More than a decade of grousing about product management

What Product Managers should focus on

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Product managers need leaders who understand their role and provide the necessary support and protection, rather than those who lack experience or treat product management as a secondary function.

The Dude is in a funk. This time it is all about the expectations of senior management out of product management, and how the direct management of product management is framed. (Whoa, the Dude just used ‘Management’ three times in one sentence.) How to frame this is tricky, so stick with the Dude.

The Dude has had several “bosses” over his 22+ year career in product manager, and they can be bucketed into three categories:

  1. Leaders who have been product managers
  2. Leaders from other functional groups that happen to manage product managers
  3. Leaders who read a blog post or two, been through the Pragmatic training, and have spent a couple of nights in a Holiday Inn Express

Leaders who have carried the bag

Ironically, this also includes those who have worked closely with product managers, not just product managers who have been promoted.

In this category, the leaders have a wholistic appreciation of what the job entails. They understand the high level expectations that are placed upon their team, realizing that there will always be some “run the business” tactical crap to deal with, but work to protect them from the worst of the chaos.

They will provide their team with both air cover, as well as the tools and the gravitas to deliver, day in, day out, in sickness and in health.

Working for someone like this is an absolutely joyful experience. The drama is less. Executives respect the product team, the product team is well regarded, and seen as the focal point of the business.

Alas, you would think this would be a very common organizational structure, yet it is fairly uncommon in the Dude’s experience. Product leaders like this are outstanding at building strong working relationships, and are often tapped to move upward, leaving a void.

The Dude supposes that is a good thing… for the leader anyway.

Leaders from other functional groups that happen to manage the product management “team”

Alas, this is far more common. The Dude mostly see this manifest itself as a Marketing director leading product management, but he has seen it managed ad-hoc by a BU VP/GM (that would seem like a good place, but it sucks), and engineering.

The challenge is that regardless of whether you are reporting into marketing, or engineering, or some other – hybrid – group, you do not get the full focus and attention required.

You will be asked to do non-product management tasks, you will be expected to participate in functional teams that are far outside of product management, and you will have to be quiet.

In this regime, you will also have to do a LOT of mundane, tactical bullshit. This is largely due to the fact that your leader/exec will not understand the value of product management, and will let other teams/groups dump unappetizing administrivia on the team, and the leader will just pass it down with the edict “deal with it”.

Alas, this leads to confusion of role responsibilities, overwhelming workloads, burnout, and high turnover. The Executive staff ought to see this as evidence that they ought to rethink product management responsibilities, but the leader will couch this as “we just got a bunch of whiny bitches, I just need to hire more team players”, and the senior execs will lap it up like a Karen laps up White Claw hard seltzer.

The “learnt it from a blog” leader

Of the three categories the Dude has seen, this is BY FAR the worst of the bunch. It takes a little set up, so bear with the Dude for a moment.

If you are in any sort of tech industry, from a tiny start up to a mature company, there is a growing mythos of Product Management as a savior. Literally railcars worth of electronic ink is spilled on blog posts, analyst reports (read some of the publicly available Mc Kinsey reports,) and a growing number of books and case studies.

All are unified in the importance of Agile methodologies, the concept of interactive development, Lean Startup, Design Thinking, User Centric Design (the Dude is getting queasy typing all these buzzword bullshit), and the like in canonizing the Product Management function.

That sounds good for us as product managers right? Finally getting our due for the years of toiling under the strain.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by other functional roles. Senior individual contributors in roles in Marketing and Engineering are particularly susceptible to the allure of product, and will position themselves with workshops, some of the publicly available training, read a lot of books, leveraging relationships with senior execs, and finagle a role leading the product team.

The problem with this is that they have a stunted view of what product is, and how a functional product team should work. They tend to interfere at a low level in the day to day, often with an eye to burnish their personal reputation and brand, and to just keep shifting the blame.

The case that the Dude is most familiar with is a software engineering lead who was tapped to build and run a product team. They inherited a handful of very talented, capable product managers, and carte blanche to build the team out. An almost unprecedented support from the VP/GM to do so.

How did this new product leader fill out the ranks?

If you guessed they reached into their engineering haunts, and hired/poached several software engineers to mint new product managers, hand yourself a gold star.

So, this is suddenly a TWENTY PERSON product team, with one real product manager, one strong project manager, and a shitload of people who chase the shiny butterfly that captures their interest.

(Fortunately, the Dude watched this from the outside – phew)

How to build a strong product team, and not bury them

The Dude would be remiss if he didn’t comment on what he thinks a good product management leader does to build a strong team.

  • Recognizing that there will always be some “run the business” bullshit to do, a strong product team has project management capacity. People who are good at taking the odds and ends, running them to ground, and just dealing with this tactical bullshit. The bullshit is always there, acknowledge it, hire someone to do it, and be done with it.
  • Hire real product managers (people with explicit experience) for the most critical products/product lines, and begin building a pipeline of junior people with aptitude to apprentice to the top line staff product managers.
  • As a product management leader (Manager, Director, VP) your job is not to muddle around in the product decision day-to-day decisions, but to synthesize the output from your team, package it for the senior leadership team, and to run interference (both up the org chart, and laterally)
  • If you are an agile house (almost a given these days) then have a proper product owner. If you require your product manager to sit in the product owner chair, you are telling your team that their value is to be 100% available to the engineering team, and tied to the iteration cycles. The ability to spend adequate time on the business aspect of the product is curtailed. (Note: this is a course correction by the Dude, he used to be in favor of the product manager being the product owner)
  • Ensure that the role, the responsibilities, and the relationship with the other teams is documented, communicated, and followed. Squishiness here is the prime reason that product managers get caught up in a never-ending death spiral of tactical morass.

The Dude is writing this after a day spent dealing with two customer escalations

Written by

A crusty veteran from the product management trenches. Plenty of salty language, references to cannabis, and a connoisseur of White Russian cocktails

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Written by pmdude