ProductCamp Austin – A Great Event

Reposted with permission from Thom Singer. The original post can be found here on Thom’s Some Assembly Required blog.

ProductCamp Austin – A Great Event

By Thom Singer on February 16, 2013

ProductCamp Austin celebrated their tenth event in five years (they host this informative and motivational networking event twice a year: winter & summer) this week with a large sell out crowd of over 600 people. The AT&T Conference Center was again the perfect venue for this high energy event.

It is a wonderful community gathering that is a true “Un-Conference“.   Speakers sign up to speak, and the audience votes that morning on which topics are of the highest interest. This year they had a record number of proposed talks.  Once the votes are cast the participants and speakers are given the schedule.  Throughout the day sessions cover Product Development, Go To Market Strategies, Product Strategy, Product Management/Marketing Careers, and Marketing Execution.

I had the honor to present a session called “Giving Better Presentations at ProductCamp (and Beyond)“.  It was a fun experience as the audience seemed to resonate with some of my advice.  It is more and more common for professionals to have opportunities to deliver presentations (at work or at a conference), and yet few people have had much training since their 8th Grade Book Reports. I loved the conversation with the group, as the topic clearly resonated.  Maybe some of those who were in my session will submit proposals for the next ProductCamp!!!

The rest of the day I was able to attend other sessions and visit with old and new friends.  If you have never been to ProductCamp Austin then you should mark your calendar for July 20, 2013.  Jump right in and propose a session, or come as a participant. Eithe way, be ready to “Teach, Learn and Network”.

***Rumor has it that if 60% of those in attendance in July are repeat “Campers”, then ProductCamp Austin president, Mike Boudreaux, will shave his head (that is a rumor that I am helping to start!).

Gaining access to new ideas is the key to those who want to expand their horizons.  Last week I spent Saturday at TEDxAustin, and this week I was at ProductCamp.  With all these ideas, information, concepts, theories and motivation in my brain… I need to get to work and make things happen.  Watch out 2013!!!


Have A Great Day.

thom singer


ProductCamp Austin – Looking for a few good men and women

ProductCamp Austin 10 was held on Saturday February 16, 2013 at the AT&T Conference Center. We almost broke the record of 620 registrations set by PCA5 in 2010. I was actually pretty happy that we got close but didn’t break the record, because Paul Young shaved his head when we set the record last time. Tension was pretty high as I looked in the mirror on Friday night, wondering if people would show up with clippers on Saturday morning.

Our tenth event turned out to be one of the best. Over the past several years, we have considered, debated, deliberated, and discussed the objectives for our organization. Should we be the biggest, the best, the broadest, or the most focused? Should we expand our corporate connections, or should we serve the start-ups better? Should we aspire to fill the Austin Convention Center one day, or stay comfortable in our home at the AT&T Conference Center? One thing is for sure, we are consistently delivering inspiring and energizing events for product managers and product marketers. The buzz and energy level on Saturday was high all of the way through to the end of happy hour.

Here’s a summary of the ProductCamp Austin 10 experience as seen through Twitter (Thanks to Cindy Soloman and AIPMM):

Mission, Vision, and Values

In February 2011, our newly formed board of directors went through the process of identifying our mission, vision, and values. Much of this was established for us in the first ProductCamp Austin (PCA) event in 2008. For example, the values of the un-conference are set in our DNA and irreversible. Our values are rooted in the no-pitching, egalitarian, free, volunteer-driven, participation rich, and open culture that we have established in the events that have been organized. The Austin culture is a big contributor to our casual, open, and collaborative culture.

Our first order of business was agreeing on our mission. This turned out to be a pretty easy exercise. We saw the ProductCamp Austin organization to be an established, stable, structured, professional organization with a solid foundation in place for future growth. We thought that PCA was ready to move forward to the next phase, from an event-based organization to a community driven one.

Our Mission:  Creating a community for product management and marketing professionals to teach, learn, and network in Austin.

