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136 / Product Operations: Why It’s More Important Now Than Ever, with Denise Tilles

Hosted by Paul Gebel & Sean Flaherty




Denise Tilles


Denise Tilles is the Founder and Chief Product Officer at Grocket. As a product leader, consultant, and coach, Denise is focused on enabling meaningful outcomes for her clients’ customers + supercharging their business.  Denise wrote the recently published book, Product Operations, which she co-authored with Escaping the Build Trap’s Melissa Perri. The book is the must-read guide technology leaders have been missing.   

With over a decade of product leadership experience, Denise supports companies like Bloomberg, Sam’s Club, and Athenahealth by strengthening capabilities around Product Operations, Product Strategy, and the Product Operating Model. Denise had led Product + UX teams at Cision, Conde Nast, and

As a profession, product managers have been battling through some pretty lean times of late. Layoffs in big tech, market uncertainty across the board, and steep competition for fewer vacancies keep many of us up at night. All the more reason, as Denise Tilles explains, that product operations is more important now than ever.

In this episode of Product Momentum, recorded live at the NY Product Conference, Denise introduces us to this fairly new phenomenon called product operations (aka, “product ops”). She says that exploring product ops solely through the lens of sustained market challenges is short-sighted.

Establish Strong Product Culture

“We all need to be more operationally efficient and crisp when we’re doing more with less,” Denise says. But it’s more than survival; it’s also about establishing the strong product culture that will enable organizations to scale for growth, she adds, “which is the goal.”

Part of it is just having a core understanding of what product operations is, Denise continues — and what it is not. “Product operations is not supplanting product management; it’s enabling it.”

Helping PMs Contribute Real Value

Product management still makes the decisions, she says. Product operations facilitates that process; it’s all about giving product managers the leverage and flexibility to contribute opportunities that offer real impact.

Product operations relieves product managers of time spent on “the work around the work” – by providing (as Denise and co-author Melissa Perri write in their new book, Product Operations) providing three key pillars: data insights, customer market research, and process/practices.

If you want to hear more from Denise Tilles, be sure to register for the ITX 2024 Product + Design Conference, June 27-28 in Rochester, NY, where she will be delivering a keynote on conference day 2.

Paul Gebel [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our communities way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at it, along with my co-host Sean Flaherty and our amazing production team and occasional guest host. We record and release a conversation with a product, thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Paul Gebel [00:00:43] Well hey everybody! We are about to dive into a conversation with Denise Tillis, and we had a really interesting unpacking of what Product Ops means and where we’re at in this space. What did you think of the the range of really the breadth of the topic that we covered?

Sean Flaherty [00:00:56] She has an interesting perspective on product operations. It’s controversial right now in the market. So it’s kind of a fun – it was a fun conversation. And I think there’s a lot of value in Denise’s knowledge. She has a lot to bring to the table here. And we got to unpack a lot.

Paul Gebel [00:01:09] Yeah, I think the things that you’re going to hear are kind of like how to enable the product culture in your company to know how to make it scale operationally, effectively and efficiently, but not just to get better for the sake of getting better, really providing excellence so that we’re delivering value to  the people that we’re trying to help.

Sean Flaherty [00:01:27] Yeah. And it’s a perspective that we need. Yeah. That we often overlook or don’t take seriously enough. So, there’s a lot in there to present. This is a great episode.

Paul Gebel [00:01:35] Yeah. We really value the time with Denise. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Sean Flaherty [00:01:38] Yeah, let’s get after it.

Paul Gebel [00:01:38] Let’s get after it.

Paul Gebel [00:01:42] Hello again. Welcome back to Product Momentum. We are here with Denise Tillis. Thank you so much for joining us. You’re coming off hot on the heels of a product ops conference. Can you talk about where you’ve been in the world and what you’ve been up to in this product space?

