On Product Management (Part 1)

Update: Thanks to the huge response from readers, across LinkedIn, Twitter, Slack, and Email, I've written a follow up post to expand on the below thoughts and address reader feedback. You'll find a link to that post at the end of this one.

Recently, I've been asked a few times what my philosophy is on Product Management. I have to say, I've never thought about my philosophy on Product Management before being asked this question. Sure, I have thought about various issues and ideas related to Product Management, but I've never developed a holistic philosophy. As I thought about the question, I started to realize that I do have some solid beliefs, strong feelings, and best practices on this topic.

This blog post represents my personal philosophy on Product Management. It isn't perfect, it may change over time, and it isn't an exhaustive list. What you will get is a look into what I feel strongly about, how I work as a Product Manager, and what I believe leads to great products and thus, great businesses.

Product Managers are the shepherds of a vision

I believe that the fundamental job of a Product Manager is to turn a leader's vision into action. At a certain point, a Founder/CEO is no longer able to be day-to-day with product development. Product Managers exist to ensure that a Founder, a CEO, or a Chief Product Officer's vision is carried out. This is especially important as companies launch additional products or serve multiple use-cases.

Some may say that being a Product Manager is a "mini-CEO" or the "CEO of your product." I get the meaning of that statement, but it goes farther than I'm willing to go with a comparison. Instead, I like to think of myself as a shepherd. I'm overseeing an asset. Leading it to green pasture. Protecting it. Turning it into something more. Delivering.

When I worked at New Relic, the vision was that every Knowledge Worker would one day log into our products on a regular basis to inform their work. Our mission was to be the first, best place for companies to go to when seeking to understand their digital business.

We believed in that mission and worked towards that vision, but it wasn't exactly a roadmap to get there. Thats where Product Managers come in. They chart the course to that end goal, showing a team what they need to do in the short, medium, and long term in order to get to the destination.

Easier said than done, of course. Read on for more.

Product Managers work across a continuum

One thing I love about Product Management is the opportunity it gives me to work on so many different things. One day I am focused on Marketing, another day I am engaging with Customer Support, and most days I'm working directly with engineering. Similarly, Product Management offers the ability to be both strategic and tactical. One minute I'm setting a product vision for three years in the future, the next I'm working with a UX Designer to determine how to reduce friction for users of a single functionality in the product.

I've also found that some Product Managers gravitate towards certain areas of responsibility, while minimizing their efforts in others. This approach in itself isn't bad, but a good Product Manager understands where their time is best spent. I believe a good Product Manager knows when to let other's do what they do best. When to let Designers and Engineers work with freedom, and when to listen to company leadership for strategic direction. I stay out of the weeds and focus my efforts to the right of center on the continuum of tactical and strategic activities.

Product Managers are the voice of the customer

When most people think about Product Management, they probably think about serving customers. When I think about customers as they relate to Product Management, I like to to go a step further. I look at it as my job to represent the customer at every table I'm invited to. It doesn't stop with product features, its my job to ensure that Marketing delivers what the customer needs, that the support infrastructure offers the customer what the require, that the sales process meets customer expectations, and that pricing aligns with the value delivered.

Your product is more than just software. It's the entire experience a customer has with your organization. Don't just represent that customer with your roadmap, it's a Product Manager's job to represent them in every discussion that happens.

Product Management is a partner to Sales

Before I became a Product Manager for the first time, a friend asked me a trick question. He said "As a Product Manager, who do you think your customer is?" Easy question, I thought! The obvious answer is the end user.

My friend suggested I was wrong. He went on to make the case that Salespeople are the customer we serve as Product Managers. While I don't fully adopt this line of thinking (I struggle to think that anyone is more important than the end user), I have carried the spirit of this idea with me in my work.

The argument goes like this: If a Salesperson is excited about my product, educated on its benefits, equipped to sell it, and confident in what it will do for the customer, the Product will succeed. Ultimately, Product Managers are measured on their success of the Product. So, unless you work in an industry with self-serve products, you better have good relationship with the Sales organization.

Personally, I love working with the Sales. I find it to be a great way to get in front of customers, and an efficient way to collect feedback. I'm also a Salesperson at heart, and I love the feeling of winning someone's business!

