What’s the deal with Software Product Management?


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OK…this one has been bubbling inside me for a while, and tonight I decided to lay it out and see what feedback comes in. I’ll put on the flame proof suit now.

In our little world, we (Product Managers) think we are all that. We view ourselves as a critical component of the software development process.

How would developers know what to do if we weren’t around to provide market and product requirements?

How would the “sales droids” make their quotas without the help of Product Managers on those big deals?

Who else could define a coherent product strategy that is both aggressive in the market but achievable with limited resources?

Who else has the ability to be as technical as the engineers, as sales-savvy as the sales team and as hip and aware as the marketing team?

We are so dynamic, we can think strategically when needed, but can switch into tactical mode as the inevitable fires need dousing.

Yup, we’re definitely cut from a special stone.

Perhaps we are what we think we are and have the impact that we think we have in companies.

If that is the case, then let’s look at ourselves honestly and ask:

  • Why is it so hard to find a standard or generally agreed upon definition of what Software Product Management is across the industry?
  • Why are there really no formalized education programs for Product Management?
  • How can a 3 day training course even begin to prepare someone to be a product manager?
  • Why are our blogs and books filled with an endless supply of “tips and tricks”, as if that is the route to success?
  • Why do people think that a smart sales engineer will automatically make a good product manager?
  • Why do so many senior managers think that hiring lots of engineers is more important than hiring a few more product managers?
  • Why are so many PM consulting firms selling templates and spreadsheets that are both “comprehensive”, yet “fully-customizable” and that enable you to “increase your professionalism”? Really? Is that what will make us successful?

If we take a step back and look at our profession, there are many other questions like this that are left unanswered. I wrote a bit about this topic previously in Product Management Maturity and If we’re so smart.

Think I’m being hard or unreasonable? I don’t think so. I’ve been in Product Management for over 10 years and I’m not looking to jump ship yet. I want to see if we can accelerate the process of maturing this field and helping those who are looking to become product managers avoid the struggles we “veterans” have faced.

What have we done in the last 10 years to make our lot better? And I don’t just mean incrementally better. I mean significantly better.

Software Engineering has really evolved in the last decade. The latest greatest things right now seems to be Agile/Scrum methodologies and mature development management tools. Sales and marketing both have matured as well.

Certainly marketing has taken a big leap forward given the integration of the Web and. in particular, hard analytics into the marketing process. Branding, positioning and other traditional marketing activities are still important, but the potential sophistication of marketing today is an order of magnitude above where it was a decade ago.

Selling still retains a lot of it’s old characteristics. Certainly there is no electronic replacement for a good relationship with a buyer or prospect. But sales automation has improved and there are a lot of mature and time tested sales methodologies to choose from.

And then we come to product management. What have we done in the last 10 years to really improve our profession and define ourselves to those around us? Given that there still isn’t some well understood definition of what we do, I’d say we haven’t done enough.

Instead of getting all hot and heavy about the latest development methodology, let’s develop our own well defined, clearly beneficial and easily understood models for product management. No one else is going to do it for us.

And a few years from now, if I’m still writing this blog, I’d hate to have to look back at this post and say, gee, not much has changed has it.

Saeed

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19 responses to “What’s the deal with Software Product Management?

  1. Great post. This is something that I think about a lot as well. Ultimately I’ve realized that PM is unlike the other departments you mention. If you were going to draw an org chart that represented relationships between departments, PM would be a horizontal bar with a bunch of silos on top (marketing, engineering, services, sales, etc). What other roles in the organization look like this? High level management. And these are groups that also don’t have a defined play book.

    Ultimately PM is a bit of a art due to the nature of the role and its hard to build a pattern for art. This gets even more complicated when you think about corporate PM vs. start up PM. The silos don’t change that much when you move between company sizes, but the PM job changes quite a bit.

    Scott

  2. Scott,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that Product Management is much more horizontal than other functions, but that doesn’t mean that it should not be well defined, nor does it mean that efficient execution models cannot be defined and implemented.

    The analogy with Sr. Management is only valid to a certain point. PMs must be executioners and not planners or directors of activity. And in order to execute effectively, we need to be able to define and measure what we do.

    Product Management must be repeatable if it is to be successful. If it is simply an art, then it becomes too dependent on the artist to execute well. I’ve written a bit about the FUNCTION of product management in this blog.

    https://onproductmanagement.wordpress.com/category/other-categories/pm-vs-pm-function/

    It’s not comprehensive, but in those articles I do try to lay out my thoughts on the topic and describe one way to make it efficient and repeatable.

