Is Product Management really all about the customer?

The last time I updated my resume, I wrote a headline that said “customer obsessed product leader.” it’s true, I LOVE engaging with customers and serving their needs, those are my favorite things about product management. I’m not alone, putting the customer first is what many product managers agree on. Customer focused Product Managers are what employers want to hire. Who wouldn’t agree that being customer obsessed is great?! There’s a problem though. This very true and appropriate focus may cause some other things to be overshadowed.

They other day, I had coffee with a colleague who said they had just read one of my blog posts on Product Management. That got us talking about stakeholders, one of the 9 things I said that great product managers have mastery of. Spoiler alert, the customer isn’t the only stakeholder product managers need to care about, and they may not even be the the stakeholder with the most weight, or part of the equation at all.

I believe that product management requires explicit consideration of 3 different groups of stakeholders: the current customer, your future customer, and finally the company vision & strategy. It is not good enough to simply focus on your current customer and their needs. That may be good, but optimizing for all three is great.


The Current Customer

Make no mistake, I am not minimizing the importance of your current customer at all! This is the stakeholder that allows your company to pay the bills, the stakeholder that advocates for you to potential customers, the stakeholder that trusted you over others and gives you more than just their money, they give you, the product manager, their time.

As product managers, we must meet this customer’s needs. Often that means solving the problem they came to you for, delivering on the table-stakes in your space, and providing a delightful user experience that allows them to easily accomplish what they pay you to accomplish. Sometimes they’ll come to you with feature requests and ideas that are related to your core. Listen to these. Work them into the product roadmap when they make sense. Keep this customer happy! They represent 1 of the 3 key stakeholders you must optimize for as a product manager, you’ll always do good work if you serve them well.

The Future Customer

If you are ready to do great work, this is where you begin to evolve as a product manager, when you look outside the current customer as your core stakeholder, and seek to serve more through your work. The future customer can be many things. It can be a customer in your target market, but one you haven’t won over yet. I might be the customer you have today but with needs well beyond what you do now. It could be the future of the industry, the way it works in the future and new problems it doesn’t have today. It may be a new industry you could enter, expanding the reach of your products and technology.

Regardless of how you define the future customer for the project or decision in question, considering this stakeholder will take you and your product to the next level. Serving the future customer allows you to grow with your market and customer base, rather than just selling it a little bit more. Serving this customer is how you become or protect your position as the leader in your space. Meeting this customer’s needs isn’t about paying the bills today, it’s about paying the bills tomorrow.

Keep in mind that serving this stakeholder doesn’t mean you are acting against your current customer. Instead, this is your opportunity to align the current customer with the future, to understand where they are going and get there before them. It could also be an opportunity to ask yourself how you might build for the current customer and show the the way to the future, at the same time. Solve a problem they don’t know they have….yet. Be the hero that solves it before the realize it.

The Company Vision & Strategy

There is one more stakeholder that you must consider, and in some ways it is the most obvious, but in other ways it is the most elusive. I believe that great companies have a vision and purpose that transcend the product, and transcend the market. They serve a higher purpose. Sometimes these visions and mission statements seem corny, but they are the hallmark of enduring companies. For example, at PagerDuty, they don’t serve oncall engineers, they serve anyone in a digital business doing real-time work. They don’t send alerts to the right responders, they empower people in moments of truth so they can elevate their work to outcomes that matter.

To be a great Product Manager, you must ask yourself what the company needs from you and your product. Most company mission and vision statements require inventive, focused, and considerate product managers to make them a reality. They leave enough room for the product manager to make decisions that not only align with the company’s vision, they also serve the current customer and position the product for success with the future customer.

