Tag Archives: Product Management

Product Management in Pictures #5: If Hardware was built like Software

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Questions for Product Managers

It started with an interview on Red Canary, talking to Product Management leaders in Toronto, including Alan Armstrong, Stephen Pollack, Lee Garrison and Roy Pereira.

Interestingly enough, I know all of these people personally. I have worked with  Lee & Alan, worked for Stephen, and know Roy through very close common contacts.

In the interview, they each answered the following six questions:

  1. Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?
  2. How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?
  3. What’s your favorite interview question?
  4. When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?
  5. What has been the defining moment in your career?
  6. Mistakes. What was your biggest?

Steve Johnson took up the challenge and posted his answers to those questions on his blog, and most recently Scott Sehlhorst did the same.

I thought it was time to join the discussion myself.  So here are my answers to those same six questions.

Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?

I’m a big fan of any product that “just works” or surprises/delights me in some way. I don’t have a “best” product, but here are a few that I really like and use regularly.

  • The Blackberry – It does what it promises,efficiently and in a very compact form factor. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it can take a beating like no other device I’ve seen. I’ve dropped my Blackberry many times and it is no worse for wear. To quote an old advertising phrase — “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking”.
  • Dyson vacuum cleaner — I’ve blogged about Dyson previously, but after 3 years, the thing still sucks more than any other vacuum and leaves it’s competition in the dust. Sorry couldn’t resist. 🙂 What really amazes me about it is that their customer service is also really great. A small part broke on the bottom of the machine. I called the toll-free number clearly visible on the cleaner itself. The person on the phone quickly confirmed which part was broken and they shipped me a replacement free of charge a couple of days later. The cleaner was clearly designed for this kind of diagnosis and service. Awesome.
  • The Honda Civic — We’re a Honda family so I don’t have experience with other brands of cars, but then why would I need to? I love the Civic because it just works. I’m terrible when it comes to maintenance and oil changes etc. but even with minimal attention it gets me where I need to go.  It’s both totally reliable and easily affordable. That’s what I want in a car.

How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?

If a product manager adheres to all of these rules, then they must be great! 🙂  Certainly product managers need to be smart, analytic, understand technology and markets, and be great communicators and leaders.

But if there is one thing that I think really defines a great product manager, it’s the ability to “connect the dots” in seemingly unrelated or conflicting contexts.  Perhaps another way to say this is product managers need a strong mixture of creativity, curiosity and intuition.

Steve Johnson answered this question with the line:

A great product manager sees patterns.

Scott wrote:

Great product managers are polymaths, with several areas of deep expertise and skill.

While written differently, these are similar answers and tie in well with the ability to connect dots.

A lot of times product managers need to find solutions to problems that are highly constrained — usually WRT budgets, resources or time. Finding solutions that satisfy business, technical and market requirements, and being able to sell those solutions to executives or other doubting Thomases are hallmarks of a great product manager.

What’s your favorite interview question?

The one I like to ask potential product managers is:

What one word best describes Product Management?

I’ve asked that question on the blog. Here are the results.

It’s always interesting to observe interviewees struggle with the question as it usually catches them off guard. And of course, once they come with an answer, the obvious follow up question is “Why?”

When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?

This is a great question and core to how our industry understands and values Product Management.  I’m clearly biased here, but I have to agree with Stephen Pollack’s response:

Thirty days before you start the company.

This answer also lines up perfectly with what Bill Campbell of Intuit said about Product Management.

Too many people don’t actually realize the full scope of the Product Management role. It’s not just about product requirements, even at the very earliest stages of a company. I’ve seen too many founders of companies create offerings (I won’t call them products), that didn’t completely address market problems, that weren’t differentiated from competitors, or  that didn’t target specific market segments and problem domains.

And what happened then? They brought in “a product manager” to help address the issues. Sorry, way too late. Why spend another year and potentially millions of dollars to fix problems that you could have addressed right at the start?

What has been the defining moment in your career?

I’d say it was leading the Product Management efforts of the flagship product of a public company in Silicon Valley. The release was described by the CTO as “the biggest, most ambitious release in company history.”

That effort consumed my focus  for almost 2 years, and I learned so much during that period. I’ve shared some of it publicly.

