Tag Archives: web product manager

Product Manager Or Business Analyst

[In a previous post, I had mentioned the overlap between the role of a product manager and a business analyst]

Here’s a scenario, you have several years of engineering experience under your belt. You have also managed to get a part-time MBA during your career. And now your organization has moved you from engineering/dev-ops/tech. support to product management. Here is another scenario, you have been working as a business analyst in an IT services firm, and have worked for a few product development clients. And now a client in that domain has offered you a product management role.

Is it time to celebrate this awesome product management opportunity?

Well…read further. The following job features may indicate that you end up working as a business analyst.

Reporting to Another Product Manager

No brainer, if your reporting is not to senior management, in India or overseas, then only a part of the product management function is delegated to you. This aspect brings the role closer to a functional business analyst role.

Limited/No Engagement with Product Marketing

If your only engagement with product marketing is at an all-hands meeting or a town hall, then you are not engaged in any outbound product management activities. This also tilts your role towards business analysis rather than strategic product management.

No Involvement in 2-3 of the 4 P’s of Marketing

You can figure out if this is relevant to your role, and whether you are able to work on these as a product manager or a business analyst.

Engineering is your Primary (or Only) Stakeholder

If you are working as a product owner, with limited product management tasks, then that is fine. You have a well-defined role which fits into the product management hierarchy, in today’s agile world. But if you are called a product manager, and your reporting is to a Director of Engineering, and your primary stakeholders are the engineering team, then you might be working as a functional business analyst.

Your Main Work Output is a Functional Specifications Document

This is typically true in e-commerce firms or start-ups. Most product managers in such firms are actually working as business analysts, creating functional specifications, providing reports on product usability and usage. And product decisions are usually made by the senior management of these firms. Business analysts handle such activities in most enterprise software firms.

Limited Engagement with Senior Management in Business Units

Product managers play a strategic role in addition to taking care of tactical activities. If you have never presented on strategy, finance, operations, pricing, marketing plan, new product business case or another business metric to senior management, then you may be working as a business analyst.

 Note:

There is nothing wrong with the role of a business analyst. BA’s have a lot more exposure to the product and business domain than a regular product developer. The current challenge in India lies in the fact that firms require BAs and advertise for PMs, which sometimes leads  to an expectation-reality mismatch.

10 Reasons why “MBA preferred” appears in Product Manager recruitment ads

10. The recruitment team wants to shortlist candidates from thousands of applicants for an entry-level role, and MBA/PMP is chosen as a criterion. This is fairly common in large firms.

9. The Product Manager is actually required to have business modeling/statistical analysis or product pricing/marketing skills. This is very rarely needed in India, for both offshore roles and for Indian market facing roles.

8. The “MBA preferred” lets the recruitment team decline internal applicants who want to move out of an engineering role into product management.

7. The head of product management/hiring manager has an MBA

6. This product management role reports to the local sales head, and it is actually a category/brand management role for India/Asia-Pacific. Such roles are quite prevalent in hardware/mobile firms.

5. The role requires the product manager to work with vendors/clients/account teams etc. based in India, and a person with an MBA might have an edge in relationship building and management, as per the hiring manager.

4. The ad wants applicants with a full-time MBA from a top business school, but the recruitment team was not sure if they would actually get many applicants. This is often the case with senior level positions.

3. The PM head wants a “business oriented” product manager, even though the role is actually completely engineering facing, and requires strong domain knowledge. This often happens in offshore R&D centers, and often leads to a bad hire.

2. The “MBA preferred” can be interpreted as a code for highly paid candidates to apply for the job.

1. (My favorite) The ad was copied from a standard template and it contained the words “MBA preferred” in the original ad.

Marissa Mayer should read this blog

[All respect to Ms. Mayer, she’s accomplished a lot in the technology industry]

I have blogged earlier about how a PM must tackle challenges to his authority from a strong engineering team. Well, if you read this article from the Business Insider called “The Truth About Marissa Mayer: An Unauthorized Biography” you would realize that these inter-personal conflicts occur in almost every firm, right from a 5 person startup to the largest internet giant.

[ The Business Insider article is also a must-read for the details it offers around the activities of a web PM in a senior role]

The article also mentions how her run-ins with engineering led to her ultimately being sidelined into a different role at Google. In fact, as many can attest, this is a common theme in technology product management. If you come up against a powerful engineering lead, then the person most likely to move out is the one who does not write the code, even if she is closer to the customer.

A couple of references from my blog here. Here’s the first post where I described how engineering and product management can have creative conflicts.

