Interview

How I Built a Strong Product Culture

Matt Walton
CPO at FutureLearn
Matt Walton is the CPO at FutureLearn, an online learning platform featuring courses from top universities. Matt has been with FutureLearn since the start, and today he’s responsible for the strategic direction and for creating a healthy product culture. He talked us through his management style, how he keeps the team motivated and what he does to develop his own product skills.


Talk us through what you do at FutureLearn and how has it evolved since you first joined the team?

I’m one of the founding team. I joined initially as a product consultant to define a product vision for what would become the digital education platform FutureLearn, and I had to create a plan to deliver it.

The plan was to convince our owner, the Open University to let us build a new platform by working in a highly agile way, which to them was new and quite alien.

I quickly found myself hiring a team of software engineers and designers and becoming the product lead in our small cross-functional team. Our goal was to deliver first a prototype and then our Minimum Viable Product.

Six years on, we now have multiple product teams iterating a maturing and increasingly complex product and my role is very different. It’s changed every few months as the organisation has grown to 130 people.

Today, I’m responsible for the strategic direction of our platform and, together with our CTO and CXO, leading the teams that deliver it. A big part of my role is about joining the dots between teams and creating a sense of coherence and shared direction.

I’m a member of the Leadership team, with both the responsibility to champion and ensure a healthy product culture exists and represent “my constituency” (I’m MP for PMs!), but I also have a collective responsibility with the rest of the Leadership team for the overall health of the organisation.

“A big part of my role is about joining the dots between teams and creating a sense of coherence and shared direction.”

When did you realise you wanted to work in product management?

I’ve always been a generalist, curious about lots of things. My A Levels were Maths, Art and Theatre Studies, a strange mix of science and arts that many of my teachers told me would never get me into university.

I went on to study Interactive Media Production at Bournemouth University which involved design, coding, law, making TV and radio, media and film studies… At the time (the end of the 90s) we delivered projects on CD-Roms! Getting an understanding and appreciation of all of these elements and how they come together was great training to be a digital product manager before it was widely recognised as a discipline.

I started my career at the BBC as a “producer” because at the time that was the only job title available. I found myself regularly bringing together designers, developers and editorial people to deliver new internet things and being the glue in the middle to help work out what we should do and support a team to make it happen.

“I found myself regularly bringing together designers, developers and editorial people to deliver new internet things and being the glue in the middle to help work out what we should do and support a team to make it happen.”

When Product Management as a discipline started being widely adopted outside of software companies in the mid-2000s, I felt that finally there was a recognised discipline that described what I did for a living.

I started going to meetups for people doing this new job, where at the time a lot of the conversation was about how to explain to the rest of your organisation what a product manager was. I found a community of curious and highly motivated like-minded people who enjoyed the challenge of bringing people together from a wide range of disciplines to deliver something that would be useful to its users. I’d finally found my tribe.

“I started going to meetups for people doing this new job, where at the time a lot of the conversation was about how to explain to the rest of your organisation what a product manager was.”

What has been your greatest achievement at FutureLearn so far?

I’m really proud of the product that we’ve delivered and the very tangible impact that we’re having on universities. We’ve helped them get to grips with the challenge of digital disruption and created the opportunity to make education more accessible to everyone. But the thing that I’m most proud of is the team that we have built and our company culture.

I genuinely have never worked with such a smart group of people, who are as passionate about what they are delivering, who work in a collaborative way, and are constantly trying to improve how they do it. Every day I feel humble about having the opportunity to provide them with leadership, and I am always learning from them and encouraged to up my own game. In a growing organisation, my job is not to maintain this culture but to keep ensuring that it evolves in the right way.

“Every day I feel humble about having the opportunity to provide them [the team] with leadership, and I am always learning from them and encouraged to up my own game.”

As a CPO, how do you make sure your team feels motivated about what they do?

I’m a great believer in the three principles that Daniel Pink outlines in his fabulous book, Drive.

In order to motivate people to do creative and conceptual work, you need to give them a sense of purpose, autonomy over how they work and the opportunity to get better at things and become a master of what they do.

As CPO, to provide that sense of purpose, I need to make sure that there is an inspiring vision for our product and a clear strategy that the teams understand. They need to clearly see how their daily work is helping us achieve it and organising around your strategy is key to this.

The strategy needs to be clear but not prescriptive, allowing product managers and their teams to feel a sense of ownership and autonomy over how they achieve it. We organise teams around missions that help us drive our strategy, rather than around parts of our product and we are as clear as possible about how we measure success.

For example, one of our strategic goals is to increase the number of learners that pay and how often they purchase. We measure this by understanding the purchase conversion rate and measuring the revenue per active learner. Working in this way helps us stay focused on the impact we want to achieve, and the features we deliver are the means to the end, rather than the end in themselves.

And finally, you need to make sure that your team is always challenged and supported, so they can get better at what they do. We do this on both a personal level and also by creating the culture and space that allows for teams to rapidly learn, iterate and improve what they are working on.

