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Product People and Teams
Sep 09, 2020
12 minute read

Inside Toptal’s Product Team

As Toptal's VP of Product, Kleanthis is responsible for the evolution of Toptal's platform and associated products.

Product management is one of the most demanding and important roles in modern technology companies. Building a high-performing product team is always a challenge. Scaling a product team is an even bigger challenge. But doing all of this remotely may represent the biggest achievement. Product management plays a pivotal role in Toptal’s success, and we believe that we have managed to build a high-performing remote product team.

I would like to share with the product community some insights and best practices on how we work in our 15-strong team.

Our Values

We take cultural fit seriously and we have a high bar when it comes to values. In an on-site environment, some cultural or value mismatches can be resolved through in-person interactions. But in a remote setup, we don’t have this luxury and it is much harder to change behaviors and attitudes. Thus, we require people to be the way we want them to be from the first day. Naturally, everyone should adhere to our company values, but we put even more emphasis on ensuring that people are:

Accountable

We demand that every product manager act as the founder of their respective team or product. Product management might be the hardest discipline in the tech space, as its practitioners must wear many different hats and drive others without management authority—simply through influence. Many times, you depend on other teams who might not deliver as expected. We require our product managers to step in and do whatever it takes to accomplish their goals. I keep telling my colleagues the following: “Imagine you run a startup and you have a runway of two months. You need to ship your product and show some traction in order to raise your next funding round. Investors don’t care if your team didn’t deliver. It’s a survival thing for you to deliver.” Product managers must have this sense of ownership and do everything necessary to meet their goals.

Driven and Impact-oriented

We want everyone on our team to set ambitious goals and push everyone around them to deliver on these goals. We want people who are drivers, not riders—who are ambitious and want to make a difference. But ambition is not enough. Instead, product managers have to push hard and drive for change. They have to be relentless and fight to remove all roadblocks. Being impact-oriented is important in a remote setup. There is no facetime. We don’t know how many hours someone works, and we don’t need to—what matters are results.

Helpful

As a team, we are looking to continuously improve. For this to happen, we expect every team member to contribute to a number of team excellence initiatives led by senior team members. Such contributions are part of our career mapping and remain essential to becoming a senior product manager.

Hard-working and Passionate

Fatigue and burnout are feelings you get when your output is less than your input. If you feel you are doing something meaningless, then you want to minimize the time you spend on this thing. We want people who don’t count how many hours they work, but rather how much impact they make—people who are driven by their results and achievements.

Relentless

We want everyone on the team to constantly push toward progress and excellence—to make more impact, become better professionals, and obtain new skills. We want people who are never satisfied with the status quo, but instead, constantly raise the bar and never stop trying to improve themselves.

Our Interview Process

Getting into the Toptal product team is extremely hard. Our conversion from job application to hiring is less than 0.1%. The conversion from the first interview with a recruiter is less than 5%. We have an intense six-step interview process in order to ensure that we get the best people in terms of hard skills, soft skills, and most importantly—cultural fit. We rarely look at someone’s past experiences or domain expertise. Instead, we hire generalists who have a solid product sense, strong execution skills, and adherence to our core values.

We definitely have a strong advantage over traditional companies, as our talent pool is the entire world. This provides us with a much larger supply of talent and allows us to raise the bar higher. Our philosophy of recruiting is to eliminate false positives (wrong hires) even at the expense of more false negatives (rejection of good candidates). The cost and consequences of hiring the wrong person are so damaging that, if we have doubts about someone, we pass. Even if someone receives positive reviews in all interviews, we still require one of the interviewers to be a strong advocate of that candidate in order to extend an offer.

Our Product Management Process

Working remotely requires solid processes and frameworks. In an on-site environment, lack of processes or various inefficiencies can be addressed or avoided altogether via in-person interactions. However, in a remote setup, this is not the case and to address this, our product management process consists of two major steps: product discovery and product delivery. To understand some of the examples in this section, it is important to know that Toptal’s core business is matching companies with top talent in engineering, design, finance, and project and product management.

Product Discovery

Problem Space

It all starts with identifying and understanding problems. During this phase, product managers conduct heavy user research with external users and internal stakeholders, all with the singular goal to discover and understand their problems. This is an ongoing process that is repeated throughout the year.

Every product manager insists that their stakeholders stay in the problem space, and we push back strongly if they come with top-down solutions. Stakeholders should come to us with problems, and then it’s the job of the product manager to work with all relevant parties in order to propose the right solutions.

We also encourage product managers to come up with interesting problems themselves. I am proud to say that some of the biggest problems that we decided to solve as a company were brought up directly by people from the product team. For example, after talking to many clients and talent, we realized that many of them need support and guidance throughout the course of an engagement after the hiring process is complete. As a result, this has become a cornerstone of our product strategy and our 2020 OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).

