Product management is typically thankless. Remind me again, why we do it?
Product management is typically thankless. A product manager (PM) is the first one called when there is a problem. When it is time to recognize team contributions, the PM usually does the recognizing and most people assume the PM is vicariously rewarded for his or her efforts. Sometimes Engineering snickers, “What does that PM do anyway?”. Or perhaps you have had the invigorating reminder that as PM, you are ultimately responsible with little, if any, budget or staff to assist. Hmmm…remind me again why we do it? Oh yeah, we make the big bucks. No seriously…
Perhaps the most compelling reason people are attracted to product management is that it is the center of the business. The PM is the go-to-person for all things important to the product and interacts with all sorts of people and functions. It takes an ambi-brained individual to be a great product manager—someone who understands and explains technical and financial data while being creative and communicative to develop new product ideas, innovative marketing plans and better sales tools.
Not limited by one skill set but rather a “jack of all trades” or utility player, the risk to a PM is that they really aren’t an all-star, but a mediocre meddler. A PM may be viewed as someone who is not conversant, let alone a leader. The question is how do you know if you are a respected PM or simply a tolerated one? Do you know if your peers and managers think you do a good job? How do you compare with other PMs in other organizations?
Let’s first consider some facts. There are no college degrees in product management and few accredited classes. Up until recently, there were few professional certification programs or educational conferences which still may not be widely accessible for many existing or aspiring PMs. Obviously if you are reading this publication, you are already plugged into one of the biggest suppliers of product management information and benchmark data—Pragmatic Marketing. In December 2006, Pragmatic Marketing released the results of its annual Product Management and Marketing survey. As usual, the survey was chock full of interesting data such as how a PM typically spends his/her time, how much they earn, and who they report to. Every year, the survey points out the fact that there is a lot of deviation between how organizations implement product management. In researching organizations for my book, Software Product Management Essentials, plus working with and presenting to hundreds of PMs, it is clear that no two PMs operate the same. In fact, two PMs within the same organization will prioritize and implement different things that reflect their own experience and knowledge. For example, some PMs do pricing analysis multiple times per year, others rarely. The frequency is not tied to the type of product or market but rather the level of importance precise pricing is to the PM and the organization. Some PMs use packaged software tools to collect and manage requirements. Yet other PMs rely on Microsoft® Excel® or Microsoft® Word® to get the job done. This is not a measure of the organization’s size and budget, but a matter of the individual PM’s style and preference. Some organizations outsource product management (or at least parts of it). Other companies are completely against this idea. Indeed, it is difficult to say that there is a “correct” way to do product management.
Given the fuzzy job description, it is difficult to measure whether a particular PM is doing a good job. We all know that individual performance reviews can be biased by political and personal relationship issues. Don’t ignore reviews, but definitely factor in whether the person reviewing the PM has prior PM experience in order to really understand what a PM does. It isn’t like Engineering where the code gets done correctly, on time or not. It isn’t like Finance where the balance sheet balances. It isn’t Sales, Marketing, or Support, either. It’s a little of all of the above, yet never quite as quantifiable. PMs are not usually measured on anything tangible. Success is measured using subjective criteria tied to how well the PM was able to get the other groups to do their own jobs.
However, if you are a PM, here are some very practical ways to measure your worth within an organization.
1. Tell me honestly, does this job make me look bad?
Sounds so obvious and easy but most people don’t do it. Ask your colleagues outright how they feel about your work and contributions. Ask them what they think you do and if that effort is valuable to them personally. Have a face-to-face lunch meeting or coffee break—don’t use email to do this! You need to see body language as much as hear verbal feedback. Talk with key people in all the functions you interact with: Engineering, Finance, Marketing, Support, and most importantly, Sales. Talk to your manager and other managers. Ask for honest feedback and let them know that you are interested in ensuring you are contributing valuable, priority product management services.
Be prepared for criticism and listen! Remember that you don’t have to agree but you do need to listen with an open mind. You can respond to the comments with your own perspective but don’t get defensive. Listen and learn what other people think. Again, you don’t have to agree with them but like gathering product requirements, carefully note the feedback. Decide later what to accept and change.
Don’t just ask what they think about your job performance, ask why. If someone says you should be more decisive, ask them why making more timely decisions is better. Ask what the impact of your lack of timeliness has been. You may not be aware of some critical things that may or may not be due to your own actions. If your colleague’s feedback is that you are not a good communicator, ask why they feel that way. Hopefully they can offer examples of times when they felt that you didn’t communicate well. Ask for suggestions. At worst, he/she may realize that being a good communicator is easier said than done. At best, they may have some great ideas or experiences that you can benefit from.
Alyssa Dver’s book, “Software Product Management Essentials” has sold over 10,000 copies worldwide and was recently re-released as a 4th anniversary printing. With international experience as a product manager and CMO at both public and private companies, Alyssa now consults to companies eager to develop on-time, quality products and services. She is regularly interviewed as a product management and marketing expert and has been published in magazines including Forbes, BusinessWeek, and Entrepreneur. Contact Alyssa at firstname.lastname@example.org.