Bringing Product Management Into Your Company

PlugIn the early days at most startups (unless a VC accidentally dumped $5m on you before you were ready), a handful of people are sitting together in a small cramped space. The barriers to communication are VERY low, and hopefully everyone is engaging with prospects and customers. Information is flowing in a freewheeling and fun way.

But it doesn’t take long, often after the first minimally viable product is shipped, that it becomes necessary for a slightly more formal process to develop and it’s time to think about product management. As the customer base grows, the product becomes more complex, and the company gets bigger, it’s harder and harder to make good decisions about what to build.

The Product Management Discipline

At some point I’ll write more about trying to unravel the terminology between product marketing and product management and project management and program managers, etc. Everyone uses these terms differently, which accounts for a ton of confusion.

For now, let’s just assume the product management is the discipline associated with systematically getting market information into the product development process.

It’s important to start out with the thought that product management is a discipline, not necessarily a person. Fundamentally, it’s a set of activities, techniques, and processes that result in companies building products customers actually want. Product marketing is the bridge between market research, sales, customer service and support, internal stake holders and the engineering team.

The test of a good product management effort is pretty simple. You get product management right when you have a consistent way to prioritize features/requirements/user stories that results in a product which is delightful to use, bought by customers, and competitive. Ahh but the details of making this work are irksome.

Where to start?

Start with engineering. This will be a bit sacrilegious to the ardent “market driven” believers. But all my experience is that if the product management team does not mesh into the engineering team, it doesn’t work. And engineering teams tend to be less flexible.

Yes it starts with leadership. (A recurring theme in this blog.) The leadership in engineering both formal (VP, etc.) and informal (whoever people actually respect) have to believe that the product management work is great. They have to believe that building products based on insight from customers matters. Most importantly they have to respect the people (person) doing product management.

So the first step to building a product management discipline is to start thinking about how that effort will work with engineering. When it’s not the genius founder in every meeting, what will the product manager bring to the table that will garner respect and how will everyone agree that it matters?

In addition to the people in engineering, good development teams have a methodology. There are a variety of different methodologies (Scrum, agile variations, waterfall variations, random chaos, etc.) and the specific process is not important. What is important is that the process will dictate to a significant degree how and when market insights will flow into the product development effort.

In other posts I’ll go into detail about different ways that product management activities can synch with different engineering processes, but that is for another time.

The Product Manager

The product manager (and that might not be her title) is the person responsible for making sure the company is doing the right activities to drive market insight into their products.

Your best product managers are going to be the ones that first and foremost fit well with the engineering team. If you’ve got engineering leadership that is very process driven, then PM will need to be process oriented. If they only respect other developers/engineers, then your PM should have been an engineer.

The next piece is to have a PM that fits into your business In companies with tons of actionable data about customer behavior (e.g. e-commerce) you’ll want a PM who has the skills to work with that data and with analysts or statisticians. If your business depends on deep domain expertise, then look for that in your product manager.

I’ll say more about writing product manager job descriptions, hiring, etc. in some future posts.