Product Operations 101

What It Is and Why It Matters

“What do you do in Product Operations at Shopify?” I found myself answering this question a lot from prospective applicants recently and it was a question I had as well when I applied for this role last year. I gave similar explanations each time and felt that it would be more scalable to publish this as I tended to forget certain parts. While the role has continued to evolve this past year, here is a small sample of projects I’ve been involved with:

  • Establish a consistent product planning cadence for the Ecosystem team

  • Champion a sprint to improve the performance of apps on the Shopify App Store

  • Streamline how product reviews are conducted

  • Identify and help build governance features for the Experts Marketplace

  • Create a process to track our annual investment roadmap progress

  • Drive culture through planning hackathons, socials, and more

As part of growing in the role, I spend time speaking with people in Product Operations (Product Ops for short) within Shopify, as well as friends at other companies. I’m constantly surprised to see how different the role is across the industry. I attribute the differences to company / team size, type of business, and product leadership preferences. Back when I was interviewing for the role, I remember scouring the web to learn about Product Ops, but found limited and often high level content. I had worked with Product Ops at Uber and mistakenly tailored my application and preparation towards that role. I later found out that despite having the same job title, the responsibilities differ drastically. Thankfully one of my interviewers corrected my understanding early in the process to not cost me the offer! 

This article aims to share 1) how Product Ops differs across organizations, 2) how it works at Shopify, and 3) advice for anyone starting in Product Ops. The goal is that you will walk away with an understanding of not only what Product Ops does, but also why they’re important for your organization. 

1. Types of Product Ops

There are an increasing number of companies that are hiring for Product Ops positions. Most of these organizations are large (Series C+ companies) and often have multiple product lines. The complexity at these companies warranted a separate function that focuses on HOW Product teams build. The focus on the HOW helps Product teams spend more time on WHAT they are building. For smaller organizations that do not have a dedicated Product Ops role, the responsibilities are often absorbed into the role of Product Managers.

When I look closely at job postings from companies such as Doordash, Stripe, and Google, I see trends around the two main types of Product Ops roles:

Intersection Between Product <> Ops: For companies, where Operations is a huge part of the Product experience (e.g. Uber, Doordash, Instacart), the first model is what is needed to enable successful product launches. At Uber, there was a huge focus on the connective tissue between Operations and Product teams. Given the global nature of the product and the many nuances between markets, there is a need for insights to be surfaced between Product / Ops teams to enable smooth launches and ongoing operations. Product Ops are aligned to a specific product / feature and support Product teams throughout the full product life cycle. This can include collecting information from local markets, coordinating the product launch timeline, testing the product before it goes live, triaging bugs from local Operations teams, and more. 

Operations of How Products are Built: For companies that are closer to pure software (e.g. Shopify, Google, Facebook), Product Ops focuses more on the operations of how products are built. Similar to how Sales Ops teams focus on helping Sales teams operate more effectively, Product Ops does the same, but for Product teams. At Shopify, there is a need to coordinate within product teams and across the organization more broadly. Product Ops serves to ensure teams are aligned and help unblock / escalate issues that arise during the development process. These types of projects can include setting up new rituals to drive team alignment, streamlining existing processes, creating systems to improve feedback loops, building team culture, and more. 

The difference in focus for these two roles is what led to my confusion during the interview process. Hopefully this categorization can help you avoid the same mistake as me. While I have separated Product Ops into two groups for simplicity, there are definitely overlapping responsibilities as well as teams that have completely different focuses. It is important to read the job descriptions and ask questions throughout the interview process to understand exactly what Product Ops at a given company entails.

2. Product Ops at Shopify

At Shopify, I work on the Ecosystem team, which focuses on the App Store, Theme Store, Experts Marketplace, and tools/infrastructure for partners. There are ~100 folks in the Product team and another ~100 in other Commercial / Operations roles. When I joined Shopify, it was already fully remote and so far I have only had the pleasure of meeting 2 coworkers in person!

So, how does Product Ops work at Shopify? I’ll start off by saying that Product Ops across groups run differently. While there are shared ways of working and best practices that have worked elsewhere, there are nuances in how teams work. On larger teams at Shopify where there are a ton of interdependencies between projects / teams, Product Ops will focus much more on surfacing dependencies across teams to ensure the entire system is working smoothly. On a smaller team where there are less dependencies, you might focus more on ensuring there is broad alignment so teams can move fast and autonomously. Regardless, adapting to change is a constant and the best Product Ops are those who adjust to the needs of their teams as new problems and opportunities arise.

Going more into specifics, there are three areas that I focus my time on:

  1. Alignment: How do teams across the organization stay in sync? This can be driven at a high level by having a clear product roadmap & team structure and more tactically with effective meetings & asynchronous communication. This is increasingly important in a remote world.

  2. Feedback Loops: How do cross-functional teams feed insights into the product development process? There are so many people with end user insights from Support to Data Science to Customer Success - all of which can feed into improving the product. 

  3. Velocity: How can teams be enabled to build with greater velocity? Making sure that teams are shipping consistently, whether it is a decision, prototype, or product feature, is important to drive positive reinforcement loops. Velocity is driven by strong alignment on the long-term roadmap / strategy and positive team dynamics. Speed for speed’s sake can be a trap and you can end up building the wrong product more quickly.

While all 3 of these areas are important, I found that building alignment was where I focused the majority of my first 6 months. Alignment is the foundation upon which you can build better feedback loops and drive velocity. My attention these days is more focused on the other two, however, alignment continues to be an area of continuous improvement. All 3 of these areas will continue to evolve as your team’s needs change; the aim is not for perfection, but just better than what it was before. 

3. Starting in Product Ops

For anyone starting in a Product Ops role, my advice to you is to have patience as there’s a steep learning curve to be effective. In the beginning, I was enthusiastic to introduce new processes and systems, however, many of my suggestions weren’t adopted as I lacked broader company context and credibility. It was disheartening, but I realized that I needed to invest a lot more time understanding both the products and the people I worked with in order to be effective. 

I immersed myself into reading more about Shopify and specifically documentation on the product development history, which helped me connect the dots and be more effective in meetings. In addition to reading, I set up over forty 1v1s in my first 60 days with team members across the Ecosystem team and Product Ops in other teams. This ended up being a great way to accelerate building Shopify context and just get to know team members outside of work meetings, something made tougher if you start remotely. With better context and relationships, I started shipping again. It was slow at first and got incrementally faster as I built credibility with each successful rollout. I realize now that only after a deep understanding of both the product and people can you add value, often by subtracting or streamlining, rather than simply adding to existing processes. 

Beyond the initial learning curve, another challenge is measuring your impact. At Uber, I was directly shipping work and the feedback loop was relatively fast to know whether I was doing a good job (e.g. metrics moved in a positive direction). At Shopify, I am successful if product teams are building more effectively and aligned to the company’s goals. My impact is much less direct and given the longer development cycles of product teams, it can be tough to see progress. In addition, there is a ~10:1 ratio of Product Manager to Product Ops at Shopify, which means I am not tied to any specific product or project. I’ve found proxies for impact through feedback provided from team members in the short term and tracking project velocity in the longer term. One exercise that I found super helpful is comparing processes / systems in my first 3 months with today. While there is still a lot of room for improvement, the progress is encouraging and provides a good perspective of just how far it’s come.

As I progress within the role, I am finding out just how much more there is to learn. I hope this continues to be the case and am excited to continue building the Product Ops function for my team. With the announcement that Shopify is hiring for 2021 engineers this year, I believe that Product Ops will play a critical piece in keeping teams aligned and fast. If Product Ops sounds interesting to you, keep on the lookout for future roles at Shopify!