Tag Archives: product manager skills

“Are You Really A Product Manager?”

Background

Over the years, I have faced many product management interviews with all sorts of firms. A few of these have been with entrepreneurs in India who have launched multiple businesses and have been the CEO of their own firm for more than 10 years. In my experience they are some of the shrewdest people I have interviewed with, and they have a really good grasp of what skills and talent they need in a candidate.

The Incident

This happened during a discussion with a CEO in 2012, who runs an enterprise software firm with clients in the US, EU and APAC regions. The job advertised was for an enterprise software product manager.

As is usual, the interview start with the standard “tell me about yourself”. I gave a summary of my career so far, with details about my work in different roles and the related tasks and initiatives. During my description, I could see him adopting a quizzical look. So once I finished my narrative, I waited for him to take the lead and ask some questions about my background. I was taken aback when he said (paraphrasing here), “the work you have done sounds wonderful, but are you really a product manager?”

headscratcherI was flummoxed, and did not understand why he asked this. I have worked in product management with 2 large enterprise software firms, and that is the relevant part of my work life which I had described to him in the past few minutes. I asked him to explain what he meant, and he said that while the work of building products is important, what is also important is the amount of time spent with sales, pre-sales, account management, clients, prospects, marketing and all outward facing teams. And this is what I had glossed over (according to him).

Now the reason I did that is because the role advertised was for an inbound product manager, and there is little to connect what he wanted to hear and what I was to be hired for. I explained to him that I have done every product management task in my earlier roles (including the rarity in India, product pricing) and since he has a vacancy in an inbound role, that is what I spoke about.

He clarified that hee was really not interested in what I had to contribute on product design and engineering, and his main concern was “Can you manage the pricing, packaging and promotion of the product successfully?”. He wanted someone who could work with anyone in his organization, to get the product “out of the door”. In his mind, those are the traditional success metrics in any product management role. And that is what he wanted to hear about. Needless to say, I did not see a way to bridge this expectation gap, and did not get the job.

Traditionally, this is how senior management uses product managers, especially for enterprise products, and if you only have offshore product management experience you will probably never fit into one of these India headquartered organizations. So unless you have exposure to outbound activities as well, you will remain a one-dimensional product manager, with little possibility of getting a job in an India based startup. This career shift is important, as it is the a surefire way to get a leadership role in the technology industry.

So think about your own career, and ask yourself, “Are you really a product manager?“.

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Social Media and the Product Manager in India

[The original title was “Facebook and the product manager in India” however, I expanded the post to include all social media]

So what is the value, if any, of social media to a product manager in India? The short answer, for consumer products it is a vital communication channel whereas for enterprise software, it is just another way to connect with clients.

Let’s break this down into some detail here.

What is social media?

Social MediaWikipedia has a good article on social media with a clear definition. For me, social media is all media or any communication channel where user-generated content predominates. This includes blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Linkedin, Pinterest and all such entities. It is usually a broadcast medium, which also enables peer-to-peer interactions (sometimes its the other way around). I also include product forums in this definition. Now let’s take a look at the value of social media.

Social Media for Enterprise Product Managers

Market Facing Roles
If you are in an Indian market enterprise product management role, you need to be aware of social media, and run a blog. The reality is that very few enterprises in India have adopted social media at all. And it is not seen as an authoritative communication channel. You should focus only on gaining experience of working with social media, for future opportunities.

Offshore Roles
In an offshore enterprise role, you ability to influence social media is limited, however, there will be ample opportunities to consume social media. For eg, on twitter you can follow @Forrester and similar sources and collect news and updates about the industry. Or you could update your company’s YouTube channel with product videos or slideshows, usually in collaboration with the product marketing manager.

Social Media for Consumer Product Managers

Market Facing Roles
In a market facing role, you really need to establish a social media strategy for your product. This will include the channels to use, the content creation and sharing plans, market research plan, the quarterly connect with customer plan and other relevant details for your strategy. Additionally, you need an analytics tools to track online customer sentiment. Customer sentiment is a useful input for new feature ideas or feedback on existing features.

Offshore Roles
There is lesser challenge in consuming and interacting on social media in an offshore product management role for consumer products than enterprise products. The main difference here is that your ability to connect the social media updates with real world interactions is severely curtailed. However, you can maintain an active presence on Facebook or Twitter, based on your organization’s policies.

Content Creation Strategy

Fundamentally, content creation must be tied to the goal of connecting the product with its customers. If you think up enough use cases, the content for communication will come up by itself, and then the main task will be to translate that content into appropriate form (video, slides, tweets containing URLs, blog posts etc) to share via the different channels. You should get the marketing communication team involved in this effort. Creating research polls and soliciting beta testers is also easier if your presence is already established online.

Content Consumption and Analysis Strategy

In my opinion, you should subscribe to a feed service and an analytics tool that a) summarize the updates on different channels b) provide reports on those updates. Unfortunately, most services offering these capabilities are expensive. So a free substitute would be to download these updates periodically and use open source tools such as PSPP to analyse the information. If your marketing team has a social media presence, then the same people can help you set up your product’s presence as well.

