Meet this week’s Humans of Product, Michael Ong. He is an avid cycler who not only regularly competes in 200km races but has spent 41 days biking the pacific coast, from Vancouver to San Diego.
He also loves Product Management and has spent the past 11 years helping to build a bustling product community in Singapore.
“I got into product about 11 years ago. I was transitioning from a software engineer position to a sort of Project Manager or Scrum Master role. I started working with people across a lot of businesses and I found that the things that I wanted to work on were in Product Management. At some point, I was asked to hit up a Centre of Excellence for mobile and from there I realized I had a huge interest in talking to people and a true passion for customer research. As I made the transition from software engineering to user research, I found that Product was actually the piece I had been missing when I was trying to bridge these two areas from very extreme ends.”
But, 11 years ago the Product scene in Singapore was not what it is today and Micheal was searching for a Product community to learn from as he transitioned into the industry.
“Back then the challenge was that there was no one to talk to in Southeast Asia at least not about Product. When I started transitioning roles, no events were running, no meetups and no digital conferences! So, the only way for me to get access to Product was to fly somewhere else. And, I was very fortunate to get to and get to see what different people were learning overseas. I got to meet people like Marty Cagan and Adrienne Tan.
And at some point around the 2010s, I met Jeff Lash, who had been running the St.Louis Product Management group. So I asked him what it took to start a community. I was thinking, you know, the best way to learn is by doing and also talking to other people. But the challenge was that all the people I wanted to learn from, like Marty Cagan and Jeff Lash were everywhere but Singapore. And, my preferred way of learning was through the community.
So I just started talking to about 20 people in Singapore who were at various stages of their product careers and asked how they learned about Product. What’s was their history? And we realised that everyone was a solo individual contributor. There was no community. It’s not like today where you have 20 Product Managers at one company. Back then, we were just trying to figure out what it meant to be a Product Manager.”
So Michael and his 20 person crew took on the lofty goal of building that community and as luck would have it, the community took off and it was even given quite the interesting name to start…
“That’s the challenge that we had to start with, bring together the solo product people. But, over time, we were very lucky and more people started coming to our events. They started calling it Product Beer back then because we just had a beer and talked about Product. You know, everybody was just hungry to learn. We just had conversations and that’s how I learned so much about Product in the early days.”
Unfortunately, at least in Michael’s opinion, the name needed some updating over the years…
“Later on, when we did our first retreat, we changed the name to Product Gin and Tonic, which was a really bad idea when you think about it but it was a really good name! None of us cared about it until someone voiced that they didn’t want the name appearing on their company invoice! So when we thought about it, we probably should have gone for a more moderate name. And so now it’s called Product Tonic.”
Product Tonic is now a Product Management community with groups across all of South East Asia that host regular events for Product people to come and learn together.
Nowadays, Michael hosts regular Product Tonic events as the chapter lead in Singapore and he is also working on a game.
“Right now, I’m developing a silly game where you send cows to Mars. And it’s fantastic. Back in 2016, leading up to a client engagement with a bank we were working with, we were trying to figure out how do we make people in the bank actually have fun and just laugh during a Product workshop? So, we created this idea of asking them, how do you rent cows out for a weekend? When we said it, me and another guy who did it, we were both like, this doesn’t sound funny to us. But will it sound funny to a bunch of enterprise people? And we said, let’s test. Let’s test this idea. So in this workshop, we put up one slide asking people how they go about renting cows out for a weekend? And there was a stunned silence for a while. But after a few seconds, they went into it and had so much fun. It just became this silly idea that we had for every workshop that we did after that. And after four or five years of doing this, it’s become a game for us that we are playing in the community. We’re going to launch with miro next week. And then, by the end of the year, we’re going to do an innovation festival! So it came from a starting point of this silly idea of asking a corporate facing client a simple question; how do you rent out of a house for a weekend? And today, it is that same reaction we’re having when you hear, how do you send cows to mars? And in doing so, while people are having a lot of silly time trying to figure out how to send cows to Mars, they will also learn how to create a product at the end of it. There’s a method to it. So for me, that’s funny. And as a product manager now, every time I do the material, I’m laughing. It’s very different from my corporate manager days where I might not have been working on something I was unhappy about but it didn’t make me laugh as much as this one.”
And what brought Michael to living a life full of laughter as a Product Manager?
He says to always, “just think about the people that you’re working with. Less about the features, less about the roadmaps, but really about the people that are around you. That’s been my guiding principle and is a huge influence in my work. So many different people have already figured how to develop products. I try to bring people into my work every day.”