    Saeed

  3. Saeed,

    I’m going to make a similar leap as yours, but in a different direction. In your post, you asked why there are no formal educational programs for Product Management. I will posit to you that the reasons are two-fold:

    1. Product Management is multi-disciplinary
    As Scott said, Product Management is a bit of an art form. But it’s not like fine arts. It’s more like football. If I want to be an elite player, I need to master many skills–in addition to a high level of fitness, I also need to master passing, trapping, heading, shooting, etc. Being proficient at only one or a few severely limits my prospects at making a career of football. There are exceptions of course, such as Beckham, whose set play abilities far outweigh some of his other weaknesses, but most successful elite players excel in most, if not all areas of the game.

    Being a niche Product Manager means you aren’t really being a Product Manager. I can’t just do win/loss analysis and be a Product Manager. The same holds true with gathering requirements or competitive intelligence, or build/buy/partner decisions. I have to be able to do it all and do it all well.

    2. Product Management is more than the sum of proficiencies
    Sticking with my football analogy, I can practice corner kicks or throw-ins or trapping and passing until I can repeatedly do them perfectly without thinking, but that won’t make me a great player. What will make me a great player is knowing how and when to use those skills and where to be on the pitch to make the most of my skills. No classroom or textbook can teach me that. I have to experience it.

    With Product Management, I need more than just the knowledge of how to use the tools of our trade. I need more than just knowledge of what the processes are or what the development method flavor of the day is. I have to know when to use those skills and when to abandon them. I need to be able to make decisions on what will make the most impact for my product and understand the trade-offs of those decisions. I need to know where to be on the field, no matter where the ball is, so that when it comes to me, I don’t even have to think about it. I just know what to do.

    Can you imagine what a program that educates Product Managers like that would be like? To me, it looks a lot like just being a Product Manager. And that’s why there are so many Product Managers sharing their experiences. We each add to the collective knowledge of Product Management. I may not learn everything that you did from your experience, but I can take that information and try it myself and see what happens. And then I can share that with everyone, too.

  4. Saeed,

    It seems many people have been pondering the same question, including me. I have been thinking about this from the perspective of the Mid-Atlantic region where I live and work. The lack of understanding/ability of PM in this region is startling. Here, PM is defined as come up with a neat idea, build it, and then SELL it to someone. PM is really sales and Marketing is just Power Point and other sales tools. My questions: Are there regions of the country where PM works better? Perhaps Silcon Valley? Or is it a national problem?

  5. Bob,

    I don’t think the mid-atlantic is unique. I’ve worked in Toronto and “the Valley”, and know PMs from a number of different areas. The sad reality is that in general it is not much better across the board.

    Yes, some companies get it, and I’d say that it’s starting to sink in more, but natural organic understanding of product management’s benefits is moving at a snail’s pace. Some people see product management as how you describe. Others see it as “getting in the way” of innovation. Product Management is a process and discipline. But many people don’t want to put in the discipline. They just want to build things or pursue great ideas.

    And unfortunately, the VCs don’t enforce rules around doing things right. They want to see ROI and are willing to make a lot of bets to see a few succeed.

    What is the ROI of product management? I have a great story about this, and I’ll post it soon. But I think that is a core metric that needs to be investigated.

    Saeed

  6. Product management still has a ways to go, no doubt. However, I think overall it gets a lot more respect now than it did 10 years ago or even 3 years ago.

    Sure, software/tech companies have known about product management for a while, though many companies which employ product managers today didn’t have the position a few years ago or even recognize the need to it. I know plenty of product managers who were the “first” in their company, and now they’ve got a growing team.

    The fact that it’s becoming recognized within large organizations — and not just customer-facing technology companies — is a good sign. The fact that there are plenty of product management consultancies who are keeping very busy and growing is a good sign. The fact that there are a growing number of product management blogs (including mine; blatant plug for How To Be a Good Product Manager) is a good sign.

    I came to Product Management from the User Experience community, and I think there are a lot of parallels — relatively new field, not well understood or respected, fighting for attention and staffing vs. engineers and marketers, limited university or formal training programs. I think UX is actually a bit farther along in many respects, though not all.

    I don’t think there’s a silver bullet or revolution which is going to totally change the way things work in product management. Look — Agile is just really starting to catch on in recent years though the concept has been around for decades.

