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On Product Management

30 October, 2020 - 21 min read


[Last Revised: 07/22/2021]

Part I: Introduction

In 2012, I started the journey of building products with a background in finance and accounting. It was a drastic career transition. At that time, I didn't know what product management was. I interacted with many developers and designers without understanding their domain language. It was quite challenging. A man with ideas, but low on execution.

I have worked both on physical and digital products as a startup founder and as an employee. I also enrolled in bootcamp schools—startup, coding & product management. Most recently, I worked as an engineer for 5 years at a large corporation. I am happy to say I can work with designers, developers and other stakeholders who are interested in building scalable products. The cumulative experience of design, engineering, startups, business and product development has given me the confidence of doing product management today.

Peter Thiel, in his book, Zero to One, outlines his belief that the biggest insights in life are “hidden in plain sight”—concealed only by our preconceptions or tendency to accept realities as they are (complacency).

Tell me something that’s true, that almost nobody agrees with you on. — Peter Thiel

The product manager's (PM, I will be using the acronym for the remainder of the article) ultimate quest is to answer the following questions:

  • What is hidden in plain sight?
  • What does a user want? And how do you want your customers to become better at doing their job?

From these questions above, I have realized from this past decade that product management is more of an art than a science. Product management is not formulaic. It requires a PM to come up with great ideas, but also build things that customers want and make their jobs easier. How to balance these two is the task on hand for a PM.

I also believe there are two types of product managers—generalist and technical. Great PMs are generalist who are able to jump many boundaries of engineering, design and business. As engineering and design becomes more specialized, the generalist fills the gap. But surfacing those insights are not enough. Those insights need to solve user problems and need to be delivered to them at the right time. As much as the discipline of product management focuses on strategy, luck also plays a key role. iPhone would've never been successful if it was introduced any sooner or later. Technological advances plays an important role on when to introduce the right product and features. For example, Blackberry had the best smart phone when Apple introduced an iPhone. Blackberry today is almost non-existent. This is another example of art versus science.

Product management is also an execution job. Strategy plays a huge role but strategy without execution serves neither the organization nor the end-user.

Knowledge without action, is like having no knowledge at all. — Ted Nicholas

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. — Michael Porter

User problems don't need to be invented for the sake of doing the job of product management. For every feature or product delivered, there is only one question that can tell if meaningful work is being done, “Are the users making progress with your product?”

How can you ensure your users are making progress? If you are not using data on user engagement, you are relying on your intuition. But I said earlier that the discipline of product management is an art not a science. Correct, but it does not hurt to collect data on what is working and what is not. Just like everything else, balance between data and intuition is required here.

Customers don't have needs, they just want to make progress within the system they belong. — Alan Klement

A good product takes chaos and creates order. — Brian Nogard

In my private repository of notes, I have accumulated several notes on the discipline of product management. This is my ongoing documentation about the discipline.

Part II: What is product management?

Product management is an organizational function within a company dealing with new product development, business justification, planning, verification, forecasting, pricing, product launch, and marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product lifecycle. Product lifecycle management is the process of managing the entire lifecycle of a product from inception, through engineering, design, prototyping, manufacturing physical products, scaling software businesses, to service, maintenance and disposal of products or retiring old legacy softwares.

However, every organization does product management differently depending on several factors. If you are a small startup, PM is perhaps led by a CEO or some other executive or even by product development team. Product management is a more structured discipline in mid-to-large organizations. Google is broadly known for their product management discipline.

Product management is about setting and driving a product vision for potential or existing users. A set of process or processes drives the product vision. Process defines the framework and discipline to accomplish the product vision. Every organization has a different process but the following should be a starting point when defining a framework.

  • Product Vision: what do you want the world around you to look like in 6 months? 1 year? 2 years? 5 years?
  • Outcome: what do you want to achieve to help realize this product vision?
  • Goals & Metrics: what are the measurable goals along the way? How can you measure them?
  • Strategy: what are you going to do in sequence to hit your goals in near and long-term?
  • Resourcing: what resources do you need to hit these metrics? For example, how many engineers and designers do you need to build a feature or a product?

Startup versus large organization

Product management at a startup versus a large organization can be very different. The role of a PM at a startup is far more likely to be responsible to wear “all hats,” whereas at a mature company their role will be more distinctly defined.

  • Startup: beyond discovery, definition, and shipping, PMs may also be responsible for pricing, marketing, support, and potentially even sales. These PMs thrive in a scrappy environment and are comfortable with ambiguity and frequent changes to direction as the company works towards product-market fit and learns to operate at scale.

