Last quarter, we hired a new Product Manager to support our growing team. After navigating a sea of candidates, we were lucky to hire a great fit for our team. However, the process was not easy, and the experience has convinced me we are experiencing a Product Management “cool wave.”
A cool wave forms when some new emerging technology captivates our industry and forces us to rethink how we are doing things. The wave looks something like this:
The peak of this wave is marked by a chorus of enthusiasm for this “new and cool” thing (whatever it is) but the enthusiasm isn’t matched with the wisdom of understanding. For example, many tech teams adopted microservices so they didn’t miss out on the latest trend. However, they neglected the dev-ops automation required to make micro-services successful, and they quickly got frustrated by what seemed like a more complicated, slower architecture1. Oops. Understanding, as it turns out, is crucial to capturing the value offered by a new trend.
The peak of the cool wave also sees marketing teams exploit the market’s lack of understanding. In other words, the fad of a new trend is used against us. Companies will market against our fear of missing out (FOMO). When 5G became a hot new capability in the mobile world, AT&T started marketing their 4G network as a 5Ge (for 5G Evolution) network. Well, that was misleading! The National Advertising Review Board (NARB) and National Advertising Division (NAD) agreed and AT&T was forced to drop the misleading terms from their advertisements2.
I argue strongly that the Product Management profession is at the peak of its own cool wave. Everybody wants to be one and every employer wants one.
However, few understand what a Product Manager actually does. When we first started recruiting for a Product Manager, I had some very good Project Managers apply. Sorry, this isn’t a Project Management job. I had some very good Business Analysts apply. Sorry, this isn’t a Business Analyst job. These candidates were not trying to change roles (we would happily consider candidates who wanted to grow into a true Product Management role). The problem is that the candidates thought they were already in a Product Management role. Based on the dozens of people I interviewed, you would think the only qualification you need to get hired as a Product Manager is the ability to speak.
The real problem is that the title of Product Manager has become overloaded. That is, the title is used graciously, and depending on the company, the role comes with very different responsibilities. The result is that few professionals with the title of Product Manager and few companies that employ them understand what a Product Manager is supposed to do!
Let’s start with what a Product Manager is not. These are the yellow flags I look for when speaking with candidates. If you are looking for a good Product Manager (or are a recruiter helping a product team), these criteria can help eliminate candidates who aren’t qualified.
It is not a Project Manager position. A project manager is responsible for ensuring a body of work is implemented. A project manager spends a lot of time planning work, monitoring the work, and controlling the execution. Yes, a good Product Manager will have some strong project management skills, but that’s true for a software developer too—or any other profession in technology. So what’s the difference? A project manager is given a solution and told to implement it whereas a product manager is given a goal and is empowered to figure out the best solution (and also go get it implemented). Being a product manager is an order of magnitude more difficult. Its scope is larger. For this reason, it’s insulting to a real product manager to be labeled a project manager.
It is not a Business or Systems Analysts role. A systems analyst is responsible for analyzing existing systems, designing systems, and implementing them. They usually have a set of specific technical skills that help them navigate the details of a system. Yes, we expect our Product Managers to understand their products. We even expect them to have adequate technology acumen to understand high-level feasibility constraints. And we expect our Product Managers to be able to gather data related to their products to help make decisions. However, figuring out what a software product can do is far different from figuring out what it should do. An analyst studies what a system does whereas a product manager studies how a product is used. An analyst figures out what a system can do whereas a product manager is trying to figure out what it should do. In many organizations with Business or Systems Analysts, there needs to be someone who has already identified a customer need and simply tells the analyst what to accomplish. By contrast, a Product Manager has to figure out the customer need is to begin with.
It is not a Market Research or Strategy position. Oh, how I loathe the MBA graduate who tells me in an interview that their strength is in helping teams with the “strategy” and that they are not interested in “execution” or “delivery.” Yet in many organizations, this exact role exists. After being in a Systems Analyst or Project Management role for many years, these professionals realize someone else is always telling them what to accomplish. Yet being in the details, they see more possibilities and value they can give to their customers. The problem is that they just aren’t empowered by their “strategy” overlords. They just want the opportunity to have a voice. Therefore, they go get an MBA or marketing degree, they learn how to identify customer and market needs, they slide into one of these “strategy” roles, and then they become the “strategy” overlord. Now that they finally have the opportunity to decide, they don’t want to share that opportunity with the professionals closest to what is feasible, closest to the latest technological capabilities. And the bad cycle continues.
