Dec 14, 2016

Product management: what is the fuss all about?

Product management: what is the fuss all about?

 While other roles are better understood, product management is a skill set they still don’t teach in school. I frequently get asked what exactly a product manager does; I’ve decided to pen my response down so it can benefit a wider audience.

Why become a product manager?

1. Does problem-solving drive you, but you do not possess the requisite technical skill set to develop a solution?

2. Does the challenge of leading through influence alone inspire you?

3. Are you excited about good pay?

Lifecycle of a product

Here are the six steps that a product manager needs, forming the crux of his responsibilities

1. Problem identification

A product manager is innately curious. As she walks down the street, she wonders why drains have circular covers, or whether street lighting can be made more cost-effective with Syska LED. She’s continuously thinking about why things are the way they are, and how can they be improved.

Techniques used here are surveys or focus group discussion, to understand the typical user and their use cases. A star PM goes out of the way — she shadows her user not only to understand just how their problem is currently being solved (if at all) but also to understand the psyche of the user and his environment. If she starts on a product that already exists, she listens to the customer care touchpoint to identify the biggest pain point. The deeper the empathy with users and their motivations, the more appropriate th solution that will be developed.

2. Prioritisation

This is the key leverage a product manager has; in a world of limited resources, she picks the most impactful problems to solve, based on organisational goals (e.g.: profit vs growth). A good product manager quantifies the user and business impact that can result from solutions to each problem, thereby making it easy to prioritise which issues to focus on.

3. Recruitment

It is the job of a product manager to convince both leaders as well as the core team (engineers, designers, operations, sales, marketing) that the problems she's identified are worth solving both from a business perspective as well as technically. The team can make or break a product; if every stakeholder is convinced about the problem, he develops motivation to solve it appropriately and within a reasonable timeframe. On the other hand, if he’s instructed to do his daily/weekly tasks without his buy-in, his job quickly becomes a chore and he drags his feet. Convincing the team of the impact they can drive is key.

There’s a small catch here - if the vision is too grand or radical, the team quickly gets skeptical. In this case, the product manager needs to break the product down into bite-sized deliverables, highlighting the impact of each phase.

4. Problem-solving, Consensus-building

Instead of rushing to a solution on her own, a good product manager takes a half-page description of a problem to her core team. This helps align the team with the goal of a project even before a solution is thought of; having a buy-in at this level builds consensus in the operating team. Then, an hour of brainstorming helps put all possible solutions on the whiteboard. A star PM ensures there are enough dissenters or people with divergent outlooks in this room to be able to generate out-of-the-box ideas.

Solution picking, though, doesn’t need to be a democratic process; the PM can prioritise the possible solutions but should have solid reasons explaining her decision process. Solutioning can also be an iterative process; the team can build quick prototypes that are then tested with users. User studies can sometimes identify gaps in critical assumptions. A good product manager should be open to feedback and going back to the drawing board if necessary.

Aggressive product managers think along two dimensions:

1. Process vs product
 2. Short-term vs long-term

5.  Execution

A good product manager creates a Gantt chart of all the tasks that need to get done, assigning resources appropriately. Also, God is in the details; ensuring every little decision that the team takes is well thought through and documented is key. A good project manager spends a lot of time debating the details with her team and beta testers of the product.

There’s always time pressure to execute; keeping her calm and inspiring the teams to pull together the release is the hallmark of a star product manager.

6. Listening and iterations

A good product manager has her eyes on not just the PR and key impact metrics but also the detailed funnels of how customers are using the product. Understanding drop-off points and quickly iterating can eliminate any glaring flaws in the design of solutions.

Am I a fit for the job?

There are four primary skills required to be a successful product manager:

1. Curiosity: Do you enjoy dinner conversations about the flaws in the design of a smartwatch or any mundane product?

2. Analytical mind: Can you do back-of-the-envelope math to understand the size of a market or quantify the impact a solution can have?

3. People’s person: Are you able to build consensus and convince people to help you solve the problems you deem important?

4. Detail-oriented: Are you not afraid to dive into technical details around storage or release environments? Are you insistent about the tiniest detail in your product, unwilling to compromise on the quality of your solution?

If the answer to all of the above is yes, then you have the raw skills required to become a product manager.

It’s your choice

Good luck navigating through your career options. If you’ve made it this far in the article, I’d say your interest is piqued; give product management a shot. Try working on a product under a mentor’s guidance for six months. If you like it, you’ll have found your home. If not, there are always other avenues.

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