Posted by Tom Grant on April 8, 2008
I was going to post a response to something I read on the Product Beautiful blog in the Comments section, but it got a wee bit too long. So I'm posting it here.
Product Beautiful asks, Does passion matter in product management? It all depends on what sort of passion we're talking about.
The unbearable lightness of being a PM
The unstated premise behind Product Beautiful argument is that you have to get really excited about a product to act as its product manager. The companies cited--Apple, Dell, and Amazon--imply a general-purpose solution, like an iPod, inexpensive home PC, or an online bookstore. You'll also note that these are very "horizontal" products, without specific "vertical" spins, by industry or role. (Or, at least, that's how they might appear on the surface...But that's another conversation entirely.)
If these sorts of products inspire and require passion, what doesn't?
Some of the most profitable products and services are those that don’t inspire at all - like cable television, life insurance, and payroll processing. No one is starting blogs about these products evangelizing for them, and they don’t have to. They’ve risen (or fallen) to the level of “utility” in the consumer’s mind that doesn’t set off mental arithmetic to pay for...
Does inspiring passion matter? If you are in a highly competitive market, and you need to charge a premium for a product that sells on non-functional aspects like GUI, you bet it does. If you are selling groceries, not so much.
If I'm reading these passages correctly, Product Beautiful is asserting that passion is only possible when products are cutting-edge, or when you're in a market where the "coolness factor" matters. For the rest of you...Good luck with your dreary existences.
Before we consign the majority of product managers to Purgatory, let's stop and think about some other aspects of product management that may require passion, or squelch it. Not every cutting-edge, neat-o keen-o product is a lot of fun. Not every project involving cable television or life insurance needs to be dull.
Fun projects that aren't necessarily fun
Let's be honest about product management in the high-tech industry. If you're a PM who doesn't spend a substantial amount of time, regardless of the product, on drudge work like tracking release deliverables, triaging bugs, and answering product questions on an internal mailing list, you're leading a charmed life. Whisper not a word of it to your employers, lest they notice that everyone else in the PM biz handles these sorts of tasks. (Which tasks vary across companies, as my upcoming research article about jobs in the PM industry will discuss.)
And, to be brutally honest, the "coolest" projects are sometimes the worst places to work, as a product manager. Just as sweet fruit attracts yellowjackets, cool projects attract everyone's input. Or, the project is so cool that the company won't trust anyone but the architect/CTO/dev manager to make important decisions about it. You can get as disillusioned as a Hollywood intern.
A more durable source of passion might be better, something less dependent on the project, or even your co-workers.
Dull projects that aren't necessarily dull
Many of my interview questions for PM candidates were, overtly or covertly, all about motivation. Why are you a product manager? What sort of product or company excites your interest? And so on.
In hiring PMs, I had a bias towards people who got fired up to see real customers using their product. The more customers, and the more interesting the implementations, the happier this sort of PM would be. (And the company, too.)
That's the sort of durable passion that keeps PMs happy, when working on sexy products, like Wikis, or more prosaic tools, like records management solutions. I've worked on both, and found both challenges interesting--even if I'd never want to be a records manager myself.