Summing Up

Social media is a somewhat useful tool for a product manager in a variety of scenarios such as sentiment analysis, sharing product demos and videos, getting industry updates, tracking competition etc. It’s importance changes relative to the type of product management role you are in.  It is good to consume social media if you’re working in an offshore role, whereas it is important to develop and maintain a strong presence for your product line in a market facing role. And remember, the social media presence is for your product or product line, not you as an individual.

Agile and Accountability: 7 Things to Get Right

Very often, Agile is presented as the panacea for delayed releases, disconnect between the business and technology teams and the slow pace and long release cycle of the waterfall method. Well, Agile is simply a process to develop software, with its own positives and negatives. A process by itself can never be perfect, and with human involvement, there is a high likelihood that the new method will also fail, although in different ways from the old software development methods.

In this post, I would like to describe the key challenges that a product manager must watch out for, when he

  1. Joins a team following the Agile methodology and Scrums for software releases
  2. Joins a team that is transitioning from Waterfall to Agile

The information here is useful for both offshore enterprise and consumer product managers.

1. The very first thing he must ensure is that all requirements are clearly defined and documented. When something goes wrong, or the engineering output is not satisfactory, the first thing to do is blame the quality of requirements. My advice would be to never change requirements even if a customer demands a feature enhancement. You can always add it to the backlog, instead of disrupting the existing backlog.

2. The next important thing is to make sure that all processes are clearly defined and documented. If the team is transitioning from Waterfall to Agile, the program manager must remain available until at least 2-3 sprints are completed. It is also vital to make sure that a Scrum Master is designated to track the team progress. The Scrum Master must not report to the engineering manager. Weekly sprints must reach their sprint goals.

3. Make sure that QA is independently accountable, and is testing the weekly output both for new use cases as well as regression testing for existing features. One team I came across had QA also reporting to the same engineering manager. Needless to say, either bugs were not reported or were immediately reduced in priority.

4.  Make sure that the non-functional requirements are adhered too. A common excuse I have heard is that since this is the first version of the use case implementation, we will improve performance later. Well, no client is going to wait for a half-baked feature, and releasing that feature will only cause high priority customer escalations, reducing sprint velocity and causing a cascading effect on other features.

5. At least 20-25% of the development time of the engineering team should be spent on defect resolution. In fact, one sprint out of 4 or 5 can be an exclusive bug-fixing one. This will ensure a reasonable product quality after a while.

6. Make sure that the effort estimations do not vary from week to week. This is the most common trick employed by engineering managers to prioritize features that they want to build, and change the product backlog priorities. There is no easy solution for this, but if you closely track the past performance of each engineer (yes, YOU have to do it, with the help of the scrum master) you can get a good idea of the real vs. claimed effort estimates.

7. Finally, do not hesitate to call out the engineering manager if you see the product drifting, the quality being lowered, or the performance not up to the mark. He will blame someone from his team, perhaps even fire someone to make an example of him, but ultimately, each engineer is accountable for his output. And he is accountable for managing them. If required, escalate to the engineering leadership and make them aware of the release delays. In addition, if you keep your own leadership informed too, then client escalations will not cause too many disruptions.

One final thing, there are never as many engineers of sufficient quality as desired. And recruitment remains a constant struggle in the product development world. It is not your job to manage this constraint. And yeah, the old story of tripling the engineering estimates to plan a future release date makes a lot of sense in India.

There are dozens of tricks and pitfalls to watch out for, when Agile is proposed as a software release process. This post mentions a few, but the key to on-time, in-quality releases remains close tracking of the progress made by the team against the defined requirements.

Book Review: Rocket Surgery Made Easy

Book: Rocket Surgery Made EasyUsability studies are very important for consumer facing websites, as they directly impact the funnel metrics (downloads/visits, engagements, conversions and journey abandonment). If you are a product manager for a web-based application or website looking to increase incoming traffic, then you should definitely learn about usability design and testing.

Steve Krug’s first book called “Don’t Make Me Think” was about online usability and was a big hit among web designers and consumer web enthusiasts. It answered the question “why is usability important”, and provided specific recommendations for website design in the following 3 parts:

1. Guiding Principles
2. Things You Need To Get Right
3. Larger Concerns And Outside Influences

Subsequently, he has written a follow-up book, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy” which emphasises how product managers and UX designers should conduct usability tests for their website. [Actually the  principles given in the book can also be applied for any mobile app testing]

This book is a good guide to usability testing, filled with examples and has many suggestions for running test studies. It’s fairly short, and can be read in a couple of hours, or skimmed through in about 30 minutes.

