bo learned, impediments are often built by people’s perceptions of what’s possible. Being able to question an accepted norm, provide constructive feedback, and come up with an alternative way of thinking are key parts of staying goal oriented and loyal to all stakeholders. Plus, all of these skills when combined together are crucial when shipping quality products under a short deadline. During this time, Bo’s definition of a “good partnership” changed, too. When partnering with other companies for integrations or collaborations, feedback must be shared from all sides.
Working with an ultra-high profile partner like Apple is undoubtedly intimidating. But with each passing week, Bo relayed insights and constructive feedback to Apple’s stakeholders. Bo knew it wasn’t an imposition to relay this type of feedback but, in fact, her responsibility as PM to the partnership and to the integrity of the product.
By late December, Live Photo’s compatibility with Facebook launched, and those with an iPhone 6s could upload and view Live Photos from Facebook’s iOS app. Needless to say, this was a win for two of tech’s most influential companies who were coming together to join forces. But from Bo’s perspective, what seemed to be major obstacles, like tight turnarounds or hard-to-get resources, were, in fact, what inspired Bo’s team to unlock new solutions.
This key lesson, that obstacles were the inspiration for new solutions, presented itself to Bo in different ways many times. After several rotations at Facebook where timelines, technical conundrums, and personalities posed as constraints to building a product, Bo came to realize that no matter the project, there was always going to be some form of “obstacle.”
And since honing her skills, Bo developed a framework for product management to help PMs like her see that constraints aren’t burdens but new ways to answer a question.
A practical framework for creative thinking
“My first job out of college was working as a customer service rep at Sunrun, a solar energy startup. I started relaying our customers’ feedback over to our product and engineering teams, and it was then that I realized our MVP was broken in many ways,” Bo recalls. “Being that nexus between our customers and the product engineering was my first intro to product management.”
Customer service taught Bo a lot about product management. “In order to build a great product, it’s not often about being solutions-first; rather, it’s about deeply understanding the problem. However, in order to deeply understand the problem, you have to deeply understand the person,” Bo explains.
Her fascination with human behavior, starting with her study of behavioral science, isn’t just a penchant. It’s been the backbone of her college and professional careers. Her framework for software isn’t just about shaping someone’s behavior. It begins with a strong understanding of people-problems and knowing that each user has unique goals and habits they aspire to.
“In the beginning of every product life cycle, you always have certain assumptions, but you need to match those assumptions with real life data. The fastest way of gathering data for users is to have a very clear understanding of who you’re targeting, and then test your assumptions with user studies, surveys, or just doing great market analysis,” Bo continues. “Understanding the pulse of your users – that they are real people, with unique desires and intentions – is essential work before even jumping into any ideation or building.”
“When I worked at Opower, an energy efficiency startup, we knew that our software would help people save energy, and in turn, save money. We also recognized an added benefit: for those concerned about their carbon footprint, this software helped measured their eco-friendliness and made them feel better about their habits,” Bo explains. “At Opower, I learned there will always be emotional drivers that influence behavior. A product must bridge the gap between someone’s intent and the end outcome.”
“A lot of people, especially in Silicon Valley, are amazing at solving problems,” Bo says. “But they’re very ‘solutions-first.’ Sure, they might’ve built a beautiful solution, but the problem they’ve solved for might not even resonate with their users in the first place.”
In this way, Bo advocates for a bottom-up approach when building products. “If you get on the ground and hear what people are suffering from, then you can have a deeper understanding of what needs to be done. It’s not just empathy. It’s being specific and zoning in on the areas of improvement based on people’s real experiences,” Bo says.
Through the years of building cred as a product manager and surviving three startups, her approach to product always echoes back to the mantra she had at the beginning. After two humble and agnostic years at Facebook, Bo launched products at the world’s largest social network without the classic CS or MBA degree. Despite the hurdles she’s faced, Bo strengthened her convictions along the way.
Through the process of teaching herself product management – with both its strife and satisfaction – Bo has found this deep love for behavioral science, philosophy, writing, and the role storytelling plays in our development as individuals and as a culture. After launching Facebook Notes, it’s no wonder Bo strives to develop other virtual communities on the web.
“I am passionate about making the internet a more expressive and meaningful place through multimedia,” she says, “but what’s missing right now in media is this ability to monetize your content.” In discovering her convictions, Bo’s focused on reconciling the artistic and the economic worlds, and since our chat, she’s joined Tumblr, the alternative, microblogging community, as their latest product manager.
It was an unexpected, random, and in her words, a “stochastic” choice, but Bo’s never been one for a Five Year Plan. She’s not that type of person or PM. Instead, she keeps focus on what’s in front of her: “I want to prove to myself and also my peers that I’m a great product manager. The work speaks for itself.”