Summary of 'Digitale Leute' 2019 in Cologne

Two and a half talks and a book.

Posted by Holger Reinhardt    on December 6, 2019 in Dev tagged with Conference, Culture

On the 28th of November I attended the ‘Digitale Leute’ conference in Cologne for the very first time. The conference bills itself as a gathering of folks involved in creating and shaping digital products. So it wasn’t a pure tech conference (tech definitely took a back seat) nor about formal processes beloved by Agilistas and project managers but a conference for Product Owners (PO) and everyone with a responsibility or interest in shaping (digital) product creation and management. Being able to attend a day-long conference focussing on this inherent cross-functional topic was what drove my interest.

Most big tech conferences just have a track for talks about managing digital products, but it is not what they are focussing on. Which is kind of odd if you think about the importance a PO has in the shaping of digital products. The most useful knowledge on everything around product management I had gotten so far was from conferences focussing on startups and a few blogs like Intercom and Folding Burritos (this is the only one I found to take a deep dive on the Kano Model for product feature prioritization). Despite of countless attempts of established companies to copy startup practices and culture (and claiming success just one too many times), the inconvenient fact remains that managing a digital product within a more established company is very different than managing the product of a startup. Where as startups tend to thrive (or simply die) within a scarcity of resources and few or any process, digital products from big companies tend to stagnate and/or wither within a relative abundance of resources and lots of process. It does sometimes make you wonder if there is something similar to the Resource Curse in Economics in respect to new (digital) product development in mature companies. In fact I believe there is but lets keep that topic for another blog and stop here with a link to an much earlier blog entry of mine with some literature and research about this topic.

All I know is that a good PO is worth his or her weight in gold and then some. And I have had the privilege to meet quite a few of very good PO’s in more than one company. What struck me most is the diversity of their backgrounds: from the more obvious project manager to the more surprising lawyer to the past entrepreneur - compared to the more predictable background of developers, POs hail from a wide variety of professions and backgrounds. Intrigued I was hoping to discover a conference with a a similar wide range of cross-functional topics.

So lets get it out of the way: The conference did not quite live up to my expectation nor was I able to pick up any of the best practices and learnings from how other companies dealt with the challenge of managing digital products.

It was really the format of the talks which worked against me learning anything. The vast majority of talks were structured as fireside chats, with a moderator and the presenter going through a mock-up conversation with a set of prepared questions. The absence of any summary on slides prevented any kind of condensed truths or lessons to be taken from the conversation. Now don’t get me wrong, I have had my fair share of complaining about the obsession with slides in the corporate world as well, but there are some situations (i.e. like conferences) where slides are very helpful in allowing condensed knowledge to be disseminated. Some of the best presenters I know will use slides that way (and no, I do not mean cat pictures). I often take pictures of slides during talks and review them later to write summaries for my team. A Fireside Chat is just a conversation jumping from one topic to the next and focusses more on the individual rather than the abstract. Unless you are able to transcribe the talk in near real-time, writing down one thing means missing the next two or three, with no chance of ever catching up. (Which does remind me of my early years as student when transcripts were not yet available). If I just want to be entertained, the fireside chat format is ok - but if I want to learn, it works against it.

But not all hope is lost. I did attended two talks I found very interesting and - as a bonus - picked up a book ‘18 Work Hacks from a company called ‘Sipgate’ which was surprisingly interesting and relevant.

Do things which do not scale (AirBnB)

  • description
  • Fun fact: the motto originates from the Y Combinator
  • Example taking pictures of an apartment to increase conversion
  • Imagining the ideal outcome and walk backwards (similar to AMZN start with the press release)
  • It won’t scale but it allows you go below the surface and really learn what matters
  • Once you know what matters, go back and think about how to scale it
  • Interesting twist to increase viral factor:
    • going onto an AirBnB experience should be so inspiring to go back and host one yourself on AirBnB
    • applicable to two-sided markets where the buyer can also become a seller

Remote Teams

  • description and slides
  • Principle 1: If one person is remote, everyone is remote
  • Principle 2: The more emotional a topic is, the more synchronous you need to communicate
    • Communication tools are ranging from synchronous (talking) to asynchronous (email)
    • Every time ego or emotions are involved, go synchronous (i.e. talk directly)
    • There is no wrong communication tool, there is only a wrong tool for a particular job
    • Rethink the daily
      • Rethink it as async (its not a forum for discussion anyhow) (Ugh, Agilistas will hate that, but it makes so much sense)
      • Rethink workshop
        • No holding of sticky notes into webcams
        • Use Double Diamond strategy
        • Probably not more than 4h, split into reasonable chunks
        • Scribble and scan, Use shared whiteboard
  • Be explicit about downsides of remote teams
  • ire for soft skills like communication, empathy
  • Ask remote members to write a ‘remote’ manual for on-boarding of new team members
  • Enable people to connect:
    • Off-site for co-located teams is about work,
    • Off-site for remote team is about connecting
    • Idea: have permanent hangout session at the coffee machine
    • Evaluate tools like

Workhacks (SIPGate)

  • first 25 Workhacks and the second 18 workhacks book
  • 18 Workshacks
    • Peer Recruiting
      • Can it be one more: How teams determine if they need to grow
      • How to write the profile: How teams write the job profile
      • How saying no can be a source of learning: The team recruiting process
      • Meet the team: The team interview process
      • Trialing a workday: Team co-working with applicants
      • Money, money, money: The pesky salary question
      • Welcome: On-boarding process
      • The buddy: Mentoring new employees
      • Peer feedback: How to give feedback during the trial period
      • Letting go: When things do not work out
      • Getting better: Learning on the job
    • Respect and trust
      • Motivation: Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation
      • Bridging: Cross-functional career paths
      • Leadership: Ad-hoc vs appointed
      • Feel good: Community building
      • Overtime: Quo vadis?
      • Time out: Work-live balance
      • Authenticity: Talk the talk, walk the walk.
    • Plus a very good section on books and links

If you made it this far, you might wonder about the half talk I mentioned above. I had some more notes on a few more talks but in the end they where just some disconnected snippets I managed to write down before loosing the thread. Since they are not telling a story, I decided to skip it and end it here.

Attend conferences, you must. Yessss.