Month: April 2008

What’s the deal with Software Product Management?

OK…this one has been bubbling inside me for a while, and tonight I decided to lay it out and see what feedback comes in. I’ll put on the flame proof suit now.

In our little world, we (Product Managers) think we are all that. We view ourselves as a critical component of the software development process.

How would developers know what to do if we weren’t around to provide market and product requirements?

How would the “sales droids” make their quotas without the help of Product Managers on those big deals?

Who else could define a coherent product strategy that is both aggressive in the market but achievable with limited resources?

Who else has the ability to be as technical as the engineers, as sales-savvy as the sales team and as hip and aware as the marketing team?

We are so dynamic, we can think strategically when needed, but can switch into tactical mode as the inevitable fires need dousing.

Yup, we’re definitely cut from a special stone.

Perhaps we are what we think we are and have the impact that we think we have in companies.

If that is the case, then let’s look at ourselves honestly and ask:

  • Why is it so hard to find a standard or generally agreed upon definition of what Software Product Management is across the industry?
  • Why are there really no formalized education programs for Product Management?
  • How can a 3 day training course even begin to prepare someone to be a product manager?
  • Why are our blogs and books filled with an endless supply of “tips and tricks”, as if that is the route to success?
  • Why do people think that a smart sales engineer will automatically make a good product manager?
  • Why do so many senior managers think that hiring lots of engineers is more important than hiring a few more product managers?
  • Why are so many PM consulting firms selling templates and spreadsheets that are both “comprehensive”, yet “fully-customizable” and that enable you to “increase your professionalism”? Really? Is that what will make us successful?

If we take a step back and look at our profession, there are many other questions like this that are left unanswered. I wrote a bit about this topic previously in Product Management Maturity and If we’re so smart.

Think I’m being hard or unreasonable? I don’t think so. I’ve been in Product Management for over 10 years and I’m not looking to jump ship yet. I want to see if we can accelerate the process of maturing this field and helping those who are looking to become product managers avoid the struggles we “veterans” have faced.

What have we done in the last 10 years to make our lot better? And I don’t just mean incrementally better. I mean significantly better.

Software Engineering has really evolved in the last decade. The latest greatest things right now seems to be Agile/Scrum methodologies and mature development management tools. Sales and marketing both have matured as well.

Certainly marketing has taken a big leap forward given the integration of the Web and. in particular, hard analytics into the marketing process. Branding, positioning and other traditional marketing activities are still important, but the potential sophistication of marketing today is an order of magnitude above where it was a decade ago.

Selling still retains a lot of it’s old characteristics. Certainly there is no electronic replacement for a good relationship with a buyer or prospect. But sales automation has improved and there are a lot of mature and time tested sales methodologies to choose from.

And then we come to product management. What have we done in the last 10 years to really improve our profession and define ourselves to those around us? Given that there still isn’t some well understood definition of what we do, I’d say we haven’t done enough.

Instead of getting all hot and heavy about the latest development methodology, let’s develop our own well defined, clearly beneficial and easily understood models for product management. No one else is going to do it for us.

And a few years from now, if I’m still writing this blog, I’d hate to have to look back at this post and say, gee, not much has changed has it.


Agile/Scrum Software Development and Product Management

I think ours is the only Product Management blog in the entire blogosphere that has not yet had at least one post on Agile/Scrum software development. That is….until now.

I’m not so sure it was a conscious decision on any of our parts. There is so much other good and relevant stuff to write about, like iPhones and iPods for example. 🙂

But seriously, I don’t think we have written about Agile because, and I’ll speak for the 3 of us, it’s not that critical to product management. There I said it!

NOTE: where I use “Agile”, it implies a combination of Agile/Scrum

If you are not familiar with Agile or Scrum software development, you can read more in many locations on the web. A good starting point is, as expected, Wikipedia. Read up on both Agile and Scrum methodologies. While quite distinct in many ways, it’s important to understand both Agile and Scrum and how they are inter-related in practice. In fact, the first line of the Wikipedia entry on Scrum reads:

Scrum is an iterative incremental process of software development commonly used with Agile software development.

While not an absolute definition, and clearly some may argue, I view Agile as more of a culture or approach to software development, whereas Scrum is more truly a methodology, with specific roles, practices etc. that can be implemented. In many cases, when people say Agile, they imply Scrum as well.

As mentioned earlier, Scrum defines a set of roles. One of the key roles in Scrum is the Product Owner. That role is defined as:

The Product Owner represents the voice of the customer. They ensure that the Scrum Team works with the right things from a business perspective. The Product Owner writes User Stories, prioritizes them, then places them in the Product Backlog.

