Not everyone can do product management

Two recent posts at Write That Down touch on the same issue. First, the author of that blog, Adam Bullied, argues that product management is intrinsically not that hard. The difficult part is learning to be a product manager:


I do in fact recall when I was first put into the role. It was exciting, but at the same time, really ridiculous. Not for any other reason than, I wasn’t working for a more senior product manager to kinda guide me a long and instruct me on what to do - I was in there on my own learning as I went. It turns out, this is ideal for me, but I recognize it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.

This leads me to admission number 1: The job is damn near impossible when you first start. Actually, scratch that — it’s damn near impossible when you get 3-4 months in. This is because, at least from my experience, it takes people about that length of time to really wrap their heads around what it is they are supposed to be doing. And I believe this is where most would sink and maybe start believing, “this job is WAY too hard for me, or anyone, to really do.”

Adam's path to product management is typical. Since there is no formal training to be a product manager, people arrive at product management via other jobs. (Shameless plug: One of my upcoming research documents uncovers exactly how varied those backgrounds really are.) In many cases, product management is a marriage of convenience between the individual and the organization. I think that I can do product management; my employers believe they should have product managers, but often don't have a clear idea exactly what they should do.

Somewhere in Plato's allegorical cave, there's an "ideal form" of product management. Not everyone has the arete of a product manager; unfortunately, given how the recruitment process works, it's hard to know who has the right temperament, and who doesn't. Product managers don't start with the skills they need, because there's no training.

Since many technology companies handle product management this way, it's not surprising that, as Adam describes in his other post, these firms bring product managers into projects late, almost as a last resort, and certainly not at an organizational level equal with the development managers:


A long while back I spoke with a recruiting manager for a very large social networking organization in the Bay area. He informed me that they were “incubating” product management in development, and the CEO “may decide” at a later time product should have a seat at “the executive table.”

Wow. That’s a whole lot of words telling me potentially a couple of things: 1) development is driving all product, which tends to be a common setup. And it’s not usually the best thing in the world. But then again, I’m heavily biased. 2) the CEO thinks they are doing a fine job and don’t want anyone challenging their decisions, execution, etc….

Let's not even go near the question why many tech industry executives think that product managers are less capable of devising innovative products that will give a company a competitive edge. Instead, let's treat product management, for the moment, as purely a service function, needed to support the people with the giant, pulsating brains in the development organization. What do these technologists need from product managers, from the moment they first walk through the door?

  • Validation that no one else is building the same product, or an analysis of what the competition is doing.
  • Identification of likely target customers, by which I mean people in particular roles doing particular tasks.
  • Validation that the product will be sufficiently helpful that these people performing these tasks will pay the company for the privilege of using their technology.
  • Based on information gathered during the previous steps, ideas for additions, subtractions, or modifications to the current product design that will increase the likelihood of its success.

If I were someone starting a new company, with the time-to-market clock ticking constantly in the background, I'd want someone to provide these sorts of assistance as early as possible, to ensure that we're not wasting time and resources. So why is the attitude of the CEO whom Adam cites earlier--we'll bring in someone with a product management title later, and improvise the PM function for the time being--fairly common in the technology industry?

The culprit, I suspect, is the idea that anyone can do product management, because people from a variety of different jobs start being product managers with no prior experience, and learn by doing. (How often they learn what it really takes to be a product manager is unknown.) However, as is the case with any job, not everyone is necessarily good at it.

We all know a few tasks that we'd never master, or even want to. For example, I suspect that I'd make a terrible accountant. I love math, but I lack the patience needed to spend my live combing through spreadsheets. Other math-related activities, such as statistical analysis, fit my personality and skills far better.

The same principle applies to product management. Not everyone can excel at the tasks listed above. For example, discovering the real business problem behind a feature request is a skill. Having enough interest in customer use cases to learn that skill, and then to continue applying it, is a question of temperament.

As someone doing research on the technology industry, I'm always willing to hear how suppositions like these may be wrong. Until then, this line of logic leads to obvious conclusion: the technology industry clings to a conceit about product management, that anyone can do it. If what product managers do has any value, there's a price tag attached to that error.

[Postscript: This post breaks a personal rule about the length of blog entries. I'll return to briefer posts later. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of a way to substantially reduce the number of words needed to handle this topic.]

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Comments

re: Not everyone can do product management

In regard to your note about upcoming research on uncovering exactly how varied product managers backgrounds really are, Pragmatic Marketing asked this question in our last annual survey and received over 900 responses. We look forward to seeing the results of your research (when will it be published?).

re: Not everyone can do product management

This month. BTW, I tried to design our survey to complement, not supplement, the regular Pragmatic Marketing survey. It seemed inescapable, however, to ask about their backgrounds.

re: Not everyone can do product management

There are two competing pathologies here - tech-minded founders are loath to give up the reins to PMs, so they hire spec-writers and researchers instead of PMs. And PMs tend to develop a mindset over time that they "own" the product as mini-CEOs, which puts them at odds with tech-minded executive management (a table they rarely sit at).I'm glad you called out Adam's posts - the more light you can shine on how "real" product managers think and operate, the better. We are an misunderstood and under-utilized asset in the technology industry.

re: Not everyone can do product management

Tom -Thanks for the links / call-out. You frame this very well. I've commented a couple of times over at Pragmatic and to other blogs that in order to gain more awareness about product management and just what it is we do, it needs to start in school.However, in chatting about this with Bob this morning he raised a great point - MBAs coming out of Universities are going to become brand managers. Those of us fulfilling the role in software are just doing it in software.It got me thinking about how to abstract these concepts and start to derive not only a key set of product management fundamentals that can apply cross-industry, but also a philosophy...I think the philosophy of "serving as a proxy to your identified markets and envisioning ways to solve their identified problems" does in fact transgress the type of industry you are in.If that's how product management is in fact defined at its broadest level, the fundamentals could then be derived and applied to a soap product just as well as they would to software, I think. Heck, PdMs need to be responsible for making sure effective outbound marketing gets done, even if someone in the marketing department is charged with doing the work itself.It's all just part of a proper product release cycle.I think this comes down to 3 things: 1) a decision on fundamentals in how the role is defined at a broader level than software; 2) getting more books published on the actual role and those decided fundamentals; and 3) getting that material into MBA programs.Trouble is, most of us end-up in this job simply because we didn't feel we really "fit in" anywhere else in an organization. That being said, the majority of students going for their MBA may in fact feel like they don't know where they want to end-up - thus causing a larger overflow of people getting in to the role when they aren't supposed to be.But if we could define a sort of overall philosophy about the position and devise the key concepts / lessons, we'd be taking some big steps forward, I think.

re: Not everyone can do product management

Tom et al.;I broadly share your view and those expressed in the comments so far. Product management is indeed an arcane (but essential) practice, the benefits of which are neither clearly understood nor thought to be exclusive, even in companies with good PMs on board. Adam's right when he says there ought to be some formal introduction - if not training - available at the MBA level, for example. We should socialise and 'sell' that idea!