Solution Space

For the most important problems, product managers conduct a number of brainstorming sessions in order to come up with potential solutions. User research also plays an important role in this step, as we go back to the user to validate potential solutions. The outcome of this step is a number of potential solutions for each identified problem.

Opportunity Assessment and Prioritization

We do a potential impact assessment of the various solutions as well as a high-level cost estimation. Then, we prioritize according to potential ROI (Return on Investment). For every initiative, we aim to have a product opportunity assessment that discusses the potential impact, cost, risks, market, users, etc. The opportunity assessment is a one-page document that acts as a pitch. Someone reading it should understand what problems we are trying to solve, how we plan to do it, how much it is going to cost, and what the benefits will be.

This is the template we use for opportunity assessments:

Opportunity assessment form

OKRs

As a company and product team, we have fully adopted the OKR goal-setting framework. Usually, the problem identification phase is a major input for setting the right objectives. Some of these objectives stem from strategic company priorities. But it works bottom-up as well, where our research and the problems that we identified inform the OKR process.

When it comes to key results, sometimes, we set them right after identifying the key problems. For example, let’s assume that, after conducting research with our talent, we found that some of them did not stick around for long because they didn’t have much success in finding jobs. This would result in the following OKR:

Help talent land more jobs with less effort

As measured by “less than X% of talent to churn within Z months from joining the network”

There are other cases where we set the objective after identifying the problems and set the key results after coming up with some potential solutions.

User Research

One of the product team’s OKRs is user research. Every product manager must conduct a minimum number of user interviews and other user research activities per year. We are now building a user research team, but it will remain the responsibility of product managers to drive research and collect insights. In my honest opinion, you can’t be a product manager if you are not in touch with your users.

The Outcome of Product Discovery

We end up with a list of objectives and key results, and for the latter, a list of potential initiatives that we believe will help us hit that key result.

It is important to mention here that product managers should not commit to delivering specific initiatives, but rather to hitting specific OKRs. Initiatives are only the means to achieve specific key results. During a quarter, product managers have the freedom to come up with new initiatives and to change their action plan depending on the progress and data they receive.

This is a template we use for our Product OKRs:

Product OKRs template

Product Delivery

Specifications

Product managers work with business stakeholders, designers, content writers, and engineers to provide:

  • Product briefs or specifications of what should be built
  • Designs
  • Content artifacts
  • Release plans or milestones

Before development starts, stakeholders need to sign off on the proposed solution, including its designs and content.

Product Development

This is the actual development phase. We mostly work using Scrum with a few teams using Kanban.

Impact Assessment

It’s part of our product culture to measure everything, and for each launched feature, we try to gauge its impact. Ideally, we should measure it quantitatively (e.g., conversion, speed, or engagement increase) or qualitatively through user research. For every initiative, product managers are required to fill out an impact assessment form in which they describe how the outcome of the initiative in question compares to the opportunity assessment.

Based on the impact assessment and the qualitative feedback received, we decide if we will continue investing in the respective initiative. If the decision is positive, we go back to the product discovery phase.

How We Are Structured: OKR Working Groups

In Toptal, each engineering team owns a business domain. For example, we have talent acquisition, talent screening, talent activation, talent retention, etc. The logic is that each team is responsible for a specific part of our user journey and has expertise in that particular area of the business. We always try to match one product manager with one engineering team.

To foster cross-team collaboration, in the past, we were organized in “squads.” We had a client squad that consisted of all the teams responsible for the client funnel, a talent squad, and a platform squad. This structure definitely helped focus but created a lot of silos and misalignment. For example, our squad structure complicated the collaboration between the client and the talent squad, interfering with our goal to increase the speed at which we match talent with our clients. The second problem we faced was misalignment with operations. To increase the speed of matching, we needed to get talent to apply faster and needed our matchers to send talent faster. This goal couldn’t be achieved only through product features. In essence, our squad structure was causing collaboration problems between product managers as well as between product managers and operations people.

So this year, we introduced the concept of an OKR Working Group. For each main OKR that the product team owns or supports, we create a cross-functional team that consists of all the relevant engineering teams, their product managers, people from operations, design, etc.

OKR Working Group

Such a group has a clear goal—to hit a specific OKR. The group meets weekly or biweekly to discuss progress against the OKR, review results or KPIs, and brainstorm on problems and solutions. They all have the same goal and they meet regularly to drive progress.

Our Management Philosophy

As a team, we have a flat structure and we require every product manager in a leadership role to be hands-on and support execution when working with their direct reports (i.e., other product managers). Our leadership style has many things in common with the idea of servant leadership. The core tenets of our management philosophy are:

Set the Destination

Product leaders must tell their teams where they should go, what problem(s) they need to solve, and where they should put their focus.

