Friday, May 16, 2008

Product Management conference


On Tuesday I attended a mini-conference about Product Management. In fact, this conference billed itself as “The UK’s first conference on Product Management” which might actually be true.

I’ve written before that I believe Product Management is a much misunderstood role in the UK, and that I think it is an appreciation of this role that makes Silicon Valley companies so much more successful than their UK peers. Well, this conference might be a sign that things are changing. The fact that it existed at all, that it had sponsors, and that it was full is a good sign. However, I still came away with a feeling that only a few companies “get it.”

Practically the conference was well organised and free. It was sponsored by Telelogic (part of IBM) and Tarigo - a company I’ve not heard of before but I’m glad to say offer Product Management training in the UK. As with any vendor sponsored conference it was in some ways a marketing exercise by these two companies, but that said, the marketing wasn’t too heavy and they didn’t ram their products down your throat.

However, the conference was pretty tightly controlled, no questions until the end and no involvement of the attendees. Quite different to my usual type of conference, but then ACCU, SPA and PLoP’s just aren’t ordinary conferences, I’m spoilt.

So what did I learn?

Well I had my enthusiasm for Product Management warmed up again - it would be good to work as a Product Manager again!

Tarigo presented some estimates they had done of the number of Product Managers in the UK. Much to my surprise they believe there are about 90,000 to 110,000 Product Managers in the UK, which equates to one Product Manager for every nine developers.

On the face of it this is positive. I had no idea there were so many! And the ratio of 1:9 isn’t too far adrift of my own recommendations on what you need (1:3 for innovative rapidly changing products, 1:7 for less innovative more stable products) but, Tarigo has included Business Analysts in their figures.

I need to write a full entry on Business Analysts and Product Managers. In some ways the role is similar, in others it is different. I think most BAs could benefit from learning about Product Management and I think that is why Tarigo included them. But, on the other hand the roles are different. In the Q&A session I asked the panel about this and they agreed the roles are different.

So I think Tarigo’s 1:9 figure is optimistic.

And to prove the role is misunderstood I spoke to people at the conference who had nothing to do with technology. They are a different type of Product Manager again. Looking at the attendee list and their companies I think more fell into this category than I realised.

I also got some ideas for my growing business pattern language and confirmation of some of the things I’ve been writing in my latest set of patterns.

I learned a little about Telelogic’s product - I didn’t try to hard - and it confirmed another pattern I’m seeing: specialist database products. I first noticed this when I came across ChimSoft - Chimney Sweep Software - honest, as far as I can tell they are for real.

What I see is this: databases are wonderful things, they can do anything! But to use them effectively you need to program them. In any sector - chimney sweeping, product management - there are people who need a database and don’t have the skills to programme FoxPro or Excel let alone Oracle or DB2. Therefore, there is a market in specialised databases in specific sectors. And exploiting it is nine-tenths good product management because there really isn’t any new technology here.

Extend this argument upwards, to more complex domains, and you arrive at CRM and ERP systems. Both of these are in many ways databases with fancy utilities. But again, this is another blog entry.

Back to the conference.

Finally, perhaps the most surprising thing at the conference was the reaction to one session about Agile Software Development. Unfortunately the speaker didn’t link it up with Product Management very well so it was basically a “This is Scrum” talk but the audience got very very interested. Most of the Q&A session was about Agile in fact.

So why?

Well I think there were several reasons.

Firstly most of these people had not been exposed to the ideas behind Agile before. This just goes to show how things have yet to take off.

Second: the Agile story is very compelling if you know a little about software development. Agile promises products on time, with quality and everyone is happy.

The problem with the Agile story is: unless you know a little about software development already then it doesn’t sound any different to anything else. You abstract the message for those who don’t know software development (i.e. senior managers) and you get: improved productivity, reduced time to market, increased business value, etc. etc. At which point are we talking about Agile or Ration Rose? Or .NET? Or BoundsChecker? Or outsourcing to EDS? Or India?

I have more insights from the conference - so it was worth going to - but they are destined for my current crop of patterns.