Building a Remote Product Development Strategy for Success
Toptal product managers share how their distributed teams work collaboratively to stay on track and meet key objectives across time zones.
Toptal product managers share how their distributed teams work collaboratively to stay on track and meet key objectives across time zones.
For more than a decade, Toptal product managers have been leading the development of the internal software products that support the company’s remote onboarding, contracting, human resources, and more. This includes Toptal’s custom-built platform that connects its clients to Toptal’s tens of thousands of remote digital freelancers around the world, and supports the work of Toptal’s permanent Core team members.
Despite the challenges of coordinating across borders, Toptal’s product teams have flourished. “In my opinion, the most remarkable aspect of this team is that everything results from tight collaboration and extreme teamwork among smart and driven people, rather than from top-down execution,” says Kleanthis Georgaris, Toptal’s Senior Vice President of Product.
Underpinning this success is an innovative product management strategy that enables teams to collaborate effectively and deliver exceptional work, while fostering deep personal and professional connections.
A Strong Product Development Framework
Toptal’s product teams follow a similar product management process as on-site teams, but working remotely requires the use of more rigorous frameworks to ensure cohesion and timely completion. All product initiatives flow through specific checkpoints as they progress from idea to reality, says Paul Timmermann, Toptal’s Senior Director of Product.
To avoid sinking resources into initiatives that have not been properly assessed for business value or prioritized appropriately, Toptal product leaders established a four-step approach that guides the company’s product development innovations:
- Product planning and specification
- Post-release assessment
Each stage involves multiple layers of highly technical and detailed templates and processes that ensure a unified approach from start to finish. “It was one of the first things we formalized as a product team, and it continues to pay dividends,” says Timmerman.
Every initiative follows this framework, whether it’s a simple feature enhancement or a new fully featured online consumer product, he says.
Toptal launches every product initiative with a well-defined roadmap. The first milestone is a product opportunity assessment. This is a core responsibility of the product manager and it ensures uniform documentation of initiatives, enabling equitable comparison and dynamic prioritization of workflow.
“At the beginning of each planning cycle, we start with a healthy backlog of opportunity assessments,” Timmerman says. “After receiving initial estimations from our engineering counterparts, we can easily compare and prioritize the ROI of the various problems.”
The ROI must align with Toptal’s global objectives and key results (OKRs).
The problem identification phase provides significant input when setting objectives that align with strategic company priorities. But the objective-setting process works from the bottom up as well, as problems identified in the course of product research may result in a new or amended OKR.
Product Planning and Specification
Every product begins with ideation. Brainstorming can seem like a daunting challenge in a remote setting, but with the right tools and approach, it can yield excellent results.
Like their on-site counterparts, remote teams can brainstorm on a whiteboard—albeit a digital one. However, in order to tap into the same kind of collaborative energy found in a conference room, Toptal product managers must be intentional about implementing a balance of structure, creative engagement, and virtual camaraderie.
Balance Structure and Creativity
Optimizing an ideation session for a distributed team requires an intentional approach and respect for the time of those attending outside their normal work hours, according to Timmermann.
“The key is to set up structured brainstorming sessions with a specific purpose and agenda, as in the remote environment you are fortunate to find even an hour of everyone’s time when team members are distributed around the world,” he says. “Focus on many smaller targeted sessions, given time zone differences and general Zoom fatigue.”
First, he says, have the goal of the brainstorm clearly in mind. Often, brainstorm leaders expect an outcome to emerge organically during the activity, but that is not always possible during a short session. Second, ensure that all of the participants understand the core problems that need to be addressed.
“We often break out brainstorming into two components: brainstorming on the problems and then a second ideation activity for the solutions,” says Timmermann. “Each of the key brainstorm components needs to adhere to a strict agenda. The leader should define the specific number of minutes for each brainstorming activity and leverage timers visible to participants during the meeting to make sure everyone stays on track.”
Facilitating full participation is also a key to group success. “In a remote setting, five people can’t talk at once, so often, the most extroverted individual dominates the session,” he says. “We manage this by dedicating five to seven minutes of silence where team members rapidly add virtual sticky notes to a board and then [we] review them together as a team.”
Toptal product managers rely on a range of digital tools and strategies to ensure every initiative is well grounded in research and that critical information flows easily across teams and time zones.
Leverage Remote User Research to Drive the Knowledge Base
User perspective is critical to the product development life cycle at Toptal. Product managers engage the user experience research team to better define the problem to be solved and begin building the parameters of a solution. The research team’s methodology includes everything from user interviews and surveys to A/B tests.
The team archives observations from multiple data sources, including interviews, surveys, and analytics data within a powerful insights database called Nautilus. The research team can then derive facts from these observations that, in turn, help them generate dynamic insights that guide the product team’s current and future work.
This helps Toptal’s product leaders better understand the current and historic problems users face and craft opportunity assessments. “At the conclusion of the prioritization phase, we’ve made our best effort to coalesce all of our research and identify the most important problems we are solving at the moment,” says Timmermann.
“Being remote gives us an excellent, easily accessible archive of more than 500 hours of research we do as a product team each year,” he says. This allows product teams to review key parts of an interview that might yield insights that they missed initially. “User research is what guides a lot of our strategy, and having well-structured, well-documented, and easily reviewable research in the future is important so that we don’t have to go out and ask all the same questions again.”
