What *should* a Product Manager do?

January 20, 2011 § 5 Comments

Once upon a time, developers and marketers were making software. Developers had all of these ideas about how the product should work, marketers had all of these ideas about what should be said about the product, what it should cost, and how it should be sold. Developers spoke the language of architecture and code, marketers spoke the language of focus groups, and messaging. They existed on completely different levels, (best illustrated in this mid-90’s Orson Scott Card essay). But then, someone else came along –someone who understood software development fundamentals, but also product strategy and vision. This person was the first product manager – a jack of all trades who identified with the customer, understood the vision, and could make fantastic, sell-able software happen.

These days Product Management is a vaguely defined role – different in every organization. But what is the standard? What makes a Product Manager great?

Focus on the product, not the process
A great PM is not glorified project manager or an administrative assistant. He understands the strategy of the product, and has a vision for the product’s future. He knows what the customers want, and what the customers don’t know that they want. He specs, he develops user experience, he knows what he wants built. He is not a meddlesome micro-manager, keeping devs on task. But a visionary with a 10,000 foot view of the product, leaving engineering process and schedule to engineering management.

Someone remarked to me recently that “PMs love process”. They should’ve said “bad PMs love process”. Bad PMs flock to process to demonstrate value with tangible deliverables (e.g. red/yellow/green status reports, update e-mails, checklists of all sorts). Great PMs don’t have the time or inclination for process.

Major grassroots impact
A great PM knows how to sell his product and ideas. He doesn’t wait around for top-down management. He influences direction and strategy. He regularly chats with customers and influencers. He blogs, he tweets, he understands the competitive landscape. He is the unofficial CEO of the product – no power, but all of the responsibility. He coordinates his peers — keeping devs honest, and ensuring that marketing doesn’t screw up the launch plans.

Authority on design, and development
The platonic PM ideal has the perfect combination of common sense, business understanding, and technical prowess. He is broadly technical, understanding the development team’s plans and feature costs. He has design savvy and user experience intuition. He ensures that product-killing compromises are not made. With his broad scope and proven skills, the team trusts him to make hard decisions.

Part of a strategic organization
The PM organization must be configured to attract and retain these great PMs. The number one organizational barometer of the product management discipline’s success is the scarcity of product managers. More than any other discipline PMs (in excess) dramatically decrease your product team’s execution ability. Think about it this way: in moderation eggs are really good for you – Omega-3s prevent cancer and depression. In excess the cholesterol will give you heart disease. PMs are similar – in small doses they can make your product great, and create harmony in your organization. In large doses, they will drown you in process, fill your inbox, and have meetings for other meetings.

I’m interested – what do you think a PM should do? What makes a PM great?

Coincidentally, my friend Alex Weinstein wrote a post on the very subject today – be sure and check it out.


§ 5 Responses to What *should* a Product Manager do?

  • […] I got you interested in the subject of the role of PM, you might want to check out this article from my brilliant friend […]

  • Angela, I think that instead of being an authority on design and development, a good PM needs to be a great customer advocate with enough common sense design/development abilities to filter out solutions that won’t work. As for the design and development, good PMs get their Designers and Devs work directly with the customer to soak up their pain and build the best product out there. That’s how they gain their team’s trust :) I have yet to trust a PM who tries to play an architect on me…

    • Angela says:

      I couldn’t agree more – PMs should not do dev work – or interfere with the details dev work (or architecting, for that matter! yikes). I do think required technical prowess goes beyond common sense though – PMs need to understand where implementation costs come from. In my experience devs sometimes plan well-designed, expensive extensible designs for features that are never intended to be extended. They also need to push devs to make the product better – fixing more bugs or putting more time into performance. And they need to understand how “impossible” impossible things actually are.

      In my opinion, all of these things associated with keeping devs honest requires some development authority.

      • Yes, I agree with that! In my mind “common sense” = “good professional understanding”, which is enough to keep the devs on target and prevent pointless over-engineering. Authority should be shared with devs, though – the good ones are very good as self-policing and *want* to keep themselves honest!

  • […] to influence and little authority to dictate. Make them work together with Dev and Test teams. Good PMs hate process just as much as Developers, and they will provide an excellent balance against cowboy development […]

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