Saturday, November 26, 2005

What do Product Managers actually do?

I spent a couple of years working in California, in Silicon Valley itself to be exact. Unfortunately instead of getting .com boom I got .com bust, still it was a very interesting experience.

One of the differences I found between London and California was the existence of Product Managers. I'm not saying product managers didn't exist in London but they were few and far between, whereas in California they were plentiful. These are the people actually charged with ensuring the product develops in the right ways and they seem to be intrinsic to high-tech companies.

(As I've noted before product managers exist outside of the software arena but these are often marketing rules concerned with branding, advertising and image.)

Of course back in London we had Business Analysts who performed some of the same role but the two are very different beasts - product managers are much more outward looking and business analysts are normally inward looking. Of course some of this is the difference between a product company and the bespoke development organisation.

As I've noted here before this is the year when I became Product Manager. Last week somebody asked me an interesting question: “what is it product managers do?”

So I waived my hands a bit and I said something about understanding the customer, understanding customers needs, customer problems and what they are looking for a product.

And the product manager needs to talk to the technical people who developed the product so they can understand what is possible, what new technologies are coming, and how the product might be able to meet customers needs.

In a way that product manager is a translator, translating what the developers say to the customers and translating what the customers say to the developers. But there's more to it than this.

There's an element of creativity, seeing beyond the customers immediate concern to what could be, and imagining how the different technologies can be put together to create something new.

There is also the question of product strategy, where is the product going? What will look like in a years time? What about the competition? Is there even a competitor?

Then there's the question of marketing: so-called inbound marketing (finding out what the market wants) and outbound marketing (presenting the product to market). The marketing and strategy questions are very closely related.

And you can throw in here something about product vision too.

Of course all this these be aligned with company strategy, so you might well get involved with setting the comely strategy to. Normally the product strategy will support the corporate strategy, if product strategy and corporate strategy are different there will be problems.

Then there's the question of project management. In some organisations that product manager might be quite close to the project management, in fact they may do themselves. The product I look after has a small development team so I get involved in a lot of project management decisions. On bigger teams than maybe for a project manager and a product manager.

However I've also seen situations where there is a product manager, a project manager a software development manager and maybe a technical lead too. When this happens you have too many cooks. It is often said that the best software development teams a small but there is no point in having three or four software developers and another four or five managers.

But I digress....

In many ways the product manager is a product champion. In this part of the reason why think a product manager's role is essential. The product without a champion is unlikely to move forward and advance. Of course there should be room from more than one champion, the more people who are enthusiastic about the product the better.

So being a product manager is a mix of all these things and probably a few more.

Unfortunately that is rather longer answer than some I would like - I'd like to have a more succinct answer to the question. So I need to keep thinking about this and see if I can come up with a nice short answer.