Interview

How My Past as a Developer Helps Me in My PM Role

Clare Evans
Product Manager at BBC
Clare Evans is a Product Manager at BBC News. While she started her career as a Web Developer, Clare always had a thing for product, and that’s what lead her to BBC. In this interview, she shared her advice on starting up as a PM and what she does to keep up with the industry.



You worked as a Web Developer for a while. What led you to product?

It was actually kind of by accident - I was a developer and worked on a content-authoring tool, which I defined and designed whilst building. When other people started helping out on the product, I split my time between managing the product and the team and still writing code. Whenever I was working on one side, I felt like I was neglecting the other. I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to choose between the two and decided I preferred the product side. From there I went on to look after other products in our suite and worked on a new consumer-facing product from scratch.

When I started out as a product manager there were only two of us in the company, so to learn and progress we looked out to the industry - and Jam was great for that! From the start, I enjoyed hearing the range of stories of different people’s approaches and experiences, and how each product manager defines how they do the job.

“When I started out as a product manager there were only two of us in the company, so to learn and progress we looked out to the industry - and Jam was great for that! I enjoyed hearing the range of stories of different people’s approaches and experiences, and how each product manager defines how they do the job.”

How do you think your development background helps you in your current role?

My background in development gave me a good grounding for working in a complex organisation like the BBC. A lot of the decision making and planning is driven by technological limitations and requirements, and so being able to understand the implications of those decisions is helpful in understanding the context as a whole.

Having experienced life as a developer, I know how important it is to understand why you are working on something, what the user benefits are and how that fits into a wider strategy. I’m always really keen for the devs on my team to hear the outcomes of research and be involved in idea development.

Our audience is literally all around the world, so it can be difficult to relate to our users. Understanding the insights from the research is important, but experiencing the places our audience lives is better. On our research trip to India last year, one of our developers joined - not only meaning we could iterate on the prototypes as we did the user testing, but also he got to see Delhi and Mumbai for himself.

“Having experienced life as a developer, I know how important it is to understand why you are working on something, what the user benefits are and how that fits into a wider strategy.”

What do you find most challenging about the work you're doing today at BBC?

I work on the BBC World Service digital products - we have 41 language services around the world, with a website for each service and some native apps. Our current audience is about 40 million a week across the languages. A big challenge for us is building a product that is flexible enough it can work everywhere but reasonable to maintain.

In order to understand where that flexibility can provide the most value, we need to find out what the audience wants from our digital products. One way we do this is research focussed on digital device usage and news consumption around the world. We focus on a country or region, identify the needs of the audience, prototype ideas that address those needs then test them with users on the ground. By getting a general sense of how the audience in that market behave with regards to news, we can compare and contrast that with other markets.

With an organisation the size of the BBC, there are all kinds of challenges around legacy technology, mandatory migrations and the scale of our products. Collaboration is essential but difficult; our teams are spread all over the UK, and it can sometimes be easier to work separately than together. To make it easier for us to work together, I am helping to put on an internal conference with the aim of building a product community.


What advice do you wish someone had given you when you started as a Product Manager?

It’s a bit cheesy, but the sooner you start internalising “fall in love with the problem, not the solution” the easier the job becomes. In my previous roles I would be the person identifying the problem and working on the solution, and sometimes building it too. This meant it was difficult to look at the solution objectively, and often the first one we came up with was the one we released - but in some cases, it was not the best solution for the problem.

I see other people struggle with this too - it takes a long time to design and develop new/updated features for our products, so there’s a tendency to decide on the idea quickly, in order to start the long process earlier. But this means we can end up building the wrong thing.

“...there’s a tendency to decide on the idea quickly, in order to start the long process earlier. But this means we can end up building the wrong thing.”

To counter this, we have spent a few months building a platform which will allow us to build components more quickly and iterate on them more easily. We have also started refining our prototyping practice, understanding when its best to build a prototype in HTML or a UI prototyping tool, and building the activity into our process. This week, for example, we’re doing a team ‘hack day’ off the back of a research trip we did in India at the end of last year. We’ll pair up within the team, and come up with and build an idea that addresses a need identified in the research.


How do you find the time to juggle your creative projects with your full-time work now?

There’s not that much time! It’s difficult, but I try and spend some time at the weekend and at least one evening a week on a side project or idea. At the moment I’m messing around with vectors and a drawing robot - a nice mix of digital and analogue. I enjoy making things on the side but they are not time sensitive, so I just get on with them when I can.

How do you keep up to date with what’s going on in the industry?

A mixture of ways, day to day I can often be found on Twitter, my feed is a nice mixture of tech, product, and other stuff. I get email newsletters from different people – I particularly like Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson’s Stratechery for an interesting story. I listen to podcasts; at the moment I’m enjoying NPR’s How I Built This and Reply All for more general tech stuff. We have a few product Slack channels at work and people often share interesting articles and things there.

I’m lucky enough to be able to go to conferences and events with work – I think being able to hear people talk about their work in person really helps me understand it and reflect on what they say in the context of my own work. And of course, the opportunity to meet other PMs in different businesses is always interesting. There are lots of interesting evening events around like Todo London and the BBC Machine Learning Fireside Chats, and Jam of course.

I read product books every now and again – I found Marty Cagan’s ‘Inspired’ really useful and relevant for working in a big, complex organisation. And it’s nice to hear so many success stories about women in product.

“I’m lucky enough to be able to go to conferences and events with work – I think being able to hear people talk about their work in person really helps me understand it and reflect on what they say in the context of my own work.”

Who are your biggest career influences?

It’s difficult to pinpoint the biggest influences on my career as there are loads of people that have helped, inspired and guided me along the way, but a couple stand out; Jon who gave me my first job in tech and who was always putting people first - he really cares about the happiness and professional development of his team, and works hard on the culture of his company. Alex is the Head of Product of my team, and his management style focusses on asking questions rather than offering answers, which helps me develop my ideas and think about things from a different perspective.

When I joined the BBC I noticed the wide range of approaches to product management - everyone does it in their own way. I find it interesting how people tackle challenges differently; solving problems, planning a program of work or defining a strategy. It feels like I see something new every day.


“When I joined the BBC I noticed the wide range of approaches to product management - everyone does it in their own way. I find it interesting how people tackle challenges differently; solving problems, planning a program of work or defining a strategy. It feels like I see something new every day.”

You’re already a regular at JAM. What made you join the conference in the first place and what do you enjoy the most about it?

I heard about Jam from a PM friend and liked the premise of honest stories from the industry. The first conference I went to really delivered on that and I’ve been to a few of the show & tells and more of the conferences since. Seeing inside companies like Monzo, The Telegraph and FutureLearn is a great opportunity to see how other teams are working, how they overcome their challenges and what directions they are moving in. I really like how friendly the crowd is and the relaxed atmosphere. The events are a really good mix of product stories from PMs at different levels, not only at the top, and the mixture of product roles that are covered means that the perspective of the story varies. 

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