I ran a large beta program during that release and used that experience to write this article on betas.

I gained a greater understanding of how to optimize cross-team communication.

I also gained some insights into leadership, particularly when dealing with people across departments, geographies and areas of focus.

Mistakes. What was your biggest?

I’ve certainly made my share.  My biggest was probably not understanding (for far too long) the impact personal motivations and politics played in Product Management. I’ve written that for product managers,  “Every activity is part of a sale.

Virtually everything we do in Product Management relates to influencing others to support our goals. In most companies, Engineering won’t simply do what the PM asks.  Darn. 🙂  And certainly in larger organizations, with significant constraints, misaligned objectives and even compensation conflicts, people will focus on what is of benefit to them. They will optimize locally (i.e. what’s best for them or their team).

A lot of what Product Management is about to get teams to optimize globally (i.e. what’s best for the product or the business), sometimes at the cost of local optimization. This is where selling becomes important. The sale is in getting other teams to agree to do what you need, and to get that, you have to understand their motivations, drivers, goals and objectives. Once I understood that, life became much easier for me as a product manager.

Saeed

P.S. I’d love to see the Cranky PM’s answers to these questions.

Guest Post: Measuring Product Management (part 3)

This is part 3 of a series of guest posts by Don Vendetti. Don is the founder of Product Arts, a product management consulting company in Seattle.

NOTE: If you’d like to write a guest post, contact us and let us know about your idea.

——-

In part 1 and part 2 respectively, I discussed the answers I received from company executives on the following questions.

  1. What is the value that product management brings to your company?
  2. How would you measure success for the group and individuals? i.e. on what metrics would you reward them?

In this part, I’ll look at the following question.

Question #3:  Is Product Management Effective, in Your Experience?

The dominant answer here was a resounding SOMETIMES.    I’ll let some comments speak for themselves.

(VP Eng) “Never adequately. It’s a tall order and they are often placed in the organization where they cannot succeed or with unenlightened leadership. If they are in sales they become too deal / feature / near term focused. If they are in engineering they become too development / feature / development focused. If they are in marketing they become too abstract and disconnected. Ideally they are in line of business management reporting directly to an SBU Manager or GM. Where they have done best it was where the corporate imperatives were obvious, and they were well connected and led.”

(VP Ops) “Currently, our model defines product management in terms of marketing activities, so the value is less than optimal.”

(GM) “Yes, the good ones. As always, if their direction is good, and they have goals that make sense, and they are managed, they can usually meet or exceed their goals.”

(VP Eng) “Both successful & unsuccessful.   Needs to have an environment for success – expectations, aligned groups, business goals.  PM needs to stay outwardly focused.   Needs to bring customer into the company.”

(Program Mgmt/Former VP Mkt) “For Agile shops, the product owner role is critical and delivers great value to the business and to dev teams — the product cannot be built without one.  For more waterfall oriented shops, it can be tricky.  I find that product managers that seek to translate market requirements (from marketing/ customer facing teams) into product specs for engineering program managers will often deliver dubious value.  It is best if the product manager is closer to either the customer (e.g. product marketing manager), or to the developers (e.g. program manager) to avoid being an odd-man out. “

Summary

Let’s compare where we ended up as the primary value of Product Management with the Mandate previously posted on this site:

The Product Management Mandate These Results
To optimize the business at a product, product line or product portfolio level over the product lifecycle. To deliver measurable business results through product solutions that meet both market needs and company goals.

They are both in the same ballpark with regards to business and products, but there is definitely a divergence beyond that, with the Mandate missing the key element of MARKET NEEDS.

It is a primary expectation of company executives that product management is a bridge between the internal functions and understanding the market needs and this got lost in the Mandate.

Where we still don’t have clear guidelines are the actual measurements to use, but we do have a general direction in which we need to head.   It is imperative for product management to be able to tie their activities to measurable business results to be perceived as adding value for executives.

These do not have to be tied directly to revenue or profit, but there is ideally some way to tie to leading indicators of them – usage, penetration, retention, quality, cost, etc.