This stakeholder can be elusive in a couple ways. If you work for a company with no higher purpose, with no vision beyond the current customer and their existing needs, you’ll feel as if there are not 3 stakeholders to consider, just two, since the company vision and mission are the same as the current customer’s needs. My advice here is to either help your company desire to be and do more, or get a new job. The latter is probably easier. The other way you may find this stakeholder elusive is all about you. If you can’t separate your current customer’s needs from the company vision and mission. Frankly this is easy to do. You see what you current do for customers, and you equate that to the company vision and mission. You take a bottom’s up approach, so to speak. To be great, spend some time thinking top down. In the example of PagerDuty, what could real-time work encompass? When do moments of truth happen? What are the possible outcomes that matter? If you give yourself space to take a top down approach, you’ll often find that there is so much more there than what your customer is ask you to do today.

This stuff doesn’t come naturally. It is so easy to consider just the current customer, and not the other stakeholders. It is hard to know how much weight to give to each. Do you have to consider all three, or can you serve just two? If you serve just two, is one required in a way others are not? These are all great questions, and you know what? I don’t know the answer! I don’t know because it depends on what you are building. I also don’t know because I’m not perfect, and I am still working on being a great, not just good Product Manager.

As I reflect on myself, I think I am pretty good at considering all three stakeholders as I guide, create, and decide. What I am currently struggling with is selling my vision to others, as one that considers all three stakeholders appropriately, for the maximum benefit of our vision and mission. If you have advice on how to do that, I am all ears!

What is a startup?

Recently, I was talking about business with one of my co-workers. I enjoy chatting about innovation, strategy, products, and everything that has to do with commerce. In the middle of this conversation, I said something that prompted my co-worker to respond with something along the lines of "my brother worked at a startup that sold belts online...." Wait, what? A belt startup? I steered the conversation in that direction, and probed more into this belt startup. Had they reinvented the belt to be dramatically better than what we know today? Nope. Had they come up with a new manufacturing process that would revolutionize the belt market? Nada. Did they maybe come up with a business model that would allow them to dominate the market? Not at all. I guess they simply sell a wide variety of belts online, maybe they drop ship, maybe its fast-fashion.

What ensued was a friendly debate about the use of the word startup to define new companies. I argued this belt company is not a startup, my co-worker defended that it was.

The world is in an incredible cycle of innovation and entrepreneurship at the moment. I want to say that we are on a 10 year run, but on the macro scale its a lot longer, and a philosopher may say its a never ending run. Regardless of how you look at things, with more innovation comes more entrepreneurship, and over the past 10-20 years, more entrepreneurship has lead to more use of the term startup.

What is a startup, anyway? I mean, most of us could give an answer, but how specific would those answers be, and would we all agree?

Does it even matter? Absolutely not! I do, however, find it an interesting topic, and there are some very mild consequences to correct, or incorrect use of the term. Go into a bank for a loan, say you are a startup, and you'll get laughed out of the building. Walk into a venture capital firm and say you are a small business, and they'll laugh you out as well.

I believe that all startups begin as small businesses, but not all small businesses are startups. Let's explore!

When I first had this question, years before the debate about a belt company being a startup, the first thing I did was search for a definition that I could hang my beliefs on. You can find a whole lot of textbook definitions out there, some are meaningful and others just confuse the question even more. Then I came across the definition by Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup (one of my favorite books on startups, entrepreneurship, and innovation):

A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

This definition, short and to the point, is spot on. There are two subtle things in this definition that stand out. First, the mention of something being new, not doing the same thing others do. Then, the requirement that the conditions be extremely uncertain.

When I have this conversation with others, I tend to use a very simple example as a test for this definition: a bagel shop. Their product, bagels, is not new. Been around for a few hundred years and consumers have clear expectations of what a bagel is. If you are starting a bagel shop, you likely aren't creating anything new. You also aren't entering a market of extreme uncertainty. The market demand is well known, or can be. You know how many people are in the area around the shop, what your competition is, and more. The knowledge is broad and relatively easy to obtain.

So, if I open a bagel shop, am I a startup founder? No way! I'd be a small business entrepreneur. Being a small business owner is a difficult task, one that most couldn't or wouldn't have the guts to do. I applaud these folks, and admire their work. They are an important to the economy, and good for the community. They aren't startup founders though.