    You wrote: “I want to see if we can accelerate the process of maturing this field and helping those who are looking to become product managers avoid the struggles we “veterans” have faced.” I think if we can accomplish that in 10 years, that would be great. With more training, consultancies, conferences, blogs, and resources for product managers with questions (another blatant plug, this time Ask A Good Product Manager), I think we can easily achieve that.

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  8. I like the idea of looking at product management as something that integrates the different departments. Is there a way to collectively look at how to integrate design with sales with engineering, etc.? Perhaps by finding ways to integrate the product management process across departments, and look at the whole, rather than segmented pieces of a puzzle, then maybe it would help move product management forward.

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  10. Great blog and as a former student of Steve Johnson I cannot help but vent a little. Product Management as a profession has different roles depending on whether it is being done within a large software shop or a small start-up firm. My focus recently has been on the smaller start-ups so I will speak to that here. The short answer is that there is but one change agent in a company that wants to transition from a technical company into a market driven organization and that is Product Management. No other group, because of their focus, can drive that change and it is a Herculean thing to bring about. Without formal Product Management forcing the requirements issue, the transition physically can never take place. If we have failed to mature and make revolutionary leaps forward as a profession then it is the most basic of steps at which we have failed. We have failed to get industry consensus that Product Management is vital.

    That is the short answer. The broader issue is, however, that very few people truly understand what formal Product Management entails. Not nearly enough in our profession have taken the Pragmatic courses. I am constantly meeting or interviewing or reading about people who seem to almost “dabble” in Product Management. Nibble away around the edges doing some requirements work here and maybe some quality assurance work there but few companies or Product Managers who honestly address the elephant in their kitchen: the need for upfront consensus, call it the Product Contract. Product Management cannot be partially undertaken, it cannot be done piecemeal, and it cannot succeed without everyone’s buy-in from the start. We have failed to get the industry’s buy-in and without it we’ll never get our CEO’s. Without the the Product Contract signed by all stakeholder upfront then Product Management will not succeed. It may not fail either but that is very different from actually succeeding and actually creating real change within a technically lead organization. We need a Product Contract with the software industry!

    So how should we as a profession define Product Management for the software industry? Product Management is the formal process within a company that deals with the planning of products at all stages of the product lifecycle. Product Management is the diverse set of activities performed in the interest of delivering products in a way that makes them market driven. This assumes that the senior management team has agreed that the strategic goal is to develop market driven products. If this is not the case then formal product management is not required; what is need then is only the management of the product development process which is not the same as formal Product Management.

    Formal Product Management is made up of two distinct functions: product planning and product marketing. This is because, in a market driven scenario, a product’s functionality is created for the customer via product planning efforts based on criteria from the industry as the primary driver. Value is then communicated to the customer via product marketing activities in the later stages of the Product Management process. Product planning and product marketing are very different activities but because of the small size and flat structure of the start-up, product marketing is usually best incorporated into Marketing and product planning is usually the responsibility of Product Management. Due to the collaborative nature of these two disciplines, companies must consciously choose to put the ownership of both disciplines within Marketing with a product manager specifically responsible for product planning within the Marketing group.

    The goal of Product Management is primarily product planning. This means that Product Management should define the market requirements of the company’s products and communicate their value to marketing who in turn must communicate their value to potential customers and the industry in general. The primary activities undertaken by Product Management are product planning, market requirements development, and providing competitive analysis and quality assurance to the product development process.

    For formal Product Management to work, and even be relevant to a start-up company, you need to be very clear that the intent is to create market driven products. If so, then the responsibility for “what” features and functionality are to make up the products belongs to Product Management and the responsibility for “how” the products are designed, developed and delivered belongs to engineering. Both cases require the approval of senior management at every major milestone so that both the “what” and the “how” are aligned with the strategic goals of the company. This assumes the company has the staff, resources and structure to do product management. In its absence, the responsibility for product management is often distributed among the senior staff and loses focus. If the goal is not to create market driven products, which can also be a viable approach but is not always recommended, then as mentioned previously, formal product management is not required. Instead what is needed is management of the development process which in all cases is owned by engineering. In this scenario the product development process needs to be exposed to marketing so that delivery schedules can be understood and used to properly expose the value to potential customers and the industry.