“...you need to make sure that your team is always challenged and supported, so they can get better at what they do.”

Tells us a bit more about the Sprint Reviews and The FutureLearn Meeting. What’s the difference between them and why are they so important?

Regular communication is vital to making sure that teams can work quickly, regularly correct their course with confidence and that teams are aligned.

We have no formal sign-offs at FutureLearn. Our governance is based on trust. We trust individuals and teams to share key information, giving others the opportunity to provide feedback, find out more or flag issues if needed. Two key ways that we do this is through fortnightly sprint reviews and all-hands: The FutureLearn Meeting.

Each product team finishes their sprint with a sprint review, to which stakeholders and other interested parties are encouraged to attend. These are very much owned by the team, not led by the product manager. The team member(s) most responsible for a piece of work shows it: this creates a real sense of understanding and ownership across the team.

We try and ensure that sprint reviews provide the opportunity for candid feedback. Our goal is to make sure that we’re delivering the best thing in the best possible way. The team should own the response to that feedback. As well as an opportunity for discussion, sprint reviews should be a celebration of progress. All our sprint reviews end with a round of applause, which I believe is a really important feature!

“As well as an opportunity for discussion, sprint reviews should be a celebration of progress. All our sprint reviews end with a round of applause, which I believe is a really important feature!”

The all-hands meeting was introduced alongside the sprint review once FutureLearn grew to have multiple product teams and there was a need to have a place to regularly share information, not just about our product, across the company in person.

Rather than being led by the Leadership team, The FutureLearn Meeting is hosted by a different member of staff each fortnight (Have I Got News For You-style) and is made up of a number of short “lightning talks” from different people and teams. We also make sure that each of our strategic areas can update on targets and progress once a month. These meetings ensure that everyone knows about important and new things that are happening and help us feel like one team working towards a shared set of goals.

You’ve written a great article about roadmaps for product leaders, why did you feel the need to share these tips?

There’s loads written about roadmaps, but most of this is aimed at Product Managers. Being a product leader is a very different job. There’s relatively little written on what your role in things like roadmaps should be, and I think it’s often misunderstood.

For someone new to a product leadership role, who’s been a product manager, I think it’s natural to feel the need to “own the roadmap”. There’s lots of pressure on you to deliver specific things, you’re likely to know what you would do and want to feel some sense of control. In fact, what you need to do is the exact opposite: you need to make sure your team owns their roadmaps. The greater sense that you own it, the less sense of ownership they will have, undermining their understanding of the problem and their motivation to solve it.

What you own is the product vision and the strategy and if you get that right - which is the hard bit - then you’re less likely to need to intervene in what’s on the roadmap. And framed in the right way, the product strategy provides the framework and levers to have a conversation and challenge your team if their roadmaps don’t contain the “right” things.

How would you describe the way you manage your product teams and how has it changed through the years?

Something that I’ve been increasingly conscious of is the need to separate out providing direction and setting goals about the product from supporting, developing and coaching the individuals.

It’s very easy to blur these things when guiding someone and setting objectives and sometimes this isn’t helpful. To avoid this, we now separate outline management and personal development from coaching on strategy and product direction.

We also now run “career vision” sessions that help both individuals and their line manager understand where someone is going and what they want out of their time at FutureLearn. This has been successful in helping us spot opportunities that can help individuals develop which may not have been immediately obvious or related to their day-to-day work. Understanding someone’s goals and aspirations and doing what you can to support them is vital to challenging and developing your team and ultimately getting the best out of them and retaining them.

“Understanding someone’s goals and aspirations and doing what you can to support them is vital to challenging and developing your team and ultimately getting the best out of them and retaining them.”

What do you do to learn and develop new skills for your career?

Alongside regularly reading and going to meetups, one of the things I find most useful is to make sure that at least once a month I meet up with someone doing a job like mine at another company.

When you move into a leadership role, typically you are the only person doing your job and you are likely to report to somebody who has a limited amount of time to support you or has never done your job themselves - for example, the CEO.

“Alongside regularly reading and going to meetups, one of the things I find most useful is to make sure that at least once a month I meet up with someone doing a job like mine at another company.”

Having regular conversations with others that do your role elsewhere is a great way to get inspiration. It makes you reflect on your own practice and share challenges with someone who understands and might be able to give some helpful advice or benefit from your experience.

My experience is that even in different sectors, generally, product leaders are dealing with many of the same issues and challenges. A conversation with others doing what you do can help you both see solutions that you might not have found on your own and generally feel better and more confident. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of some of the good stuff you do and talking about it to someone else can make you realise the things you need to keep doing.

“Having regular conversations with others that do your role elsewhere is a great way to get inspiration. It makes you reflect on your own practice and share challenges with someone who understands and might be able to give some helpful advice or benefit from your experience.”

Many of these people I’ve met by going to meetups or events like JAM and plucking up the courage to suggest meeting up for a coffee with someone you’re enjoying a conversation with. I would definitely recommend it. I’ve yet to regret it!

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