Product Engineering Advice For SMBs
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Q&A With Product Engineer Superstar, Brent Gummow

Published: | Updated: | By Aimee Thompson

1. What inspired you to become a Product Engineer? 

After spending about 20 years building websites for small businesses, nonprofits, artists, and musicians, I got a job working for one of the larger DIY website building platforms. I spent 6 years at Jimdo and found it to be the perfect place for someone with my background as I already understood their audience and what those users were trying to do. It was exciting to help large groups of people rather than one client at a time. 

I became more and more involved with the product and eventually I got to the point where I didn’t just want to suggest new features, I wanted to build them as well. I had always dabbled with coding (primarily working with HTML, CSS, and platforms like Wordpress), but did not have the programming chops to make the jump to software engineering. I took advantage of one of the programming bootcamps to fill in my knowledge gaps and now I’m here at POWr!

Hmmm… Should I become a project engineer?🤔

2. What are the main responsibilities of a Product Engineer?

My role combines the programming of a software engineer with the product and audience knowledge of a product manager. Having a design background has been helpful as well.  I try to mash all that knowledge and skill together to help make our products better for our customers. Ultimately we want to make tools that are easy to use, look good, and help small businesses succeed online.

So far I've had the good fortune to work on a number of small improvements in the POWr ecosystem, including doing some plugin overhauls to make sure our tools meet the needs and expectations of small business owners and website operators. 

What I enjoy most is when I have the opportunity to take a project all the way from conception to completion. Getting to work on the design, UX, coding, and testing of a project provides a huge sense of accomplishment and helps make me more invested in the success of the project and the new users of the tool.

Interesting. Tell me more. 🤓

3. As a product engineer, what teams do you work most closely with? How does this help you achieve success?

One of my favorite aspects of my position is that I get to regularly work with different teams. The engineering team is my primary home. I’m super lucky to have some wonderful senior engineers like Puru and Praneeta who have spent a ton of times in the trenches and can share best practices and help me solve problems if I get stuck.

I spend a lot of time talking with the heads of the product, not only discussing what needs to be done, but digging into the “why” as well.  Being able to see and help shape the big picture at POWr is essential for me. I think about our product offerings in a very systematic manner - everything is connected. Knowing what we are working on in one area will impact the solutions I design for another one.

The other areas where I get to dip my toes into the water are design and marketing. I have a fair amount of experience that can help our teams out and I try to make myself available whenever possible.

On the count of 3--1, 2, 3--TEAMWOR--No? We’re not doing that? Fine 😒. *whispers* Teamwork! 😏

4. What should SMBs keep in mind during the product development process?

Whether you are creating a product or a service, there is one thing you need to know more than anything else: take the time to really understand who your audience is. I know it is somewhat cliche’, but you need to be able to put yourself in their shoes. What are they thinking? What do they want to achieve? How do they feel while they are going through the process?  If you can get into that mindset, you are well on your way to creating a successful solution for your customers.

Studying my audience. First impression--they appear rather shy. 😶

5. When you receive a new project, how do you get yourself in the right frame of mind to ensure the best outcome?

I try to break all of my projects into three phases,  although the size and scope of the project can make some of these phases more or less rigorous. 

Research: I spend time making sure I fully understand our goals from both a product and business standpoint.  This involves exploring the problem. Who is trying to do what?  Why can’t they accomplish their goals? Of if they can, is there something causing friction?  What does our existing user flow look like? How are other products handling the same or similar problems?

Design: Once I understand the problem I begin to consider different approaches. I try to involve as many team members as possible, especially if they have worked with the part of our product that I need to change or if they have had direct contact with people who have been experiencing the problem. I end this phase with at least a rough idea or  loose wire frame of what i want to do.  This is one of the areas where having a single person do the design and then engineering can save us a ton of time. I don't have to make anything pixel perfect because I don’t have to communicate my vision to another team member.

Build: Next, I flesh out the idea while adding functionality and polish.  I try to test while I build, but we are lucky to have a dedicated UX tester to give all of our updates a thorough testing before we release it to the public.  That ends the main engineering portion of the project, but obviously we need to monitor the new release and find a way to measure how successful the new solution is.

