Thursday, March 22, 2007

Product Management in the UK

I went to a meeting of the UK Product Managers Forum last night.  This was the first time I have been to a meeting of this group and it is the first time that the group has held an event in London.  Naturally these two firsts are not unconnected!

I enjoyed the meeting, Ian Mapp of Respond spoke about the development of the product management function within the company.  This was very interesting itself, and as is so often the case the conversations with the other attendees was even more interesting.

These conversations support my belief that Product Management is not a well established role in the UK software industry.  When the product management doesn’t exist in a company there is a vacuum.  Without any guidance software developers will just develop the things they think are a good idea.  If there is a compelling need for your product this isn’t a problem in the short run: people need your product, good or bad they will buy it.

Nature abhors a vacuum and the same is true when product management is missing.  Somehow the vacuum will get filled.  In small companies it is often the founder(s), the CEO, CTO or similar who fulfils the role.  They often do it on gut feeling. If they are lucky they are right and the companies grow but then they don’t have the time to do it.

Sooner or later someone steps into the role.  It might be a project manager, a developer, an architect or even a tester.  These people do their best but they have other demands on their time – the job they should be doing.  There is competition not just for their time but their prioritisation decisions will be influenced by their duel roles.  Neither have they been trained for the role.

A lot of software development does wrong right here.  Without good product management to give customers a voice inside the organization companies will spend more time developing more features to sell fewer products.

(Product management can exist under the wrong name, I’ve met Architects who are really Product Managers and I’ve seen Project Manager roles advertised which are really Product Management jobs.  This just confuses things!)

The second thing I noticed at the meeting was how tight the profession is.  Most people knew of the Silicon Valley Product Group280 Group and Pragmatic Marketing.  Those of us who have ad product management training had had it through one of these groups in the US.  Again this is a sign of how underdeveloped the role is in the UK.  I believe this is about to change, Co-herence have licensed courses from the US and plan to deliver them in London.

The UK is not short of software companies.  It is short of product managers and product management skills.  Fixing the development process must involve product management.

If you are developing software application there are three things you must do:

  1. Create a product management role (business analysis if you are in house)

  2. Use source code control

  3. Have a repeatable build process and run it at least once a night

If you aren’t doing these things then don’t bother leaving home, in fact, don’t even bother getting out of bed.  The scary thing is: most companies struggle to score two out of three on this list. 

(If I just scared you and you want help e-mail me, more on this next week.)

As an aside, Respond’s product is a customer feedback (i.e. complaints) management system.  Ian suggested that in some industries, notably airlines and mobile telecoms, the company got very little traction.  His conclusion was that for these companies customer service is not a high priority.  I can see his logic, if the companies in these sectors are not willing to spend money then it is reasonable to conclude that the companies do not see customer service as a priority.  One of the audience, form a major UK mobile phone operator took exception to this.  They claimed their company did take the issue of customer service and retention (churn) seriously. 

I’m in the process of reviewing my mobile telephone.  I’ve been with the same provider for 5 years now but I don’t feel like a valued customer.  The company has a memory like a goldfish – i.e. none – I might as well have been with them a year or a month.  I’d like to switch to another provider but a) I’m not convinced anyone else is better, b) it looks like my provider is actually the cheapest!

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