Here’s another post where I specifically mention why obsession is important for a product manager. As per the unofficial biography, in Marissa’s case, her obsession with details caused resentment in engineers and other stakeholders who did not agree with her vision. Another issue was that her obsession was primarily about data analysis and the value of that analysis, without understanding the impact of her decisions on others. And that was a key factor in her getting sidelined. The article also mentions how this obsession had also alienated a lot of people at Yahoo!

Without getting into the merits of this debate, I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.

By the by, I have posted earlier on why analytics is important for a PM today, but that is not specifically about the UI analytics, as was discussed in the Business Insider article.

Web Recruitment Ad – 6: For A General Manager

Now this is an interesting recruitment ad on LinkedIn (job posting is removed):

Designation: General Manager-Web Publisher Products

Location: Bangalore

And here’s the interesting part, in the description of Professional Background and Experience, the ad states that “A degree in Computer Science or a related field is highly preferred”.

It is remarkable that for selecting a person in such a senior role (at least in the Indian arm of Amazon), the undergraduate major is “highly desirable”. Does this mean that a top manager without a computer science or related background is unlikely to be hired, or may not have a good career at Amazon India? And perhaps this also indicates their lack on interest in hiring MBAs in such roles.

Now this may be a typo in the ad, and I do not have the inside information on why they would insist on this, but if you add in this news report that the Yahoo CEO is looking for computer science graduates from top colleges, then things become murky.

Here are 3 things to ponder:

a) If you are a product manager in the web world and do not have a computer science background, are you likely to hit a glass ceiling?

b) How is a computer science degree correlated to success in a general management role?

c) Is this ad a self-selective ad, which indicates that IITians with a computer science background, who have been successful in their careers, are what Amazon is actually looking for among the applicant pool?

Disclaimer: I have a lot of respect for Amazon.com and the work they do in India and overseas. I was just curious about this report on Yahoo and the Amazon recruitment ad, and hence this blog post.

Web Product Management and JavaScript

If you ask any product manager at a web firm if he does coding, he will respond with a firm “NO”. Then ask him what his work consists of, and he will explain about  use cases, features, experiments and other common responsibilities. At this point, you should ask him if he knows JavaScript and/or HTML and CSS. 90% of web product managers, whether in local market roles or offshore roles, will respond with a “YES”.

Today, it is almost mandatory for web product managers to have knowledge of web software development. And this knowledge is necessary not for software development, but for meaningful conversations about architecture, design and deliverables with the software team. [It helps a lot if you can speak their language!] One of the key components of this lingo is JavaScript, which is surprisingly easy to learn and fairly difficult to master.

In my opinion, JavaScript and Java and 2 programming paradigms similar to RISC and CISC microprocessor architectures. In earlier times, CISC dominated and it required a strong mastery over the instruction set, to construct good quality programs. Later, RISC (and parallel processing in multi-core microprocessors) made life easier for not-so-skilled programmers to churn out software. However, to build really good programs for RISC chips, you still need to learn a lot of “other” constructs apart from the chip’s instruction set. These other constructs are similar to the vast amount of libraries for JavaScript, which make life easier for a master programmer, but difficult for a product manager, if he wants to master coding. Even then, this is far simpler than the hundreds of patterns, libraries and classes that you will need to work on for many years to become a master at Java programming.

More formally, JavaScript is a client-side scripting language, which can be learnt quickly, and will definitely set you apart from the “non-techie” product managers. There are several tutorials that explain the syntax (Hello World!, decisions, loops etc) of JavaScript, and after that, it is just a matter of practising these learnings. Of course, you must have a basic knowledge of software development to fully “speak Javascript”.

So how does this help you as a product manager? As I mentioned before, it is useful in 3 scenarios:

1) Prototyping

No matter which prototyping tool you learn to use, a mockup will rarely be interactive unless you add JavaScript. HTML forms, pages and dialogs will become more clear than basic wireframes when you present the concept to the engineering team. This may even allow them to improve on your efforts during development.

2) Discussions

When your engineering team starts explaining  the benefits of designing “multi-threaded JavaScript objects” running parallelly versus a simple object pool, you should be very sceptical. And knowing JavaScript basics will allow you to research on the net why this could be a bad idea from a time, complexity and engineering resource point of view.

3) Career Development

While a JavaScript certification may never be a career changer, having JavaScript in your skill set, even with an MBA, will set you apart from the other product managers. It’s easy to learn, you can practice it on any laptop and use it practically when needed.

