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Friday, May 16, 2008

The in's and out's of Product Management

I track the term ‘product management’ on Twitter. You can see the results of that search term by checking out a handy tool called Tweet Scan. Essentially, whenever someone mentions the words “Product” and “Management” in a tweet, I get alerted on my cell phone by way of SMS.
I’m a nerd, but I find it interesting. And, yes - this turned in to a hella long post.
Recently, and you should see this if you look at the search results, I’ve noticed a couple of folks talk about how hard a job product management is. I wanted to make some points here about this, and hopefully put to rest reservations folks may be having about exploring the possibility of getting into the job, or maybe even continuing doing the job if they are already in the thick of it.
My take is: it’s not hard.
Now, I’m not a product manager in a big, massive company. I never have been, and if I were a betting man, I’d say I never will be. That being said, I do in fact recognize that there are differences in how product management is done at say, Microsoft, and how I’ve structured it in the past. This is just due to the nature of the size of the organization where the job is sitting.
So, keep that in mind. My take on things is really related back to 20-50 (maybe 100 or less) person organizations. Anything upwards of 10,000 or 20,000 person companies really boggles my mind. So, hopefully that’s clear.
I do in fact recall when I was first put into the role. It was exciting, but at the same time, really ridiculous. Not for any other reason than, I wasn’t working for a more senior product manager to kinda guide me a long and instruct me on what to do - I was in there on my own learning as I went. It turns out, this is ideal for me, but I recognize it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.
This leads me to admission number 1: The job is damn near impossible when you first start. Actually, scratch that — it’s damn near impossible when you get 3-4 months in. This is because, at least from my experience, it takes people about that length of time to really wrap their heads around what it is they are supposed to be doing. And I believe this is where most would sink and maybe start believing, “this job is WAY too hard for me, or anyone, to really do.”
And that’s 100% true. The way the job can be defined, it is impossible for someone to excel at. If you think about needing to be “proficient in Sales, Marketing (specifically, messaging and positioning), have a strong technical knowledge, excellent project management skills, well-versed in strategic alliances, and have a good foundation in finance.” Yeah. That’s a little tricky.
Let me take some of the surprise out of this description - there is no one that is “highly proficient” or “expert” in all of these things. They just don’t exist. You will either get a “tech” person, or a “sales” guy / gal, a “marketer” or a “project nerd.” But all of those wrapped into a single individual? Yeah. Not so much.
Now, this is where people may start to get down on things. How could you possibly do a job where all of those things are important? Some may say, “this is exactly what I think it’s HARD.” OK, well hold on - I’m getting to why it’s not.
Yes. those things are important. However, in a position like this, delegating is absolutely critical. That’s why you will usually see the line about “leading without authority” associated to many product management job descriptions. Why? Well, I’ll use myself as an example.

1. Am I a marketing genius? Hellz no.
2. Am I a great software programmer? Ummm, far from it. I may know a little LISP and SQL here and there.
3. Am I great with numbers? If you asked my grade 11 accounting teacher, she would say, “HAHA. No.”
And so on.
But here’s the key - if you understand *conceptually* how these things work, and maybe more importantly, how they work together, you are doing the right thing. No one person can build a great organization - it takes teams of people to do that. So, let’s re-visit those questions above with some modifications to them.

1. Do I understand marketing and have great marketing people to work with? Yes.
2. Can I give flexible requirements and wireframes to the outstanding developers and watch them develop wicked code? Yes.
3. Can I ask the finance people I work with to help me track project budgets to make sure I don’t go wildly out of control? Yes.

At the end of the day, so long as I understand the critical nature of cohesive positioning and building brand equity and help play air traffic controller to make sure marketing can do it’s thing, I’ve won. I can completely let go and push. IE, “I can give you feedback and my thoughts on positioning this product, but I need you to write the words and deliver something cohesive.” If they don’t, that’s another issue entirely. But I think you get the idea.
OK, so that’s a big long “admission # 1″ type thing. Once you cross that functional expertise hump, admission number 2 is this: The answers are right in front of you. Sure your opinion will factor a lot into the initial product release / development / design - but use those around you to vet ideas and build some momentum (no “i” in “team,” etc…). Someone actually has to DO things, but gather feedback (at least internally if you don’t have users yet, and then put something out in to the World.
Guess what? You are going to get a lot of stuff wrong. But it’s not about right and wrong. It’s about common sense and building cohesive products. The answers are always there - you just have to know where to look and how to ask.
So, is product management hard? No. The trick is not being the best marketer, accountant, UI designer, developer, Sales person all rolled in to one. The trick is to make sure that features get built, marketing communicates them, support can answer questions, and Sales can sell.
All the job is is connecting dots and knowing where to look for the data you need to make decisions. Don’t get overwhelmed by all the noise.

Have a great weekend


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