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Starting Up In Product Management While Eyeing Own Startup

Question: “Is it better to start off as a software engineer or as a product manager if you want to pursue your own startup in the future?

You won’t be able to start off as a product manager (in a true sense of PdM responsibilities and experience, not in a title) since this role requires having a lot of experience from various disciplines. Product management (again, true responsibilities, not a title) is a multi-disciplinary field that requires a healthy mix of product building experience, technical knowledge, user experience understanding, design knowledge, and marketing expertise. These are not the things that people come to the table with right out of college or grad school – in fact, not many get to build these over time. In fact, I worked with many “product managers” who were stuck in one of the areas they felt comfortable with and not dared to venture into others. This would almost always make them very good in that particular area (say – technology), but rarely makes them good product managers.

With that said, if you are targeting your own startup in the future I think you better off coming from a different angle. Start off as a sales engineer or sales rep.

Why?

Because ultimately, no matter what you do in your startup, the only real metric of your success would be the sales figures. Even if the only thing you would have sold is your startup to another company – sales is probably the most important part of product life cycle.

As a sales rep/engineer you get an unfettered access to clients, their pains, wants and needs. You get first-hand accounts of pains and issues your clients want to solve using your product. This way you can be sure your product isn’t a “solution looking for a problem to solve”, but a true pain relief.

It’s very easy to justify NOT talking to your clients as a product manager because you’re too busy or whatnot. I’ve heard this pretty much from every single product owner and product manager (and I am myself was briefly guilty of this) – “I am too important and too busy to talk to customers”. Everyone has to grow up and out of this mindset. If you come to your startup already out of this mindset – you will have a greater chance of success. As a sales engineer or sales rep you don’t have a way to get out of talking to your customers – it’s your job.

As an insight – almost everyone with responsibilities of Director or VP of Product has sales metrics as part of their core KPIs. As a startup founder (or one of them) and a person who envisions and creates the product (assuming you’re eyeing a product startup) you would be responsible for product’s success. Unless you’re giving it away (and even in that case) – your main measure of success would be the number of customers. Being able to sell your product is a huge part of Product Manager (and above) responsibilities. If you are planning to start up your own venture, the ability to sell is probably just as essential as the ability to read, write and create PowerPoint slides.

TL;DR: start as a sales engineer.

Product Development Process (from Quora question)

Question:
I’m often contacted to detail our product development process with other departments in my company. I am the CTO and the only developer within my company. I understand oversight, however, I believe there is a better way to go about this. What do I do?

Answer:
A few things strike me as odd.

  • You are the CTO. Which means you are responsible for strategy and the highest level of technology planning and execution across the whole company.
  • You are the only developer. Which means you are tasked with tactical day-to-day execution of someone else’s orders/asks/instructions based on someone else (again) collecting and prioritizing requirements from different departments.
  • Your company has other departments – this assumes you are not a one-man-show and at least have other people working towards company’s objectives.
  • Your communication with other departments is not transparent enough, so they end up asking about processes.
  • It is not clear if any processes exist
  • It is not clear if there are any other developers involved as consultants, freelancers or as an external vendor organization.
  • It is not clear what these departments are, but based on my previous experience I am going to assume that Sales and Marketing are among them.

Assuming you actually have those processes and is able to talk about them.

First and foremost – why is it important to be transparent about the processes of product development. Regardless of software developers, who may prefer to live in an agile world, most other organizations live in a waterfall. They often have to wait for a certain phase in product development to begin working on collateral, prepare PR statements, announcements, ads, one-pagers and whatever else helps to promote and advertise the product (even if it’s internal). You can’t just throw product at them and say “here, go sell it”. Additionally, early stage feedback (usually collected by Sales and Marketing orgs) is crucial to the product’s success.

Communicating “where we’re at” and “next steps” and “it will be ready by XX date” is paramount to the success of the product, not just individual departments.

Second – “Next Steps”. Marketing, Sales, and Support (at least these three) must know and plan ahead for the product launch as well as any upcoming releases. Marketing needs to be able to create materials promoting and educating customers on your product and changes to it. Sales must be able to talk coherently about benefits, new features and, in some cases, be able to say something like “this feature is on our product roadmap, it’s scheduled to be released in Q4 of 2018”. This alone may be a difference between securing a customer or losing it to competition. Sometimes customers may be tempted to convert to competition, announcing your plans may actually provide them with internal reasoning to stay with your company.

As you can see, at this point there are much larger reasons to be transparent about development processes than oversight. Other departments, most likely, want to look into your processes because it helps them do their job, not because they feel like they need to tell you how to do yours.