Apart from JavaScript, it is useful to learn HTML and CSS. And recently, there has been a lot of talk about “Big Data” technologies such as Hadoop, Hive, PIG etc. More on that in a later post.

“I Went For An MBA Because I Hate Coding”

binary-codeAsk any software engineer turned MBA student why he is in business school in India, and you will probably hear about his dislike of software development in his earlier role. This is especially true when the student is in his 20’s and studying in a 2-year, full-time MBA program. He has seen what the IT services industry has to offer, and is looking for something more.

So here’s a surprise for all young MBAs out there looking for jobs in the tech. industry. The best paying jobs, which occasionally include product management roles, require a significant amount of technical knowledge and close interaction with software developers. And this includes knowledge of software development, domain knowledge and familiarity with software engineering processes and technologies.

This knowledge is not important for doing code reviews or software QA, but for truly understanding the efforts required to build a product feature. It is also useful in rapid prototyping of features, building or validating UX designs, reviewing system architecture and so on. If a top-notch software engineer is rated a 9 or 10 in his knowledge of Java and SQL, you should reach at least a 5 (on a scale of 1 to 10) in those technologies. Otherwise you risk being shut out of design discussions and your UX and design contributions may be ignored.

You can become a product manager in India without software development expertise, only if you have significant post-MBA experience and strong domain knowledge. Otherwise, treat your programming books with respect and they will help you earn the programmer’s respect.

True Stories: When Engineering Dominates Product Design

Sometime back, Slideshare decided to move from Flash to HTML5. As a PM, I would definitely support this decision if the cost-benefit analysis proved it (and Slideshare agreed with this), and this extended my product’s life-cycle. If this necessitates re-work, then that is the cost of product improvement, and must be accepted. However, if such a decision is taken because HTML5 is “cool” and Adobe Flash is “not cool”, then no self-respecting product manager should support it.

Here are 2 true stories (somewhat modified to hide identities), that illustrate incorrect design decisions.

I – The Perfect Design

A friendly neighborhood product manager narrated this to me a while back (If you’re in Bangalore, there are product managers in every neighborhood). He had joined a crack engineering team working on web technologies. Their mandate was to develop a high-performance, ad-publishing service for e-commerce websites. While he analyzed competing solutions and worked on a detailed PRD, the engineering team decided not to wait, and started building out a complex, computer science Artificial Intelligence (AI) model in a solution.

Six months later, the software was ready and the team started releasing it for various websites. Unfortunately, severe bugs kept cropping up in deployment, over different product components, which meant that a major re-design was probably necessary. After a lot of back and forth, where the PM was overruled, the team decided to keep their AI model, and started developing AI model version 2. After another three months, that too turned out to be too complex for high-traffic websites. In a bizarre twist, the team decided that the PM was not “technical enough”, and they wanted to promote someone from the engineering team as the PM.

Once the new PM came into the picture, he opened the PRD written by the former PM. The team abandoned the AI model version 2 and rebuilt the product based on competitors’ designs deployed on real websites.

Epilogue: The product was released a full year late, and has few real world deployments. While it has a smaller feature set than its competitors, it’s still shown as the “crowning achievement” of the engineering team in India. The former PM now works for an e-commerce site in the US.

II – The Immature Team Leader

In large Offshore Development Centres (OSDC) several engineering projects are incubated under the “20% Time” theory, popularized by Google engineering teams. These projects can often yield useful results, but many are not worth commercializing, especially if you are in the enterprise software business which is aligned towards solutions now.

Out of one such project, a team leader created a “secure web communication service”. He was feted for this effort, promoted and moved into product management. After he left, the team tried to advance the product into a usable form. They found that it:

  • supported only 6-10% of targeted throughput
  • did not support any browser except Firefox 3,4 and IE 7
  • had massive memory leaks, was crash-prone and hard to debug
  • used up enormous CPU time on the client side

Apparently, all this was suspected when the team leader was developing the product/service. However, as he was a “rising star” and favored by an engineering VP, everyone looked the other way and QA signed off quietly.

A year later, the product was discarded and replaced by a 3rd party product, purchased under a commercial re-use agreement, negotiated by the same PM’s manager!

Conclusion

There are countless opportunities for bright engineers in India to build products. However, the “code” is just a small part of the product, and if you have a bad design or software architecture, no amount of coding will make the product perform as expected. In India, the “development process” is often prioritized over rational decision making, which makes it impossible for the product manager to do his job (make a product succeed in the market over its life-cycle).