Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What is product management, anyway?

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the product management role in software is that it can be so different from one company to another.  It's highly subject to variation from place to place, based on a company's executive team, its culture, the kinds of products it makes, and the other roles on-staff.

When talking about product management, I used to frame the job in terms of a triangle, whose points denoted the three most common responsibilities of the PM role -- Marketing work (principally, understanding the market and generating the core of the solution messaging), Product work (articulating the market needs and defining the solution requirements), and Project work (some form of cross-functional go-to-market/readiness planning).  Something like this:

I'd often scribble something like this (including pertinent examples of the kind of tasks I've included here) on a white board when bringing new PM's up to speed, talking to new engineers, or even in interviews.  My point was that the product management role for any given organization could be defined as a shape (the blue blobby triangular thing) that stretched into each corner to the extent defined by that organization.  And I think it's fair to say that in most organizations, the shape would likely be subject to frequent revision as the organization and its product and market situations evolved.

Recently, though, I've added a fourth point to my diagram -- the Business.  Some of this stems from my time as a GM, owning a P&L, and some is just the result of moving up the PM ladder over the years, where responsibilities shift from the tactical to the strategic -- or maybe just expand to require both.  And it's a useful inclusion for the PM function, if not necessarily for every PM on the team.  Adding this dimension makes the PM team accountable for the results of their work within the other three axes, and also provides an important lens through which the PM's should look at everything they do:
  • What, really, is the market opportunity, and which are the right problems to solve?  It's my hide on the line if we pursue the wrong opportunities.
  • What, are the true must-have's we should spend money on?  It's my hide on the line if what we deliver doesn't work right, or doesn't find enough market interest to buy.
  • How can I be sure that the rest of the company is ready to push forward with what we've built?  It's my hide on the line if Sales doesn't pursue opportunities to sell it, if the service quality around the solution is poor, and customers are both few and unhappy.
And so on...  These are important questions that may never be asked if the PM's are thinking mostly about features and demos.  The ultimate judge of an offering (and thus the performance of its product manager) is its financial performance against the established goals.  And so a square it is, not a triangle, and with a 4-pointed blob defining a given role against all possible responsibilities:

I'm not sure how much value these diagrams really have out of the context of a white board -- PowerPoint seems to formalize them inappropriately to me -- but they've been useful framing tools with a pen or marker.

So, back to the question -- what is software product management?  A product manager is a custodian of a business.  The PM's job is to make sure that there is an opportunity worth pursuing, that the people building the solution for that opportunity get it right, that the people who need to execute the solution and bring it to market get those jobs done successfully, that customers are delighted and kept happy, and ultimately to make sure that all of that effort was worth making, as judged by the financial success of the product.  There are a thousand different tasks and activities that fall into getting all of this right, but focusing on those risks diminishing the role and its strategic importance.

That's my simplified take on the job.  How do you see the role?  I'd appreciate your opinions, and I thank you for reading.

All for now,


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Best job ever -- really?

OK, so maybe I'm biased.

I've been in software my entire career -- over twenty years, now, though that hardly seems possible.  And for three quarters of that, I've held Product Management roles.  I've been a sole PM at a small company, a member of a large PM team at a large company, managed small teams, coached people new to the role, and twice established PM as a discipline in emerging companies.  I did step away from managing products a few years ago, taking a promotion to serve fifteen monts as General Manager for a line of business.  But I found during that stint that a GM is really a lot like a PM, just with a broader focus.

So if it's not everyone's idea of the best job in the world, it's one I've poured myself into for a very long time, and one that I've found to be fun, challenging and immensely rewarding.  I'm also very good at it, at least in the way I've experienced and defined the role.

I've been blogging for two years, now, with my personal blog, Bronze Gears.  I've thought about starting a professional blog for a while, and I even set up a second blog on my Blogger account last year.  I never got it off the ground in a meaningful way, though, I think mostly because I wasn't sure what to write about.  But 2010 has been a substantially different year for me than 2009, and my experiences this year have given me a lot to think about with respect to my chosen vocation.

I left my most recent employer (one of only three, in that 20+ year career) at the end of April, just before they merged with a historical rival.  My reasons for leaving are numerous, but the most important one is that it was time for a change.  I looked for a bit before I left, and then started looking seriously over the summer, and am still looking for just the right fit.  So yes, that means I'm available, if you're looking for great PM talent!

The search has been a lot of fun, and I've met some great people and had many really energizing conversations.  In preparing for interviews, I've needed to think about the different legs of my career -- to figure out how to frame them in describing who I am as a professional.  And in poring over the details of my most recent role, I came to understand just how great a treasure trove of experiences it was.  It was one of the most challenging environments I've ever been in, and at times an extremely difficult place to work.  But I left a much better PM than I went in -- and I'd argue that I was pretty damn good at the start.

Those experiences and what I took from them will form the basis of what I'll have to offer, here.  And at their core is my role in helping move a product and a company from an on-premise delivery model with a traditional licensing model to a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) delivery model with a subscription model.  The lessons are many, and I invite you to share your own in comments on my posts.  If everything goes as planned, at some point I'll be able to stop looking back for nuggets to share, and will be able to draw from the lessons of my next job.

Next time, I'll get started for real -- digging into the best job ever.  I'm looking forward to it, and thanks for joining me.

All for now,