At all my workplaces until now I had the opportunity to work with people in different roles involved in the product development stages such as Product Managers, Product Designers, Mechanical Engineers, Software & Hardware engineers, Marketing Managers and so on. But by far the most important role which I consider responsible for the market success of a product and even the success of a tech company is the role of Product Manager.
Your company will never remarkably grow and perform on long term without a good Product Manager. So in this post I will exclusively talk about the role of Product Manager what are her/his responsibilities, how and mostly WHY this role is vital for the long term success of a tech company.
I want to be very explicit about what that really means. But first, it’s time for a little close of tough love.
For those who probably don’t know me, as I’ve already said before and I mention again, I first started as a process engineer back in 2003 and meantime I’ve changed my roles couple of times in different places. Therefore form what I have seen so far I can say that there are essentially 3 ways for a product manager to work, and I argue only one of them leads to success. These are:
1. The product manager can escalate every issue and decision up to the CEO.
In this model, the product manager is really a backlog administrator. Lots of CEOs admit that this is the model they find themselves in, and it’s not scaling. If you think the product manager job is what’s described in a Certified Serum Product Owner class, you almost certainly fall into this category.
2. The product manager can call a meeting with all the stakeholders in the room and then let them fight it out.
This is design by committee, and it rarely yields anything beyond mediocrity. In this model, very common in large companies, the product manager is really a roadmap administrator.
3. The product manager can do his or her job.
I’ve seen all these 3 situations, but I confirm that the 1st and the 2nd are the most I’ve seen. Unfortunately I don’t agree with none of those 2 ways.From my position of Product Designer I see now very clear what a Product Manager must do and I am sorry to say but both of those ways of manage a products can generate not more than an mediocre product far to be classified as a top sales product which eventually can contribute to the company’s long term success. For me the only essential way to be a good Product Manager is to apply the 3rd category.
Now probably you will ask me, “why did you not simply took over and become a Product Manager and do it yourself”. Well…such a position is very important. I am always aware about my skills and knowledge level and when I saw how people understand what and how the Product Manager must do and behave I considered that I was simply not ready to take this responsibility, I didn’t have sufficient knowledge and for me the best was to watch and learn. I always consider that first is important to learn and observe how the things are done, prepare for the future and build a strategy before to really jump in. So in the past I didn’t have sufficient experience to do this. But after some years working on different projects in different circumstances, I have now a very clear picture about what this role means and I must say that from this moment on I am always ready to take over such an opportunity, but I must be convinced that it’s worth to get involved. So I would like to share with you here my perspective about what a good product manager means.
That being said my intention here is to convince you of this 3rd way of managing a product. Namely: “The product manager can do his or her job”
It’s a lot to talk about and probably I would need to write a very long post to describe how the strong product manager does his /her job, but let me just say for now that this is a very demanding job and requires a strong set of skills and strengths.
The reason for calling this out so bluntly is that, in many companies, especially older, enterprise companies, the product manager role has a bad reputation. What too often happens is that the company takes people from other organizational roles-often project management or sometimes business analysts-and they say, “We’re moving to Agile and we don’t need project managers or business analysts anymore, so we need you to be a product manager.”
The honest truth is that the product manager needs to be among the strongest talent in the company. If the product manager doesn’t have the technology sophistication, doesn’t have the business savvy, doesn’t have the credibility with the key executives, doesn’t have the deep customer knowledge, doesn’t have the passion for the product, or doesn’t have the respect of their product team, then it’s a sure recipe for failure.
At one level, the responsibilities of the product manager are pretty straightforward. He or she is responsible for evaluating opportunities and determining what gets built and delivered to customers. We generally describe what needs to get built on the product backlog. Sounds simple enough. And the mechanics of that are not the hard part. What’s hard is to make sure that what goes on the product backlog is worth building. And, today, on the best teams, the engineers and designers want to see some evidence that what you’re asking to build is truly worth building. But if you want to know why the product manager role is considered so important today by CEOs and venture capitalists (VCs), it’s this:
Every business depends on customers. And what customers buy-or choose to use-is your product. The product is the result of what the product team builds, and the product manager is responsible for what the product team will build.
So, this is why the product manager is the person we hold responsible and accountable for the success of the product. When a product succeeds, it’s because everyone on the team did what they needed to do.
But when a product fails, it’s the product manager’s fault.
You can start to see why this role is a proving ground for future CEOs and why the best VCs only want to invest in a company that has one of these proven product people as one of the co-founders.
