When you follow product management on Twitter, or some of the luminary influencer blogs, you begin to get this belief that most product managers are rock stars, selling out stadiums, doing TED talks, and curing cancer in their side hustle.
But that isn’t reality. This post is about the silent majority who just do their jobs.
Meet the Competent Product Manager (CPM). They work behind the scenes, quietly guiding the development and implementation of products that meet the needs of the customers, successfully navigating the treacherous waters within an organization, to deliver day in and day out.
What is a Competent Product Manager?
Less flash, more substance, and no drama in the day to day. They exhibit all the best characteristics of product managers. They are masters of managing via influence inside and outside of the organization. They successfully master the governance and required processes to move forward (but in private they grumble about it like all their peers) and manage the ebb and flow of programs in process.
Some attributes that are common:
- Masters of balancing competing priorities, juggling personalities, and conflicts with aplomb (and some sleepless nights)
- Efficiently working through the processes, knowing the PLC, and the proper process for documenting and executing gate reviews
- Plays an appropriate role in the development process (i.e. if they are also the formal “Product Owner” they maintain, groom, and present the backlog to the Scrum team) depending on the organization’s maturity
- Works well with other co-dependent groups, especially Marketing and Sales
- Is viewed as a “Trusted Partner” by all the key groups in the organization
- Seamlessly modifies their communications to the audience, be it the line workers (if you have a production line) to peers, to mid-level management, to senior management.
- Can “read the room and knows when to speak up, and wen to keep quiet
- An absolute ACE at managing up (you would be surprised how rare this is)
- Dishes out credit when things go well
- Accepts blame and eats their pride when things go tits up
The Dude would add that they are the ultimate “team player” and likely got report cards in kindergarten that said “plays well with others”.
Were they always this way?
Not really. They likely began their career somewhere else, somewhere customer centric, either supporting sales, or doing post sales support, or come from an industry where they were that pivotal cog in the machine that kept things running smoothly.
One thing that is certain is that somewhere along the way, they gained empathy with customers. The ability to understand their day to day, the frustrations, and what it is they are trying to do, and struggling with.
In the Dude’s case, he began life as a process engineer in a wafer fab, and was using complex microscopy equipment to measure physical properties of parts of the process (lithography and etch), when the opportunity to jump to be an applications engineer for the supplier materialized.
That got him in front of a lot of customers, like minded engineers, and his job was to help them better use the instruments, and in turn, better make microelectronics.
From there, it was an easy hop to Product Marketing Manager (this was the 1990’s and the Product Manager role was still fluid), and he never looked back.
Over the years, the Dude has worked with many product managers with similar backgrounds, and all of them point to this formative experience in the field, feeling the customer’s pain.
What it is not
Sure, domain knowledge is important, but deep and wide domain knowledge can’t substitute for that touchy-feely customer empathy. One can gain domain knowledge, but it is a lot more difficult – and time consuming – to gain the customer empathy that successful product managers have.
You can learn the mechanics of the PLC, the lifecycle, how to roadmap, how to build and groom a backlog, how to do your flavor of development (be it scrum, waterfall, XP or ???) in a class or from a book. But to feel the pains of the customer, that takes time, and a lot of effort.
Similarly, it is a lot easier to hop from one domain to another (assuming it isn’t too large of a leap. e.g. the Dude couldn’t imagine being a product manager for a car line at GM) than it is to gain the intangibles of empathy.
Why quiet competence?
Excellent question. If you follow product management Twitter, or attend meetups, or read the growing plethora of books, it would be natural for you to view product management as a miracle worker. They swoop in, work with design, guide the development, hit the big time, and rack up huge public success after huge public success, become an executive, cash out (a couple of times) and then become one of those vest wearing VC d-bags.
But the reality is that those are rarely trajectories for product managers.
Sure, many have one big hit, then move upwards, either into product leadership roles, or into GM roles, or higher, product management being a few years on that career arc. And that is great if that is your thing.
But for each one of those that make the big time, there are many who don’t. There are lots of successful products that aren’t blockbusters, or career makers, and that is OK. They need product managers too. And they are less flashy, less feted, and more grounded.
In short, they get the job done, done well, and are well respected by their peers, and their wider stakeholders.
The Quiet Competent product manager takes pride in that. They are also likely to stick around. They become one with the product, the team, and the company.
This is a tough persona to document, as the Dude is one of these – at least in his reckoning – quiet, competent, well respected, satisfied.
There is no shame in working on a less than sexy product, with less than meteoric growth potential. Once the Dude picked up a product that had been released 35 years before he joined the team, and yet he was able to lead that product line to growth, expansion, and new uses that reinvigorated it, as it now is a product that is still top of the charts in its space 53 years after it launched.
There is no shame in that, as there is no shame to not be like the biggest influencers in Product Management in the blogosphere.