    Product Management, while a part of Marketing, needs to liaise regularly between engineering, marketing, business development, senior management, our customers, and the industry. Product Management must first listen to what the industry says is required by studying current industry research, attending conferences and seminars relevant to the industry, and studying the competitors’ solutions and collateral. Product Management must then translate requirements from the industry into a Market Requirements Document (MRD) which is agreed upon as strategically sound by the senior management team. The MRD is simply a list of “shalls” as in “Product A shall have specific features and functions.”

    Product Management must then negotiate these requirements with engineering. This is done by presenting the market requirements to the engineering leadership team and having engineering respond with a rough order of magnitude (ROM) estimate of the level of effort (LOE) needed to achieve each market requirement. At this stage, features deemed unfeasible or undesirable must be identified and appropriate work-arounds must be determined. At the same time, features deemed missing or incomplete must be identified and included in the plan.
    With the ROM in hand, Product Management must then build a business case for each product which lays out the financial feasibility and potential payoff for developing the product. The business case must then be approved, rejected, or sent back by the senior management team for additional work for strategic and/or financial reasons. In small start-up s this step can be irrelevant and may be considered optional.

    Once the business case is approved then Engineering responds with a Technical Design Document (TDD). Product Management must determine if the design document (the product’s technical specification) meets the market requirements. If there are gaps they must be negotiated with engineering and a solution must be achieved. At each stage the MRD, the TDD, and the business case must be signed by the senior management team.

    Once the design is completed the product planning process begins. During this phase the Product Manager monitors the develop process taking place inside engineering to report back to Marketing and Corporate Communications on the development timeline. This is done so Marketing and Corporate Communications can effectively market the product including the development of sales collateral, training materials, press releases and thought leadership efforts.

    When the development process has progressed to a point of maturity, Product Management begins the Quality Assurance function. In Quality Assurance, Product Management builds a test plan to expose each of the requirements to determine if they have been developed in such a way as to meet the original requirements. Product Management tests the products and provides a feedback loop to engineering in an iterative process. Product Management also works with customers to determine their satisfaction and provides and additional feedback loop to the requirements process to continually improve the market readiness of the products.

    The Product Management process breaks down if primary steps are skipped. While streamlining the process to remove burdensome documentation or extraneous activity is a positive goal, skipping major steps leads to an overall breakdown of the benefit of Product Management. Each step must be undertaken in whatever minimal format as is appropriate to the size, budget, and nimbleness of the organization so as to not slow down the go-to-market plans of the company.

  11. Christopher,

    Thanks for the very detailed comment. While I agree with a lot of what you said, I do want to ask you to clarify the second last paragraph. Quality Assurance is not a typical Product Management responsibility. QA is usually part of the engineering team and it is their responsibility to build the test plans and put the product through it’s paces, ensuring that the product works as designed, that new functionality meets requirements and that no regressions are introduced into the product as part of the development process.

    Saeed

  12. Saeed,

    Thanks for taking the time to even read my rant. As a profession PMs tend to be very passionate and strong-willed (almost defensive) about the practice and I am frequently guilty as charged–thus the lengthy rant. And you are right to call the QA part into question. I added QA under the PM role only because at several of the VC funded start-ups that have engaged me as their PMM consultant, QA was not being done at all (and was becoming a problem) so I was forced to “create” it under PM to make sure it got minimally accomplished. But you are right, traditionally it is a function of engineering and is best performed there because of their usually deep resources and in-depth knowledge of the product’s inner workings. But I do maintain that even in a traditional setting PM needs to have a at least say in the QA process (maybe sign-off is a better way to put it) to make sure the test plans are are designed in such a way and executed accordingly as to expose any misalignment with the broad original market requirements. Otherwise there exists a very real risk that engineering will test the minutia and miss the big picture question of whether or not the product successfully fills a vacuum in the industry. My experience has been that engineering tends to stay in their comfort zone (like all of us) which is in the weeds dealing with the devilish details. But I am always open to discussing a different methodology!

  13. Jeff,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree things have changed in the last 10 years, but my point is that they have not changed at the same pace as other business functions, particularly those we work with directly.

    I also agree that there is no magic bullet, and it will take time to effect significant change. As I’ve said previously: Change is process not an event. 🙂

    What I’d like to do is see if we, as a PM community, can effect and accelerate that change in the right direction. It’s really up to us as a profession to take control of where we want this profession to go.