Our vision is also quite simple. One of the exercises that we used to create our vision was to imagine an Austin American Statesman or Austin Business Journal front page article about how PCA had helped the Austin product community to grow in some way. We discussed the growing challenge for local companies to find good product management talent. As the tech industry grows in Austin, we are going to need more people with professional product management skills and talent. Our vision is to help grow the product management profession, foster networking in our profession, and provide a means to connect hiring companies with talented people in Austin.

Watch this video from the Austin Technology Council featuring Texas State Senator, Kirk Watson to better understand the challenges facing the Austin technology industry.

For the PCA organization, our board of directors has outlined three phases of growth:

  • Phase 1 – Initial offering
  • Phase 2 – Repeatability / Sustainability / Innovation
  • Phase 3 – Evolution

Our initial offering has been fine tuned into a repeatable formula for organizing successful events. Formalizing the PCA organization into a 501(c)6 non-profit organization with a board of directors was a major milestone in Phase 2 of our growth. We now have a functioning board of directors with a focus on leadership and succession planning to ensure that we can endure the changes in people that will happen through the years to come. We also discuss areas for innovation to keep things fresh and creative for everyone who is volunteering and participating to keep things interesting for everyone involved.

Building a community

Phase 3 for the growth of ProductCamp Austin is an evolution from an event-based to a community-driven organization. We aren’t looking to grow our event-based participation beyond the current levels. Rather than growing our event attendance, we want to grow our community. This includes a connection with community members between PCA events. Our vision here isn’t complete. It has taken us quite a while to figure out exactly what it means to have a community, and how to measure such a thing once it exists.

Our first attempt at measurement was to ask people if they considered themselves to be part of our community when they register for events. It turned out that self-identification as a community member is very high. This measurement has helped us to get through some of our circular conversations about whether we actually have a community or not.

Another metric that we have recently figured out how to measure is repeat attendance. At past events, we have always asked people to raise their hands if they were attending their first PCA event. We were always astonished by how many people would raise their hands. At PCA10, we took the registration database for the past ten events and measured how many new vs. experienced people have attended. Here is the community curve from the PCA10 welcome slide deck:

Looking at the community curve, we see a trend of increasing repeat participation from event to event. Our new-to-experienced ratio seems to have stabilized at about 50%. This puzzles us when we meet to discuss each event and to find ways to grow going forward. Survey results and feedback after the event are consistently positive. We ask people if they will return to future events and the results here are usually quite high.

Questions that we are asking ourselves:

  • Why are previous attendees not returning?
  • How can we get these people to come back and re-connect with us?
  • What can we do to grow our community between events?

For this reason, we have added a Community Manager position to our organization and we’re looking for someone who can help us to answer these questions an provide some leadership in growing the ProductCamp Austin community. This role will sit somewhere between marketing and sustainability, providing a steady drumbeat throughout the year and remaining outside of our ramp up and down behavior around the two big events we host each year.

We are also adding an Alliance Manager position to help us connect our community to other organizations in Austin that might share some of our mission, vision, and values. This includes other professional organizations, local businesses who are looking to grow the product management profession, other groups in Austin, and other ProductCamp organizations around the world.

Both of these positions will likely grow into team leadership roles, so we are also looking for volunteers to help out even if you aren’t able to commit to lead a new program.

We are looking for a few good men and women. Any takers?

Mobile Engagement Strategies in 2012 by Pat Scherer

The optimal mobile engagement strategy for your organization is NOT the “strategy-du-jour” featured in some top ten menu your friend tweeted yesterday. It is the intersection of your unique answers to 3 questions we are going to explore in detail if my “Mobile Engagement Strategies in 2012” presentation is voted in for ProductCamp 8 in Austin this Saturday (2/18).

Mobile engagement strategies that stand the best chance for success will also leverage every useful advantage within the rapidly shifting mobile landscape. A lot has happened in this arena since I presented “Going Mobile?” last summer. We will cover the new trends, best practices and emerging opportunities for mobile products and services in 2012 and arm you with enough facts to distinguish good information from the hype, untested opinion and ill-fitting strategy-du-jour.

Looking forward to seeing you Saturday!