Denise Tilles [00:01:54] Yeah, thanks for asking. Well, first of all, I’m really excited to be here with you guys and talk about product operations. I do get a little excited about it, but yeah, I spoke last month at the Product-Led Alliance Product Operations Summit and kicked it off by talking about in these leaner times of layoffs, why product operations is more important than ever. And what I really wanted to do is sort of set it in context of the big Spotify layoff in December. And the CEO, Daniel Ek, had, you know, long, long list of reasons why he was making these layoffs. But one sort of little bit stood out to me. And he said, you know, we’re we have we’re paying people to do work around the work. We just need to do the work. And I was like, Oooo he’s talking about product operations.  So that was what sort of inspired me. And they’re not the only ones.

Sean Flaherty [00:02:40] Oh yeah, it’s a big debate in the community right now for sure.

Denise Tilles [00:02:42] Yes. But I mean, not the only ones in terms of layoffs.  So, you know, there were several thousand I highlighted just from December to March.  But it’s sort of short sighted because you think about it, you need to be more operationally efficient and crisp more than ever when doing more with less. Right. So, there’s a number of ways you can do that in terms of, you know, how are we spending our money? Is it aligning to our strategy? Do we have visibility into that R&D portfolio? Also, how are we connecting with our customers? Are we making sure that our product managers have the inputs they need from customers, the qualitative as well as the quantitative and then also operational excellence that how do we make sure that we’re all working in a way that we don’t keep talking about how to do the work, that we’re doing the work, right. So those were a couple of things that sort of kicked us off last month.

Paul Gebel [00:03:35] Yeah. You mentioned a kind of the shorthand definition that I often hear applied to product ops, which is the work around the work.  And that’s kind of how we’ve abbreviated the understanding of this relatively new field in the product space. But is it a distinct career from product management, and is it something that people should be thinking about, maybe seeing if it’s a right fit for them? How can a product manager look at this new space called product ops and think, you know, what is, what is the work around the work? And maybe that is what I want to focus on.

Denise Tilles [00:04:07] Yeah. And it’s more than just the work around the work. Right. The way that Melissa Perri and I, who co-wrote the book with me, Product Operations, we like to think about, it is just very boiled down to its essence. How do we make sure our product managers are able to make faster and better-quality decisions? And that is with the inputs and qualitative data. So, product engagement, revenue, customer market insights, the qualitative and then the work around our work. So, it’s really sort of three pronged. But in terms of if this is the right path for you, it’s sort of a self-selecting community. A lot of product ops professionals who really excel in this role have been product managers. So, they have the empathy and know what it’s like and sort of understand the pain points. I think those are the folks that are best suited to this role, but customer support, a lot of empathy there. So, I see a lot of folks from that function going into it, but people that are really systems thinkers and are really interested in problem solving, product managers want to solve problems too. But for the customer. With product ops, product managers are our customers.

Paul Gebel [00:05:12] Right. Yeah, it’s a great way to put it. I think that really kind of contrasted a lot of the adjacency and sort of role confusion that often, you know, is it is it just another layer of management? Is it, you know, is it something that we’re trying to fit in? And I think going back to operational efficiency and excellence at the same time, that it’s really at a sweet spot in the community’s life cycle, as we’re kind of learning and growing as a product community to really help people be their best product selves when they show up to work every day.

Denise Tilles [00:05:43] Right, right. And it’s about making sure they have the product managers have everything surrounding them to set strategy. That’s data informed, to be able to deliver on business goals, to be able to connect well with our stakeholders. That’s what our leaders hire product managers for. It’s not to sort of write a SQL script off the side of their desk because they don’t have data instrument. And I see that in a lot of companies. So it’s making sure that we’re actually getting what we wanted to get out of this product manager.

Sean Flaherty [00:06:11] There’s a business reason behind it, and we understand what the business goals are, not just like having empathy for the business.

Denise Tilles [00:06:17] Yeah, that’s a great way of putting it, I like that.

Paul Gebel [00:06:20] So can you share a bit about your story? Did you land in product ops as a, you know, a fully manifested product operations manager? And how did you find yourself in the situation that you are, and maybe especially about the book that you wrote with Melissa?

