It is one thing to wax philosophically about “translating strategy”, “using data”, and “aligned autonomy”, and another thing to make it happen in the real world at a rapidly growing company.

Toss in getting thrown into the deep-end, and having to mold a function from scratch, and you’ll have your hands very full. How did Jake Johnson, Senior Product Operations Manager at Drift, make this happen?


For more perspectives on Product Ops, please join our panel from Microsoft, Auth0, Amplitude, Optimizely, and Pivotal for a free webinar/roundtable on October 1st, 2019.


Simple, but not simple: by zeroing in on the pressing need and staying nimble. “I think necessity drives a lot of what I do here,” Johnson shared in a recent conversation with Amplitude’s John Cutler.

“When I came out of grad school, I was initially a Product Manager on a typical development team at LogMeIn. It was my first job in the tech space,” said Johnson. “I found myself writing stories, pulling together some analytics, doing ‘normal’ Product Manager things. But when we stepped back and looked at our team, we realized that while we had a lot of really talented Product Managers, what we didn’t have was a talented analyst to help teams make sense of the quantitative side.”

So he adapted his role – expanding into more of a bridge between insights, corporate strategy, and product strategy. It was “almost like an internal consulting role,” explains Jake. This resourcefulness and unique mix of skills landed him a role at Drift with a former LogMeIn colleague.

In this discussion, he shares how he is blurring the lines between product development, product management, design, analytics, strategy, and operations at Drift to create the role they now know as Product Operations.

His story is a valuable lesson for any product team contemplating a Product Operations-like role.

John Cutler: Can you talk a little about how you found and slipped into the role you’re in today?

Jake Johnson: Sure. When I first started out at LogMeIn, I had a couple of different roles. I was kind of half in corporate strategy and half in product strategy, which meant I was aiding the product teams. The idea was that I’d help them decide what to build and why. I was creating a lot of dashboards, doing a lot of analytics - almost like an internal consulting role.

It was great because it gave me the space to step back and understand the ways that the day-to-day had an impact on the bigger picture.

I was in that role for about two years when an old colleague of mine, who was now at Drift, reached out. We talked about the need to bridge the gap between the daily operations of product teams and the strategy their actions support. A specific role hadn’t been created yet, but I was up for a new challenge.

JC: As you were thinking through what the role would look like, where did you look for inspiration? Did you seek inspiration from your past, or from somewhere else? Or were you more concerned with filling a gap in the immediate term?

JJ: Well, there’s two ways to look at the type of work I do. On one hand, you’ve got the tactical aspect that would include something like dashboarding. I had some experience using self-service visualization tools like Tableau and Looker at LogMeIn, and I liked being able to expose insights that were worth exposing.

Having a ton of flexibility, and being able to shape the role, was what really inspired me before I started.

But on the other hand, with this new role, there needed to be a cross-functional aspect. That’s the thing I was more interested in at Drift. We’re small enough that someone can work with product teams, understand the product strategy, and then communicate that out to the broader organization.

Having a ton of flexibility, and being able to shape the role, was what really inspired me before I started.

JC: Would you say that the longer-term, strategic aspect of the Product Ops role is something that differentiates it from, say, other ‘traditional’ Ops-type roles?

JJ: Exactly. I do think that some of the more traditional operations roles have very much been focused on the here and now. I think Sales Ops, particularly, is like that. You can’t get too strategic because there’s just so much that’s required in the immediate term. I think Product Ops is a little bit different because it needs to have an idea of where the product teams wants to head.

Where I would like to go with the Product Ops role is to broaden it even more and start having a hand in the corporate strategy with things like pricing, packaging, and acquisitions.

Where I would like to go with the Product Ops role is to broaden it even more and start having a hand in the corporate strategy with things like pricing, packaging, and acquisitions. Where it gets interesting is in balancing the strategic imperative with the day to day tactical needs; the things that are needed right now.

JC: So when you started, what was your initial beachhead? How did you even wrap your head around what you’d be doing when you walked in?

JJ: In my first month I was like, “Oh my God, what do I do?” But then, once I calmed down, I asked the question, “Where can I have the most impact?” So that’s where we came up with the idea for me to just see where I was needed most and go from there.

In my first month I was like, “Oh my God, what do I do?” But then, once I calmed down, I asked the question, “Where can I have the most impact?”

