What Makes A Good Product Manager?

In short, a good product manager knows what to build. This sounds simple but it’s incredibly tricky to get right. There’s a mixture of skill, talent and wisdom involved.

Good product managers have solid intuition. At the same time, they know how to verify their hunches.

So, if your looking to get a product manager role in one of today’s agile development shops, here are some tips on how to become a great product manger.

5. Having a technical background or technical credibility is essential for a Product Manager.

A few years ago you may have been able to get away with the old model. Back then, the product manager dictated requirements to development teams like edicts. There was little care given to understanding the technical implications. Those days are over.

Customer teams will congregate after you’re gone. That’s when they will discuss all the merits of your product. They’ll also discuss how well the product manager understood their technical needs.

But wait, that’s why I bring along an engineering representative. Sure,that’s great. But will the engineering team always be there to bail you out? Wouldn’t it be better if you yourself are able to handle basic questions about your product?

Technical skills will come in handy at the home office too. Imagine that you’re prioritizing the product roadmap with the engineering team.

As you participate in discussions about prioritization trade offs will arise. When discussing the cost of development, understanding the technical aspects of the conversation can be invaluable.

For example, someone suggests that to meet all the feature requirements as specified, an off the shelf text editor cannot be used. The team will need to write a text editor from scratch. A good product manager will hear warning bells in their head. It’s likely that the schedule will not be able to withstand such a delay. The confidence you have gained from your technical background will help you to articulate a challenge.

So, if you don’t have the skills, what can you do?  You can start with one of many online courses.  If you enjoy those, you can even try an in person code camp.  Yes, these efforts will take time, but I think it will most definitely pay off.

A word of warning.  If you do take a few courses and learn the basics of coding, please don’t let it go to your head.  Be respectful of the many years of training and experience that members of the development team have accumulated.

When you speak about technical subjects do so in an inquisitive fashion. Use your new found knowledge mainly as a linguistic tool. It will allow you to be in the know when surrounded by technical jargon.

4. Conflicts of Interest will arise.

There’s an old saying:

“Tell me where you sit, and I’ll tell you where you stand.”

In the development world this can mean that your position on an issue may be heavily influenced by where you sit.

In offices in which management has their own section and the dev team another, this can become a very big divider. Distance from those who do the development work can compound this problem.

In the management world, the pressure to meet the deadlines and get the product out to the customers can be overwhelming.

You’ll often times face scenarios in which you’ll have to decide between the content and the clock.

The hard decisions on potential content cuts will either be made by you alone, or by a group in which you will provide key inputs. Be ready to face these situations.

Finally, stave off the temptation to place unreasonable pressure on development teams. You may think that you can pressure the team into delivering. Don’t do this.

Also, don’t be tempted to overestimate the capabilities of your team. Sit with them whenever possible and learn their true feeling about how reasonable your plan is.

Remember, often times product development teams will tell you what you want to hear. This is not out of malice.

Sometimes, the complexities and overhead that come with product development are not considered. In a rush, a team can easily overlook small details that add up to a big time cost. A good product manager makes sure that estimates have been well thought out and all the minor details have been considered.

 3. There’s still no silver bullet.

Agile comes with many promises. There’s no doubt that it’s vast improvement over methodologies such as waterfall. It’s reputation as a more transparent development methodology is well deserved. That being said, using agile as an excuse for cutting corners elsewhere should be watched for.

Aspects of product development such as project management have been heavily researched. Well defined processes have been established around it.

As a result, these processes have been used as an excuse to say that anyone off the street with a 2 day certification can do it. This is folly.

As a product manager you will be relying on a team of developers that will be able to deliver working software on a regular basis. This could mean having new features available in as little as a few hours.

Low level leaders such as scrum masters that do not have th hands on coding experience can be dangerous. Skimping on skills or forcing people into roles that they are not familiar with is a bad idea. Just because it can be excused by a contrived version of agile doesn’t mean it will work.

Keep an eye out for shortcuts. Ensure that if you have a say, that you hire the best developers.

And just because you can release quickly, doesn’t mean that you can skimp on testing. These two things can save the quality of your product.

2. The rules may be meant to be broken. But you have to know how to break them.

It can be very tempting to think that you know your customer better than anyone else. This can be especially true if you’ve been working on your product for years.  

As a product manager when the time comes for prioritizing features and setting roadmaps, you may feel like you’ve got it all figured out. Be careful. Getting caught by surprise here could be a career ending move.
So how do you avoid the temptation of taking shortcuts and not having the right process or data in place? To put it simply, you need to have a repeatable process in place that can give you the right data and feedback.
This may look like standing meetings with those closest to the end users and the end users themselves.  Consider online user groups with early access that can vet your ideas.  Contracted research organizations that can provide focus groups.

If you have global customers, don’t hesitate to visit them and learn their needs in person. Have a simple way for them to select and rank the features that will have the greatest impact on their business.
Whatever tactics you use, keep in mind that solid verifiable data can go a long way in assuring you that your headed down the right path.
I’ve been doing some reading on Shuhari. The idea of reaching a state in which you can effortlessly perform and become in sync with your discipline sounds fantastic.  It doesn’t mean that the fundamentals are no longer there. It means that you have performed them so many times they have become part of you.

1. Trust will be the biggest characteristic of success.

If your customers trust you, they will tell you everything. It’s in those truly candid exchanges that you’ll glean some of the most valuable insights. Trust all all sides is a key difference between building the right product and missing the mark.

All too often product mangers don’t share information with development teams. They may feel that the developers are really not interested in hearing about it.

This is inaccurate. Today’s developers are very interested. Understanding the customer and getting familiar with the problem they are solving is something they should seek out. As a product manager, you are uniquely qualified to deliver this knowledge as they see you as an expert on the customer.

Share information with them that will help them better understand the customer’s problem. When you get back from a whirlwind customer visit and conference tour, schedule a meeting with the dev team to go over what you learned.  Sure, the entire team probably won’t show up. But the ones that do, will love you for it.

In the end, the skills required to be a successful product manager in an agile environment reflect what is happening across the industry.  There is a convergence of skills required and you need to be in the thick of it.  It’s not enough anymore to brush off the details and leave that up to the techies. You need to be a part of the conversation.

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