ProductCamp Portland 2016 Mind The Product conference winner Blake Lyman

At this year’s ProductCamp Portland, we gave away an all expenses paid trip to the Mind The Product conference.

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Here’s what winner Blake Lyman shared with us about his experience at the conference:

On an overcast May 4 morning, I stood at the end of a long line outside of San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall.  Context and inference had lead me to believe this was the line for Mind The Product, San Francisco, a conference which bills itself as “the conference for passionate product people.”


A few months earlier I had won admission, airfare, and lodging to Mind the Product through a raffle at ProductCamp Portland, itself a conference of passionate people, also focused on product management. The differences between these two events, I assumed, would be derived mostly from scale: the smaller Portland event, with an impromptu agenda, would provide personal engagement with speakers and an opportunity to connect with local colleagues, discussing their professional accomplishments and challenges; the larger San Francisco event would be a gathering of the bay area’s finest product managers, where industry luminaries, with senior titles with tech giants gave polished multimedia presentations on the ubiquitous and game-changing products they had brought to market.  At the former, I made connections with local peers; at the latter, I expected to be a passive consumer of information, attending with bay area locals, a few geographic oddities like myself thrown in.


Back in line outside the conference, I asked those around me if they too were in line for Mind the Product with an awkward joke about Oregonians and their love for lines.  It broke the ice well enough, but the real win was the revelation that the person standing in front of me was also from Portland, attending with a colleague from his company’s corporate offices in the south.  We chatted through the registration line but lost touch after receiving our conference materials when entering the conference.


Sure that this would be the end of Portland connections made, I bypassed the crowds around the refreshments and took an early seat in the near-empty hall.  As the hall filled, a small group sat next to me, a few of whom I immediately recognized from a the growing number of product events taking place in Portland.


More connections made, we sat in for the first block of sessions which mercifully laid my expectations to rest.   During the opening remarks, a map of the 75+ global ProductTank meetups was shown as the names of cities and organizers were read aloud and organizers asked to stand.  As the hall filled with standing meetup organizers, I saw clearly that this was not a conference for bay area locals and that, clearly, this was a group of people who were not passive observers.


As the conference presentations got under way, we began to hear the message that would be uttered by nearly every speaker that day: complexity is easy; simplicity is difficult.  We heard this repeatedly.  Through presentations whose content was meant to capture the ideal product management role at the intersection of business, engineering, and design, we heard from expert product managers, designers, business consultants, and others, that losing sight of the qualities that make a product unique, novel, and competitive, is the cardinal sin of product managers, and that nearly all of us have made this mistake.  We saw examples of products that had strayed, products that had the tenacity and discipline not to, and the telltale signs of complexity and confusion that belied the former.


And so it went through the day: presentations from thought-leaders were interspersed with breaks and receptions in which the challenges and rewards of product management were discussed openly between attendees, speakers, event volunteers, and even vendors.  I shared thoughts and insights with my colleagues; I was surprised by the experiences of the speakers;  and I was challenged to rethink my approach to aspects of product management by both.  I met product managers from all over the world, working on products from the ubiquitous to the obscure, for companies as varied as obvious technology standards to fortune 500 behemoths outside the tech industry and sole proprietor start-ups.  We shared advice, anecdotes, and insights on all aspects of our professional lives, from dealing with stakeholders and defining product requirements to finding the right work-life balance and making the decision to move for a career opportunity.


As I left Davies hall a bright sunset cast long shadows over San Francisco.  My pockets full of business cards and my computer full of presentation notes, I thought of how much I had gained in a day and how wildly off my expectations had been.  What I had anticipated to experience as a passive observer turned out to be much more like the participatory ProductCamp event that had brought me to Mind the Product.  The two events, it seemed, could not have been more different – and intentionally so – but I left both with new insights, connections, and a new dedication to the craft of product management.