Spend Less on Engineering

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be a “product manager”. To be clear, we’re talking about product managers here, not product owners nor project managers, roles that require quite different skill sets. Smart companies understand the value a product manager creates, but I’ve seen way too many ventures not get the value when they fill the role with someone just out of school, or new to the field of product development. It’s hard to blame these companies; solid PMs can be notoriously difficult to hire, and with experience comes higher salaries, but in markets where engineering is also expensive and timing is key, this is a mistake.

I started designing, managing, and building products before I had the “product manager” title. I guess I’ve been designing and building digital solutions since I was a kid, but my title was “Consultant” at a consulting firm the first time I got paid to conceive and build a new product. Later, it was “CEO” when I supervised development at my own startup. When we were acquired by another company and I joined the buyer, I was told my title would be “Director of Product”. I had little idea what that meant at the time! ...but I Googled “product management” and realized I’d been playing that role for a while. I got much of my experience by noticing what it looked like when teams were productive and by making tons of mistakes early in my career!

Why don’t entry-level people make good product management? To answer that, it helps to first understand what the PM function does. An investment in product management returns huge dividends for your team in 3 ways:

  1. It forces you to get clear on your goals, and to focus. The biggest challenge product companies face is a lack of focus. That’s a challenge that’s felt organization wide, from product development to marketing to sales and even support. The best products solve real user problems and the best teams focus their goals on doing so. (Good luck solving problems you haven’t defined!) You want each little thing each person in the product development organization does to create value. And if you try to accomplish too many disparate goals concurrently, or haven’t defined how you’ll measure success, that’s less likely...which brings me to...
  2. It means every task done by every contributor is creating value. Effective teams understand the objective, and how to track whether it’s being achieved. Once an effective PM defines an objective, they know it’s their job to ensure the team groks it, and to rally the team around working toward it. That doesn’t just mean having solid business requirements; engineers and designers should internalize the objective so that every decision they make – whether it’s a designer placing a button or an engineer writing a line of code – takes the goal into account. There’s always more than 1 way to do something. You want to optimize for the goal, including those for the longer term, which brings me to....
  3. Effective PMs create roadmaps that let teams build for the near-term AND the future. This means, in addition to knowing what they’re building now, your team knows what’s coming soon and where you’re headed. In an agile environment, where you’re headed will change, but having a thesis at any given point ensures people are building for the most likely future. Designers create design systems that lay foundation for future features. Engineers code platforms that support today’s features – and what they’ll be building weeks or months from now. Good engineers and designers yearn for roadmaps. The last thing they want is to trash their hard work!

I’ve now spent a decade working in “product” organizations. Looking back, though, I don’t think I’d  call myself a real “product manager” until I had some experience with other parts of product development. It takes experience to be a productive product manager. What are the skills one needs? There are 4 skills that are non-negotiable:  communication (both to listen carefully to what stakeholders say, and to ensure the team is aligned with a shared understanding), analysis to define and refine business objectives, synthesis to bring what they learn together into formed concepts, and creativity to design solutions to problems.

Like anyone, product managers get better at their skills with practice, but an interesting – perhaps even unintuitive – thing about PMs is that doing product management isn’t the best way to learn. People who start their product development careers in product management are thrown into the fire without the most important skills. With their inexperience, they spend (too much of) their precious brainpower creating the artifacts of the trade (requirements, workflows, mockups, roadmaps) at the cost of spending it on developing the ideas and strategies that should underlie them. In other words, they will create plans but not good ones. It’s not hard to imagine how this tendency might be inefficient, if not downright disastrous.

On the other hand, people with product experience, whether gained as an engineer, a designer, a QA technician, a technical salesperson, a customer service representative, or even an executive, have a sense for what works and doesn’t in the real world, and how effective teams work (or at least how ineffective teams don’t!). They come with perspective, technical understanding, and even (gasp!) wisdom that will be invaluable as you build. Stop and consider this before you hire a PM right out of undergraduate school or, if you’re aiming for a career in product management, go and gain product development experience first. I can guarantee you will be a better PM once you do.

Real-Time Lab can also help here. Our service offerings were designed to help companies develop highly effective product development teams, and to provide expert product management when today’s team just doesn’t have the right resources. Investing in experienced product management means every dollar spent on engineers and designers goes further because their work will be focused on your business’s success.