Product management is one of the most demanding and important functions in today’s modern technology companies. Building a high-performing product team is always a challenge. Scaling a product team is an even bigger challenge. Doing all of this remotely may therefore represent a company’s biggest achievement. Product management plays a pivotal role in Toptal’s success, and underlying that success is our high-performing remote product team.
The following best practices offer insights into how we build, scale, and work in a fully distributed, high-performing product team that can be applied in the broader product community and its ways of working.
Who We Are
We value cultural fit above all and we have high standards when it comes to putting our values into practice. In an on-site environment, some cultural mismatches might be resolved through in-person interactions. In a remote setup, it is much harder to manage conflicting behaviors and attitudes. Thus, we ensure that people joining the product team embrace the following principles from day one:
Act Like a Founder. Being a product manager is arguably the hardest job in the tech space, as you have to balance myriad responsibilities and influence others without imposing management authority. For product managers to successfully act like a founder, they must be:
- Accountable. Product managers facilitate projects that require cross-team collaboration, often depending on other teams—that might not be performing as expected—to deliver. Our product managers must intervene in such situations and take ownership to accomplish their goals.
- Driven. Everyone on our team is expected to set ambitious goals and motivate everyone around them to deliver on these goals. We want people who are drivers, not riders. Simple ambition is not enough: We push hard and drive change.
- Caring. Team members must care about more than their own scope and responsibilities; they should be willing and motivated to make contributions that promote the greater good. We expect every team member to contribute to a number of team excellence initiatives led by senior team members. These contributions are essential to becoming a senior product manager.
- Persistent. We want everyone on the team to push for progress and excellence, to make more impact, and to become better professionals. This team values people who are never satisfied with the status quo.
Continuously Improve. As a team, we view continuous improvement through three lenses:
- Personal development. We want our team members to improve first as individuals on matters that might not be related to their work at Toptal.
- Professional development. We invest in training our team members to become better leaders and better product managers—and we do it in dynamic ways.
- Team development. We are constantly looking to improve the team by reinventing our processes, systems, and the way we work.
- Uphold Toptal-quality Standards. Quality is in Toptal’s DNA. Every aspect of our work should adhere to the highest quality standards. In order for a brand to be synonymous with high quality, its products and services, its employees’ decorum, and every interaction customers have with the company should be a reflection of that quality.
Our Interview Process
Joining Toptal’s Product team is extremely difficult: Conversion from initial recruiter screening to hired is less than 1%. An intense interview process ensures that we get the best people in terms of both hard and soft skills, and above all, cultural fit. In general, we don’t look at someone’s past experience or domain expertise. Instead, we hire generalists who have solid product sense, strong execution skills, and adherence to our core values.
Our standard interview process consists of six steps, including an initial interview with our in-house recruiter and two product-sense interviews, where candidates must provide a product solution to an abstract problem. For example: How would you design a bookcase for children? Or: How would you design a social networking site for entrepreneurs? Next, two product-execution interviews evaluate the candidates’ ability to write specs, do journey mapping, and analyze data. A final culture interview evaluates how the candidates align with Toptal’s values. Leadership skills are assessed throughout the process, as we believe that being able to lead others is a hallmark of a great product manager.
Our Management Philosophy
We have a flat team structure and require every product manager in a leadership role to be hands-on when working with direct reports. We espouse servant-leadership principles, along with the following core tenets of our management philosophy:
- Set the destination. Product leaders must tell their teams where they should go, what problems they need to solve, and where they should direct their focus.
- Show the road. There are multiple ways to get from point A to point 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 identify where to go and how to get there, the leader must help them get there faster. This can be done in three ways:
- Coach the team to uplevel their skills.
- Remove roadblocks.
- Offer an extra pair of hands—and help execute—if necessary.
Product leaders not only intervene and help do the work when one of their direct reports is struggling, they must identify the root cause of the problem and help find a solution. Instead of only managing the outputs or outcomes, leaders also manage the inputs.
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.
Our Product Management Process
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, simply put, begins with identifying and understanding problems. During this phase, product managers conduct in-depth user research with external users and internal stakeholders, all with the singular goal of discovering and understanding their problems. This is an ongoing process.
Every product manager insists that their stakeholders stay in the problem space, and we push back strongly if they come to us 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 identify 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.
The next step in the discovery process occurs in the solution space. For the most important problems, product managers conduct brainstorming sessions in order to come up with potential solutions. User research also plays an important role here, as we go back to the user to validate these solutions. The outcome of this step is a set of potential solutions for each identified problem.
Opportunity Assessment and Prioritization
Once we have identified feasible solutions, we assess and prioritize the opportunities that could emerge in the process of realizing them. To document these efforts, we create an opportunity assessment as well as a high-level cost estimation. Then, we prioritize each solution according to its potential return on investment. For every initiative, we aim to have a product opportunity assessment that identifies the potential impact, cost, risks, market, users, and more. The opportunity assessment is a one-page document that functions as a pitch for our stakeholders and the team. Anyone 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:
Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)
As a company and product team, we have fully adopted the OKR goal-setting framework, and the problem identification phase is typically 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.
Sometimes, we set key results right after identifying the key problems. For example, let’s assume that, after conducting research with our talent, we find that some of them get discouraged by having to apply to a large number of jobs before finally finding one and getting hired. This would result in the following OKR:
Objective: Help talent land more jobs with less effort.
Key Result: This is measured by “Increase job application-to-hired conversion by X%.”
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.
Because user research is a cornerstone of how we do product discovery, in 2019 we decided to build a dedicated user research team. This team collaborates closely with our product managers, who remain actively involved in the research process.
We practice two types of user-research activities:
- Study-oriented. With this type of research, we approach users with a specific goal in mind, such as validating an idea or conducting usability testing.