Show the Road

There are multiple ways to get from A to B. The role of the leader is to help the team find and follow the shortest path.

Get There at Maximum Speed

After helping the team find where they should go and how to get there, the role of the leader is to help them get there faster. This can be done in three ways:

  1. Help the team uplevel its skills.
  2. Remove roadblocks.
  3. Offer an extra pair of hands—do some execution—if necessary.

A leader in our team is someone who shows the road to follow and then becomes a servant of his or her direct reports. As a servant, leaders have to help their team not only by removing roadblocks but also by doing execution when capacity is low or when faced with a challenging problem. Leaders must be hands-on, ready to jump into the fire, and lead by example. There is no place on our team for managers who only attend meetings or act solely as communication proxies. Our lead product managers were top performers as individual contributors, and their direct reports respect them not only for their leadership skills but also for their ability to execute.

Team Excellence

We aspire to become a world-class team, and to achieve that, we are continuously improving ourselves through what we refer to as “Team Excellence Initiatives.” Each initiative is owned by a senior team member who sets its respective OKRs. We have regular reviews to track progress and make sure that the initiatives are executed successfully.

It is part of our culture that everyone cares about the team’s overall success and excellence. In most companies, such initiatives come top-down, whereas in Toptal’s product team, there is a sense of partnership with everyone contributing to improve the team.

Some major initiatives include:

Knowledge Sharing

The goal is to uplevel the skills of the team. As part of this initiative:

  • We have an insights channel on Slack where we share interesting articles every week.
  • We have regular knowledge-sharing presentations during which one of us presents a topic in which they are experts to the rest of the team.
  • We bring external or internal guest speakers.
  • We read product management books or articles and then brainstorm about how we can apply the takeaways to our team. Currently, we are working on Inspired by Marty Cagan.
  • We propose courses or training that other team members can take.

Remote Team Bonding and Culture

Working remotely creates some hurdles for bonding. But as a team, we feel close to each other, and each time we meet in person, it feels like a big family or a group of friends. Despite being remote, we always want to fight the distance and make it feel as if we are on-site. As part of this initiative:

  • We organize biweekly hangouts during which we play online games and share our experiences, personal photos, and life outside work.
  • Every month, we pair product managers in groups of three, and each group has a call to get to know each other better and discuss things outside work. It’s like a mini-hangout.
  • In addition to some smaller physical meetups during the year, we have an annual offsite in a spacious rented house where we both bond in-person and achieve amazing work results.

Work-life Balance

Being a product manager at Toptal is a demanding job, and to be honest, we didn’t have the best work-life balance in the past. To rectify this imbalance, we started a dedicated initiative:

  • Sessions during which people share their personal goals, and the rest of the group provides support in achieving them.
  • A workout competition where each product manager shares their workouts. At the end of the month, we give a prize to the winner.
  • Presentations to the team, with suggestions on how to manage their remote work-life style.

These are only three examples. We have several other excellence initiatives like product management process, data governance, making product managers more efficient, and product documentation.

Product Management: The Toptal Way

I believe that here at Toptal, we have managed to build a high-performing product team that helps to drive the company’s hypergrowth. The key pillars of our success are the following:

  • We have adopted most best practices of modern product management, with a significant emphasis on product discovery, strategy, and user research.
  • We have adapted these best practices to our remote setup and made them equally or even more effective than in a traditional setup.
  • We have built a strong culture of accountability and ownership in which everyone has a founder’s mentality, truly cares about making an impact, and pushes relentlessly for continuous improvement and team excellence.
  • Despite being a fully distributed team, we have built strong relationships, with bonding and intimacy minimizing the negative effects of remote work.

In my opinion, the most remarkable aspect of this team is that everything described in this article results from tight collaboration and extreme teamwork among smart and driven people, rather than from top-down execution. Everything occurs organically, and I believe that this is the result of people sharing common values.

Understanding the basics

How do you run a product team?

You can run a product team by following three basic tenets. Set the destination by telling the team where they should go and what problems they need to solve. Show the road from A to B and help the team find and follow the shortest path. Get there at maximum speed by removing impediments and upleveling team member skills.

How do you structure a product management team?

The most traditional way to structure a product management team is to have product managers report to lead product managers, who curate a small portfolio of products. All the leads report to a Head/VP of product, who is responsible for the overall vision.

What does a product management team do?

A product management team is responsible for identifying business problems and coming up with the best solutions. The team also coordinates the different product efforts across the team to maintain a holistic user experience.

What makes up a product team?

A product team is usually made up of mostly product managers, sometimes supported by product designers, business or data analysts, and UX researchers.

What makes a good product team?

A good product team is able to come up with the best product solutions for the business problems at hand while maintaining a holistic approach to the user experience across the whole product portfolio.