Yes, a product manager is spending a lot of time with customers to understand their needs. Yes, a good product manager has built personas and has a good idea of the market segments she is targeting. In addition, a good product manager is close enough to the delivery and execution to understand what parts of their strategy are feasible and working. A good product manager collaborates heavily with designers and software engineers to navigate what is feasible and usable. A good product manager doesn’t just placate the engineers, but highly respects them and seeks out their input, advice, and ideas. Good product managers are attentive enough to the details that it helps them refine their strategy iteratively. And that makes a great strategist!
It is not a one-year gig. I often have candidates apply who have had a stint of 12-18 month gigs. To be fair, we’ve all had a lousy job that just didn’t work out. There is nothing wrong with moving on from a crummy employer. However, making a big impact with a product means changing user behavior over a long period of time. Implementing a single feature may only take a few weeks. A larger initiative may only take a few months. However, a good product manager will develop a vision that looks out three to five years. A good product manager will be able to connect the dots between current needs and long-term industry trends so that their roadmap ensures the long-term success of the product and company. Often, we make investments in our product with a horizon of 24-36 months. When I see a candidate that changes jobs every 12-18 months, I have little faith they will help shape or usher in a vision that supports the long-term success of our team.
So What Does Product Management Look Like at Realtracs?
My favorite definition of a product manager comes from Sherif Mansour, a coach at Atlassian:
A product manager is the person who identifies the customer need and the larger business objectives that a product or feature will fulfill, articulates what success looks like for a product, and rallies a team to turn that vision into a reality.Sherif Mansour
This description works well for the product managers at Realtracs. It’s hard to boil the responsibilities down to a shortlist, but for the sake of simplicity, there are five key responsibilities a Product Manager has at Realtracs:
- Focus on the Long Term: Ensuring the team is always honoring the long-term vision and is making investments with positive ROI over a 3+ year horizon.
- Discovery: Spending time with our customers to understand the problems they are facing and how we can develop our products to be an integral part of their long-term success.
- Strategy: Assessing all the industry trends, data, insights, customer feedback, feasibility constraints, and emerging technologies to shape a path forward toward the team’s vision.
- Communication: Articulating what success looks like for the product, constantly communicating to the squad and stakeholders the risks and issues being faced, managing expectations across the organization, and facilitating go-to-market communications and strategies.
- Leadership: Evangelizing the product, its vision, and the importance of each feature (internally and externally) while finding ways to encourage and inspire action that will help the squad achieve its vision. Leadership includes execution—working hard, leading by example, taking the hill first. Leadership also includes humility (being the first to admit failure, taking responsibility for mistakes) and resilience (being the first to respond positively from a setback and continue the march forward).
Our product managers work with a group of developers (4-5) to solve specific problems for our customers in a way that supports the company’s long-term success. Each of these groups is called a squad.
Each squad is almost like a mini-company. They have their own vision and their own cross-functional group of people to help achieve that vision. Our management team (their board) invests in the squad hoping for a specific return or outcome. They partner (collaborate) with other squads to ensure a cohesive and unified Realtracs product.
We setup product managers for success by ensuring three things:
- Focus. So that our product managers aren’t stepping on one another’s toes and have a reasonable scope, we ask each of our product managers to focus on a different area of the product. For example, we have one product manager who focuses on our search features and a different product manager who focuses on our listing and marketing features. Everyone in the company knows who is focused on what so information flows easily and quickly to the correct Product Manager.
- Vision. Each product manager has worked with their squad and with their leadership to form a long-term vision. With a vision, each squad stays focused on the right long-term outcomes. A vision also allows for more autonomy for a squad—so long as a squad stays focused on and progresses toward their long-term vision, they have more autonomy at navigating on their own.
- Trust. Everyone is most likely to succeed when they are empowered, and a fundamental ingredient to empowerment is trust. Trust is easier when you have top-notch talent in every position. Toward that end, each product manager gets to work with top-notch software engineers supported by servant engineering leaders who are ready to jump in and help out when needed. Another ingredient to trust is collaboration. Toward that end, we facilitate collaboration at every level—amongst the squad, with our customer support teams, with our customer success teams, and with our leadership team.
Proceed! (With Caution)
If you’re looking for a real Product Management job, it will be hard. Employers have figured out Product Manager is a trendy title and they are marketing a title to you to lull you in. Careful! You’ll have to navigate through the sea of postings and figure out if they want a Product Manager, or if they are just selling you on a title when they really just want a Project Manager.
The challenge is equally hard for those looking for real Product Managers. You will have to look beyond past job titles and figure out what experience the candidate truly has.
We finally filled our position. We never found a good candidate. Instead, she found us—because we put ourselves out there.
Find your local product meetup and join in to connect with like-minded product managers. Get involved with your local technology council and market who you are as an employer so candidates will know what to expect. Write a blog!
The best thing we can all do is continue educating the industry while connecting with one another.