    • Pro: PMs are likely to be more involved with company strategy, get exposure to senior leadership and the board. Ownership pod is fairly large leading to making a bigger impact. They also have more influence and authority over company resources.
    • Con: There’s typically little to no mentorship, role models, or best practices within the company. You may have to seek it externally. Budgets are typically tight, and PMs may not have the requisite experience to succeed at some of the things they’re tasked to do.
  • Mature organization: The PM may have a narrower scope and have coworkers who handle pricing, go-to-market strategies, and so on. And they are likely to be part of a larger team of PMs.

    • Pro: PMs are more likely to have mentoring and role models, as well as development standards and best practices. Close association with an engineering team can create strong relationships over time, which is great for long-term impact and career growth. And if the product has market fit, there is an established customer base and performance baseline to work from, versus guessing until you get it right.
    • Con: PMs have less exposure to company strategy and are just one of many voices of the customer. They can get “lost” in the system and have to deal with more politics and tight budgets. User feedback might not align with revenue goals which can make your job seem more like project management as opposed to product management (users are at the heart of product management).

    Product management culture

    Product management can be engineering driven, design driven, business driven or project driven. If none of these focus on users, product management is done incorrectly. Every company has a different philosophy about the product development process and where PMs fit into that process. Below are the three most common types, with pros and cons:

    • PM drives engineering: where PMs gather requirements, write product requirement document, and hand it off to engineering to spec out the technical requirements. Contemporary organizations may do this process in a more agile and collaborative way, but the expectation is that PMs know best about what customers need and engineering is there to serve.

      • Pro: engineering can focus on coding without a lot of distraction; this tends to work well for waterfall development shops with a long lifecycle.
      • Con: engineers lose sight of the big picture and do not develop empathy for customers, which can lead to a poor user experience. Often there are unhealthy tensions when technical debt and “plumbing” work needs to be prioritized over customer requirements.
    • Engineering drives product: technically oriented product companies (cloud, big data, networking) tend to be engineering-driven, where engineers are advancing the science in their domain and PMs validate solutions or create front end access points (UIs, APIs) to tap into this new technology. There can be a collaborative relationship and feedback loop between customers, PMs, and engineering, but typically PMs are serving engineering in these companies.

      • Pro: breakthrough technology can offer customers things they didn’t even know they needed. An engineer thought it would be cool to do, a PM figured out how to monetize it, and it became a billion-dollar game changer for the company.
      • Con: engineers chase the shiny new thing, over-architect the solution, or iterate forever, seeking perfection before getting customer feedback. PM input on priorities is ignored, which sometimes includes the most basic needs of customers.
    • PM-engineering partnership: there is a strong yin-yang between PM and engineering, with joint discovery, decision making, and shared accountability. Engineers join PMs in customer interviews, and PMs are in sprint meetings to help unblock tasks or clarify requirements. But the two roles respect the line where one starts and the other stops. PMs understand what’s being coded but don’t tell engineers how to code, and engineers have empathy for customers’ needs but leave the prioritization to the PMs.

      • Pro: a streamlined prioritization process that values technical debt and plumbing projects; better design processes leading to a more positive user experience; higher-performing teams with improved product velocity, quality, and, typically, happier customers.
      • Con: breakthrough innovation may not get greenlit; time-to-market may seem to lag (though I’d argue that what’s released is far better aligned with customer needs and more likely to successfully scale if iterated over time).

Product management goals

Practicing the discipline of product management without goals is like traveling in an empty universe. Goals define whether the progress is being made or not. In its purest form, a goal is a way to track whether you’re achieving what you set out to do. When setting goals, start with what you’re trying to achieve as a company, team and product. What’s your ultimate mission? A goal should never be an end in itself—the end is achieving your mission. A good goal has the following attributes:

  • Concrete: it’s clear and unambiguous (something that isn’t subjective).
  • Simple: everyone understands what it is and how it’s measured.
  • Quick feedback loop: the results of your changes can be seen quickly. Think about how long it takes for a user to reach the milestone you’re tracking, and whether you can expect movement in a reasonable time-frame.
  • Business-oriented: it’s easy to see how this goal actually drives the larger business.

Part III: What is the role of a product manager (PM)?