    Saeed

  14. Michael Ray Hopkin

    Saeed, I just can’t help but jump in and leave a comment or two. You have definitely hit on several important points about the difficulties we face as product managers. As was pointed out, we have made good progress. I know of several great training courses and certifications. Those are signs of good progress.

    I like to think of PM (as a profession) as going through its awkward teenage years. We’ve grown a lot and people (in other professions) notice us, but we’re not quite mature enough to be ‘adults.’ We’re making good progress and have a lot to look forward to. As ‘teenagers’ we have a great opportunity to grow with the industry and be a part of changes we need to make to ‘grow up.’ –Michael

  15. Hello Saeed,

    Such and interesting blog. I am one of those CSM, CSP, CSC type people. I live and breathe Scrum, Lean, XP and I try ti move organisations from a structure of dependence to one of Interdependence. My current employer has a Product which is mostly software. That software supplies a service through their Product. While I have worked hard to introduce the concept or a Product, rather than “Projects” I see no reason why I would ever recommend to them to have a Product Manager. Our Product Owners, the stake-holders, the Subject Matter Experts and the teams seem to have “shared” that role between them. Is that wrong? I do not know, but how can someone with your experience explain what is happening there?

  16. Michael,

    All I can say is thanks for the offer to help. I guess we’re both happy my voice returned. I like your analogy of the awkward teen years. And extending that, as an awkward teen, Product Management needs to hurry up and mature and join the rest of the mature business functions. And only we as Product Managers have the ability to help that maturity happen in a way that benefits us and the profession. If we don’t focus on taking it to maturity in the best way possible, who else will?

    Saeed

  17. Hi David,

    Thanks for the comment. It’s hard for me to answer your question without more information about the company, it’s size and the business they are in.

    Product Management is focused on optimizing the business across functional lines. That role, may be covered by other members of company. I’ll assume that somebody is deciding what to build and why to maximize revenue for the business. I’ll also assume that someone is ensuring different groups are aligned and executing efficiently.

    Some questions for you.

    Who is looking forward, say 12 months or so, and ensuring that the business is planning for the future in terms of service/product offerings needed in that timeframe?

    Who is looking out and analyzing competitors and bringing that information into the company to be used or reacted to accordingly?

    Who measuring the current offerings effectiveness against customer needs?

    Not every company has or needs a dedicated product management team. It really depends on the nature of the business. If it is a sales driven company, it is likely that Product Management will not be needed or effective. If it is a Market (not Marketing) driven company, building a product/service for a set of target audiences, then Product Management is needed to understand those audiences, their needs and problems, and bringing that information into the company to define the overall offering.

    I hope that helps. Feel free to respond or provide more info or questions as needed.

    Saeed

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  19. Willie Hernandez

    Saeed,

    What it has worked for me is the fact that I did recognized and view myself as an INTRAPRENUER. When you think about it we are just like and Entrepreneur, except that we are working in a micro-business within the continuum of an organization. When I say myself in this way and what that implied, it allowed me to understand my role and my responsibility. I will also add that my MBA and concentration in Marketing of New Products and Finances did gave me the business perspective to further understand the tools I have to do my job and to understand what it is expected of me in my role as a PLM.

    Product Managers have been around since the 1940s when industry shifted from mass production to selling more of what was produced. We used to be called “Brand Managers” as the focus was to create Brand Names and capitalize the Goodwill that we get when we develop a Brand name.

    Once Technology became an important sector of our economy that the name shifted to Product Manager or Product Line Manager because technology products are less suitable to develop Branded Product Lines (check Procter and Gamble web site and look at their products and you will see). In addition a technology PLM is a different breed. In my experience, yes there is a lot that we draw from the external resources that are available. However, the most important one is the one that is talked the least, a good PLM do have a keen Intuitive sense.

    My biggest professional successes have come from Intuition and ability to see a feature that does not exist and drive towards making that feature a reality. Developing that Intuitive vision is difficult and you have to learn to develop that sense. It is what really drive out passion and differentiate an “academic PLM” from an “experienced and successful PLM.”

    Without that Intuitive sense, I would have not been able to recognize 20 years ago an opportunity or a niche from which I developed my own company, brought the product to market and sold the company that net me a $20M to my bank account.

    From then on I have worked as PLM because I love what I do and there is no money in the world that can take the feelings you get when you help a company, when you help the people you work with, to be successful as well. We do make a big difference and at the end, it is our vision, or lack of, that can make or break a business.

    Regards,
    Willie Hernandez.