I came across an interesting discussion on Branch about the role and future of product managers. I’m not a member there so I couldn’t respond directly, but figured I’d put my thoughts here instead.
Yesterday the discussion only had a few comments on it. Today there are more and one of them is very similar to what I was going to say. Satya Patel, who recently left Twitter in a product-related role, wrote:
“Product management isn’t a role or a function, it’s a set of skills. Those skills help remove obstacles and grease the wheels so that the functional experts can do their jobs best. Product management also balances the needs of users, the business and the team and makes the difficult tradeoffs needed to keep pressing ahead. In that way, Product Managers are very similar to CEOs. Very few would argue that a company doesn’t need a CEO. Product managers are simply CEOs of their products. No organization should be without someone who has ‘product management skills’ and works to make everyone else’s lives easier.”
Nabeel Hyatt, venture partner at Spark then wrote:
“An excellent product manager is keeping in mind the long term vision while driving short term results, has the customer intuition to get there, and has the authority/integrity to lead the team along the way – very much a mini CEO when it’s done right.”
“Mini CEO” is the phrase I’d use for a product manager. Actually, I’d say a product manager is a CEO without all the “other crap” you have to deal with in running a business. CEOs are pulled in millions of directions, whereas product managers are given the mandate to focus.
I see my role at GoInstant (I’m VP Product) as a conduit between the outside world and the inside world. That doesn’t mean developers, engineers, designers and others shouldn’t interact with customers and be exposed to the outside world; that’s extremely important, so people aren’t doing things in a bubble or through a broken telephone. But I focus on having a bigger and more holistic view of the business. I take more input from the outside world, process it and translate that to the team.
Product managers shouldn’t micro-manage. You’re not there to stand over people’s shoulders, watching what they do and giving them specific instructions to the Nth degree on how they should do their job. I also don’t think product managers should be solely in charge of designing products. That’s a team effort. Even with a broader perspective on the business and more input from the outside world, I don’t have a monopoly on the truth when it comes to the product and how it should look or work. I may be the one that makes the final decision — and I am the one ultimately responsible (and I believe you need someone in that role) — but I don’t design product top-down.
Decision making isn’t solely in product managers’ hands either. While you own the product, you don’t have to own every single decision about it. You own the bigger decisions on product direction for example, but thousands of decisions go into a product every single day. You own the responsibility for those decisions, but you trust your team to make them.
“What do you think?”
That’s one of the most common questions I like to ask. I want to know what others think, and I want to make sure others are involved in the product design and development process. Lean Startup as a methodology helps with this, because it provides a framework for how everyone communicates and evaluates progress. It also closes the gap between engineers and customers. Many startups are now founded by two technical people, and the best ones excel at speaking with customers, and serving as great product managers. I wrote about this to some degree in a post titled The Death of the Business Founder.
Product managers should own prioritization of deliverables. But at the same time, product managers have to take into account what a development team is telling them. You can’t force feed priorities without feedback. You may push a client deliverable in a crunch, but then you need to react when a developer tells you that you’ve accrued a lot of technical debt and it should be resolved.
Product managers should get their hands dirty. You can’t be a good product manager without the ability to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. That may mean coding — but I’d rather leave that to the experts, or to those that are dedicated to that task. More so, it means being able to paper prototype, wire framing, quick hacking, etc. It means being good at testing. Even if you have a QA team in place, you’re ultimately responsible for everything and if you can’t dig into your own product and find the edge cases, ferret out the bugs, and identify problem areas, you’re in trouble. Product managers are not puppeteers pulling strings from on high.
Product managers are leaders. Leaders stand in front of their teams and shield them from the shit. They motivate (understanding how each person on the team responds to different types of motivation), and keep everyone as focused as possible. They reward when appropriate, and identify when there are issues that need resolving. Like a good CEO, product managers have to adapt and respond quickly; they’re not sitting back in a reactive mode, they have to be proactive and aware of what’s going on at all times.
Of course, there are crappy product managers. And I think a part of the discussion we’re seeing about this recently is a result of developers having bad experiences with managers. Like in any profession there are always crappy people. There are crappy designers. Crappy developers. Crappy teachers. Crappy doctors. But you can’t judge a profession or the need for something by those who are bad at it. Judge by those who are great at it and encourage others to move in that direction.