If the feature sets you’re prioritizing or the activities you’re doing do not somehow support an improvement in these indicators, it’s time to rethink what you’re doing… pronto.   It also important that you communicate where you’re impacting business level results so that the execs are aware of it.

I have also personally found that the “intangibles” carry a much higher weight than emerged from these exec comments.   Be assured that even if there is no formal process for measuring how you are perceived in the organization, you are constantly being assessed for leadership skills and ability to collaborate and facilitate internally and externally.   These will ultimately steer your career progression.

Lastly, it’s clear from the final comments that product management success is strongly correlated to a supportive organization with clearly defined roles, objectives and mission.   If you find yourself in a company without these, it’s time to exercise some leadership to help create them or to perhaps move on to greener pastures.    It’s really not that much fun to continue to struggle where personal success is unlikely.

Don

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Related Posts

Measuring Product Management (part 1)
Measuring Product Management (part 2)
Measuring Product Management (part 3)

Guest Post: Measuring Product Management (part 2)

This is part 2 of a series of guest posts by Don Vendetti. Don is the founder of Product Arts, a product management consulting company in Seattle.

NOTE: If you’d like to write a guest post, contact us and let us know about your idea.

——

In part 1, I described my conversations with some industry executives on the question:

What is Product Management’s overall value to your company?

The answers were quite interesting. In this part, I’ll look at the following question:

Question #2:  How would you measure success for the group and individuals?

This question generated a few different discussions and in many instances I got the response “they SHOULD be measured on…”, which indicated their expectations and reality are different.

That being said, most respondents were strongly on the side of tying rewards to business results.    These included:

  • (#1 by a wide margin) Meeting product business plans and forecasts for revenue and profitability
  • Achieving key business objectives for the specific period, including meeting delivery milestones for releases and launches
  • Achieving key market metrics – adoption and usage, penetration and market share, customer satisfaction and retention

Only a few mentioned the difficulty of looking at current business results only, such as revenue, while needing the product manager to be focused on producing future business results.

One also recognized there may be multiple product managers on a large product, with revenue difficult to associate to each.

These advocated a more blended set of measurements that included specific assigned metrics or deliverables within a specific period.

Product quality was mentioned a few times, and included measurements such as returned product, trouble tickets submitted, major bugs found and SLA performance.

There were also some who raised the need to include some “intangibles”, specifically around how well the individuals were perceived in the organization.

This included satisfaction ratings of internal stakeholders based on timely and effective support of other functional groups, how well they performed at driving product delivery and resolution of issues, how well they collaborated with others, and in providing general leadership.

To capture the intangibles, a few companies performed peer reviews or 360 degree reviews on a regular basis.

A few highlighted that the metrics used for a B2B company versus a B2C were somewhat different.

In the B2B company, responsiveness and effectiveness in supporting a direct sales team for major accounts was a key need.

In a B2C company, there may be less on-demand support of the sales channel, and a higher emphasis on marketing and usage metrics.   (As with everything else, this is probably highly variable from company to company, but may be worth a whole separate article.)

Specific comments included:

(CEO) “I am sure every company is different, but revenue, customer retention, customer satisfaction, net promoter score, and market share (are the measures of success).”

(VP Biz Dev/PM) “We measure and reward based on a combination of product performance in market and other metrics related to on-time delivery for new products, quality metrics, and other qualitative measures based on the PM’s role in providing timely and effective support to marketing, sales, and other functions.”

(CEO) “The success metric has to be on net contribution.  Given the lifecycle stage of the product, it may even be managing losses during the formative stages, but ultimately, the only goal of any product is to make money.  The market is the best indicator of success. If quality is down, sales will be off or returns high. If the product doesn’t meet needs, there will be no sales.  If the product is a poor value against the competition… you get the idea.”

Take-Away

The key take-away from this section is the expectation level of the senior executives on product management being measured against business results.  These other executives are heavily dependent on product management for making the right product choices to ensure business success, and they believe product managers should be tied to company results, just as the execs are.

With business results emerging as the top priority, I would reorder and rework my previous value list to be:

  • Delivers measurable business results through product solutions that meet both market needs and company goals.
  • This is accomplished through:
    • Creating a shared awareness of the customer and market needs to the internal functions
    • Shaping the product solution and delivery plan
    • Facilitating and supporting cross-functional and external activities required to achieve the planned objectives

So how well does Product Management do at meeting expectations? I’ll get to that in part 3.

