Toptal’s product teams have embraced the nature of remote work from day one. More than a dozen product managers distributed across the globe are building a software product that aims to revolutionize team creation, contracting, and human resources. They set up the innovative process management framework from the very beginning, enabling teams to get the job done and delivered in the best possible manner. For Toptalers, who tell exceptional stories about the success of working remotely, even the sky is not the limit.
Product Development Process Is the Core
The platform Toptal is building connects businesses with top talent in engineering, design, and technology. With more than 500 individuals in more than 60 countries helping operate the core business, Toptal is one of the largest fully distributed global workforce.
At Toptal, the product development process is central to all product initiatives being executed by the teams. “It was one of the first things we formalized as a product team, and it continues to pay dividends,” said Paul Timmermann, Toptal’s Director of Product Management. Any single initiative goes through a well-established product development process, which is divided into four main phases: roadmapping, product specification and planning, development, and post-release.
An initiative at Toptal can be as small as a feature enhancement or as big as the introduction of a brand new business-to-consumer product. A vastly different level of documentation would be expected for these actions, but both follow the same process. “We set that up because we were seeing unsuccessful initiatives that didn’t necessarily go through the proper prioritization phases or assess the business value. The product development process was introduced to fix those problems,” explained Timmermann.
Remote product teams follow the same product management processes as on-site teams, however working remotely requires to have solid frameworks and stick to them. At Toptal, all product initiatives must flow through specific checkpoints along the way, explained Timmermann, as this ensures that everyone is building products the same way: “We found the secret sauce to really high-quality product initiatives.”
Defining the Problem
Essential activities in the roadmapping phase, such as user research and opportunity assessment building, are the primary reason for the continued success of product teams at Toptal. The key outcomes of this phase are product opportunity assessments that are clearly defined and prioritized.
This work is a crucial responsibility of every product manager and the very first milestone in the product development process at Toptal. The purpose is to prevent wasting time and money on poor opportunities while understanding what is required to succeed. “At the beginning of each planning cycle, we start with a healthy backlog of opportunity assessments. After receiving some initial estimations from our engineering counterparts, we can easily compare and prioritize the ROI of the various problems. The true beauty of the opportunity assessment is its specific focus on the problem. Often, after it is presented to various stakeholders, much better and effective solutions emerge, while the value of solving the problem remains constant,” explained Timmermann.
One of the biggest challenges with opportunity assessments is figuring out where to start. “At Toptal, this job is a bit easier because of our company-wide adoption of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). They quickly give us north star metrics to align our efforts against,” revealed Timmermann.
Holding Brainstorming Sessions
Product brainstorming is a daunting challenge in a remote setting. Office-based teams typically use whiteboards for brainstorming exercises, and remote teams do exactly the same, but with the digital equivalent of the whiteboard. “The key is to set up structured brainstorming sessions with a very specific purpose and agenda, as in the remote environment you are very fortunate to find even an hour of everyone’s time across the many time zones,” remarked Timmermann. He explained that bringing structure to brainstorming sessions requires a few minor tweaks that make a big difference. First, have the outcome of the brainstorm clearly in mind. Often, brainstorm leaders expect the outcome will magically appear during the activity, but this is not possible during a limited time. Another essential piece is ensuring 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. Finally, each of the key brainstorm components needs to adhere to a strict agenda,” noted Timmermann. When designing the meeting, 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.
Timmermann also shared a bonus tip: “In a remote setting, five people can’t talk at once, so often, the most extroverted individual dominates the session. We manage this by dedicating 5–7 minutes of silence where team members rapidly add virtual sticky notes to a board and then review them together as a team.”
Conducting User Research
User perspective is the most critical part of the whole product development life cycle here at Toptal. Each product manager is responsible for a significant amount of user research to uncover the key pain points of the users. This includes everything from user interviews and surveys to A/B tests and many other user research methods to collect key insights.
At Toptal, user research interviews are conducted using Zoom—they are recorded and often transcribed afterward. To get a good start, teams leverage AI transcription and follow up with manual transcription that they complete themselves to correct errant words. “The great thing with the advancement of current remote technologies is that we can do all of this from our home offices. In fact, being remote gives us an excellent, easily accessible archive of more than 500 hours of research we do as a product team each year,” noted Timmermann, adding that this also allows product teams to review key parts of the 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 re-reviewable research in the future is important so that we don’t have to go out and ask all the same questions again.”
Dmitry Petrashev, lead product manager at Toptal, says that in-house software tools accelerate the process of scheduling remote 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 timeslots for both interviewees and managers.”
User research helps Toptal product teams better understand the key problems their users are facing and craft excellent 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,” observed Timmermann, who leads a team of product managers.
Focus on Documentation
Since distributed teams typically cannot communicate organically, they have to be intentional about making time to document all the processes and decisions made. Online tools offer a variety of documentation methods, including Zoom video recordings and slide presentations.
Consistent documentation facilitates communication and keeps teams on track, said Petrashev. “It pushes you to become more effective by clarifying your thoughts. A product manager has the responsibility to set the context for the document, add cross-links, and follow the mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE) principle to segment information.”
To control the distribution of all written documents, product teams rely on the internal library on Confluence, says Petrashev: “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.”