I do think that Eric Ries is missing one thing in his definition. I believe that in addition to the product being new and the conditions being extremely uncertain, startups also have the potential for massive and hyper growth, with the economies of scale to turn an investment into outsized returns.

Now, lets take a look at a company that I would define as a startup, Tesla. At first glance, you may be thinking that a car company isn't new, and the market isn't uncertain. However, I disagree! When Tesla started, they were in fact creating something new, a mainstream electric car, and more specifically, an electric sports car targeted at wealthy buyers. The idea that a high price sports car could be electric was new and wild. The idea that an electric car could have broad appeal flew in the face of the ugly and underwhelming electric cars that had hit the market before. The plan to then create other models of electric cars for the mass market while remaining sexy, and at affordable prices, was down right crazy when Tesla started. The newness of the product is also connected to the conditions of extreme uncertainty. Tesla cars would have just a fraction of the range of a gas powered car, something customers may struggle with. There was no charging infrastructure, like there is a network of gas stations. Setting up automotive manufacturing is an expensive, upfront investment that may not pay off. In 2003 when Tesla was started, the economy was still coming out of the recession from the dot-com bubble bursting and 9/11 changing America forever. Gas prices were actually low in 2003, so Tesla couldn't count on that for help.

Tesla started by doing something completely new. They were doing so under the circumstances of extreme uncertainty. And they had the opportunity to create immense wealth through rapid growth. They currently do about $12 billion USD in annual revenue, with a market value of over $50 billion USD, making them about as valuable as the big three America automakers, in just 15 years compared with the 100+ years Tesla's competitors had to grow into that valuation.

The founders and early executives of Tesla were taking a risk that no small business owner can compare with. Their likelihood of failing was high, and being successful would require very specific skills, many that can't be taught. If they were successful, the reward would be at levels that most can't fathom.

The bagel shop owner and electric sports car company founder are both entrepreneurs, and should both be applauded. They don't, however, face the same job, the same risks, or the same reward. One can walk into a bank for a loan, the other can't. One can build a nice business that throws off cash to make them wealthy, the other can make tens of thousand of others wealthy and change an industry in the process.

Nothing would make me happier than if you, the reader, were thinking to yourself at this point that a bagel shop could be a startup, if they did things differently. I love to think that any and every industry is ripe for the type of disruption that Elon Musk brought to the automotive world with Tesla. Its not that online belt retailers and bagel shops can't be startups, its that they typically aren't startups.

So, let me know when someone revolutionizes the world through bagels or belts, and I'll update this post. That said, I'll never equate being a small business owner with being a startup founder.

Fundamental problems with software user analytics

My entire career has been centered on using data to make decisions. From sales, inventory, product, financial, customer, and user data. Not only have I been a consumer of data and user of analytics products, I've built, purchased an implemented analytics products as well. So while I may not be the world's expert on analytics, I have a set of experiences that has led me to some strongly held beliefs, particularly in the area of software user analytics.

So, what is software user analytics? In short, I'm talking about data collected from web applications that tells exactly who, does exactly what in the product, and what the outcome was. This space has evolved a ton since the advent of the web. First we had simple web Analytics, which told us what content on our sites was popular and a bit about the visitors to our site (country, operating system, etc). Then, as web sites morphed into web applications, a new breed of analytics told us about usage, rather than just page loads. I call this User Analytics. Which users clicked which buttons, and what the result were.

While the differences between web analytics and user analytics may seem subtle, user analytics provide us 100x more value, in my estimation, than web analytics. That's because user analytics helps us understand user intent, and the value derived. If content is your product, such as a blog, then web analytics is probably fine for you. However, if software is your product, like social media, gaming, or banking, then you need user analytics. It can tell us where to put a button, which features to build/enhance/deprecate, what type of user gains the most value from the product, what data they desire, and so much more.