Don

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Related Posts

Measuring Product Management (part 1)
Measuring Product Management (part 2)
Measuring Product Management (part 3)

Guest Post: Measuring Product Management (part 1)

This is part 1 of a series of guest posts by Don Vendetti. Don is the founder of Product Arts, a product management consulting company in Seattle.

NOTE: If you’d like to write a guest post, contact us and let us know about your idea.

——

Measuring Product Management – The Executive Viewpoint

There have been plenty of discussions about how to measure and demonstrate the value of Product Management within companies.    From posts on this site:

and from a recent roundtable at the October Seattle ProductCamp, there’s an obvious challenge for the profession.

I decided to follow the prescribed Product Management protocol – I went out and talked to my customers.

Here’s the feedback from some senior executives running technology companies.

My list of execs is comprised of 12 individuals from my contact list, most of whom I’ve worked with at some point and are now scattered around in varying roles.   All have been on the senior executive staff of at least one company.

Most are in the Seattle area, some are CEO/COOs, some are technical heads, some are marketing heads and several have worn multiple hats – business development, engineering, marketing, general manager, program management.   Some have been product managers at some point or managed it as a function.

Company size varied from multi-billion dollar enterprises to startups still trying to get off the ground.

I contacted them through email initially with 3 questions:

  1. What is the value that product management brings to your company or to your department?
  2. How would you measure success for the group and individuals, i.e. on what metrics would you reward them?
  3. (Bonus question) Have you found product management to be effective in meeting the goals, in your experience.

On some of the responses, I probed further through email or met with them in person to discuss.   Some responses were intriguing.

Question 1.  What is product management’s overall value to your company?

There was a strong agreement of the strategic value expected from product management, and that fell into a few categories:

  • Bringing an understanding of the customer and the market into the company
  • Creating a vision, direction, and focus for the product internally and externally
  • Defining product/business plans to meet company strategy and objectives
  • Evangelizing the market needs and product solutions internally

At a tactical level, the front-runners were:

  • Managing product features, product requirements, competitive analysis, prioritization and roadmaps
  • Working with and supporting other functional groups – development, sales, support, marketing

Some comments included:

(VP Eng) “Product Management needs to be the voice of the customer AND the business and they need to advocate for both.”

(VP Biz Dev/PM) “Product management provides a key linkage between our end customers, the field sales and support organizations that support them, our engineering and QA teams responsible for product innovation and delivery, and our executive team from an overall company and product strategy perspective.”

(COO) “Overall product direction and roadmap, clearinghouse for requirements, driver of product delivery.”

(VP Eng) “Right brain, big picture, strategy, positioning, how to win in the market.  Bring customer view into company.  Outline the product needed.   Evangelize the product internally.”

(VP Corp Dev) “Ability to distill corporate goals and objectives and customer / market needs into products (services / solutions) that are built and sold at positive margins!  That includes not just having the bright ideas, but the organizational savvy to make them real.”

Some interesting comments came from multiple respondents involved in Agile. They indicated the value of product management is even higher in that environment.  Working as the Product Owners with Development seems to raise their visibility as an integral piece of the machine.

(VP Eng) “In the modern world of Agile the product management role is even more critical. They are often embedded in a SCRUM team as a product owner or business owner. These highly cross-functional teams can move quickly and demand that the role is in touch with the business and on-demand available to the team – in early iterations for prototyping and market validation, in mid iterations for feature build-out and in late iterations for sustaining and ongoing investments.”

Take-Away

If I rephrase some of the key expectations from above, here is what I come up for the primary value product management brings to a company:

  • Creates a shared awareness of the customer and market needs to the internal functions
  • Drives product solutions that meet both market  needs and company goals
  • Facilitates and supports cross-functional and external activities required to achieve the planned objectives

So if this is what is valued, then what is actually measured?    I’ll get to that in part 2.

