Product Management: Most Potential For Awesome/Destruction
I’m trying to keep this blog mostly positive, but as I’m processing past workplace trauma (LOL), it’s a good source of blog topics.
I think this one may be a useful lesson, particularly for those engaged in startups and small companies. While I think about all the companies I left, it wasn’t all for bad management (a good chunk, yes), but often other reasons where the company was failing or not building interesting things.
Some people say “the product manager is the CEO of your product” - and if you believe that, it is remarkable how often we give that responsibility to people with very minimal experience and vision, and how quick a leader may be to give this responsibility away. So that’s my lesson here - be very careful for just assuming product management is any other business role. It’s the most important thing ever. Your customer is going to care about what you make, not your executive team (unless they are obviously jerks).
All of those companies that failed or didn’t lift off and do really well did so because of the failings of the product in the market. Sometimes individual project managers were great, but the organization had a lot of bad ones, in other cases, there was only one.
In that one startup people know me for, I faced relentless pressure to hire someone to run product management, and I resisted. I was the one who cared about the product the most, and I got constant skepticism for being able to do the role. We ultimately did have to hire someone do to that political pressure. I left shortly thereafter, and you could tell none of them really understood the vision, and this was evident in how the product changed and also didn’t change.
Not Understanding Product/Market Fit
This is a basic one, but when a company is having a hard time finding customers and having long sales cycles, this is the thing that you must fix the most.
However in at least three companies we had a really complex product that a lot of customers didn’t want.
Yet the PM was afraid to challenge the complexity, or wasn’t empowered to, because they were too far down the totem pole.
Having PM be treated seriously at an executive level could have changed that.
Not Understanding The “Champion” Customer Idea
I had one PM that once said he wanted to do the bare minimum to retain customers and instead focus on getting new ones.
This reminds me of Netflix as their stock crashes $600 to $200 per share - they seek out new users and growth but forget existing users of the product are the best champions and can recruit users for you, or help a product spread within an organization.
The fix here is to make a company that is all about helping the customer first. Put it on the cliched company motto sign in the breakroom if you must. But make it real.
Not Having Conversations
The saying is “there are no facts inside your office”. I will say that decades of experience can make up for talking to customers for this a bit, if you learned the right things from your experience - but if the PM doesn’t actually talk with perspective users and customers, they are just making things up.
My YAMLOps venture has hamstrung by a sales team that didn’t like me talking to customers, the most Orwellian and counter-productive of silos. I was able to make up for this information gap by talking to lots of open source users on IRC chat.
Do what you can. Don’t listen to just the loudest voice, but merge all the voices.
Was There Anyone At All
At one company we didn’t have any PMs, and I’m not sure how we decided to do anything. I never saw or met one. I heard other groups might have had them and maybe there were two that jumped between many different service teams. I suspect requirements were made up by some AI program somewhere and if anyone found the AI they might have been “upgraded”.
Having product chaos is something to be avoided, there should always be a plan.
Just Making Things Up
I hate cultures that are suspicious of everyone, but beware of a PM who just makes up features. They should have to have built up a layer of trust somehow, so very occasional spot checking may be a good thing.
I had one notable “VP of Product” who was asking for a product feature that most of the company thought was ludicrous because it did the exact opposite of the thing the company was known for.
He talked about all the users wanting this feature, and then shared a survey at a meeting about how many people were using it. It was a really big number.
I was suspicious, and had production database access. I queried the database and shared some data with the CTO. The actual number of users was 3, and not for very long either. Strangely, he was not at the company very long after that.
There have to be checks and balances.
Lie once and you should be out.
Not Having Any Product Management
It’s somewhat common in agile organizations to name people “product owners” and not have them really understand what they are doing.
Agile is a cult.
Having Very Picky Preferences
Perhaps one of the most notable PM experiences I had was for a product in a very user focused industry.
I don’t remember any interactions with this guy other than him wanting the very orange UI to be a lot more orange.
He didn’t really come to meetings, and he was in other department that was mostly immune to criticism.
Whoever you hire, there has to be oversight.
It’s good to have someone care about the UI, but they have to know what they are doing. But they should also be focused on the big picture.
Down In The Technical Weeds
I’ve seen several organizations where the product management function was too immersed in the technical details of the team and we spent a lot of time on features the customer didn’t want or wouldn’t see.
The important areas of a product are those with external user area - interfaces, APIs, what the product can get done for people in their environment.
Code internals? Engineering needs schedule time to decide how to work on them (and should be able to choose what they need to do), but the roadmap should not be overly technical and should revolve around things the user can see.
What’s The Right Model?
While I haven’t been at Apple back in the day, I think the right model is closer to what I might associate with Steve Jobs, not in terms of character, but with the idea of one of the founders running the product with a lot of contact with the entire organization, not just the top levels of the management chain. This is a responsibility that can’t be casually thrown away.
If a company is too big to do that, the company is too big.
Delegation doesn’t work. If a product manager is “CEO of the product”, why is this role so far down the tree so often, and put in so often inexperienced hands?
Companies shouldn’t be boards and hierarchies and product decision by bureaucracy. There shouldn’t be committees of multiple low-level product managers all deciding what features they want to pull out of a hat and being able to make development teams do whatever they decide. This spells stagnation and while the rest of the company may be able to sustain a bureaucracy and inefficiency, your product vision cannot, because the customer doesn’t have time to put up with this. They’ll move on.
The best companies are ones that want to help their users and want their users to love them, if that’s not the source of your thinking, and you are just in for profit or to have a company, you’re going to have a harder time. If you are searching for users, you’re going to have a hard time.
You can’t just listen to the crowd and do whatever they say either, you have to know what the crowd really needs, have to know how to say no, and have to make them *like* what you say no to.
We should also allow product ideas to be surfaced from anywhere inside a company - not in a way that makes PMs challenge and fight for their logic, or in a way that creates an organizational battle, but one in which encourages the entire team, including engineering, to get in as part of the product design process. In a world where everyone cares about the product, everyone can make better things.
Anyway, if you are ever pressured to hire product management as a small company, my advise is don’t … hold off. You have to find someone that loves your product more than you and has better ideas than you - and is remarkably good about being able to do what’s right when things aren’t their idea. They have to have perfect instincts or be able to test the ones that aren’t. Until that point, don’t do it. If my experience is correct, 95% of product managers may be terrible, and it’s a waste of time.
I like to think I’m one of the good ones, but I’m probably only good in certain domains. I may be one of the bad ones too. But I think my success even in my days of an engineer was not for good code, but for product thinking and making it really really customer focused, and that’s what I enjoy doing.
If a product manager is “CEO of a product”, this is your company’s most important responsibility. If you’re not able to fulfill this function on the founding team and really love it, you should reconsider having a startup. Your heart won’t be in it. If you’re in a rush to push this responsibility aside, reconsider and learn to love it.