The book is divided into 3 parts:

  • Finding Usability Problems: This section talks about the common usability issues and how to prepare for testing them
  • Fixing Usability Problems: This section talks about the ways to identify usability issues and potential fixes after diagnosis
  • The Road Ahead (This talks about remote testing, and lists additional reading material)

You should keep this book as a reference, as it introduces usability testing formally, increases your knowledge about UX and clears most misconceptions about the product-feature usage. It also has a sample test script and consent form, that gives an idea of how to sign-up beta testers.

If you are a junior product manager and can drive usability testing for your website section, or for a particular feature set, or the entire site, then you will have a significant advantage over your peer PMs.

I strongly believe that product managers must continuously learn new skills and UX design and testing is has become a must-have skill today. Formal knowledge of usability testing will definitely help in your career growth as a product manager.

My 5 New Year Resolutions on Product Management

1. Work more closely with large accounts

Sitting in India and working with overseas clients, there are a lot of buffers such as service delivery, account management, sales leadership and program management that are involved in day-to-day client engagement. This makes it difficult for an offshore enterprise product manager to get on an exclusive call with the client, and almost impossible to get face time with the client. The way out is to create more surveys, feedback forms, presentations and reports to engage the client while other teams also sit in on the call.

2. More interactions with sales teams

Same challenge goes in the efforts to find the pain points of the sales teams, the way they approach the client and the quality of interaction that occurs between them. It is an offshore PM’s responsibility to connect with the sales and technical sales teams every month and make sure that they are up to speed about the product and the roadmap. Even in an Indian market PM role, it is easy to get caught up in product design and development and forget about the post-release sales efforts.

3. Work in an Indian market product management role

Based on conversations with peers, and tracking general hiring trends, I have a strong feeling that the PM roles in R&D centers in India are stagnating or declining in value to the US organization. Consequently, the quality of work on offer, and the type of people they hire will be one-dimensional. One of my personal resolutions is to find the rare software firm focused on the Indian market and support its product management initiatives. With the rise of SAAS, these firms should have an interesting journey.

4. Read more books, research

Software engineering and creating and managing technology products are very innovative areas and there is constant research going on around the world on these topics. I plan to read many more books, periodicals and research publications on these to keep abreast of the latest trends in my profession. One book that I intend to read and review soon is Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. It is a nice book that talks about strategy in successful firms.

5. Blog more

I started this blog in Dec 2012, after a lot of procrastination. This year I plan to blog on PM trainings, reviews and other observations several times a week.

Happy New Year to All!

E-Book Review: Strategic Role of Product Management

Book SRPM

What is it About?
This is a short e-book by Pragmatic Marketing about the strategic value of a good product management team to any technology organization.

Who should read it?
It is a good read for PMs who are not sure of the tasks they handle in their company. It offers compelling arguments for the strategic nature of product management activities. It also clearly distinguishes the roles of sales, marketing, finance and product management in the technology organization. It should be circulated among the senior management staff in offshore R&D centers to make them comfortable with the role of product managers.

Key Takeaways

  • Product Managers understand and try to fulfill market needs, not customer, engineering, finance or sales needs
  • The Product Management team has a variety of tasks, and product marketing, product line managers and technical product managers can co-exist within the same team, working on different aspects of the product portfolio
  • Product Management is a strategic role, and PMs should not report to engineering or other functions, but directly to the CEO

What is Missing?
The e-book does not discuss the software engineering process, and the role of product owners. Agile is relegated to the task list of the technical product manager. It offers little insights into how an offshore product management role could be structured or how someone should work in that role. Finally, there is little information on how to train product managers on the flawless execution of their various tasks.

Relevance for Indian Product Managers
This is an excellent e-book to share with the organization, if you are new to the function, or if the role of product managers was introduced recently. It also evangelizes the value of product management, so getting stakeholder buy-in should be easier once they read it. Finally, if you are in offshore product management (enterprise or consumer) you can expect only the role of technical product manager to be relevant to your work.

Final Thoughts
Read the e-book, share it with everyone whom you are trying to influence, and learn from the examples given in it. Attend the training that they organize, if it happens in India.

Obsession – Very Important for a Product Manager

Obsession

1: a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling; broadly : compelling motivation <an obsession with profits>

If you are not obsessed about your product, and don’t have an obsessive need to understand customer needs then it is going to have a snowball effect on the other teams working on the product. The engineering team will sense that the product is probably not important enough, the new feature list is not compelling enough or that there are enough problems existing to start looking out for new roles or teams. The product marketing team will just run the numbers and sales will have little incentive to promote and sell the product. It is the product manager’s obsession with all these facets of product growth that will trigger the other teams to deliver at peak performance.

It does not matter that you are new to the organization or the role, or a veteran with 5+ years in the same field in the same firm. You must show an obsessive interest in promoting the product and the idea it represents. You must obsess about the competition and the new versions of software they are delivering, and figure out ways to counter or ignore them.

You can be a newbie to product management, or a veteran, in the end, it is your obsession with the product that will ensure that you can always answer this question every Friday evening “What did I do for the product this week, and how can I add more value next week.”

Are you obsessed with your product?