There’s a near consensus that Alec Issigonis (who designed the Mini) came up with the phrase “a camel looks like a horse that was planned by a committee”. He said it in an interview with Vogue magazine in 1958. Since then the aphorism has been used to describe anything that has a grotesque design; the implication is that it’ll be pretty useless in the real world because it lacks engineering consistency.
And it is a truism: committees just don’t design and produce good products. Marketing and business objectives tend to get lost among the raging corporate egos.
But for a company to survive it needs to make the right product for the target market. In the front-line trenches, where the operation meets the market, every firm needs to have one talented and capable manager who owns the product and holds the line; she has to make all the decisions that turn a product into the right product; just as importantly, she’s ultimately responsible for the product’s performance throughout its lifecycle. This manager is the product manager.
No-one can say for sure where the product management function originated. But despite it’s nebulous origin it has a very definite function today, and the PM role is prolific in the software industry. To understand the role better, think of the PM as an entrepreneur, even if she’s working in a global corporation.
And like any successful entrepreneur she needs to have a vision for her product. She needs to be convinced that it’ll revolutionise the market segment she’s going after. Then she has to convince everyone in the value chain from the finance people or the venture Capitalists to R&D, through to the development team and the product testers and marketers.
She has to communicate her vision of the product, and motivate them to commit to it as much as she has. But she has the final decision on most questions (unless it’s strategic in which will have to be signed-off by the c-suite people) so the product will have the integrity and consistency of her single vision, which is a big advantage over a hotchpotch built by a bickering committee. After the conception stage she has to do a lot of process management.
She needs to manage the research and bring the idea into development; this development process will be a big part of her routine, she’ll be expected to contribute to daily scrum meetings and needs to understand how the software development process works.
Across all the Functions
One aspect of the role that makes it rare among modern managerial functions is that it’s cross functional: the product manager has to manage techies developing the product; marketing people who test the customers’ and market’s reaction to the product prototypes and of course business functions within the organisation at c-level and in the finance department. Because it’s a cross-functional role PMs can come from any of the functions involved: she could be a software engineer, QA tester, marketer or a suit from the finance department.
Regardless of her own area of expertise she needs to be able to speak the professional language of these departments. She might be involved in a scrum meeting and asked to provide input, in fact she could be a regular contributor at scrum meetings, or sit down with a group of Data analysts and do some very big sums, or discuss qualitative market research results with marketers or with customers themselves in a focus group.
It’s her responsibility to make the right decision using these data-sets; they’ve got to analyse the numbers accurately but also demonstrate an instinctive qualitative understanding about the market. The agile methodology allows the development process to react to ongoing testing by pivoting the product if all or parts of it fall below customer expectations.
The essence of the Role
William Hsu, a US venture capitalist, writing about the product manager function recently in Venturebeat, tried to define the essential quality of the role. He got the substance right but used an unfortunate term in describing it: he called product management a “mindset”. But the thing is a PM’s mind can never be set, there has to be an always-on versatility; a fluidity in responding to stimuli as they occur.
The PM has to know when to let her creative impulses make a decision or when to lock-down her focus on the cold, unforgiving logic of the code.
Her work doesn’t end at product launch, she doesn’t handover the baby to the customer service team and help-desk people; she still owns it and has to track its performance in the real world identifying problems as they arise. She’s constantly managing the development of additional product features with the software team and the release of product 2.0 and even product 3.0 onto n.0
The PM has one of the toughest jobs in the market: she’s got to have the Midas touch and turn output into gold. And carry the KPIs of a number of functions like project delivery deadlines, sales numbers and market research respondents. Once she has a product, she has it for life she; can’t hand over to another team.
Hsu says that the Product Manager is a kind of training ground where wanna be CEOs can prove themselves. The role is tailor made for this because the product lifecycle is a mini-business all by itself and if you can do it there then its the strongest indication that you can run the company.