Why Requirements Are Like Journalism

Earlier this month, the Silicon Valley Product Management Association kindly invited me to participate in a panel discussion about the state of PM as a profession. Since the role has wide responsibilities, the conversation ranged widely, but we did dwell a great deal on requirements. One participant asked, "If you could pick only one source of information for requirements, what would it be?" My response was a little tart: I hate that question, because there's no way to answer it.

First, no single type of information will be sufficient to answer a substantive question. Requirements are an exercise in triangulation. Is it worth pursuing a project? You could count the number of people who have asked for it, but that's hardly a reliable basis for making a potentially expensive investment. The next logical questions -- Why do they want it? How important is it? Do we really understand the request? -- require a conversation with at least a couple of potential consumers of this technology.

Second, the question determines the type of information needed to answer it. One type of market development question, such as, is there opportunity for us? requires market-level data. A different market development question, do people in this market need a different mix of functionality in our product? leads to an investigation of potential use cases.

The people responsible for requirements -- product managers, in the tech industry -- have no training in selecting the questions to ask, or the right way to ask them. Which is odd, because you might define the PM role as the questions person, delving into markets, users, competitors, stakeholders, business problems, and a towering pile of other topics.

There's another profession in which asking questions, then reporting the results, is the core job function: journalism. If you want to become a journalist (a brave choice, these days, given the state of the mainstream press), you're well advised to get some professional training. Get ready for many hours spent learning how to cultivate sources, ask questions of them, and check the reliability of their statements. As a neophyte reporter, you'll get further mentoring, frequently of a less than gentle nature, from an editor. You'll learn to be skeptical about any single piece of information or any single source of that information.

PMs have no comparable professional education. In fact, most PM organizations may never see that asking the right questions is a skill that must be mastered. And yet, the reliability of that information has a direct effect on some of the most critical decisions a tech vendor might make.

In our always-lively discussions about PM certification, we might want to focus on this issue. It's hard to imagine any credible form of merit badge program that doesn't treat requirements professionalism as a core, er, requirement.