Product Management (2)

Browse Category: Product Management

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.

How could I become a Tech Product Manager without University?

It’s a tacky notion to generalize, so I’ll focus on my own experience and my own journey. It would be great if it helps anyone else.

This one is easy – you do the same thing you would have done after University – only without it. Let me elaborate. One thing I have learned through my 25+ years of different careers in IT and around is that university degree, diplomas, and certifications have very little – if anything – to do with actual performance on a job. At least once in my past 10 years, I was hired against the rule of “everyone should have at least a Bachelor degree in this company”. I also was officially denied a consideration for employment at another company once because of lack of Bachelors degree. That was after I’ve got a solid 10 years of experience in the industry. I guess those two cases cancel each other out.

What defines me as a “knowledge worker” is not a degree or a certificate. It’s the actual knowledge. Granted – given a good education (and by “good” I mean – as close to a real deal as possible, not just expensive one) a lot of things get easier or more transparent. A lot of other things, however, become invisible. You need a special knack to “uncover” things, persistence to do this all the time and actual intelligence to recognize the “AHA!” moment to be able to succeed.

A degree may (or, rather, should) supply you with a set of tools – the quality of them would vary based on your teachers and their methods, but at least you’ll get the basics. Without a degree, you’ll end up developing your own set of tools that may or may not be better than those imposed by education. The upside is that they will be yours, so – ultimately much more convenient to use more often.

The way I have become a Product Manager was through working in various roles in IT – tech support, software engineering, technical leadership, project management. At each stage, you can see various pieces of the puzzle, but usually until the level of manager of “development” or project manager the whole picture will be obscured. This, however, allowed me to build my own set of tools to determine and paint that big picture without having direct access to assets (people or systems) that can define it for me.

Once I was able to get to the big picture for existing systems – it became a lot easier to create my own big picture where there was none before. Because a product isn’t just a piece of software that does A, B and X. A true product is a solution to someone else’s problem. I’ve used this line in one of my other Quora answers, but I’ll repeat it again: “Don’t think about how to make your product better. Think about how you can make a life of your customer easier”. Any successful product would be one that resolves a customer issue or takes away or eases the pain.

Ultimately, to become a Product Manager to start thinking about yourself as a product. What kind of problems will you be able to solve? How do you go to the market? Where is your audience? What are the definitions of your own success?

Well, the last one is easy – once you have solved a couple of real-world problems with a product of your own – you can start thinking that one day you will be a successful Product Manager. I certainly think I will.

As a product manager, what are some anecdotes you find yourself using often?

“Don’t think about how to make your product better. Think about how you can make a life of your customer easier”

In my previous job, I would often be tasked with researching how to plug holes in the 10-year old legacy product. As with many legacy products – it was surviving not because it was good, but because the competition hasn’t caught up yet. One of our main competitors was making a really good progress on catching up and we were scrambling to find and build a feature that would slow down customer leakage.

Instead of thinking of how to make the product better I went to the sales team and asked them what would be the lowest hanging fruit to address with our customers. They were, at the time, under a huge pressure from one of the large accounts threatening to leave. I asked for a “Christmas List” – a list of wants (not features) that in an ideal world this particular client would want to have. What would make their life as our client easier?

One of the items somewhere in the middle of the list was “ease of inventory import from third-party vendors into your system”. Apparently, someone within any large client spent anywhere from 4 to 8 hours per week manually copy-pasting large orders (hundreds of SKUs) from vendors sales orders into our system. I’ll leave it to your imagination to think about all kinds of input errors they were dealing with. But it was literally, copy a line – paste a line. Repeat 100+ times over. Check for errors – manually.

I’ve looked into the problem and within a month we had a solution ready. It was not directly built into the product, which means customers could use it on any other computer, not just where our product was installed. It completely eliminated the need to manually enter anything at all. Instead of 4 to 8 hours, it took 4 to 5 clicks to automagically import each order into the system.

Not only it saved this particular customer, but that was also impressed with the effectiveness of the solution, the speed of the solution’s delivery and with saving on average 20 – 24 hours of one of manager’s time. It allowed the company to promote the “champion customer” program where certain customers would get access to early-stage products I was developing and provide their feedback.

While solution itself was free to our customers compared to the amount of money saved by retention it was definitely a revenue-positive discovery.