A question often asked nowadays, is “how to define the role of the product manager in today’s app-driven economy?” Consider this. Across most of the start-ups, the CEO or CTO in all likelihood is also playing the role of the product manager. Even in established organisations, where does the manager belong – Marketing or Design or Development; because he/she seems to be wearing all those hats. In fact, some even argue that management can even be a part-time role for someone in these areas or the top management itself.
” Success is just a never-ending process of getting better and better at whatever you are trying to achieve.” – John Traver, Co-founder, and CTO, Frame.io
Let us try to look at product management across three aspects.
- What does the role involve, and what does it take to be successful there – as this may help someone in making the all-important career shift or start a new one; or for that matter help you evaluate the suitable candidate.
- What is its role in Agile Development – because of the critical role a manager can play here
- Can product management be outsourced – this decision can impact time-to-market / quality/ competitiveness/profitability like no other.
What does the role of product management involve?
Laurence Bradford writes in Forbes’ article – 8 Tips For Landing Your First Product Manager Role, writes, “The role sits at the intersection of business, technology, and design, combining strategy, marketing, leadership, and other skills with the end goal of launching an amazing product.”
One thing is given – the importance and comprehensiveness of the product manager’s role. Today’s complexity of the business and technology landscape, as well as the constant churn in an organization’s product portfolio, requires a more active role for the manager. The bare minimums of the role include:
- Understand the vision of the management of the product and communicate it effectively to design, development, testing, and marketing teams (in their own languages).
- Conduct market research, technology research and an analysis of the company’s own business model to validate the product idea, determine its feature-set, and the development roadmap.
- Drive the development of the product through its various stages – working with multiple teams – to meet client requirements, timelines and quality & security standards.
- Establish an environment of seamless collaboration among the different teams to meet, as Bradford says, the end of launching an amazing product.
Depending on the character of the organization and the way an organization defines its scope, the role may lean more towards Technology or Marketing. While that’s a moot point, the requirement for the manager to know and speak the language of both Marketing and Technology is a given.
From a skills perspective, whether you come from a management or engineering background, to be a successful manager in today’s development scenario you should have:
- a strong understanding of programming with an ability to code yourself,
- expertise in UX design, and
- analytical thinking & problem-solving skills – besides the more generic management skills like negotiation, communication, documentation, time management, delegation, stakeholder management and leadership.
The role of a product manager in Agile Development
The manager’s role becomes even more exciting and challenging in an agile environment. Yes, we are calling it an environment, because organizations are increasingly adopting ‘agile’ as a culture not just as a strategy for a particular product or project. In this setting, the features of a product or even the product itself are in perpetually in a dynamic state. Unlike traditional management, which moves through a linear roadmap with critical paths, in an agile environment product management takes an iterative approach to development with regular feedback intervals. And these iterations should let the user interact with the product during development.
Though the most popular system of agile development, Scrum, creates a new role -products owner, some organizations have fused product owner and product manager roles in one role and some have used these two names interchangeably. But the fact of the matter is that manager’s role has become more intense – both on the side of development (sustainable development – where the sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely; along with continuous attention to technical excellence and good design) and marketing (value creation – where the timing, features, and roadmap are tested and calibrated based on customer feedback and research).
Writing about How Product Management Must Change to Enable the Agile Enterprise, as early as in 2009, Catherine Conner had these four pieces of practical advice for adapting product management to agile needs –
- Stop doing work that does not deliver real customer value, directly or indirectly, and communicate what you will stop doing.
- Favour live interaction over lengthy documentation, whether it is describing a business case to executives or documenting requirements.
- Practice ruthless ranking, Whether it is prioritizing requirements, business goals or your daily activities, assign true priority numbers.
- Embrace change as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Can Product Management be outsourced?
There is a strong argument against outsourcing of product management – saying that the function is too strategic and integral to leave to experts outside your control. It does have its merits. But, as Roman Pavlyuk, rightly describes in his blog on SalesForce – there are five compelling reasons to outsource any technology service, which hold good for product management too.
- Reduce operating costs
- Improve corporate focus
- Gain access to world-class capabilities
- Free internal resources for other purposes
- Tap resources that are not available internally
The question is not ‘Can product management be outsourced?’ Rather it is more about ‘Whether to outsource product management; and if yes, how?’