Now, being a CTO and the only developer can mean one of two things:

your company is very small – early stage startup small. This usually means that you really don’t have departments yet – you have Jake who does marketing, web design and creative copywriting and Jill who handles all sales calls, follow-ups, arrange your CEO’s calendar and probably does some accounting too. In this case – just go over to them and talk.
your company is not very small and you outsource most of your development, making you the only developer within the company’s ranks, but not the only developer for the product/company. In this case, I may suggest looking at your priorities – do you want to write code or do you want to strategically manage technology for your company or product. If you want to write code – drop the title, focus on engineering aspects and let someone else lead. If you want to be the CTO – stop focusing on a tactical day to day tasks and focus on a big picture. I am not saying you can’t do both. I am saying if you continue doing both you will not be effective. It’s not just my opinion – check, if you will, Peter Drucker’s “The Effective Executive”. By doing both you’re diluting your time that should be spent somewhere else. Time management is one of the most important aspects of being an effective software engineer, but it’s absolutely positively the most valuable asset of an executive.

Bottom line – the ask for more transparency comes from other people who rely on you to deliver things, but that can never be sure what is being delivered, when and how. Oversight is the last reason on that list.

What types of skills are needed to become a Product Manager?

First and foremost is called “critical thinking”. You’d be surprised at the number of people with titles of Product Manager (or, even, Senior Product Manager!) who are lacking this skill.

Another good skill to have is what recruiters like to call “business acumen”. Not sure if they know what it means, but in the classic sense – as in “keenness and quickness in understanding and dealing with a business situation” (source: Wikipedia – Business Acumen) it’s an amazing skill to have. Among other things it allows you to quickly evaluate your own product from a market’s perception and understand if you have a “solution for a problem” or a “solution looking for a problem”. You want to have the former and avoid the latter.

Being able to question everything. Especially – do question the set ways to do things – this is mostly where most of the problems are. Failure is a journey too. If a “user” experiences a certain “pain” – he/she will definitely try and resolve it. When they fail – at least a couple of times – they will hire someone passive enough to “do as they told” and “be quiet” and “not to argue with the boss”. That’s how “ways to do things” are set. That’s how you get people running hundred rep call center from a spreadsheet. That’s how you get people to stop question their commission payments because “no one can analyze hundreds of thousands of rows each month in a single Excel spreadsheet”.

Because “reasons”.

Knowing your technology, what is possible or not possible, or having subject matter experts available. I had a lot of experience developing regular software so I could easily anticipate what can be done and what cannot. When paired with the questioning of the “ways to do things” – it may seem like magic to your customers. A real-life anecdote: “No one was ever able to reconcile these commissions automatically and we can’t do it manually either – these Excel files are huge and have to be downloaded monthly by hand from a password protected portal”. – “What if I can automate the download and import the data into a database. Can I match this against that automatically?” – “I don’t see why not” – “Then we can 100% automate your reconciliation”. – “Wait, what?”

Learning skill. This is probably the most important. In your journey as a product manager, you inevitably will end up with a problem which will not be solved using your existing skill set. You will need to learn something new. This will happen constantly, the more areas of your customers’ lives you will touch. Within 2 years of my previous job, I’ve learned a ton of new stuff. How informal negotiations work. How salespeople talk to customers behind closed doors. What do CEOs talk to each other about and how when they’re partying. How partners in a business fight and how they find ways to resolve their conflicts with minimal impact to the business – and how they fail to maintain the resolution. And, ultimately, how each of these factors affected my own product and its journey.

All others are important too – a product manager is a CEO without a company, so in almost all cases you can’t just delegate the task to someone else. Especially in early stages of building the product you get to do EVERYTHING yourself. Marketing collateral, managing developers, juggling projects, negotiating resources and timelines, hell – sometimes you end up building your product website in a spare time because no one else can build a website for something that doesn’t exist.

Last, but not least that I wanted to mention is the ability to go on. “It’s the courage to continue that counts” and in the world of product management it is the only way to build useful and successful products. Within one year I have tried to create at least a dozen products that solve one problem or another. Nine of them failed completely. One produced a freebie that was great for retention but didn’t make any money for the company directly. One failed, but from the salvaged parts the company was able to build a completely new line of business that became pretty successful. Another one (potentially – as I am not with the said company anymore) is another new successful line of business. What if I had stopped after the first three failures? What about six? If you think you need to draw the line – you don’t. You just keep going.