Monday, November 9, 2009

Career Change: Thinking like a Product Manager - It's the Why

This is part two in a series on becoming a product manager. You can find the first article here.

For any number of reasons, you are eyeing product management as a future career. Whether its the innumerable business trips or the responsibility without authority, you know its the path you want to follow.

Congratulations! You are in for a wild ride.

There is a lot you are going to need to learn, much of which will be on the job. Things like how to placate a surly engineer, how to make a customer feel good about your product, how to guide executives to your way of thinking will become second nature to you and the more you have done previously, the easier it will be to assume this new role.

Even before you begin learning those things, though, you have one of the most difficult tasks in your career in front of you. This task is difficult for all fields entering product management, but I think it is particularly difficult for software engineers.

Stop Thinking About Who, What, When, and How.

In the intro to the series, I discussed career paths into product management and their focus (who, what, when, and how). Figure out which you are and consider, as a product manager, the following applies:

Who: You need to relinquish your control over deciding who the right person is to complete a task. This can be disconcerting when you know who the right choice is. Furthermore, it can cause serious friction with other managers.

What: You need to understand the reasoning for the what to build. It can be very easy to fall back into a comfortable place of writing requirements.

When: You need to step back from the highly tactical world of what comes next. Certainly, successful execution is important, but if you are running your product through a Gantt chart, you are missing the strategy that will differentiate your product and bring real success.

How: You need to recognize that your job just got a lot broader. With that breadth can come a feeling of "not getting things done" or disconnectedness after years of intense focus. If you continue to focus on the how, you will miss business drivers that guide your product and you will risk disenfranchising your engineering team by minimizing their expertise and taking away their responsibilities.

Start Thinking About Why!

This is the switch from tactical to strategic. This is understanding where the market is today and being ready for where it is going tomorrow. This is understanding what causes one customer to purchase and another to pass.

Every time you lay down a feature in an MRD, you will need to have data supporting it. Beyond describing the feature, beyond saying how many people will love the feature, beyond comparing competitor feature sets, he data should describe why the feature is important.

Consider the difference:

The product must support features X and Y because 73% of customers say they want it.


The product must support features X and Y because 73% of customers say they want it, including the majority of buyer persona who perceive them as critical points of comparison. These features will reduce the time it takes to close sales, increase out win rate, and strengthen our reception by analysts.

Figuring out the "why" will be the most challenging thing you'll do as a product manager. It will also give you the respect of your co-workers, the trust of your executive team, and the foundation for success for your product.

Start practicing in your next product meeting. Start asking why, and if the product manager doesn't have the answer, it's a great opportunity for you to offer your services to help find out.

The next article in the series will discuss gaining product management experience.

Special thanks go out to Jeff Lash and his blog, How To Be A Good Product Manager.

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