Now, this would most likely map to the Product Manager in most software companies. While true at a high level, another key element of Scrum is the daily scrum meeting where every member of the team, including the Product Owner attends.

Now, imagine if you as a Product Manager had to attend a development meeting every day. When would you get out of the office? When would you meet with customers, partners, prospects etc.?

One big mistake a lot of people make is assuming that the Product Owner has to be the Product Manager. While conceptually that may be true, the Product Manager cannot, and in my opinion, should not attend these daily scrum meetings. I’ve worked in PM role in two previous companies that used Agile/Scrum development methodologies, and I think I attended one Scrum meeting. We still had regular communication with the development teams and regular product reviews etc. but we weren’t embedded into the development process the way some people might think we should be.

Other roles such as Product Designer need to be defined to take that day to day decision making role and act as the Product Owner, or at minimum, be the proxy for the Product Owner (if that is the PM) so that the PM doesn’t get bogged down by daily scrum meetings.

Keep in mind, Agile/Scrum is a DEVELOPMENT methodology. It is a great model for developers and engineers and other R&D team members to work and communicate more efficiently. There are very clear benefits to this model. It provides greater visibility into current work status, work remaining, can identify development hurdles earlier and can communicate them outward more easily.

But, in the end, it is still a development methodology. It should have minimal impact on Product Management’s job as a cross-functional leader marshaling the product from development through marketing, sales etc.

Here’s an analogy. Sales teams invariably follow some kind of sales methodology. It could be strategic selling, solution selling, or conceptual selling. It could be some other model, or even none at all. If the sales team decides to adopt or change their sales methodology, do other related teams like Marketing or Product Management have to change how they work?

The answer is NO. So, then why should those changes happen to Product Management if the development team adopts Agile/Scrum? Our job remains the same. Understand the market, customers, competitors, merge that in with business objectives etc. define what needs to be built and move that through all the stages of development/launch/post launch to enable product success.

If in a few years, some better development methodology comes along, and is adopted by the engineering teams, will that change what Product Management does?


Development methodologies should be a grey box for Product Management. We should have an understanding of them, but we don’t need to become an “embedded” part of their implementation. It’s all about loose coupling and clear lines of communication. We have our objectives, and Development has theirs, and when we need to interface, we do so in an efficient and mutually convenient manner.

Let me put it this way, and pardon the analogy if it is a bit inappropriate. Product Management and Development don’t need to be married to each other to be efficient. The relationship needs to be more like a “friends with benefits” arrangement. i.e. the two hook up on a regular or as needed basis. 🙂


Agile/Scrum Software Development and Product Management (part 2)

Agile/Scrum and Product Management (part 3)

Agile/Scrum and Product Management (part 3a)


I'm speaking at Software Marketing Perspectives

Just wanted to do a bit of self-promotion and let you know, I’ve been chosen as one of the keynote speakers at the Software Marketing Perspectives conference, next month in Santa Clara.

My topic — on Friday May 9th — is called:

Information Supply Chain: Aligning Diverse Teams to Minimize Time-to-Revenue for High-Tech Products

I actually spoke on this topic last year at the SMP conference in Boston, but had a terrible time slot. Last session on the last day. On the bright side, I know that the people who came to my talk really wanted to be at the talk!

I guess they liked the topic and asked that I present it again as a keynote. I’ve blogged about this topic a bit in this series of articles, but the topic really deserves a lot more focus and detail and in fact, over the past year, as I’ve thought more about it, I’ve realized that this is something that could help solve a big problem I’ve observed in growing companies.

When companies are small — from startup to about 50 people — information flows very well. People can stay synchronized with each other simply because they work closely together and there are tight working relationships between groups. Also teams are very small, so the personal relationships of individuals help strengthen the communication flow all around.

But, as companies grow, say from 50 to 150 people (and beyond), problems start creeping in. Everyone no longer knows everyone else. Team sizes start to grow. The personal relationships across teams get weaker. Hierarchy and bureaucracy starts setting in. Roles and duties get redefined and gaps start appearing in the information flow.

What worked with 50 people doesn’t work with 150 people. The company is growing but processes cannot be put in place to keep communication flowing properly. If you’ve worked in such a growing company, I’m sure you’ve heard someone say something like this:

How come we seemed to get so much more done in less time when we were smaller?

If an Information Supply Chain is defined for those critical cross-team junction points, a lot of the communication problems can be eliminated. Everyone doesn’t have to know everyone else to be successful, they just need to who depends on them and what information is needed when.