So, what's my beef with user analytics products? Honestly, I love them! Companies like Mixpanel, Google, Heap, and Segment make amazing products that I rely on. I've been successful in my career because of what they've allowed me to do as a user, and I've had my most fun at work when building analytics tools. They just aren't perfect, they leave a lot to be desired, and I believe there is an opportunity to deliver more to users today, while building for the next shift in software tomorrow.

I see 3 fundamental problems with User Analytics...

1. Most analytics providers want to own the entire solution stack

Most user analytics products do three things: they help collect data from an application, they store the data, and they offer visualization capabilities on that data. Naturally, they price for these benefits. When you buy a user analytics solution, like Heap or Mixpanel, you pay for all 3 things, whether you need all three or not. However, most businesses don't need all three for user analytics.

Any enterprise worth their salt has data as a central piece of their operations, and no piece of data they collect lives in a silo. These organizations are running a data warehouse, a collection of all the data used to run their business, including user analytics, sales data, financial, marketing, customer success and more.

While companies like Mixpanel and Heap offer best in class data capture for user analytics, they aren't a data warehouse and they don't offer best in class data visualization. In fact, its nearly impossible today to buy best in class user analytics data capture and pair it with your own data warehouse for visualization alongside your other data. Take my recent experience as an example. I recently led the selection and implementation of a software user analytics solution where I work. One of our many requirements was to reduce the effort necessary to collect usage data by at least 80%. Another of the requirements was that we could store the data in our own Redshift instance, and query it with our visualization tool of choice (Looker). So I needed to buy data capture, but not data storage or querying. We got what we needed, but we had no choice but to pay for more than we are using.

Best in class data capture for user analytics comes from Heap and Mixpanel, with their auto-track capabilities. However, Mixpanel won't let you use that data outside of their product, and Heap charges a premium for that capability. To get best in class data capture, you have to pay for data storage and data visualization, whether you want it or not. Sure, Segment makes it easy to put my user analytics data anywhere I need it, but without auto tracking, they fall short of the best in class label. My options were limited, to a single provider, and today we pay for more product than we need.

As we collect more data from more places, its not acceptable for data to live in walled gardens. We need to marry our marketing data with our sales data with our usage data. At the same time, enterprises expect control and ownership of their data. They are building Business Intelligence teams that require sophisticated data warehouses that offer flexibility in how the data can be used.

Unfortunately, buyers have to choose between enterprise grade business intelligence (Segment to Redshift, in my opinion), or effortless usage data from our web apps (Heap or Mixpanel for their auto track features). Why can't we have both, without pay for things we don't need?

2. Little value comes out of the box

In the early days of the internet, web analytics solutions offered out of the box value. Once the tracking code was dropped onto a site, web analytics tools like Google Analytics and Webtrends would tell you a whole lot about your other effort required. No writing queries, no building reports, no curation of dashboards. Just login and immediately view how many visitors you had last week, which pages were popular, where your users came from and what type of device they were using.

Unfortunately, that level of data isn't good enough anymore. I need to know which form was filled out the most, what selection from my dropdown menus resulted in the most exports images, which sequence of steps result in the most purchases, and which of my sales reps have the most customers interacting with the new feature we launched in beta.

To get any of that, most user analytics solutions require the user has to put in significant effort. Start from scratch...literally a blank page. Learn a data structure and definitions. Learn a query language/system, then start creating charts, graphs, tables, and dashboards. This may sound easy, but you are looking at many, many hours of effort, only to get data you may not fully understand and may not even be correct.

The other day, I had to contact the customer support team of an analytics product I use, to get help on how to count the number of unique users my app had. With all my experience using, buying, implementing, and building analytics products...I had to contact support to get help with the most simple, fundamental of queries.

It doesn't have to be this way. It wasn't this way with early web analytics, and its not this way with software performance analytics. When I log into New Relic, I am immediately presented with data that provides value, answers questions, and leads me down a rabbit hole. Yet, when I engage with user analytics tools....I'm starting from nothing. This pain isn't isolated to getting started. Even once I've spent hours.....days setting up dashboards, reports, graphs, and charts, I'll still have to start from scratch at other times. Build a new feature? Start writing more quires to know how that feature is used! Want to know something different about your app? Get working on a new dashboard!

