Michael Sippey on the Role of Product Management

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Michael Sippey

This morning on my way to work on the German Autobahn, I could listen to the last episode of the Track Changes Podcast by Paul Ford and Richard Zikade, which was, amongst other things on the role of product management. They had one of the great Product Managers of the internet, Michael Sippey, as guest. He is under suspicion of co-inventing blogs and worked at companies or for products like twitter, Medium, Movable Type, Typepad, Vox (blogging social network), Live Journal. The interview with him was so good, that sometimes, I screamed out loud while driving and sometimes hit hard on my steering wheel, out of joy. So, I thought it might make sense to write down some of his statements – they sound like set in stone anyway.

So here some citations (I confess: not always by the word) in any order. Where needed, to give a text composed of citations at least a little flow,  I try to shortly give some context of the interview.

How Michael Sippey sees himself

„I worked on many products, some worked, some didn’t”

This should be bliss for all of us. Even nicer than the bliss, though, is the modesty of these words.

On ethics, product and business

While discussing the possible influence of twitter on the arab spring, he says:

„People come to work everyday because you work on something you believe has a positive impact on people’s lives. And it’s empowering technology. And that’s the narrative you believe. And on the other side what you have this bug to take care of and this spec to write and this meeting to prepare for. So, holding these two things in your head at the same time is sometimes difficult“

Main tasks and role of the product management

„The product manager if they’re any good is really some of it is idea generation but most of it is context setting. I always have to remind myself and have to remind product managers that really, you have as a product manager three questions that you need to be responsible for answering.Which is:

  • What problem are we solving?
  • Who are we solving it for? 
  • And: how are we gonna measure success?

Everything else like how we gonna solve the problem, how we gonna bring it to the market, what are the needs it has from a feature perspective, or from a a speed perspective or where should the button go or how should it look or how should the brand work – that is a team exercise. And you get much better results if you involve the team. But it’s the Product managers job to set that context:

This is the problem we’re solving and here’s who we’re solving it for specifically and this is how we gonna measure success. ‚Cause if you can set that context and you can get it to the team, the team can get much better results.“

So simple! So true.

The task of Management

The last statement gets a comment from Richard Ziade: „I have to say as I have grown as a professional and as a manager, it’s amazing how much of the work boils down to simple statements repeated almost daily. And as you say that, it sounds right: You would need to do that every day.“

And here I can not stress enough how important this statement is. I also tell this to all the product managers, product owners and managers in any of my trainings or workshops. I tell them to repeat in every meeting and sprint planning what this is all about and how it is embedded in our strategy: „As we, as a company have the vision that X and in the next year want to focus on achieving Y, what we need in the product is V. And this is why in the next quarter we do P. For the next sprint this means that I have prepared the following features D, E, F and G.” That is completely different from simply describing features D, E, F and G or, even worse introducing a short explanation of any random features that are in no way connected to each other or anything.

An en passant definition of agile work

After a longer sabbatical he started working part time for EV Williams at Medium and realized what really matters to him. And while describing that, he gives an awesome description of agile work:

„Really what is great is that he gave me an opportunity to work with a really small team. I git to work with a couple of engineers and a designer, you know 4 or 5 people and we had our whiteboard and we put stickers pin it and we decided what we wanted to ship and then at the end of the week we looked at ourselves and said did we wanna ship or do we wanna ship at the beginning of the week? And I realized that is what I love.“

About failing in a greatness: Talkshow

His last project was a failed platform by the name of  Talkshow. The concept was a Live-Talkshow done as text messages. there were hosts and guests and also a live audience. The whole thing didn’t work (because the overhead for planning even text talkshows is quite high, thus enough people wouldn’t pick up the app to work with it. The team then stopped working on it and also stopped all services. They were totally open to the investors and simply told them, even though the money was not yet through. And the concept failed although the context was quite good:

MS: „We shipped 4 or 6 revisions. I am actually really proud of the team, because we shipped.“

Richard Zaide: „All the things you would’ve wanted for a launch to happen actually happened. The team shipped regularly, Apple endorsed the App. But still it didn’t get traction“

MS: „Yes, we shipped. And what I loved about what we shipped and what I love about the teaming which is why we still work together:

MS: „We shipped and we shipped well and we shipped frequently and I think we shipped thoughtfully. And really, what it cone down to was … (and we got that by talking to our users and our audience) … it was the concept that was flawed. And, you know, that was 100% on me

How to deal with emotionally tough situations

„And when we came to that realisation it was different in two ways: it was intellectually easy and emotionally difficult“

On the question how he dealt with that situation:

„There were definitely difficult days. What does it mean for my team? How do my investors take it? Some ego stuff like „what does it mean for my reputation? For most of the year I’ve been seeing a therapist. I feel like I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to do that. That was helpful for me to get through the emotionally difficult part of it. 

Things that really matter are 

  • making things that you are actually proud of and
  • making decisions that you are proud of
  • and working with good people

These are the things that are priorities!“

RZ: „All founders should get their therapist“

On new starts, doubt and incomplete information

On the status of his new start with the old team (and the same old money). Fantastic:

„I don’t know what form the products going to take. We know generally the space we’re going after. We’re starting to learn who we’re solving problems for and what type of problems they have. So, I’m in kinda deep user research mode and at the same time we’re exploring some technology stuff. We’re kinda building and researching at the same time.“

And still, many things remain unclear and ambiguous and the founder needs to be a bit daring and delusional:

„As a founder you have to be kinda delusional because you can be talked out of anything. At a certain point, you have to believe.“


„You’re never gonna have perfect information. We do a whole bunch of user research and interviews. But at a certain time you gonna have a whole bunch of grey.“

That’s it – this was longer than I thought. I think most statements only make perfect sense as part of the podcast.If you’re interested now, start listening here. Rarely have I listened to a tech interview that was so to the point and open.

Digital Product Managers need deep technical understanding

It really struck me that there was really NO Separation between business and der or product and dev to hear in this interview. Quite the contrary, Michael sippey seems to breathe and get energy from tech.

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Photo by Christopher Michel, some rights reserved.

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