There are many flavors of product management, but being a PM is a job of influence to drive positive outcomes for the end user. Let's simplify it even further—positive outcomes for a user. However, it is not as straight-forward as it sounds in theory. To drive positive outcomes for the end user, PMs do many things, but are primarily focused on the following:

  • PMs are responsible to set overall vision, direction, capability, quality and delivery of products. These responsibilities are scattered between associates and mid-senior level positions.
  • PMs are able to build coalitions and get a buy in from functional groups—design, data, business, sales, and other cross-functional segments.
  • There is no room for an ego. If there is a key player missing, it will make the PM look weak. Resourcing is not a primary job but is a key element to executing on delivering a great product. This is where the previous point comes into play. A strong partnership with others can help fill the in the gaps.
  • PMs are constantly learning and picking up on domain knowledge. Best PMs are autodidacts because they are curious about everything. Sales, marketing, negotiation, design, or tech—they are all equally important to learn.
  • PMs should have strong collaboration mindset. PMs are like point guard playing basketball because they make others look great. A good collaboration between business, design and tech make everyone look great.
  • PMs understand the roadmap. It is important even if you don't own it. Features are prioritized based on the roadmap. PMs turn goals into projects with the help of their teams and entrepreneurial spirit. Too much to do is always a battle. That's the perpetual state of being a PM but the goal is to use a hammer on the highest nail.
  • Building with user adoption in mind. Beyond shipping new features on a regular cadence and keeping the peace between engineering and the design team, the best PMs create products with strong user adoption that have exponential revenue growth and perhaps even disrupt an industry.
  • PMs should be capable of writing well. Communication is a key and able to communicate with several stakeholders all at once becomes challenging. One way to overcome that challenge is to document for all types of audience. It is a good idea to document something that can be obvious to your audience. Different things mean to different audience. Writing helps bridge that gap. Documentation culture helps scale up the communication to an entire organization.
  • PMs should be resilient. Being resilient is a key to becoming a successful PM because if you are doing something hard, there will always be failures. Resiliency is hard to find in a resume. Great PMs are people who have overcome adversity in their life. Emotional intelligence goes a long way if there is a product execution or a life failure. From failure, everyone learns.

Part IV: What are the core competencies of a product manager?

  • PMs are always learning but they should keep up with core competencies. The following core competencies are the baseline for any PM, and the best PMs hone in on these skills over the years. The following core competencies are reflected in shipping the great products.

    • Conduct customer interviews and user testing
    • Run team wide including design and engineering sprints
    • Road map planning
    • Feature prioritization
    • The art of resource allocation
    • The art of managing conflicts
    • Perform market assessments and conducting competitive analysis
    • Assess market trends to explore innovative features
    • Translate business-to-technical requirements, and vice versa
    • Pricing and revenue modeling
    • Community (internal or/and external) engagement
    • Gauge prospects and beta users to adopt a new feature or a product
    • Act as a liaison with cross-functional business units
    • Document stories, epics, technical requirements, user workflows
    • Support training and conduct demos for cross-functional teams
    • Define and track adoption metrics
    • Collect and prioritize user feedback

In the end, it the PM's job to solve user problems by delivering relevant products and features at the right time.

