Rachel Folz

People, product, and process pro.

Activity: Explaining product leadership to teens

Fourscore and 6 months ago, in a time that I guess we will call pre-COVID, I was facing a dilemma – how do I explain my job to tech-minded high schoolers?

I had accepted an invite to present at Tech Olympics, the largest student-run tech conference in the U.S.

I was told to play it loose, that the students liked when adults told the truth, so I agreed to present “What the heck is a Product Manager?” It’s edgy, right?

I knew from experience that interactive sessions do a better job of explaining complex or unfamiliar topics, so I jumped on the web-er-nets to find a wonderful icebreaker that a tech genius had put together that I could borrow generously from.

It seems that I stumbled upon a rare hole in the “I’ll tell you how I did this” side of the internet.

Well, crabapple. I had to invent my own exercise to help people understand what product folks like me do everyday. I am happy to enter my work into the lexicon for other product people to iterate and improve. Here’s my product manager icebreaker/activity.

Going on a picnic

After my slideshow presentation, I asked for three volunteers. You already know those front row kids were on the case.

I gave each of them a job.

One was a Product Manager. They represent the needs of the customer and the business.

The second was a Sales Leader. Their goal is to drive new and returning revenue.

And finally, we had an Engineering Leader. They keep their eyes on the scope of the work requested.

With my leaders in place, it was time to unveil the product we were building… a picnic. Yes, that’s right. I was going to have a group of teens design a picnic by committee. This was going to be fun.

Why a picnic? Well, it felt like a familiar concept that should be easy to understand and empathize with.

Now, it was time to bring the wide group into the fun. Each of the 20 bright eyed participants was given three post-its on which to write an essential item they think they need for a picnic.

But here’s the twist – some people got 1 post-it that was a different color than the others. They didn’t know it yet, but that post-it was their golden ticket as they were now representing our high dollar customers. Yes, just like real-life SaaS.

The students had five minutes to write down their picnic top three and bring it to the table up front. Then it was time for the volunteer leaders to narrow those 60+ post-its into a list of 10.

Ugh, I didn’t take a picture. It was all happening really fast.

Now I was ready to unveil my twist to the Sales Leader – there were 9 post-its that were put forth by our highest paying customers, so he had to give them special consideration.

Honestly, it was a delight to watch them battle about if you needed a picnic blanket when others wanted a table or if it was more important to have a pet or utensils. Each volunteer took wholeheartedly to their role and performed with gusto. In the end, the Product Manager made the final decisions.

Here’s their picnic:

  • Pizza
  • Paper towels
  • Blanket
  • Friends
  • Pets
  • Transportation
  • Bottled water
  • Fruit salad
  • Plates
  • Chips

I think the activity helped them connect to the decision making process that Product people face every day. They had to focus on the problem and balance everyone’s asks with their real needs.

Hopefully this will help you if we ever get to break the ice again. Next time I promise to take pictures.