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My first week at FutureLearn

Product manager, Tess Cooper, reflects on her first few weeks working at FutureLearn

A few weeks ago I joined FutureLearn as a Product Manager. The product team consists of around 20-25 incredibly skilled people who are the driving force behind the design and development of the FutureLearn platform. It’s been so interesting and exciting getting to know new people and understanding new ways of working that I felt compelled to share a handful of the great things I’ve learnt since I started.

Failing is useful
In my first week at FutureLearn we did some user testing around how we should present multiple runs of courses to our learners. As a project manager at the Guardian, I’d been involved with analysing data from surveys and A/B tests, but not so much face-to-face testing.

At FutureLearn, things move fast, and direct user testing is often a good way of validating new features as they develop. The user experience team built some basic prototypes and scenarios and then asked the general public to test it out here at the British Library, where our office is based. After an hour or so of testing we soon discovered that the approach was confusing for users, but I’ve never seen a team so happy to fail: it meant they wasted no more time than they had to on a design. The could go back and improve it immediately, test it again, and start working on a new approach straight away.

Prioritising is hard
I’ve joined Futurelearn at a point where the platform is growing rapidly; more developers are being employed, more partners are coming on board and new learners are signing up to courses continuously. And while this growth is incredibly exciting, prioritisation of projects and new features is difficult – especially at a company where everyone has so many ideas. The product management team currently has the mammoth task of revisiting the roadmap – a way of plotting and sharing what we’re planning to work on over the coming weeks and months – and presenting this to various key stakeholders so that everyone is aware of our goals and how these fit with the product vision.

Nothing is ever really ‘done’
The FutureLearn product team is centered around agile development, which means iteration is key to all of the new features we build. It’s great to see developers deploying new features to the platform on a daily basis, but it’s even better to see them adapting and improving them continuously. It’s clear this is a brilliant way to ensure that any new features deployed meet user requirements, but it also throws up an interesting discussion around when to stop iterating and decide something is complete. One of the most important things a product manager can help with is setting clear goals and measurements for teams so that we can understand what we’re aiming for and know when we’ve achieved what we set out to do.

Honesty is key
The one thing that has delighted me most about the team at FutureLearn is how honest and open everyone can be with one another. In previous teams I’ve worked in, people can get caught up in office politics and spend countless hours stressing over how to approach situations with others. At FutureLearn everyone simply wants to deliver a great product for our users, and if the team aren’t honest with one another it just slows things down. As a newbie it’s great to know that my team will tell me if I get stuff wrong; and as a product manager it’s even better to know that the people delivering our product trust one another and are open to honest feedback.

Celebration is important
In addition to being honest with one another and feeling comfortable to discuss problems or issues within the team, FutureLearn also know how to celebrate (and I’m not just talking about the celebratory beers at sprint review). Every two weeks the team hold a sprint retrospective, taking some time to talk about what they are proud of and who in the team they’d like to thank for making their lives just that little bit easier or more enjoyable. It’s a great way to continuously build a sense of achievement within the team and makes everyone feel responsible for the success of the product.

Having learnt all of that (and more!) in just one week I’m thoroughly excited about what else I’m going to learn at an organisation like FutureLearn. I can’t wait to see all of the brilliant things the team will achieve.

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