Part V: Tips to become a great product manager

  • Story-tellers: the best PMs are able to weave tales that incorporate market needs, strategy, and tactics into a story that their stakeholders can get their heads around and hopefully adopt the story themselves. It can be challenging when you see something clearly, but you can’t get others around you to see it. You work through other people's eyes, so it takes a lot of convincing. You have to be a great communicator and storyteller. You have to read your audience. You have to try harder to understand others and find an angle to explain that makes sense to them. People you work with are smart, they just need a great story to be convinced.
  • Learning by doing: to master the art of product management requires several years of practice and doing. Natural talents won't be enough. Ultimately, the best thing you can do to prepare for a career in product management is to build. Manage and “own” a project from inception through execution and operation. Create KPIs to measure your impact.
  • 3 Ps: analyze the 3 Ps—people, process and product, to assess on the quality of people, the best process to deliver the product, and excellence and relevance of a product. Keep in mind to not implement process for the sake of process. Relevance is a key to establish the right process.
  • Hard decisions: be willing to stand up for what you believe in, especially when you are representing your users. Confidence of a PM comes from having a strong work ethic and conviction. Conviction can be built using both intuition and data. Hard decisions make great products. Success is not guaranteed, but confidence eliminates fear of failure.
  • Questions: are a PM's best tool. The best way to understand what’s going on or how to get better is to pose probing questions to all stakeholders, and above all, to yourself. Stopping for a tune-up if you’re already further along the road is critical to leveling up as a leader. Questions help you travel on the right road. If you aren't on the right path it doesn't matter how fast you are traveling. Asking the right questions will help you choose the right road.
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ): the best PMs have the ability to empathize with customers during surveys and interviews. A PM with a high EQ has strong relationships within their organization and a keen sense of how to navigate both internal and external hurdles to ship a great product. People don’t talk enough about EQ. PMs get huge value from being highly empathetic with the team, not just with users. There are plenty of smart people, but not enough people with the right balance of emotional intelligence.
  • Social capital: economic and social benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups. Components of social capital include reciprocity, trust and values. If these are shared between individuals within a network then the community will function as an organic whole. This is important for the next up, relationship management.
  • Relationship management: probably one of the most important characteristics of a great PM is relationship management skills. By forming authentic and trustworthy connections with both internal and external stakeholders, the best PMs inspire people and help them reach their full potential. Relationship management is also vital in successful negotiation, resolving conflicts, and working with others toward a shared goal, which is especially challenging when a PM is tasked with balancing the needs of customers, resource-constrained engineering teams, and the company’s revenue goals. Authentic and trusting relationships within an organization can lead to more support when additional funding is needed for a product or when an engineer must be swayed to include a quick bug fix in the next sprint. Outside an organization, these skills could encourage existing customers to beta test a new feature for early feedback or to convince a target customer to try the MVP of a product still in stealth mode.
  • Social awareness: PMs must understand customer's emotions and concerns about their product as much as they understand the concerns of the sales team on how to sell that product, or the support team on how to support it, or the engineering team on how to build it. PMs need deep understanding of how the organization operates and must build social capital to influence the success of their product, from obtaining budget and staffing to securing a top engineer to work on their product. Finally, social awareness ensures the best PMs service their customers with a product that addresses their jobs to be done, which is ultimately what drives product-market fit.
  • Confirmation bias: PMs must be self-aware of their own confirmation biases to avoid projecting their own preferences onto users of their products. PMs should stay objective despite of features they love which addresses their own pain points. The lack of self-awareness in any sort of biases could derail more important priorities or damage the PM’s relationship with engineers, who may lose confidence in their PM when a feature isn’t adopted by users.
  • Self-management: being a PM can be incredibly stressful. The CEO wants one thing, the engineering team another, and customers have their own opinions about feature priorities. Managing tight deadlines, revenue targets, market demands, prioritization conflicts, and resource constraints all at once is not for the faint of heart. If a PM cannot maintain their emotions and keep it cool under pressure, they can quickly lose the confidence of all their constituents. The best PMs know how to push hard on the right priorities, with urgency but without conveying a sense of panic or stress. A PM should know when to take a breath and step away to regroup.

Part VI. What should a PM do on Day 1?

What should a new PM do in the first month? Joining a new product team is like starting a new position on a basketball team; eager to play, but don't know the chemistry or tactics to perform. Training and practice is necessary before a PM can score. A structured program can provide training, but many organizations don't even understand what product management is, let alone what to train the new PMs on. More often than not PMs are left to sink or swim. Here is a framework I created during the first month of being a PM at Morningstar.

  • Company's mission

    • What is the underlying business?
    • What is the objective of the business?
    • How does the business help customers?
    • Where does the company fall short on meeting customer's expectations?
  • Learn the product

    • What is the product?
    • Why are we building?
    • Who are we building for?
    • How are we going to build it?
    • Are there any OKRs for each milestone?
  • Meet the team & stakeholders

    • How is the team structured?
    • What role does each member play?
    • Where does the team excel?
    • Where does the team fall short?
    • Is the team aligned on product mission and strategy?
    • What does the team expect of you?
  • Review documentation & artifacts

    • Review product vision & strategy artifacts.
    • Review the product roadmap.
    • Review the product's technical requirements.
    • Review JIRA board and backlog.
    • Review the product's performance data.
  • Execute

    • Provide and update Acceptance Criteria with appropriate context and information including design and data points.
    • Help team unblock during sprint rituals by providing product & business context.
    • Write documents that are missing.
  • Measure

    • Measure velocity on each ticket by tracking down start and close tickets.

This is a huge knowledge dump that I have acquired learning from others, on the job and reading several articles and books. Lastly, I recommend Jason Evanish's Twitter thread and Lenny's Newsletter. It is a good overview on product management discipline and what a PM does. However, there are countless other resources out there which I stopped tracking after a while. Understanding the key concepts mentioned above helped me land a role after software engineering. Today, I keep these foundational principles on hand to do my job better.