Nothing comes for free with user analytics. We have powerful access to data, but the data is meaningless without a significant investment to use that data. Why can't user analytics be more like New Relic software performance monitoring?

3. Users must know what they need to know

I find most user analytics tools to be incredibly limiting in the value they provide. The benefits are in theory unlimited, yet to reach much of that value, the user has to know what they need or want to know. With the amount of data we collect these days, and the rate at which our data collection grows, I believe there is significantly more value hidden in the data, and we don't even know how to extract it.

As discussed earlier, most use analytics tools require the user to write queries, create charts and graphs, and build dashboards. We do this with what we know. We know we want to see a count of user. I know I want to see what percentage of my total user base was active in the last month, I want to see which pages are the most popular, which option from the drop down menu was the most popular, and what percentage of people drop off at each of step of my ideal user flow through the product.

What if users forged their own path through my product, defying the path I thought they would take, and the path I created my reporting around? How would I know? How would I measure and see the impact? I likely wouldn't know. Something in the data would have to peek my interest and drive me to discover this funnel of user behavior, before updating my dashboard to capture my new learning.

How many more insights like this might be hidden in my user analytics data? I'm guessing there is a virtually unlimited number of observations that can be made on user analytics data, and through the noise is likely signal that we are missing, because we didn't know to look for it. I want the user analytics solution of tomorrow to tell me what I should know, instead of waiting on me to ask the question.

User analytics products aren't perfect, but they aren't all bad either. I'm a new user of Heap Analytics, and I'm really enjoying the product they have built...their auto track + retroactive data capture saved by butt the other day! Mixpanel offers a fantastic product, and is the best solution for funnel and cohort analysis on web or mobile apps. Google Analytics was a game changer and one of the best things that has happened to content producers.

What do you think, how do web and user analytics tools need to evolve in order to provide value tomorrow? Let me know on Twitter or comment where you were linked to this post.

More on Product Management (Part 2)

Recently, I published a post that outlined 9 principles that make for great product management (On Product Management; May 23rd, 2017). I enjoyed writing the post as it was helpful for me to get my beliefs in a single place, and I was lucky to attract a great audience. My readers had some valuable thoughts, insightful questions, and astute clarifications via LinkedIn comments, Slack discussion, and direct emails.

In this post, I want to address some of those points of discussion, clarify a few things from my original post, and explore a few more principles that make for great Product Managers.

If you haven't read my original post, take a moment to read it and come back to this one. Finally, thank you to everyone that contributed thoughts, counterpoints, questions, and've helped me become a better writer, and a better Product Manager!

More on the Product Manager's role with vision & strategy

I started my last post out by saying that the role of a Product Manager is to shepherd through a vision...the vision of a Founder, a CEO, or a Chief Product Officer. I went on to talk about the PM's role as a leader, rallying the team around a vision and strategy, and developing products that serve multiple stakeholders. A couple of my readers pointed out that my message might have contradicted itself, and could be taken as a statement that vision and strategy aren't the role of the Product Manager.

This topic gets at a phrase that is commonly thrown around around Product Management, that being a PM is like being the CEO of a Product. I like this statement because it alludes to the type of work that a PM does, and the level of leadership they must demonstrate. I dislike this statement because it implies that the PM is ultimately in charge, that they can do what they want and have no equal in the organization.

While I absolutely believe that Product Managers should influence and contribute to company vision and strategy, and they should set a vision and strategy for their area of responsibility, the truth is that most of us work as part of a larger organization. Most of us have a boss, have a leader we work with. Many of us work at the companies we do because we were attracted to the mission and vision that their leadership put in place. If the Product Manager is setting company vision and strategy, rather than the C-suite, there's a problem. Similarly, if a Product Manager isn't helping the C-suite refine, build on, and advance the vision, there's also a problem.

