Tim's Weblog
Tim Strehle’s links and thoughts on Web apps, software development and Digital Asset Management, since 2002.

Getting started with product management

In addition to my software development and architecture tasks, I’m growing into the “product manager” role – though it’s not yet clear what that means: bookkeeping of customer complaints and feature requests, coordinating product decisions and making sure everyone in the company has a say, or pushing my own ideas? Probably a bit of everything…

One thing we’re currently learning, and that’s bound to be a huge part of our future product management efforts, is that we need to move product development closer to the customer. While our software’s features had always been customer-driven, they were usually delivered in “waterfall style”, i.e. the customer was given the finished feature with little opportunity for feedback and refinement. Years ago, we started “doing agile development” but involving external stakeholders turned out to be tedious, so it was often neglected. Today, I want to build software the way Henrik Kniberg describes in this excellent article: Making sense of MVP (Minimum Viable Product) – and why I prefer Earliest Testable/Usable/Lovable.

I remember reading Joel Spolsky back in 2000, who asked in The Joel Test: 12 Steps to Better Code: “Do you do hallway usability testing?” We didn’t, and I wasn’t sure it was that important. But a few years later, Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think was a revelation and forever changed the way I looked at user interfaces. We don’t just need a pretty design, we also must make sure users will understand and enjoy the application. And this means taking a long, hard look at the user experience. As a small company, we’re operating within tight constraints, but as Sinéad Cochrane on the Intercom blog puts it, Any research is better than no research! (I’m also looking forward to spending quality time with Leah Buley’s book The User Experience Team of One.)

Here’s a couple of links and quotes which I’ve collected throughout the years, and which I’ll have to reread to help me get started with product management:

First, a rather overwhelming definition by Roman Pichler: What is Product Management? Jeff Enderwick’s list: Nerds: Get the Product Management you deserve. Or, more concise, Martin Eriksson: What, exactly, is a Product Manager? Update: a great summary in German by Sebastian Stein: Was macht eigentlich ein Software Produktmanager?

Rohini Vibha – So you want to manage a product?: “Being a product manager is about making compromises between what your team can accomplish within a given period of time and what your customers absolutely need. You will continually be torn between your team, customers, and business in an impossible race against time.”

Jim Gochee – A Developer Becomes a Product Manager: “If I could describe in one word the daily life of a Product Manager, that word would be 'NO'. Once a product gets off the ground, ideas for improving it (aka feature requests) will far outstrip your project team’s velocity.”

Andrew Chen – Why companies should have Product Editors, not Product Managers: “Sometimes you have many, many good ideas for your product, but if you come to do all of them, you ultimately make it a confusing mess. Instead, you have to “edit” down the feature list until you have a clean, tight experience.”

Ian McAllister – What is Amazon’s approach to product development and product management?: “We try to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it. […] For new initiatives a product manager typically starts by writing an internal press release announcing the finished product.”

Similarly, Thomas Schranz in Why SCRUM Backlogs lead to bad Product Decisions: “… we’ve completely replaced our product backlog with a free form Google Docs file. It reads more like a marketing document than a traditional backlog. […] Similar to what you would read in a blog post when a company like Facebook, Apple or Twitter releases a new major feature.”

Thomas Schranz again – 10 Product Management Hacks for Times when you’re strapped for Resources: “As product manager your main job is to understand context, define purpose and to make sure everyone gets it. Everyone. You, your customers, your team, every stakeholder, all the other teams.”

Rian van der Merwe – Why Companies Need Full-Time Product Managers (And What They Do All Day): “It is essential for the product manager to see the whole picture — the strategic vision as well as the details of implementation — in order to make good decisions about the product. If knowledge of different parts of the process resides in the heads of different people, then no one will have that holistic view, and all value will be drained of the role.”

Matt LeMay – The Past and Future of Product Management: “I believe that product management is a fundamentally supportive and facilitative role, not a “visionary” role. (No Steve Jobses need apply.)”

Update: See also Rick Pastoor’s blog with its daily post on product management.

Update (2016-04-28): Jan Milz – 7 Insights from 3 Years in Product Management: “Get out of the building. Really. You have to talk to people. I know it’s damn-hard but do it from the very beginning and as often as possible. Do not even think the word “feature” as long as you can. While others are debating about data, opinions, correlations inside a meeting room … you got already out on the streets testing your ideas with humans.”

Update (2016-08-30): Jonas Downey – The Art of Designing With Heart: “When you’re designing something, imagine you’re sitting in a room, helping a real person with the task at hand. What would you say to them? How would you explain this screen or feature?”

Update (2016-10-19): Hannah Chaplin – Roadmaps: A product team’s friend or foe?: “We have never found that sharing hard delivery dates is a positive experience for either the software vendor or customer. It sets expectations that are near impossible to keep.”

Update (2017-03-17): More great articles: John Cutler – 10 Big Software PM Time Wasters, and Lessons in product management with Intercom’s Colin Bentley and Brian Donohue.