How Product Managers Help Development

By Jacques Murphy August 15, 2007

from PRODUCT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES
A Weekly Newsletter of Tips For Companies that Develop Software

Product Managers are in the unique position of having dual citizenship, with passports for both Marketing land and Development land. In fact, you find you can't predict whether a company will have its Product Manager positions reporting into Marketing or Development.

It's a sign that companies have a difficult time figuring out where product management fits. The truth is that a fully mature product management function is independent of both, while being knee-deep in both Marketing and Development activities.

Regardless of where Product Managers are placed in the organization, they can provide vital assistance to Development in its goal of building a great software product. They provide an outside, business-focused perspective, but in a level of detail that reflects an interest in and understanding of the technology that is used to build the product.

The Voice of the Market

A Product Manager can speak to developers with the voice of the marketplace. Everyone ends up becoming specialized in the parts of their job they spend the most time on. So developers become more and more specialized at the inward- facing task of coding, to the benefit of the code but to the detriment of more outward- facing activities such as understanding what the market needs from their product.

By contrast, the Product Manager spends time tracking trends, discovering patterns in what prospects are asking for, and learning about what new capabilities they're looking at out in the market. One of the best things a Product Manager can do is to impart this knowledge, either through a formal process or an informal one, to developers.

Formally, this can happen as short presentations or discussions during regularly scheduled department meetings. These presentations help get the whole department on the same page and enthusiastic about the uses and benefits of the software.

Informally, this takes the form of many off- the-cuff discussions sparked by questions from developers when they are putting together designs and making choices during coding. The Product Manager provides answers, sometimes like a broken record, that focus the issue on examples of how the market uses or wants to use the software.

The Voice of the Customer

Speaking on behalf of the customer base is really just one portion of speaking for the market. The stories of how customers used capabilities and the good results they obtained can be much more specific and personal.

A Product Manager can bring a thorough familiarity with companies and individuals in the customer base to channel customers to engineers who may never speak to any.

Simpler Solutions

Technology can get awfully convoluted. And when software engineers put their heads together to devise a solution to a problem, the result may wind up being pretty complex. That complexity might be justified, but it might not.

It helps to have a Product Manager--whose technical literacy goes only so far--review the proposed complicated answer to a problem in order to determine whether there isn't a simpler way to achieve the same business result. By returning to what it is the customer base (or market) says it wants to do, the Product Manager may be able to help the Development team settle for less. And when settling for less means 80% of the benefits for half the time it takes to develop the 100% solution, less is just fine, thank you.

In fact, like they say, less is more, because it means more time to spend on other capabilities.

Asking for Help

An inward-facing Development team that is in the habit of building things itself (which is more challenging and therefore more fun) often forgets to ask for help. But an outward-facing Product Manager can unearth potential technology partners whose product can speed up the building of specific capabilities.

By being on the lookout for such partners and facilitating the review of their technology by Development, Product Managers can play an essential role in speeding up the arrival of new, competitive capabilities in the software.

Explanations for the Rest of Us

Development has an in-depth understanding of how the product works under the covers. Then there's the rest of the company. Through discussions with engineers, a Product Manager can usually gain a pretty solid understanding of these inner workings, and translate that into explanations that non-technical teammates at the company can understand.

This is a chance for Product Managers to fulfill a different kind of role for Development, that of communicating outward to the rest of the company, rather than communicating inward to the engineers. By providing explanations in terms of the business benefits and impact, a Product Manager can help the management team make intelligent choices on technically complicated matters.

Best Practices and Great Ideas

Development organizations, as inward-facing departments of highly able individuals, can often develop an NIH attitude. NIH as in Not Invented Here. 'If it's not our idea, it can't be good. We could do the same thing, only for less work, and it would be even better.' And so on.

A Product Manager who has worked in depth with multiple products can take best practices and great ideas from these other products and bring them into the organization. This creates a kind of 'anti NIH' effect. It may be that the specific ideas do not apply, but they may spark ideas that result in an effective new way to approach a technical problem.

This is especially true if the Product Manager has worked with products that found ways to solve problems more simply. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to come up with a simpler way to do something.

Talk Is Cheap

Talk is cheap, and generally speaking, an outward-facing Product Manager spends much more time talking than many of the inward-facing engineers. The Product Manager can be a convenient way to keep other departments posted on progress with the product. Often the worst communication blocks are between two technical departments, such as Software Engineering and Custom Engineering. I guess this is because both of these jobs tend to be introverted in their activities.

A Product Manager is a good choice for someone who can take the time to update key people in other departments. The Product Manager has a good enough grasp on the details to provide these adequately when talking with other technical individuals.

And when it's the Product Manager who does the talking, it doesn't waste the time of the engineers.

Taking the Heat

Finally, the Product Manager gets consulted for lots of the hard choices: changing priorities, dropping features from the next release, scaling back on plans when time constraints require it.

Development can rely on the Product Manager to help take the heat--and provide a more business-oriented justification--for the inevitable complaints from disappointed managers or sales reps. Think of the Product Manager as a vocal and convincing ally when Development needs one.

Pulling for the Team

In the end, the help that a Product Manager can provide Development serves to make the engineers more efficient and more effective at creating software. It helps keep them from being drawn into time-wasting activities or spending time heading down the wrong path. Product Managers can use their unique position to boost the momentum of product development.

Copyright (c) 2002-2004 Jacques Murphy. All rights reserved.

Categories: Working with Development Requirements
Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy

Jacques Murphy is a consultant who helps software companies develop their products faster. He does this using a focused process which quickly develops product requirements. Contact him at www.ProductManagementChallenges.com.

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