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Why Product Management Is Easy

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://www.MichaelValiant.com Michael Valiant

    Nice Post Adam. I love product management and would have to say the job is a lot more gratifying than it is ‘hard’.

    The biggest problem I had when I started out was learning to let go and delegate more… Once you get that down, everything else just sort of falls into place. Think big, and ask for help…

    Also, I follow the same Twitter Product Management conversations :) so you’re not the only nerd out there. If you haven’t already, try Summize, it’s a real-time twitter search tool and lets you see actual conversations (if they exist) instead of individual tweets:

    http://summize.com/search?q=%22product+manageme

    Michael Valiant

  • http://writethatdown.com adambullied

    Thanks for the comment, Michael! I checked out Summize – very cool.
    I’ll have to start using that regularly.

    Gratifying is a great word to describe it. It’s something that I think
    PMs can bring to an entire organization – not just themselves. Seeing
    a product come together (or a simple release for that matter) and get
    shipped as part of a joint effort from everyone is very gratifying
    indeed. Almost serendipitous.

  • http://rightcoasttech.wordpress.com Drew V

    BOB SLYDELL
    So what you do is you take the specifications from the customers and you bring them down to the software engineers?

    TOM
    That, that’s right.

    BOB PORTER
    Well, then I gotta ask, then why can’t the customers just take the specifications directly to the software people, huh?

    TOM
    Well, uh, uh, uh, because, uh, engineers are not good at dealing with customers.

    BOB SLYDELL
    You physically take the specs from the customer?

    TOM
    Well, no, my, my secretary does that, or, or the fax.

    BOB SLYDELL
    Ah.

    BOB PORTER
    Then you must physically bring them to the software people.

    TOM
    Well…no. Yeah, I mean, sometimes.

  • http://writethatdown.com adambullied

    HAHA! Exactly, Drew. Exactly :-)

  • Scott Ryder

    There is a lot of truth to what you say, but I think it’s worth missing the environmental factors that can make PM difficult. In a perfect setting it works out basically like you describe, however junior PM’s often find themselves in an organization that only gives lip service to PM. In these situations you try to act like the hub of the wheel when you really are more of a spoke. The PM role is fairly unique in that you have a great deal of responsibility but little direct control (and that’s one of the reasons that I love the role). While PM’s need to understand the concepts in this post they also have to understand how to claim their position in the company.

    Another common scenario is to have a spoke of the wheel that isn’t interested in ‘guidance’ from PM. The most common scenario is an Engineering lead that has their own agenda.

    So, here are some additional suggestions for new PM’s:
    - Assess whether your company truly has a PM mentality. If they’ve hired you to check a box and plan on building products like they’ve always done it then you have 2 choices. Start the hard work of culture change or eject. I’ve gone down both paths. It’s hard to abandon a job, but a year long effort to change the company’s product approach will test you severely
    - Relationships, relationships, relationships. You absolutely cannot underestimate the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships with each of the departments that PM touches. When I interview PMs this is one of the primary traits that I look for. I can teach a lot of the tactical parts of PM and I can train you on the core competencies mentioned in this post. But I can’t improve your ability to build and manage relationships.

    My 2 cents,
    Scott

  • ScottRyder

    That first sentence should say ‘but I think it’s missing’. Did I forget to mention that good communication skills are also important? ;)

  • http://tynerblain.com/blog/ Scott Sehlhorst

    Great article, Adam.

    As for “massively large companies” – the product management job is exactly the same, with two twists.

    First – the entrenched definition of the product management role is (anecdotally) never completely what it needs to be. Areas of responsibility are typically divvied out like the roles in an assembly line. This makes it less efficient to make integrated, strategic decisions. You have to get buy-in and socialize the ideas, and think about ostensibly “more” factors. Having worked with large and small companies as an employee and a consultant, I believe they are the same factors – just perceived differently. I also mention ‘entrenched’ because shifting the organizational momentum of these interpersonal juggernauts is all but impossible. It is possible in a plate tectonics sort of way, not a re-arrange the living room sort of way.

    Second, large-organization politics are simply trickier to navigate than small ones. And politics make or break products and projects.

    Great article, and it applies in the large-company world too!

  • http://www.theproductologist.com/ Ivan Chalif

    I’d have to disagree with you, Adam. Product Management is hard for most people, not because the tasks associated with being a PM are difficult (or as you say, “just connecting the dots,” but because the role of the PM is so frequently ambiguous. It changes from company to company and can even change within a company when there are management or strategy changes. Just because a person was a good PM in one organization does not mean that they will be a good PM at another. It’s easy to say in an interview that you are comfortable working in a rapidly changing environment, but saying it and doing it every day for an extended period of time are two very different things and when you aren’t really comfortable with that, your days can feel VERY long.

    Also, in smaller organizations, the PM generally has to do many tasks that are not core to Product Management, including Project Management, Product Marketing, Sales Support and others. These other tasks, while related to Product Management, take away time and resources that the PM should be spending on their core responsibilities.

    Far and away the biggest challenge for most Product Managers (at least in my experience) is that the job requires a lot of diverse skills to be successful and strengths in one area usually mean deficits in others. If you are not good at balancing your strengths and weaknesses, Product Management will be a taxing, and likely unpleasant job. But for those who can, it is a challenging and rewarding career.

  • http://writethatdown.com adambullied

    OK, first — great discussion, folks. I hope people are coming back to check on these comments because they are fantastic and well thought out.

    I do have some additional follow-up notes on this based on what folks have said below. I think those that feel the role of product is difficult (especially for those new to it) are those that have not worked it in an organization that truly understands its value and place. As we all know, these are very tough things to find right now, because the role is truly bastardized.

    As it has been pointed out, organizations will play lip service a product mgr simply because their board feels they need one, or someone threw it around as being a saving grace.