Remote team members at Toptal think of communicating all messages asynchronously as a key to the success of a remote product manager. “I find myself polishing presentations much more than I ever did before to ensure the core messages of the presentations are clear and can be communicated asynchronously to my audience,” said Timmermann.
His working relationships with engineering also required a change to a more asynchronous process to account for time zone differences: “Most of my engineering team is 7–8 hours ahead of me. We rely heavily on first clearly communicating the key problems we are trying to solve. When the engineering team comes across an obstacle, understanding the overall goals enables them to make smart decisions without my presence.”
Great software tools with significant features also help to advance communication. For instance, developers demo features over recorded videos. “Clips are shared with me so I can watch and comment on them when I wake up,” said Timmermann.
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 in 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.”
Unplanned conversations between coworkers are also important contributors to the flow of knowledge throughout an organization, wrote Kleanthis Georgaris, Toptal’s VP of Product, in his blog post on leading remote product teams. According to Georgaris, this can be achieved by organizing “hangout” calls where team members can discuss any topic beyond work, creating a virtual shared office environment where people continue to do their job but can interact with another person in the team on the fly.
Markovic has transformed the challenge of remote work into a strength by making in-person connections with the engineering team. “I have even closer relationships with my remote team than I did with my previous on-site team,” she acknowledged. Markovic is in charge of online team bonding, helping to make everybody feel energized and motivated. She invites them to themed virtual coffee breaks on Zoom on a regular basis, where they can share their hobbies, show their vacation photos, or simply play games. “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,” said Markovic.
Product Development Best Practices
Toptalers share tips for achieving their best within a remote environment:
- Teams have weekly meetings to stay in touch with what is happening in other areas and also to discuss processes and practices they all stick with.
- Teams keep large group calls to a minimum, instead emphasizing focused small group or one-on-one calls where valuable discussions and updates take place.
- To schedule ad hoc meetings, teams use a cloud-based calendar to its full advantage. They embrace a straightforward approach to scheduling, simply selecting an open spot on a colleague’s calendar for a video call without asking or going back and forth. For this to work, all team members commit to keeping their calendars up to date.
- Product managers make sure team members are aware of their availability during the day. This is especially true with the engineering team—managers inform the team about their breaks and lunchtime, so everyone on the team can communicate with them.
- Product managers deliver their ideas in a visual and fun way since energy levels generally drop during long texts or a long call.
- Best practices constantly change, as teams adjust along the way when they’re learning something new.
The Right Set of Software Tools
A remote work setting requires clear communication, proper feedback loops, and ensuring that data is properly assessed before making key product decisions. To avoid any potential issues, Toptal’s product teams use great technological tools to empower staff productivity. Team members share their set of tools and tips for efficient online work:
- Zoom: The go-to for internal video conferencing. Connect Zoom to your Slack account to trigger room creation with one command (/zoom). Be sure to check default settings: camera and audio off before joining the call. However, after the meeting starts, team members are asked to have their camera on. This helps build relationships more quickly and provides useful body language cues.
- Slack: Almost all Toptal communication happens here. Keep Slack clean, pin the chats you need to stay on top of, use settings to hide chats that do not require your immediate attention. Pin channel descriptions to keep important links on top for everyone.
- Confluence and Jira: Both provide a powerful suite of tools for product management. Configure Jira notifications for Slack on ticket changes on your project—with all the email pings, this helps ensure changes do not get lost and that you stay on top of things. With Confluence, invest time into building a proper hierarchy; with a growing team, this investment will pay off.
- Sisense for Cloud Data Teams (previously Periscope Data): This is a default visualization tool, an incredibly feature-packed, browser-based analytics platform.
- Miro: The gold standard in online whiteboarding
- UsabilityHub: Quick, unmoderated usability testing sessions
- Qualaroo: In-product surveys
- FullStory: User session observation
A Key to Success
While Toptalers are distributed worldwide, they are united around some fundamental values—think and push for the impact, always back your decision with data, and make progress no matter what. Timmermann also defines a successful remote product management approach as a repeatable process that delivers strategic outcomes. “We work very well as a team now, but it didn’t happen overnight. It took us the better part of a year to work through that entire product development process that is so key to our work,” acknowledged Timmermann.
Understanding the basics
Product opportunity assessment is a crucial responsibility of every product manager. The purpose is to understand the key problems of users and what is required to succeed. It highlights the problem to solve, the overall business opportunity tied to it, and the background that validates this opportunity.
Product teams conduct user research in order to fulfill the user's needs. It aims to provide positive experiences that keep a user loyal to the product or brand. A meaningful user experience allows teams to define customer journeys that are leading to business success.
User research puts the user perspective at the core of product management. Each product manager is responsible for a significant amount of user research to uncover key pain points. This includes everything from user interviews and surveys to A/B tests and other methods to collect key insights.
In order to build a product team, you must identify what capabilities a product will need to be successfully brought to market. The most common competencies will include data analysis, market research, product design, financial modeling, and marketing. Then, figure out if you can fill those competencies with existing resources and hire additional people where you cannot.
A product team generally comprises a lead product manager and several product managers, depending on company size. Managers work closely with designers and developers, and often with a growth analyst. They report to their lead manager.