Denise Tilles [00:06:34] So my background is as a product leader and built and stood up several functions at a B2B SaaS company called Cision in the media space at Condé Nast, and really had my first experience with product operations. When I was at Cision, my boss, the CPO, said, “Hey, what if we had a data analyst?” And I was like, “What? I don’t have to do that, or my team doesn’t have to do that?” And as we talked more about it, it was about giving the product managers leverage around better decision making. And so, we hired sort of a head of strategy, a data analyst, a UX researcher. And the leverage that they gave my team was quite remarkable. You know, we identified the possibility of an add-on product for one of our product lines. And, you know, we did not have it on the rate card, sales wasn’t actively selling it. We made $1 million the first year, just as sort of a back of the pocket product.

So I was bought in, but it wasn’t really called product ops. Fast forward a couple of years later, ended up working with Melissa Perri at her consultancy Products Labs, and she mentioned something about product operations. Like what is that? And she explained it to me. And the three pillars that we talk about in the book are business and data insights, customer market research, and the process and practices. And like, oh, we were doing two of those three. That’s what that was. Right. And we were working with Insight Partners, a venture capital firm, and sort of helping level up some of their portfolio companies and whether it would make sense there got more and more excited about it, and we felt like we were getting the same questions all the time. What is it? Why do I need it? Do I need it? What do I hire for it?

So, one day I asked Melissa, I was thinking about writing a book. Is that nuts? And she’s like, this is 2021. So height of pandemic. And she’s like, no, I think it’s a great idea. Nobody’s done that. And I said, well, would you do that with me? So, she was like, ooh, you know, Escaping the Build Trap, which she had written. Great book. And she was like, am I ready? Yeah, okay, let’s do it. So, we co-wrote it together. And labor of love took two and a half years. So, to this day every week and I’m like, oh, I don’t have to write this weekend.  But what was really important to us was to be able to have tangible, real life examples of wins and fails to help the community. And I feel like a lot of product books are sort of set as this idealistic.

Paul Gebel [00:08:57] Complete.

Denise Tilles [00:08:58] Theoretically.

Paul Gebel [00:08:59] Perfected.

Denise Tilles [00:09:00] And people feel bad that they don’t meet that or understand the path to get there. So, we wanted to have sort of basic sort of understanding of what product operations is sort of a fictional through line of how that manifest. And that was sort of a composite of different companies we worked with, and then actual case studies with Athena Health, Amplitude, Fidelity, and Uber and Stripe.  So, we wanted to have, you know, what went well. What they learned is what other people could sort of take from that.

Paul Gebel [00:09:28] Those are the places to learn from. I want to shift gears for just a second. I think the, you know, the fact that we’re watching an emergent field evolve in real time is kind of exciting. Yeah. And I think there’s something really special about, you know, it oftentimes will reflect years later and realize, oh, that was an agile transformation that we just went through. And, you know, it’s kind of like we wake up one day and apply a label, but we’re kind of like applying the label. We’re living in the laboratory right now with product ops evolving.

Denise Tilles [00:09:57] Yeah. That’s great.

Paul Gebel [00:09:58] You can take, absolutely. So, as we’re living through this, there’s obviously some I’ll call it survival of the fittest going on. It might be that maybe is a little too cold with all the layoffs going on. But I think that there is a real perceived threat maybe to people who are – uncomfortable with change, they don’t like people moving my cheese.  And I think learning to work with a system, working with new tools and new people in different roles, it’s got to be a skill. Because if we stagnate, we die, right?  How can we embrace this change and really kind of live into it.

Denise Tilles [00:10:32] Right?

Sean Flaherty [00:10:33] It’s also kind of hard to argue the three pillars that you like that those aren’t going to be helpful in a product space. And, you know, you can’t have one person doing all of those, all the jobs and all the product jobs. And like, the bigger you get, the more complicated the products.  We all know building product is hard.

Denise Tilles [00:10:51] Right? And as you scale, which is the goal that really multiplies that complexity. So that’s where Uber and Stripe had that sort of inflection point of the growth. But seeing things sort of starting to come apart. So how did they bring that back into place.