    However, Ivan, quite frankly, if a PM is solely responsible for marketing, sales support, and project management (etc…) the organization is inherently faulty and has set that person up to fail.

    In addition, it has always been my feeling that a good, solid product manger will be able to truly adapt key fundamentals of the job to any industry. I’ve done this in enterprise e-commerce, digital music, and now travel. I’ve found that even though I’m not an expert with tons of years of experience in any of those industries, it doesn’t matter. I know how to ship a software product and research those markets to understand the users and customers, which I feel any knowledgeable PM would (and should) do.

    To close this comment out, here’s a great example. Any new product mgr in a tech company will inherently feel (and more than likely slip into traps) of becoming nothing more than a dev schedule / project manager. Why? Because in software, development is doing the biggest task of any given release – writing all the code.

    The new PM will feel as though it’s his job to make sure (and thus, his or her responsibility) the code gets written. This means he or she is already missing the boat by a) not being there only as a sounding board and making sure business priorities and needs are maintained and met and b) not moving on the next thing.

    Product is responsible (or should be – again, unless the organization is simply treating the function as lip service or a “saving grace”) for making sure marketing, dev, sales, etc… are all dialed in to a release, but not for doing all the work.

    If they are the go-to person for all of this, every release will fail. Maybe not right away, but the PM will burn out very quickly and just simply drown / sink in work and not being proficient enough in each area to take the reigns.

  • http://writethatdown.com adambullied

    Scott, you are correct. It truly depends on the environment. If a PM is given the reigns to truly run product, as they should, and they have a seat at the executive table (as they should) and report directly to the CEO, just being a spoke in the wheel shouldn’t happen.

    The PM would be responsible for causing and working through the conflict in order to build those working relationships to ensure that tech leads, sales leads, etc…, while they may dislike the PM, they are in charge.

    Again, it’s the true difference between recognizing where and how product fits in to an organization in and of itself, and having the necessary organizational support (i.e., the CEO backing you) to run with that.

    I wish it was a luxury and responsibly that more PMs had, to be honest. But, it’s just not the reality in the space right now.

  • http://writethatdown.com adambullied

    Thanks so much for the comment, Scott!

    Having never worked inside a large company, I can only imagine certain scenarios in those organizations and how they may play out. But as we have discussed before, politics are politics. And trust me, I’ve seen some pretty interesting things play out in very, very small organizations that would rival some of the “most interesting” in bigger organizations, to be sure.

    But, playing the big corporate game is something that’s never been my bag. I just love being able to turn to developers and say, “you know, it should probably work like this” an hour or two before pushing out to production :-)

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  • http://onproductmanagement.wordpress.com Saeed Khan

    Adam,

    I’ll put my 2 cents beside Scott’s in this discussion. Every role has it’s challenges, but combine ill-defined or ill-understood roles like Product Management, along with the need to bring other (not necessarily complaint) teams into alignment, along with a dynamic or competitive market place and that adds up to a difficult task.

    This is true for startups as it is for larger companies. Company culture has a lot to do with amount of difficulty involves as much as the personal skills and views of individual product managers.

    Company founders, particularly in small but growing companies don’t want to give PMs the freedom and responsibility they need, but still demand the results they want to see.

    Like any other role, it can be rewarding and fulfilling or frustrating and draining. Part of our task is to help direct companies to better understanding and implementing a real product management discipline. The benefits is clear. Scalability, optimization and repeatability in the business they are in.

    Saeed

  • http://onproductmanagement.wordpress.com Saeed Khan

    Oops….the first line should read: ….. my 2 cents beside IVAN’s in this discussion.

    Saeed

  • http://www.MichaelValiant.com Michael Valiant

    What a great conversation!

    Funny, it was kind of like reading a biography (“my life in PM”)

    I kept finding myself nodding my head in a “yup, I’ve had to deal with that too” kind of way

  • http://writethatdown.com adambullied

    Absolutely – I love it!

  • Kerry

    I love that scene! I think of it frequently when asked to describe my role as a Product Manager. I too was tossed in to the deep end of the pool to learn via the “sink or swim” method when I first became a product manager. It was frustrating, but that method is okay for me. It would have been nice to have more structure and training in place. It’s easier now because our company is now used to product managers and many people in upper management now understand what PMs do and why we are necessary, and project managers and developers have to to appreciate what we do. But my first year sounds like it was very similiar to yours! Glad to know I’m not alone.

  • CeciliaJones

    I tend to agree with you here – but a lot of it depends on the app you're using. I prefer web-based project portfolio management software especially for collaboration. The wrong tools however can make the job all that harder.

  • http://writethatdown.com Adam Bullied

    What app are you using?

  • http://swingtradingx.wordpress.com Swing Trading

    Interesting post. I have made a twitter post about this. Others no doubt will like it like I did.

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  • Gregory Talon

    Hi Allan,

    Thanks for initiating this discussion on such an interesting role. I’m gonna reply 4 years after you wrote it and 4 years after I started my career as a PM.

    I’ve got a fairly different view on the role after doing it in start-ups or big companies and seeing many other PMs operating.

    I think it’s very easy to be a bad product manager, looking like a good one. Very few people get to actually be a good one. The single reason for this is that most of products have fairly average customer satisfaction scores and growth rate. I would measure a good product manager on 3 metrics: growth, customer satisfaction, time to value. As this is all relative to your competition, only very few PM get to win at their job objectively.

    The most stressing part of the job is also to have to make sure you will only do what’s profitable to your company which implies saying “No” to a lot of good ideas using data or tests results showing they won’t work for your business. Since there is probably 1 yes for 10 No, it can quickly get irritating for people around you, even if they actually get the rationals.

    Pardon my frenglish.

    Gregory

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