I almost always am asked "What does a Product Manager do?" whenever people read my previous title. It is one of these titles within the industry that depending on which brand you belong to has different meanings.
The industry way.
Inside Microsoft it varies, you could be the source of power or you could simply be a reactive title that is less Management and more Marketing. What I mean to say is, inside Microsoft a Product Manager can often simply be a Product Marketer whereby they wait until the Program Manager’s decide the features and then the Product Management / Marketing team go to work in communicating the features to the masses.
It takes on a somewhat reactive role as in the end the Product Manager’s main priority is to convince the Program Manager(s) to add xyz features to their engineering "things I need to build list". If that can’t succeed then you try alternate routes by going to concepts like Product Unit Managers, Vice Presidents or General Manager(s) – basically from my own experience inside Microsoft it can be a game of "Lord of the Flies" – figure out who has the conch and do as much as you can in terms of convincing them with data / opinion sooner rather than later.
Outside Microsoft, I have found that to be different, for example recently I have had some chats with Apple around how they do product management and it was interesting to hear that the person(s) in that role (kind of) are the one-stop shop of the power seat. Engineering don’t do a thing unless there is a market to sell the features to in that the Product Manager(s) role is to figure out what’s basically a sellable feature based on market data (need vs. want, differentiation and so on). I have also heard rumors that this is how Adobe does things as well (be curious to see how Google run the show, but given their strong DNA of ex-Microsofties me thinks the Microsoft way of life may propagate upstream).
I am yet to really pin down specifically how the correct formula works here as again, each brand has their own unique perspective on the role. My thinking, mainly because I am arrogant – you are doing it wrong.
The Barnes / Mad Men way.
A colleague of mine had this brilliant way of explaining how he’d setup a team for his start-up and he called it "Mike’s Eleven" (aka Ocean’s Eleven). Each person brings a unique attribute to the team that helps you rob people. You do not bring in a person to the team unless they can really contribute. I like to think of this in much the way of my favorite TV show – Mad Men.
The Don Drapper (aka Director)
This person is like Mad Men’s Don Draper, smooth talking has brilliant insights into the way marketing engines work and lastly knows how to keep a steady but calming influence over the others. I’d highly recommend this person at least have an MBA – whilst as douche as that sounds – but this degree isn’t as easy as people think to get and lastly it brings a lot of Wikipedia of marketing to the table (whilst mostly theory based). If this person is marketing your product as if it was Soup and not Software, you may get some left field thinking into the equation. Hiring an ex-engineer to be your Don Draper is useless, as they cannot think creatively / laterally most of the time – given the OCD / problem solving skills they have already tuned.
The Roger Sterling (aka Community / Client Liaison)
This character in Mad Men has a famous quote in the TV series – "Let me put it in account terms, do you know how many hand jobs I have to give to fix what you’ve just done?"
That is a quote worth remembering when it comes to your Community liaison person(s). These people have one goal and that is to figure out what the client(s) or customer(s) want the most. They play a game of contact sport, whereby they are rarely in the office and are constantly out in the field getting insights into how the product is shaping up each version you produce. This role is expensive, but worth it provided they are steered in the right direction (it’s not all about hotels and bar tabs).
The goals for this person is to firstly create rock stars, do not be the one in the room on stage find others to put on stage to evangelize your product(s). They also need to avoid conferences as much as they can and instead meat businesses at their front door. You do not learn a lot from meeting the same people repeatedly at the same conferences but you do learn a lot when you sit in on a technology decision-making meeting inside a random mining, finance, medical or start-up company in blah country.
They are your socialite and spy in one.
The Lane Pryce / Paul Kinsey (aka Domain Experts).
You need someone in the room who is your in-house engineer. This person will work with your non-technical minds to come up with a simplified way of approaching the set of features you want to build. Let us face it some features in most software are left field in either complexity or mickey mouse go no-where thinking. The Technical side kicks figures out ways to make the feature work kind of your early prototype but more so they are looking at it from a pragmatic perspective.