More on user stories and project management

In my first post on effective product management, I made what turned out to be a controversial statement. I said that effective Product Managers aren't JIRA jockeys. This raised a lot of eyebrows and had many readers asking "but if not the PM, who?"

I firmly believe that the greatest value a PM delivers is not in JIRA, Pivotal Tracker, or any other project management tool. Thats not to say that a Product Manager shouldn't spend any time in these tools. These tools provide value to the team, and Product Managers should be involved in the workflow that takes an idea and turns it into reality.

Great Product Managers avoid being JIRA jockeys by doing two things: they communicate effectively early in the product development process, and they share the responsibility of management and oversight with other leaders.

Effective, clear, and complete communication upfront avoids the need for a micro-manager in JIRA. I do this through a Product Requirements Doc framework that aims to give my teams enough information about the problem and desired outcome that they can create development tickets with much more involvement from me.

Product Managers aren't the only leaders on a team. If the PM is the 'CEO of the Product' then the Engineering Manager is the CTO. Strong Product Designers have been present on every great product team I've worked on, and they should be looked to for leadership and direction. Finally, at larger organizations, Technical Product Managers can work alongside Product Managers to provide direction, validation, and management of the development process.

I believe that the amount of time spent in JIRA or similar tools is a view into a company's culture and the effectiveness of a PM. Product Management does not equal Project Management.

Effective Product Management orgs report through the CEO

Something I didn't touch on in my earlier post was the placement of Product Management in the org chart. There are a two common reporting structures for Product Management: Through the CEO or through the CTO. While both can work, I believe the best results come from Product Management organizations that report through the CEO.

This preference of mine stems from the idea that Product Management is about more than engineering. Engineering groups are singularly focused on technology, whether its the technology that customers interact with directly, or the backend and foundations that the product is built on. Conversely, Product Management is cross-functional by nature, working across pricing, customer support, sales, marketing, and more.

While the Office of the CTO can effectively lead Product Management, reporting through the CEO is a better fit. Like Product Management, a CEO's role spans the entire organization, influencing all aspects of delivering a product. Reporting through the CEO avoids potential conflicts of interest, where tough decisions must be made and priorities identified, and more easily allowing for a solution that might not be an engineering one.

Product Management is about more than code

In my last post, I may have ignored a principle which I feel is so important. The product is more than your software. The product is the entire experience that a customer or user has with your company. From how they first learn about your product, to how they are sold to, how they are on-boarded, how they use the product, how they are supported, and even how they are 'off-boarded", so to speak. Its all your product to the customer, they don't put walls between your marketing and your code, or between sales and support.

Effective product managers influence and lead all aspects of the product. They think of things like user documentation as part of the product. They know that interacting with customer support is part of the value being delivered. Sometimes the best way to move a product forward, to move the needle on sales or net promoter score, is to fine tune the non-software aspects of your product. If a Product Manager doesn't take responsibility for a cohesive product experience, its likely no one will and each customer touchpoint will remain silo'd.

Nike doesn't just sell shoes, they sell an identity. Blue Apron doesn't just sell meal kits, they sell time-savings and the joy of cooking. Software companies don't just sell access to code, they sell solutions to problems.

Am I living in a Product Management dreamland?

So am I crazy, or is my view on effective Product Management realistic? Truth is, its both. I have outlined a bit of a dreamland, a perfect world, but not a world that I've experienced at any single company or role I've held. That said, every philosophy that I've outlined is one that I've experienced personally or seen at other organizations. All of these philosophies are reasonable individually, and together they are a rare but special reality.

Some of these principles are ones that we can do on our own, as individuals seeking to be better at our jobs. Some of these principles require the mandate and support of our organizations and our bosses. If you desire more of a strategic and leadership role in your work as a PM, ask yourself two things. First ask if you are doing the things you can do with autonomy to be a more effective and efficient PM. Then, ask yourself if you are working for a company that wants and values leadership in a Product Manager.

This is part 2 of a 2 part series on effective Product Management. If you haven't read part 1, head on over to On Product Management for principles exhibited by great Product Managers.

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