That structure, of mapping and addressing dependencies can scale, regardless of who is on each team or even where they are located. I’ll leave it there for now, and I’ll report back once I return from the conference.

Hope to see some of you there.


What's the deal with Product Roadmaps?

As a product manager, I’m sure you’ve had to create a roadmap or two to convey future plans or, at minimum, as a sales tool so the sales people can talk somewhat convincingly about a purely hypothetical future. 🙂

Product roadmaps are meant to be tools that are used to provide a high level view of product direction over a number of release cycles. They are used for both internal and external communication, and should present a reasonable or likely prediction of the future of a product.

Aspirations vs. achievability?

But in reality, roadmaps are more often aspirational rather than achievable. What other documents do you produce that regularly require massive disclaimers and Safe Harbour clauses on the very first slide?

Roadmaps too often represent the dreams or hopes of the PM (or their manager), created without needed analysis of effort and resources. It’s very easy to create a roadmap that lays out a great story, with all the good stuff people want, being delivered 9-18 months out. Seems reasonable doesn’t it. There’s a lot of stuff that can be done in a year and a half, if we start thinking and planning for it now. Correct?

Funny how those plans quickly go awry. The reality is that most product roadmaps seem to have been created over coffee in the company cafeteria. They typically show aggressive development plans and significant deliverables over a short period of time. All of this sounds great and enables the PM to make impressive presentations to wide audiences.

And therein lies the problem. While the individual has to hold some responsibility, the majority of the problem lies with PowerPoint, the preferred medium for describing roadmaps. Yes, you heard it here:

This medium corrupts the message!

People want to see the roadmap on a single slide. Now how much information can one actually put on a single slide and make it look “great” and “worth the wait”? If each release is about 6 months, then you’re likely to have about 2 years worth of roadmap projections displayed on that one slide. It’s all great, until someone tries to define what Dev has to do to build and deliver to the roadmap. At that point, the roadmap might as well be tissue paper, as it has little substance.

Now, we all know that well analysed development plans for a single release often significantly underestimate the amount of work and time needed to complete. We all know it, because we’ve all experienced it first hand in at least one company where we worked. And if that is the case, then how would it be possible that a 2 year roadmap built on high level bullets with little detailed effort and scoping analysis could actually bear any semblance to reality?

At one company where I worked, the PM team was well aware of this problem, and if a capability was “on the roadmap” (nudge nudge, wink wink), it meant it had an almost 0% chance of being released in the next 24 months.

Sales people want product roadmaps to be set in stone once defined. This helps them make firm commitments to customers who need some pending functionality. On the other hand, sales people also want PMs and Dev to react quickly when a “big deal” is on the table and closing it requires “a few enhancements” to the product.

In the end, the roadmap is simply one of several documents that can be used to communicate future plans to potential customers. For consumer software, this is rarely an issue. But for B2B or Enterprise Software, the best thing to do is define a clear and regular method of communicating the roadmap and any changes in it to key members of the sales and marketing teams, to ensure they can position and communicate the future plans to their audiences as confidently as possible.


How others see Product Managers

So, first off I (Ethan) have started a new job. And I have to admit it: I am no longer a Product Manager. I have taken a job as a Technical Account Manager at a certain large search engine company located in Mountain View (California). So I’m going to be on the front lines for a change, working with large partners to get our products implemented. SVPMA members feel free to drop a line so I can look out for you at the next SVPMA meeting.

But to my real point: I was eating lunch with some of my new co-workers today who are a mixture of pre-sales (SEs) and post-sales (TAMs). One person was complaining about some of our Product Managers. To almost-quote: “he wanted all the glory without having to do any of the hard work.” Another person commented that the PMs often went ahead of started selling features to partners that were somewhere between difficult and impossible to implement. It was the exact opposite of the stereotypical sales situation: here were the sales people telling the PM to shut up and stop overselling.

I protested vehemently, of course, but for the most part I had to agree with them. Worrying about ease of implementation or supportability is often low on the PM’s list of priorities. People want to import data from SAP – well let’s build it! And who cares that it will take fifty people to implement it? That’s Services’ problem. My bonus depends on putting out new features.

So, if you want to be a Good Product Manager, build great new features that customers will use and love. But if you want to be a Great Product Manager, build great new features that your coworkers in services and support can actually deal with. In the fast-paced markets most of us work in the strategy of “Ready, Fire, Aim” builds buzz and can get a lot of press, but does it build a sustainable business? Rarely.

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