In a tech company, what is a product manager?

Product management is different things to different people. The position is key to the success or failure of a technology company but that said, the position is rarely defined the same way. One of the more successful companies that I worked at, had both outward facing and inward facing positions. In many other companies, one person does both jobs.

Some of the responsibilities of a product manager seem to be common across companies. Product managers are generally responsible for guiding the product development. That means they understand the features and functions and communicate to R&D which features are the most important. R&D then uses that information to plan their road map and release schedules. Product management tends to be the interface between the less technical sales and marketing teams and the very technical development team.

When a product manager is responsible for both the inward facing and outward facing portions of the job, it is has been my experience that the outward facing part is compromised. One of the most common mistakes that I and others have made is to listen to middle men with respect to what the customers want and need. Delivering what the customer wants is perhaps the most important part of product management so relying on others for that information is not always the best approach.

Determining what the customers want and need is not an easy task. Many product managers have told me that they don’t have to talk to customers because their product is so new, the customers don’t know what it can do and don’t know they need it yet. This response should sound alarms and make you ask questions like “How do you know the customer will buy it if they don’t know they need it?”

I have worked in other companies where a product development does not start until a customer has issued a Purchase Order. This tends to remove the R from R&D and I would not recommend this approach for any company that wants to be any more than a contract shop.

I have had the opportunity to work in R&D, to work as a product manager and then to work on the sales side. While in Sales Engineering, I have found myself in a position where I am trying to address the needs of different vertical markets. Each vertical market generally has different needs and products are not always flexible enough to span markets.

R&D teams like to keep the product focus as narrow as possible in order to minimize bugs and more accurately predict design times. This is the exact opposite of what the sales and marketing organizations want, especially in start-ups where the target market may change over night. So the product manager has to regulate both sides which usually means he/she is at odds with both groups.

The product manager has to encourage R&D to keep as many options open as possible without introducing significant development delays. Sales teams are told to focused on selling what they have, but they very often find themselves short one or two features that are required to close a sale. They rely on the product manager to keep them informed with respect to when the missing features will be available. This allows the sales people to close sales based on the promise of future functionality.

Some companies may add an applications or systems engineering group to provide sales with options for integrating third party products required to deliver missing functionality. Some Value Added Resellers may do the systems engineering themselves.

Features disappearing between releases is usually a sign that R&D is focusing. It takes a while for sales to get up to speed on what a product can do so if a feature is removed from release A to release B, that can cause significant down stream problems.  This is not always a bad thing, but should be a red flag for a product manager. It’s impossible to know what every sales person has promised so you can bet that someone on the team has already sold the now missing feature.

I’m not saying that products should not be refined, but my experience has taught me that it should be avoided where-ever possible in order to appeal to the largest number of markets. My previous post on the importance of API’s touches on how they can be used to help maintain a wider market appeal without impacting R&D as heavily.

Product managers need to regularly talk to customers and to do this effectively they must get out of the office and sit down with the people using the product. The people who purchase the product are not always the ones who use it. The most successful companies not only make products that meet a customer needs, they make products that are fun to use. Think Apple vs Microsoft. Both produce quality products but Apple seems to be leading the pack at the moment.

There are many moving parts in successful companies and there are several working models for company structures. I would suggest to you that in Technology companies Product Management is a common key component.


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