Product Managers balance stakeholder needs

When I make product decisions, there are three key stakeholders I am thinking about. I'm constantly asking myself: what does my current customer base need from me, what does the industry/market of the future need from me, and what does my company/employer need from me? Rarely will I make a decision where one of these stakeholders is ignored, and never will I make a decision without considering all three of them.

Its obvious to say that the customer's needs are important, and its true. That said, be careful not to ignore customers you don't have yet, the customer of the future. When I meet an existing customer's needs, or the needs of a persona/market that I already serve, I'm likely optimizing for retention and incremental sales. When I think about the industry/market at large, I'm allowing myself to deliver what my existing users would never tell me they need. I'm opening up exponential opportunities, positioning my product to be an industry leader in the future. Finally, looking to my employer as a stakeholder isn't about ensuring I continue to get a paycheck. Rather, I'm looking at company strategy and ensuring that the decisions I make for my product, my user, my future market.

The best decision I can make is the one that serves my existing customer, positions my product to be a market leader in the future, and delivers towards the company strategy.

Product Managers are industry experts

As a Product Manager, I don't know everything and frequently my team is better than me at most things. The one thing I know I can do better than anyone is to be an expert in the industry my product serves. In fact, its my job to be an expert. No one within my organization should know more than me about the market I serve, the users I have, and the problems we solve. The beauty of this is that just about anyone can become an expert, with effort and time. The downside is that it will take time. No one becomes an expert overnight. We either bring it into the job from past experience, or we learn it on the job. Either way, a successful Product Manager is a respected authority on the industry.

Product Managers serve as Leaders & Coaches

Despite the title, often times Product Managers are not managers of people, they aren't the boss. Engineering doesn't report to them, nor does Marketing, Sales, or any other team involved in taking a product to market. Instead, Product Managers are leaders. They use influence to get things done. Effective Product Managers convince people to come along on a journey, working together to ensure success.

Additionally, my job as a Product Manager is also to be a coach. I'm sharing my industry expertise with others, removing obstacles so others can do their best work, and loudly praising the team's success.

Product Managers belong outside the office

There is a program called Pragmatic Marketing and its essentially Product Management school. If you take one of their courses, specifically the Foundations course, you'll likely hear the instructor make a lame but memorable joke. They'll tell you about something called NIHITO ("neh-he-toe"). Its an acronym that stands for Nothing Interesting Happens in the Office. As lame as the instructor will sound when they make that joke, the sentiment couldn't be more true.

Product Managers should spend a majority of their of time out of the building, or at least away from their desks. The more I am sitting at my desk, the less effective I am at my job. Rather, much of my time should be spent talking with customers and engaging with other teams within my organization. This is not to say that 100% of time spent away from your office is equal to 100% effectiveness, but how you split your time is an indicator of effectiveness. You also don't have to literally leave the building to achieve the figurative example...talking with customers in any way, even a simple phone call or studying user metrics qualifies.

If I had to boil it down, my perfect time-split would be this: 1/3 of my time talking with customers, 1/3 of my time working with other teams, and 1/3 of my time synthesizing what I've learned into a strategy, roadmap, and product requirements.

Product Managers are not JIRA Jockeys

You'll notice that in this entire blog post on Product Management, I haven't once mentioned JIRA Tickets or User Stories. There is no question that User Stories are an effective way to communicate product requirements and JIRA is a great tool for organizing and planning product development efforts, However, writing and moving around JIRA tickets is not the best use of a Product Managers time and expertise.

I believe a Product Manager's time is best spent being an industry expert, turning company vision into product strategy, developing a roadmap, making the user persona's and problems clear, removing obstacles so my teammates can do their best, work, and supporting them however else I can. Moving one JIRA ticket above another doesn't equal effectiveness. Ensuring others have everything they need to do great and the right work, that does result in being effective.

I've said a lot about Product Management, but in a way I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. This line of work is one of the most fun, rewarding, yet complicated and ambiguous around.

I'd love to hear your take. Did I get it right? Do you disagree with anything? Did I miss something? Join the conversation with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or wherever you found the link to this post.

For a follow up on this post and my response to comments and feedback, check out part 2: More on product management