Following Brent’s strategy: My research is complete and I’m finishing the design now. Next, I will build this dog. Someway. Somehow. 🐶

6. How has your diverse career experience shaped your approach to product engineering?

I think what has helped me most is I don’t have to imagine what it's like to be a small business owner creating a new website, I have been in that role several times in my life. In addition to running my own web and video agency, I also ran a small record label and had to find or create tools to help us sell and distribute our music.

Scouring the web for different solutions to help with email distribution, marketing, online sales, search engine optimization, and other tasks took so much time. I love that I’m now working somewhere that tackles many of these problems and has a huge suite of tools to help save other business owners much of the time I lost back in the day.

I wonder how my diverse work experience can help me in my project engineering career--I mean content marketing...😜

7. It’s often said that we learn more from our failures than successes. Have you found this to be true? Can you share an example?

In my mind, any failure is really an opportunity to learn lessons that will help you moving forward. It is just that some lessons are more expensive than others.  

Although I have a ton of professional and product experience, I’m still what I would consider a rookie engineer. This week I made a mistake that caused part of our system to go down. The important part is from that experience I know not to do particular things (and what the correct approach should be in the future) and we have a good system in place for our engineers to share this info with the rest of the team which should help us all improve.

In terms of small businesses, I look at things a bit differently. How you define success is a very subjective term. I think the best way I approached that with my businesses was to make sure every day, I made some step, however small, towards meeting my goals. I was able to feel successful and that what I was doing was worthwhile, as long as I could demonstrate daily improvement. This approach got us through a lot of difficult times when it would have been easier to quit and close up shop.

Baby steps towards my goals 👣

8. What product engineering resources do you recommend for SMBs?

I devote a fair amount of time keeping up with technical and industry news and updates.  And although I know it is not nearly as popular as it once was, I find RSS feeds to still be the best way to stay up-to-date. Instead of having to monitor dozens of websites, you simply subscribe and then all their new articles are delivered to you in one place.  For a reader, I use Feedly as it provides me a single tool I can use on my Mac laptop, my Android phone, and my ancient iPad.

As far as specific feeds, I have a mix of design and coding feeds such as: Smashing Magazine, CSS Tricks, and Hacker Noon, with more industry style news like TechCrunch, Gizmodo, Wired, and Ars Technica.  I also follow many local San Francisco feeds, and other topics like NBA Basketball and Music through that channel.

My resource game is on 🔥

9. When it comes to your approach to product engineering, where do you find inspiration? How important is creative thinking to your process?

Creative thinking IS product engineering. I honestly think of myself as a creative problem solver more than an engineer or designer. I spent many years as a team of one where I would just need to come up with a solution to whatever the world was throwing at me. I learned how to do research and I learned how to learn.  Obviously this is all much easier now with the advent of the internet, but when I was starting out, the web was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is now.

In terms of inspiration, I mostly lean on following industry trends. What are the big players like Google and Facebook doing? What does CNN’s website look like on mobile? How is the new version of Photoshop handle juggling several different control panels? How does Audible handle their downgrading process?  The way I see it, the bigger companies are dumping a lot of time and money on research and user testing, if we can piggyback off of those learnings, we move forward more quickly.  As they say, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Getting my creative cogs turning 🙇‍♀️

10. What encouragement would you like to offer SMBs? If you could only offer one piece of advice to a small business owner in the beginning stages of developing their product, what would it be?

Don't underestimate the importance of design, both graphic and user experience. I know it may seem like a waste of money hiring someone to create branding elements such as a logo, color scheme, or slick website when you are on a limited budget - and I’m not advocating blowing a crazy amount on these things - but, you need to make sure your first impression is a good one.

Your tool can have the best functionality in your market space, but you’ll have difficulty getting traction if:

  •  Users are wary when they first see or use it.
  •  It looks unpolished.
  •  It behaves counter-intuitively.

Be consistent with fonts, colors, and behaviors, err on the side of simplicity vs complexity, and you should be on the right path.

Wow, that's such great advice! 😃

Brent is a Product Engineer at POWr. He has been helping small business owners, artists, musicians, and non-profits find success with their web projects since 1997. When not hammering away on his Macbook, you’ll find him running through Golden Gate Park, snorgling his two kittens, or loudly supporting the Cleveland Cavaliers within a sea of Golden State Warriors fans.