Any software engineer will tell you that learning to write code is easy but learning to create working software is hard. Product managers will add, however, is that creating a successful product that solves a real problem is even harder.
The reason that a considerable number of applications and startups don’t make it to the finish line isn’t because they don’t have good engineers and development teams. On the contrary, many of them have developers that could make six-digit salaries at large tech companies.
These software projects and companies fail because they don’t identify their mistakes, adjust their vision, and seize opportunities to steer their team in the right direction. This discipline, known as “product management,” remains one of the pain points of many software startups and companies.
To help companies avoid failed projects and create successful projects, Oleg Yakubenkov, a successful engineer at several tech companies, created the GoPractice Simulator, an interactive online course that teaches product management to people of different background.
Simulator was originally developed in Russian, Oleg’s native language. A few months ago, the team approached me to help develop the content for the English version of their online course, which launched recently. As a seasoned software engineer, I thought I knew a lot about creating successful software. Boy was I in a surprise.
While working on the course, I learned a lot about reading data the right way, asking the right questions about products and software, understanding mistakes, and making the right decisions at critical junctures.
Last month, I sat down with Oleg to discuss how Simulator came into being and what he hopes to accomplish with the course as his company expands to the English audience.
The creation of Simulator
Oleg comes with a background of product management at different companies, including MSQRD, acquired by Facebook, and API.AI, acquired by Google. Oleg also helped develop Workplace, Facebook’s response to the team collaboration app Slack, and hit games King of Thieves and CATS.
Oleg also ran a popular blog, where he shared his experience about product management and using data to help grow products. “I was getting a lot of questions from readers. Many of them were similar and were about small specific problems you must solve to work with the data and make decisions, things like making sure your data is right,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, Oleg also knew that while there are a lot of interesting and insightful blogs and books about product management, reading alone is not enough to learn the skills required to create successful products.
“The only way to learn is to try to do things, make mistakes, and go to someone who can help you fix these mistakes, and try again. This is how you learn these hard skills,” Oleg says.
Oleg compares product management with learning to play basketball. You can read basketball books and watch videos (there are plenty of them). But as long as you don’t get your hands dirty and shed some sweat in the court, you won’t learn to play. And if you want to become a professional basketball player, you must join an experienced team.
So, what is the basketball court equivalent of product management? “There aren’t many ways to get this experience right now,” Oleg says. “You can go and work at Google or Facebook, because there are many great people there who have this expertise. But there aren’t many opportunities to work at these companies. Also, when you enter these companies, you’re expected to have this experience already.”
Meanwhile, if you go to some other company that doesn’t have this expertise, you won’t get the necessary skills. You won’t be able to learn what you did right or wrong.
“This is why I came up with the idea of the Simulator,” Oleg says. “I thought, what if I create a safe environment where you can be the main character and go through a story that puts you in all typical situations that you’ll face when working on a product. The system will help you understand your mistakes and how to fix them.”
Basically, GoPractice Simulator aims to give you the product management experience you would get if you worked at Google of Facebook. And it’s only appropriate that the person who created it has experience working at one of these companies.
The interactive learning environment
While there are several good online product management courses, what makes GoPractice Simulator unique is its interactive environment.
“The way I tried to build the Simulator was to do something completely new, even if it was solving the same problem, but in a completely different way,” Oleg says. “That’s why I describe it as a simulator. It’s not a typical course. It’s not just some theory or some videos that are fun to watch. I wanted to provide real experience where you get real skills.”
The course follows a storyline, where you start as a junior product manager, and gradually learn the tricks of the trade through experimentation, and trial and error. GoPractice Simulator features the use of tools, ranging from simple spreadsheets to full-fledged analytics platforms. It also contains plenty of theory interspersed with experiments and links to further in-depth articles and videos.
GoPractice Simulator puts you in different situations where you deal with various problems. You must develop your own theory and model to solve the problems. Then you must decide, and based on this decision, the Simulator will help you understand whether you were right or wrong.
“Basically, the Simulator gives you the chance to test your theories in a safe environment and get instant feedback on these mistakes,” Oleg says. “In real life, when you’re working on a project and you make a mistake, it usually takes a year or so before you realize it. In some cases, you never realize that you’ve made this mistake, because maybe you were working on a small project that didn’t impact things much and you didn’t have much time to reflect on it.”
Learning to use the right tools
“When you’re working on a product, you have different ways to understand and see the new universe you’re creating,” Oleg says. “It is important to understand when you should use each one of them and balance them in the proper way.”
One of the things I really appreciated about GoPractice Simulator was that at each stage, it teaches you to use the right tool to solve each problem. True to its promise, most of the course is data driven. Most chapters teach you to read data and use data analysis tools to ask and answer important questions about your product.
But the course also gives important lessons on when data can’t answer your questions. It coaches and you need to use qualitative methods, such as interviews and questionnaires.
“Product teams often don’t understand is that each product goes through different stages, and at each stage, they will face different problems,” Oleg says. “By knowing what you’re trying to do, you’ll be better positioned to choose the right tool to solve the problem. One tells you how the product and users changed, another the reasons for the change and how the users perceive the modifications you made. If used properly, these tools can increase your chances of making the right decision.”
Common mistakes product teams make
Given Oleg’s rich background, I was curious to know what were some of the common mistakes that product teams and companies make.
“Many product teams focus too much on the execution and building things they want to build, and they don’t invest enough in things such as understanding the market and users, and understanding the problem they’re trying to solve,” Oleg says.
One of my key takeaways from GoPractice Simulator was learning to be skeptical about your own hypotheses, test them and adjust your plan of action before disaster strikes. We often think we have just hatched the best product idea in the world. But our ideas often turn out to be very different from the dynamics of the market and the things people need.
Simulator also provides some interesting tips and insights on what to do when you make a mistake. It puts you in situations where your company has made a bad decision. It then shows you how to retrace your steps, find out what went wrong, and how you can make the best out of a bad situation.
“Working on products is complicated, and one reason for that is that you must be biased in a way,” Oleg says. “When you’re trying to create something new, you’re basically changing the status quo, and that’s why you must believe in something. At the same time, you must be cautious and not get too much misguided by your own beliefs. You’re walking a fine line. You must motivate the team to stay on course. At the same time you must remain skeptical about your strategy and decisions and be ready to make hard decisions.”
While GoPractice Simulator is officially a product management course, it’s something I recommend it to anyone who deals with data and people in their everyday work. It’ll give you a new mindset.