We had 14 different product squads and some of them had been around for a while; they were up and running already. Those established teams knew what they were working on and didn’t need a ton of help, so they were good. I decided to start with the newest product teams, thinking that they’d need the most help.

Meanwhile, sort of in the background, I was building out more general dashboards that all of the teams, and upper management, could use to kind of keep an eye on the business. I was really splitting my time about 50/50 between working on things that served the high level need and working with teams that needed help the most.

It’s a great question though, because when you start in a role that doesn’t exist it could be super easy to get derailed.

JC: So when you were looking to see where you could have the most impact, what signals were you looking for?

JJ: It had to do with goals. A lot of times, what I found was that new product teams hadn’t yet figured out how to set goals for themselves. I reached out to all the Product Managers individually and said, “How comfortable and confident are you in your Q3 goals?”

JC: That must have taken some finesse…

JJ: Well, I didn’t really come in hot because I was coming to them with basically no context. I approached it as more of a question like, “How do you feel about your goals?” And when I heard a response like, “not confident”, I knew that’s where I needed to start.

You’ve got to remember, I was new and in this new, undefined role. I didn’t have a ton of internal clout, so the best approach was to really leave it up to the Product Managers.

In the beginning it was all about reaching out. Thankfully, we have a culture of transparency at Drift and people were honest in their responses. That made it much easier for me to know when teams needed help or maybe could use another set of eyes..

You’ve got to remember, I was new and in this new, undefined role. I didn’t have a ton of internal clout, so the best approach was to really leave it up to the Product Managers.

Now I’ve grown more comfortable with the role and the data, and gotten used to to the teams, and them to me. That familiarity has freed me up to be a little more proactive. At this point it’s not a problem to reach out to a team and tell them, “Hey, I think you might want to take a look at this.”

JC: When you’re working with teams to establish goals, how do you balance the need for consistency across the whole product org with allowing for freedom such that you’re not stifling the team’s creativity? What does the light touch look like?

JJ: Good question. I mean, everyone’s doing different things, but ultimately all of the activity should support the product strategy. What I like to do is set up a framework with the teams where I give them the details of the strategic objectives we’re trying to accomplish and the measures by which we’ll be judging our success. From there, how the teams move the needle is really up to them. The important thing is to make sure the team’s goals are aligned with the strategic goals.

Sure, we have KPIs, but we like to use the term ‘North Star Metrics’. Establishing North Star Metrics is all about hitting that sweet spot where they’re high level enough that they’re focused on things that matter, but you can also draw a line directly from those to the work the product teams are doing in their day-to-day.

JC: One of the tricky parts of North Star Metrics is that, often, people want a formula for how to establish them. But then you have to explain that there’s a lot of art to it. How do you manage that?

I think it’s also important to understand what the data is telling us about the past and present in a more immediate sense because that will help us inform the decisions that matter right now.

JJ: The difficulty here is that strategy is hard to articulate, but the goals all need to support it in some way. So the art comes in based on the ability to really clearly state what your strategy is. A lot of times it’s based on a hunch, or the company believes there’s product-market fit in a certain area. So you set those as strategic targets for where you want to be. But objectives like those are farther out in the future.

I think it’s also important to understand what the data is telling us about the past and present in a more immediate sense because that will help us inform the decisions that matter right now.

JC: We’ve been talking a lot about product, but one benefit I’ve seen in some of these North Star approaches is that it actually becomes empowering for design. How do designers fit into your process?

JJ: Our designers are embedded within the product teams, so they’re involved in the entire process. It’s not like they’re being ostracized or kind of, like, bolted on. They have a voice in the whole conversation. They kind of have to.

JC: Do you think there needs to be a lot of product ops folks? How would you think about scaling a product ops team?

JJ: I was thinking about that the other day. We’re looking at adding to our team. Where I need help is with analysts who can focus on the more tactical-level work with the development teams. That way, we’ve got some specialization where people don’t have to divide their thinking between long-term and short-term.

I’ve seen where scaling does get difficult because you’ve got too many people. I don’t want that. I think probably the healthiest way for my team to grow is to get it to a place where it can serve as a conduit for the rest of the product org.

That would allow me to answer questions like, “What do you think this organization could look like?” That could be a full-time job, operationalizing the way our team functions within the company. For us to grow cleanly, it would require knitting together customer success, marketing, product, etc. Initially at least, I think there would be a lot of stepping on each other’s toes. Which would have to be okay.