- User-agnostic. When we want to talk to our users in an open way without an agenda, we use this approach to understand how our products and services are being used and what pain points or unaddressed needs users may be experiencing.
Finally, the results of every study are rigorously documented in a custom research insights database, a repository that exemplifies our robust and scalable user research process.
The Outcome of Product Discovery
The product discovery phase yields 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.
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 plans depending on the progress and data they receive.
The product delivery phase begins when product managers collaborate with business stakeholders, designers, content writers, and engineers to create product briefs, designs, content artifacts, and release plans or milestones. All of these, including the proposed solution itself, require stakeholder review and signoff for development to start.
At this point, the team enters the product development phase. Most of us use the Scrum framework; a few teams use Kanban.
Measuring for each launched feature—and trying to gauge its impact—is an invaluable part of our product culture. Whenever possible, we use outcome-oriented metrics. When this is not possible, we use metrics like usability score (i.e., we ask the users of a feature how easy or difficult it was to use). 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 user feedback, we decide if we will continue investing in the given initiative. If the answer is yes, we go back to the product discovery phase.
As Toptal grows, aligning with stakeholders on strategy, OKRs, goals, and roadmaps is of paramount importance. For this to happen, there needs to be a process in place. All companies need rigorous processes to stay aligned, but in remote companies, this need is particularly acute. The constant face-to-face interactions in on-site environments can disguise poor processes, but at Toptal, where people are spread across time zones around the world, a lack of structured interactions would mean chaos.
To continually align our team to the company, we have a predefined set of meetings called Rhythm of the Business:
- We share learnings and insights during a weekly Product call.
- We share big updates, show demos, and report impacts to a large group of stakeholders, including executives, senior leadership, and function heads during a monthly Product showcase.
- We have cross-functional teams that consist of product and business representatives who meet regularly to brainstorm, solve problems, review progress, and align on priorities.
Despite the size of the company, the remote nature of it, and the large number of stakeholders, we have managed to stay focused to achieve our goals. Our team meetings, in addition to a host of other activities, help keep us aligned with our company values.
How We Run the Team
A key part of our culture is that everyone cares about and contributes to the team’s overall success. To remain a world-class team, we are continuously improving through what we refer to as Team Excellence Initiatives. Here are just a few examples:
All product managers are assessed against 12 product competencies organized into four major categories: Product Execution, Customer Insight, Influencing People, and Product Strategy. Together with their manager, they identify areas of improvement and create a development plan. During monthly review meetings with their manager, they receive coaching and discuss progress against their development plan. This initiative has had great success, as we continually see our team members upleveling their skills and growing as professionals.
In addition to coaching, we hold group training sessions, where we go through a section of a reading or a course every week, and we then meet to discuss what we learned and how we can apply those learnings. By meeting regularly and discussing what we’ve learned with other lead product managers, we are able to apply that knowledge to the benefit of the team and the company. I find these sessions to be extremely impactful.
Roughly every quarter, the team chooses a book that we read and discuss as a group. We meet every two weeks, having read a specific chapter, and we discuss the learnings and how they are applicable to our personal or professional lives. Most of the time, these books are not product management-related but cover a broad spectrum of topics.
For example, when we read Inspired by Marty Cagan, we learned more about how to separate product discovery from product delivery and how to draw the line between the problem space and the solution space. More importantly, we learned how to make our product managers feel more empowered.
We are rigorous professionals who love to learn and debate complex topics, not just those related to our specific projects. As a result, we meet once a month and discuss a wide range of subjects such as science, technology, startups, and economic trends. We apply our analytical product management thinking to everything and we try to educate ourselves as knowledge workers, beyond the scope of everyday work.
In the end, we always connect everything back to Toptal. How can our debates improve Toptal? How can Toptal ride the wave of new technology trends we’ve discussed and create its own trend in the world economy?
In addition to the book club, group trainings, and coaching initiatives, other knowledge-sharing activities we participate in include:
- An insights channel on Slack, where we share interesting articles every week.
- Regular knowledge-sharing presentations during our weekly product management call, where experts present a topic to the rest of the team.
- Product insights, learnings, and any other information that can be valuable to the team, which moderators lead during the weekly call.
Remote Team Bonding
The activities we use to facilitate remote team bonding set us up to feel close to one another whenever we meet in person: We feel like a big family or group of friends. We achieve this thanks to our Product Culture team, which consists of a group of product managers who bridge the distance gaps and make working remotely feel as if we are all present, even if not on-site. These are just a few of the team-bonding activities that we organize:
- We play online games, share photos, and have team members present interesting stories about themselves.
- We have a hangout channel on Slack, where we share our life outside of work.
- We arrange product managers into groups of three each month and each group has a call to get to know each other better.
- We have an annual team off-site, a weeklong gathering where we brainstorm big product problems, participate in team excellence sessions, and enjoy activities like cooking and playing board games and sports. The energy and engagement of these off-sites is mind-blowing.
Product Management: The Toptal Way
Here at Toptal, we built a high-performing product team that helps to drive the company’s hypergrowth. These are the key pillars of our success:
- We adopt best practices of modern product management, with a significant emphasis on product discovery, strategy, and user research.
- We adapt these best practices to our remote environment to make them equally or even more effective than in a traditional setup.
- We build 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.
- We build strong relationships, with team bonding to mitigate the physical distance of our distributed team.
In my opinion, the most remarkable aspect of Toptal’s Product Management team is that everything I’ve described results from tight collaboration and seamless teamwork among smart and driven people, rather than from top-down execution. Everything occurs organically, and that is the result of people sharing common values.
Understanding the basics
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.
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.
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.
A product team is usually made up of mostly product managers, sometimes supported by product designers, business or data analysts, and UX researchers.
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.