/ Product Management

Product Management Messes

In virtually 100% of the Product Management jobs the Dude has taken - as in interviewed for, and been hired for - he is batting 1000. The universal situation is that he is picking up a product that is a) ignored and in need of serious remedial attention, or b) suffering from some massive deficiency that caused the prior product manager to run away screaming, or c) some other completely messed up situation.

The First Stop

The Dude's first stop, back in 1998 or so, was at a company that made equipment for chip makers. He had a lot of experience as an applications engineer, and the company that hired him was building a new product to address the need that he was specifically familiar with.

During the interview process it sounded like the product was almost complete, and the Dude just needed to work on the launch, positioning, and the usual activities. Clearly that was what the Dude was told the situation was. The job was called "Product Marketing Manager, after all.

Alas, this was plain not true. They had done a couple hero experiments, demonstrated some key capabilities, and "sold" one to an early adopter. But it wasn't a product. Not even close.

The product definition was literally on the back of an envelope (with a friggin' coffe stain to boot).

The Dude had to not only learn how to be a product manager, but he needed to reverse engineer the initial requirements, draft requirements for a real version that actually worked, partner with the research group to work on some fundamental physics to address some inherent performance issues, and then to work with the potential customers to understand their true requirements, and translate that into a successful product.

3.5 years later, the second generation was launched, great success, won selection with a key customer.

The Industrial Instrumentation

The second product management stop was at a company that had been acquiring many small companies over a long time (like over 40 years long time.) As a part of one acquisition came a fairly low tech, and long in the tooth product line. The product the Dude was hired to pick up had been ignored for over 10 years (yes, a DECADE), they had decided to move the product to a different division (to get it out of the shade of the product portfolio that was dominating it), and put some fresh eyes on it. The existing product manager didn't want to move, so the Dude was hired.

It was a mess. A haphazard redesign, with humongous issues, a fading market demand (but not a declining overall market), and an entrenched competitor in similar condition (that would be a classic case of orphaned product) all presented out-sized challenges.

However, with about 9 months of care and feeding, a solid turn around was happening. Software that was modern, (and didn't require the use of an end-of-life version of Windows), a solid instrument that performed to spec, and the ability to reliably manufacture the most critical components (prior to an engineering light being focused on them, the key component often needed to be built/rebuilt 3 times before it passed QC) had the instrument finally being accepted in the market, reversing a glide to irrelevance, and even flirting with regaining the #1 position in the market (that took 2 more years).

Did the Dude do anything heroic? Nope, just gave a 35 year old product line care and feeding, and some marketing focus, and in return turned it around, began year on year growth, and took the top spot in the market.

Another Scientific instrument

A couple of stops later, the Dude found himself with another high end scientific instrument, brought in late-ish in the product development pipeline, as part of a smallish product portfolio, in a medium sized business unit, in a giant corporation. We were literally the flea biting the tail of the dog.

Unfortunately, being late in the development process, and with many serial delays in release (mostly, not meeting design specifications, and the need to go back and work on the core systems (electrical and mechanical issues).

The ultimate problems were traced to early decisions, that were codified in the initial product definition, long before the Dude walked through the front door. The constraints put in by the original product manager, were leading to two principal problems:

  • physical dimensions were affecting the mechanical performance. A desire to be able to re-use some components from an existing product was core to the original spec, and that one requirement, 5 years later, was leading to significant issues meeting the performance goals.
  • the original product manager committed the sin of viewing himself as the target audience. At the time of the original definition, there was a clear, and easily visible market shift to a new operating model, and form factor. This was completely missed.

Alas, this is the one place where the Dude failed in his mission. He slaved away to resuscitate the programs, to adapt to the changing world, but by the time he joined, the die were cast, and the roll came up snake-eyes. The product did get released, and it met (mostly) the performance goals, but it still failed to address the shifted market needs.

Summary

While it is possible to start a product management role on a product / portfolio that is in good shape, but the Dude would bet his bottom dollar that even when things look good, there are some underlying dysfunction to be addressed.

Truth be told, at every one of the Dude's stops, there has been some funky shit hidden to work with and around. That is part of the charm of the Product Manager role.


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