This post added by guest blogger Pat Scherer discussing her proposed session for ProductCamp Austin 8.  Read more about Pat Scherer

A New Class of Product Manager…Because Something Has to Change! – by John Mansour

Even when a team of product managers & marketers craft and execute product strategies to perfection, it may not be enough to satisfy the organization’s aggressive growth goals because in too many cases, product level strategies aren’t addressing problems big enough to make a significant impact in the market.  It’s creating an enormous gap between corporate goals and product initiatives that’s relegating many talented product teams to executing “the next great idea” that promises to spike the company’s growth.  You already know how that turns out!  It’s time for a new class of product manager and a new approach to improving your strategic value. A disruptive discussion awaits!

This post added by guest blogger John Mansour discussing his proposed session for ProductCamp Austin 8. Read more about John Mansour

The 4-step Process for Overcoming Market Unpredictability – by Jeremy Gorr

Complexity science is a scientific discipline that studies the behavior of complex systems. So what does it have to do with product strategy? As you’ll learn in my session, quite a bit.

Almost everything we encounter in the world is part of a complex adaptive system (CAS). John Holland, a MacArthur Fellow and professor of computer science, engineering, and psychology defines these systems like this: “Complex adaptive systems are systems that have a large numbers of components, often called agents, that interact and adapt or learn.”

Doesn’t that describe every project you’ve ever worked on in your life? This also describes every market your company participates in. Agents can be your fellow employees, your customers, or your strange aunt Susan; and any system with more than a few agents quickly becomes a complex system. That’s why complexity science can give us many insights into the way the real world behaves.

One of the primary lessons of complexity science is that CAS’s are unpredictable. This may be obvious when you think about all the strange customer requests you’ve heard, but not so obvious when your boss asks you to predict what the monthly sales of your new product will be over the next 3 years.

We like to think that we can make reasonable predictions about the future. We can’t. This is an incontrovertible lesson that complexity science teaches us: CAS’s are fundamentally unpredictable, and no amount of data will change that. Some of our predictions may be correct, but a stopped clock also tells the correct time twice a day.

Even the smartest experts in the world can’t make accurate predictions about their domain. Here are just a few classic examples, but I’m sure you hear examples every day in your workplace:

“What use could this company make of an electric toy?”

– Western Union, when it turned down rights to the telephone in 1878

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

– Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

– Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of DEC, 1977

“Man will not fly for 50 years.”

– Wilbur Wright, American aviation pioneer, after a disappointing flying experiment in 1901 (their first successful flight was in 1903)

How is this relevant to product strategy? Because the reason most strategies fail is rooted in bad predictions: poorly-formed business goals, leading to the wrong scope, the wrong budget, the wrong time frame, the wrong objectives, the wrong sales projections, and the wrong products.

I am sure that if you trace the reasons for almost any failure, a bad prediction will be at the root. And what Complexity Science tells us, counter-intuitively, is that the solution for bad predictions is not better predictions. The prediction game is a guaranteed loser. The solution is better adaptation and learning.

Once again, this may seem obvious, but most traditional management practices generally limit adaptation and learning due to an inherent belief in prediction.

Want proof? The next time your product only sells one tenth of your projection, tell your boss that the reason was the inherent unpredictability of complex adaptive systems. That will either get you laughed out the door or fired.

But it’s the truth. An unfortunate response by management to unpredictability is to search for who to blame and punish those people. A better response would be to look at the situation as a key opportunity to learn about their market or company, and praise those who lead the internal revolution in thinking about markets for the company based on this changeable, complex new reality. (But I’m sure that’s not the first thing that comes to mind when your products don’t hit their projections.)

The ideal state for any organization is total transparency, adaptability, and flexibility. Clearly, this ideal will never be achieved. However, my session will discuss a 4-step process that will start your organization down this path.  You will learn to greet the unexpected with anxious joy, rather than fear and disappointment.  Even though organizations will never reach perfect transparency, adaptability, and flexibility, we will at least tackle the real problems and make real progress, rather than clinging to the hopeless, disproved falsehoods of believing that our success is dependent on how well we can predict the unpredictable.