In that spirit, there are four key responsibilities of a strong product manager; Four things that the rest of your team is counting on you to bring to the party and these are:
- Deep Knowledge of the Customer
- Deep Knowledge of the Data
- Deep Knowledge of Your Business
- Deep Knowledge of Your Market and Industry
So let’s see what each of them means.
I. DEEP KNOWLEDGE OF THE CUSTOMER
First and foremost is deep knowledge of the actual users and customers.To make this explicit, you need to become an acknowledged expert on the customer: their issues, pains, desires, how they think-and for business products, how they work, and how they decide to buy. This is what informs so many of the decisions that must be made every day. Without this deep customer knowledge, you’re just guessing.
This requires both qualitative learning (to understand why our users and customers behave the way they do), and quantitative learning (to understand what they are doing), which is what I’ll talk about next. It should go without saying as it’s really table stakes for a product manager, but just to be clear, the product manager must also be an undisputed expert on your actual product.
II. DEEP KNOWLEDGE OF THE DATA
Today, product managers are expected to be comfortable with data and analytics. They are expected to have both quantitative skills as well as qualitative skills. The Internet enables unprecedented volume and timeliness of data. A big part of knowing your customer is understanding what they’re doing with your product. Most product managers start their day with half an hour or so in the analytics tools, understanding what’s been happening in the past 24 hours. They’re looking at sales analytics and usage analytics. They’re looking at the results of A/B tests. You might have a data analyst to help you with this, but the analysis of the data and understanding you get of your customer is not something you can delegate.
III. DEEP KNOWLEDGE OF YOUR BUSINESS
Successful products are not only loved by your customers, but they work for your business. The 3rd critical contribution-and the one that is often considered the most difficult by many product managers-is a deep understanding of your business and how it works, and the role your product plays in your business. This is tougher than it sounds.
This means knowing who your various stakeholders are and especially learning the constraints they operate under. There are usually key stakeholders representing general management, sales, marketing, finance, legal, business development, and customer service. Your CEO is usually a very important stakeholder as well. Succeeding in the job of product means convincing each key stakeholder that you understand their constraints and that you are committed to only delivering solutions that you believe are consistent with those constraints.
IV. DEEP KNOWLEDGE OF YOUR MARKET AND INDUSTRY
The 4th critical contribution is deep knowledge of the market and industry in which you’re competing. This includes not only your competitors but also key trends in technology, customer behaviors and expectations, following the relevant industry analysts, and understanding the role of social media for your market and customers.
Most markets have more competitors today than ever before. Further, companies understand the value in making products that are sticky, and this means that it can be difficult for prospective customers to move from your competitor to you. This is one of the big reasons why it is not enough to have feature parity with a competitor. Rather, you need to be substantially better to motivate a user or customer to switch.
Another reason to have a deep understanding of the competitive landscape is that your products will need to fit into a more general ecosystem of other products, and ideally your product is not only compatible with that ecosystem but adds significant value to it. Further, your industry is constantly moving, and we must create products for where the market will be tomorrow, not where it was yesterday.
As an example, there is a major enabling technology trend sweeping through software and IT industry, which is based on machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence. I feel comfortable predicting that this will be a major technology trend for at least the next decade, and this is why you need to love technology-powered products. What is possible is constantly changing. If you’re not excited about learning these new technologies, and exploring with your engineers and designers how you can use these trends to deliver dramatically improved products and experiences to your customers, then you really need to consider whether this career is for you.
To summarize, these are the four critical contributions you need to bring to your team: deep knowledge (1) of your customer, (2) of the data, (3) of your business and its stakeholders, and (4) of your market and industry.
If you’re a designer or engineer, and you’ve been asked to cover the product manager role as well, then this is what you need to sign up for. But I warn you – it’s a ton of work.
One additional note: In some companies, there is so much in terms of industry and domain knowledge that the product manager may be supplemented with what are called domain experts or subject matter experts. Examples of domain experts can be found in companies that build tax software or create medical devices. In these cases, you can’t expect the product managers to have the necessary level of domain depth, in addition to everything else. But these cases are fairly rare. The normal case is that the product manager does need to have (or be able to learn) the necessary domain expertise.
It normally takes about 2 to 3 months of dedicated work for a new product manager to get up to speed. This assumes you have a manager who can give you the help and access you need to gain this expertise, including lots of access to customers, access to data (and when necessary, training in the tools to access that data), access to key stakeholders, and time to learn your product and industry inside and out.
I will write in another post about “How to thrive as Product Manager” but for the moment what I’ve just shared here is from my point of view the most important aspects to be taken into consideration for anyone who aspire to become a good Product Manager.