Coordinate Efficiently With Scheduling Tools
Toptal’s product team regularly sends out user research invitations to clients and talent. Dmitry Petrashev, Director of Product at Toptal, says that in-house software tools accelerate the process of scheduling these interviews, which saves a substantial amount of time. “If we are conducting large-scale research with multiple product managers involved, we rely on Toptal’s internal product called TopScheduler, which is a quick and easy way to book available time slots for both interviewees and managers,” he says.
TopScheduler links to the calendars of all product team members, which facilitates finding times that work. Team members must keep their calendars updated to ensure timely scheduling. And while regular team meetings are important, one-on-ones and small group meetings can be more efficient ways to communicate updates and challenges.
A remote work setting requires clear communication, proper feedback loops, and ensuring that data is properly assessed before key product decisions are made. Given the sometimes considerable time differences between team members, effective asynchronous communication is critical for allowing work to continue unimpeded when decision-makers are offline.
Timmerman uses a step-by-step approach instead of simultaneous collaboration to allow the work to progress smoothly through each team’s off-hours. “Most of my engineering team is seven to eight hours ahead of me. We rely heavily on first clearly communicating the key problems we are trying to solve,” he says. “When the engineering team comes across an obstacle, understanding the overall goals enables them to make smart decisions without my presence.”
Focus on Documentation
Since distributed teams cannot always communicate in real time, they have to build in time to document all their processes and decisions. Documentation can take many forms, including video demos, recorded presentations, slide decks, shared documents, and more.
Consistent documentation facilitates communication and keeps teams on track, says Petrashev: “It pushes you to become more effective by clarifying your thoughts.”
To control the distribution of all written documents, product teams rely on Confluence to create a centralized single source of truth, he says. “We’ve had a lot of discoverability issues previously because documents were shared in an ad hoc way. Once we migrated to Jira and Confluence, we invested heavily to build a structure on Confluence and an internal library of templates. This allows anyone to look through all assets for a dedicated domain and discover other domains. Moreover, the standardized templates help with the ‘blank page’ problem when creating new documents.”
Recorded video is an excellent way to communicate progress asynchronously, Timmerman says. His team of developers records demos of features for him to review when he signs on in the morning.
Snezana Markovic, a senior product manager at Toptal, says that the nature of remote work requires that team progress be showcased more frequently than in an office setting: “You have to share the accomplishments of the team so that everybody on the team can see the progress and celebrate it. Also, we often record demo videos for new features so that others who are not in our domain can easily become aware of what we are doing.”
Create a Virtual Watercooler
Unplanned conversations between coworkers are also important contributors to the flow of knowledge throughout Toptal.
Markovic has transformed the challenge of remote work into a strength by making sure virtual connections with the engineering team are meaningful. “Investing time to know your teammates better and building the right culture and team spirit is very important. It builds trust and openness between team members,” she says.
She credits online team bonding with helping to make everybody feel energized and motivated. To foster this, she invites the team to themed virtual coffee breaks on Zoom on a regular basis, where they can share their hobbies, show their vacation photos, or play games. “I have even closer relationships with my remote team than I did with my previous on-site team,” she says.
Toptal product managers place great value on the post-release assessment. When done properly, it should provide multiple opportunities to learn, Timmerman says. For every initiative, product managers fill out an impact assessment form describing how the outcome of the product launch compares to the opportunity assessment. Quantitative measures, such as metrics for conversion rates, speed, or engagement, are important. But so is qualitative user research, which helps teams ensure that they are solving users’ problems.
Combined, these findings not only help product teams evaluate the success of the initiative but also the success of the process, and they can shine a light on areas that need to improve. “You can’t just measure and walk away,” he says. “Introspection and retrospection are important to continue to evolve both product and process.”
A thorough post-release assessment provides the opportunity for product leadership to improve strategy, roadmaps, process, and coaching for team members.
Remote Product Management That Works
There’s no question that remote product development requires different strategies than when working on-site, but a rigorous framework and an intentional approach to collaboration help Toptal’s distributed teams excel.
Unified templates for roadmapping, product planning and specification, development, and post-release assessment ensure that distributed teams are working in the same way and are aligned on goals, while simultaneously improving the development process. Leveraging remote collaboration tools, mastering the art of asynchronous communication, and developing a robust documentation process helps distributed product teams build connections and share information across time zones.
Building the process takes time and dedication, Timmerman says. “We work very well as a team now, but it didn’t happen overnight.” The result, however, is a cohesive product team that delivers successful initiatives supporting key objectives in a timely way.
Understanding the Basics
How do you build a product team?In order to build a product team, you must identify what capabilities a product will need to be brought to market successfully. The most common competencies include data analysis, market research, product design, financial modeling, and marketing. You will need a product leader to guide your product development strategy.
What is a product team structure?A product team generally comprises a team lead and several product managers, depending on company size. Managers work closely with designers and developers, and may work with a growth analyst too. Managers report to a lead manager.
Why is a product roadmap important?A product roadmap is a key part of any product development strategy because it serves as a single source of truth, guiding every aspect of the product development process.