Say the Don Draper & Roger Sterling want to build a concept whereby the software can do facial recognition to avoid Security logins for PC’s of tomorrow. Now their job is to determine if there is a market for it and you trust that they have done their homework. The technical sidekick now needs to look at the feature from the developers perspective, they need to sit down and dream up the idle way a developer should approach this (so it’s kind of part User Experience Imaginer as well). They look at it from the angle of setting goals for the engineering team to meet the marketing team half way on.
No more over complicated API that go nowhere and lastly no more tooling that makes you want to scream at the product(s) and you soon forget the benefits of the feature (I’m looking at you Deep Zoom, WCF and a whole heap more).
Having this equation also stops science projects spilling over online, where everyone is looking confused and thinking "oh must be for someone else as I so don’t need that feature at all" from occurring. It’s a balance struck much like rock paper scissors (each role trumps the other).
The Salvatore "Sal" Romano (ak Artist).
This person should have a portfolio of design that makes you dreamy eyed with envy. The point is this person is your polish to the spin you put out and it’s their job to figure out what looks good and what isn’t. Once you figure out what you want to build and how you want to market it, you need a person in the room who can manage your media / design agency vendors and with an attention to detail the goes beyond color preferences.
Most of Microsoft’s "viral videos" look cheesy, over worked, over bought and under delivered. The reason being is you rarely have someone in the room who thinks creatively. This person goes to art galleries because they want to see art or they like the Apple iPhone because of its Industrial Design characteristics and not because it has Angry birds.
This person keeps your presentation skills in check and through the guidance of the team will make sure you come off looking polished.
Look at World of Warcraft’s website; this is a amazingly well designed site for a game. Now look at other game websites, the difference is the experience. The point here is someone in the room is keeping a close eye on design decisions being made and ensuring the brand is putting best foot forward.
The same can be said for Apple vs. Microsoft. Apple have a centralized polished look to the way their make products online – Microsoft looks like someone figured out how to remake Geocities but for corporate reasons.
Just like in Mad Men, Sal is the person who knows good design when he sees it.
The Peggy Olsen (aka PR / Copywriter).
This can be an important but healthy addition to the team(s). If you are going to manage a product, make sure you have someone in the room who can write a sentence that does not look like my blog – full of spelling and grammar errors.
This person’s job is to make sure you do not screw up online and say stupid stuff – especially when dealing with your competitors. They also handle your press and announcements with keen focus on what needs to be said and when/how. They work closely with Art & Technical to ensure the message they position is correct and is not full of fluff / waffle that goes nowhere.
They also need to be edited as much as they can by the Don Draper’s & Roger Sterling’s to ensure that the message / copy they produce is not talking at the audience(s) but with them.
Recently Microsoft said Windows 8 and HTML5 in the same breathe which lead to a lot of questions around .NET’s future. Had a Peggy been in the room this would of not happened, as letting a VP go on stage like that solo is just showing off. You need to get that person on stage, do their message drops but also have an entire campaign of media ready to drop in behind it to underpin the messages and points you want made across the globe.
Steve Jobs gets on stage does his thing but the moment he drops announcements there is media everywhere to support it at the same time in parallel.
Having a good PR person working closely with press is important as well and they need to be devoted and focused to a product (not someone you bring in on/off again). They are also your lawyer in a room full of press as you let them figure out the ways to handle aggressive and passive journalists (News flash, sometimes Journalists are so lazy you can almost write the story for them whilst some are the ones you try as best you can to play a game of high stakes poker with).
That is my thinking of how Product Management should work, it is not really one person it is a team of entities all working in a tight unit much like a game of rock paper scissors. You need to market a product to the masses but you also need to figure out what the masses need vs. want whilst at the same time coming up with features and ideas that they aren’t expecting.
There is no such thing as a separation between Inbound and Outbound marketing, its bulls**t. It is both directions at the same time and engineering need to listen up and listen well. Your jobs are to take the bright crazy dumbass ideas and figure out ways to make it happen, as you now need to reverse engineer the imagination it took to think up.