Paul Gebel [00:11:07] Right.

Denise Tilles [00:11:07] But how do we work together. I think part of it is just having a core understanding of what product operations is. It’s not supplanting product management; it’s about enabling it. So, I teach a master class on product operations. And the key takeaway is, you know, product management makes the decisions. Product operations enables those decisions. And it’s really about giving the product managers leverage. So, you could say ‘All right, well we have data enabled. We’ve got a great customer. And you know market insight you know system going we don’t need that. You know the PMs can sort of handle this.’ But you think that’s almost vertical. If you think about horizontal in terms of ways of supporting the product managers, just enough methods, just a notion of process, who’s taking that on because everyone’s watching their own quota.

Paul Gebel [00:11:53] Exactly. Yeah. That synergy I think is so powerful because product managers often want to become sort of the, you know, adoptive parents of their products. And they want they want to know exactly this, this thing. And they want, you know, control is maybe too heavy of a term, but I think there’s an ownership, there’s an internalization of this is my thing. And realizing we’re not giving up, we’re enabling. And I think that’s, that’s the right word. Absolutely.

Denise Tilles [00:12:19] Yeah. Exactly. And some people have commented like what you’re offloading or taking away from. It’s not it’s additive.

Sean Flaherty [00:12:25] So if you were to summarize the goal of product operations like this is the mission, it’s to enable product owners, product managers to make better decisions.

Denise Tilles [00:12:34] Faster and better-quality decisions. Yeah, exactly. And then hopefully not spend time in cycles of talking about how we’re going to do the work. But getting to that work. A lot of companies I work with like Bloomberg, I’ve work with Sam’s Club. PMs just want to get to the work that they don’t get particularly excited about process. Just let’s figure out and let’s go do the work. So, it’s about that.

Sean Flaherty [00:12:55] You know, few people get really excited about processes for the sake of process.

Denise Tilles [00:13:00] That doesn’t excite me. It’s just about how much more quickly can we go?

Paul Gebel [00:13:04] Right. Yeah. For some people it is a warm blanket.

Sean Flaherty [00:13:06] Oh, sure. It’s a safety blanket. I know we all know we need a point. Yeah, we all know we need predictability in everything that we do.

Paul Gebel [00:13:13] It takes all kinds.

Denise Tilles [00:13:16] But just enough support where people are like, yes, I don’t have to figure out what does my roadmap look like? That the leader of your company, your CPO, has portfolio visibility. And that’s a big missing piece of a lot of companies. That sort of horizontal view of what’s happening.

Paul Gebel [00:13:30] You know, we just have a couple of minutes left to catch up. And I want to make sure that people know where to find you, obviously the book, but anything else that you want to point people to learn more about this, anybody, any other voices in the space that you think are worthy of tracking down? If people are still kind of learning about this and figuring out where to go to learn more information, where would you point them?

Denise Tilles [00:13:48] Yeah, certainly my co-author, Melissa Perri, she has a, you know, great perspective on this, and she’s a prolific posting on LinkedIn and X. And you know, I have a website, and have some information there as well. But most of my insights I like to share on LinkedIn. But other sort of leaders in this space, Shintaro Matsui, he was the head of product operations at Amplitude. He did such a great job. The CEO saw this sort of operational excellence he brought to the team. He’s like, I want that across the whole company. So now he’s on the leadership team for strategic excellence. So, he posts a lot of great content. And a fellow by the name of Hugo Froes. He’s based in Lisbon but does a lot of great content and just has a really great perspective on product operations. So those are two I would look for.

Sean Flaherty [00:14:41] Yeah. All right. Well thank you for joining us. It’s been an exciting conversation. There’s a lot of value here I think for product leaders everywhere.

Denise Tilles [00:14:50] Excellent, thanks so much, guys.

Paul Gebel [00:14:51] It’s been a blast. Thanks for taking the time.

Paul Gebel [00:14:55] Well that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening. We really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world. Just like. You’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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