Don

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Measuring Product Management (part 2)
Measuring Product Management (part 3)

6 Engineers, a CEO and a PM

In light of the recent posts on Bill Campbell (1, 2) and some of the comments debating when to hire a PM, I was pleased to read the following in Entrepreneur magazine, about the early days of a company called RingRevenue and why VC’s decided to invest in them.

“Part of our secret sauce is that we know how to cost-effectively acquire and manage large groups of phone numbers,” Spievak says. “We build platforms that allow affiliate networks to bring on higher-margin products like financial services, and track the calls that result from those ads. It’s a win for advertisers, affiliates and affiliate networks.”

The company was also running lean, which is always appealing to investors. “Here’s what I liked,” Suster says. “They were six engineers and a product manager and a CEO, and nothing else.”

The last line speaks volumes: a CEO *and* a Product Manager. Who knows what will happen in the future, but at least, they’ve started out the right way!

Saeed

Bill Campbell says, hire Product Management First!

Back in early July, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Forrester’s Tom Grant for his weekly podcast on the Heretech site.

About half way through the podcast, Tom asked me:

You recently wrote about Product Management in technology startups. Where do you see is the point when a very distinct Product Management role pops out in the natural growth of a startup?

A summary of my response (and Tom did let me speak for quite a while uninterrupted!):

I think any venture-funded startup should have someone with a core focus of Product Management. If someone is giving you $5,000,000 to build something, to me it makes no sense to say, “OK, we’re giving you this money and you don’t need to have a person who can find the right fit of the technology in the market and bring that together in an efficient way.

Because I’ve seen too many cases where a CTO and a CEO are leading a company, and the CTO really is technical, and the CEO is very business focused, and yet they fail because they don’t understand how to bring those two worlds together and how to bring products to market in a scalable, efficient way.

After the podcast was published, I got a couple of emails wondering if what I was saying was simply self-serving, given that I work in technology Product Management myself.

I didn’t feel there was anything self serving, because I wasn’t telling people they should hire me :-), but rather they should hire experienced Product Management right from the start. Given what I know today I would agree with that whether I was in Product Management or not.

In fact, I wonder why VCs don’t actually stipulate that part of the funding they provide be used to pay for experienced Product Management services (whether full-time/part-time/contract) to help ensure the what is being built aligns with market needs, delivers real value and continues that way?

A lot of young companies make the mistake of building something fast and seeing what sticks, instead of understanding what is of value and then heading in that direction.

Well, later that month, July 28th to be exact, at the AlwaysOn Summit at Stanford University, Bill Campbell, former CEO of Intuit gave his view on this topic during an interview with Michael Moe.

billcampbell

Click the image above to open a window and view the full interview.
Play close attention starting around 2:45 into the interview.

Michael Moe:

So, I think many people in the audience know that before you got into business in Silicon Valley, you were in the coaching business. So let’s just say you have a first round draft pick; after the founder and CEO, who would be the first draft pick? Would it be head of sales, a CTO, human resources, finance? And why?

Bill responds:

The more I think about it, and it depends on who the founders are by the way, and when I say who, it depends on what functions they represent. Generally in Silicon Valley they would represent technology.  A guiding thing for me would be somebody like Mike Homer, probably the best Product Marketing guy, somebody that understands how to apply technology in the market.

You know, as strange as that sounds, you need someone who can work with brilliant engineers and try to take this creation, this technology creation and turn it into a product, and make sure it is for somebody, that somebody can use it; some kind of service or some kind of product.

And so, I know that sounds like a strange answer, Product Marketing, some people call it Product Management, but somebody who can really understand the dynamics of what goes on in a marketplace, apply technology to that marketplace, see how the technology can work, and continue to advise brilliant scientists so they can adapt their products to make sure customers are happy.

Alrighty now. Glad to hear my views on the subject match those of someone like Bill Campbell. Or vice versa. 🙂

So I wonder, are the VC’s listening to people like Bill when he says the first hire for startups should be someone who understands the dynamics of the marketplace and how to apply technology to it?

This person is not likely to be a technologist or strictly a business minded person.   Find experienced Product Management who can bring the two worlds together to create products (and not just “technical creations”)  and give your startup a greater chance of success!

Saeed

Also see: Bill Campbell says, It all starts with great products!

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