I had no idea what product management actually was, or if I was qualified to do it when I started a job hunt this time last year — a path that ultimately lead to me joining Safari as VP of Product in August 2012.
Modern tech product development is surprisingly poorly documented in books, so before I got on the plane, I turned to turned to Google and started pillaging information as quickly as I could about what product management means at the big Silicon Valley firms. Looking back now, it’s easy to see how my checkered career — producing 50+ websites for cash-strapped publishers in a hurry, and latterly as a failed entrepreneur in a cash-strapped analytics startup — had inadvertently given me many of the characteristics of a product manager. So for anyone wondering what Product Management means here at Safari I thought I’d share my crib-sheet here.
After making my way through the horror stories about Product interviews (comparable to the mythical “Oxbridge” university interviews in the UK) I started to find some great information on sites like Quora, Glassdoor, and a few blogs. Many of the interview horror stories are from Google, where analytical / mathematical thinking are combined with the hacker ethic. How many ping pong balls fit in a 747? How many piano tuners are there in Chicago? Luckily Google never replied to my application letter, but a post from a former Microsoft “Programme Manager” provided some helpful documentation about how to structure your thinking for an interview like that. I found it incredibly helpful in the circumstances.
Product management is about boiling things right down to the very essence of the problem you need to solve for your customer, and then sticking your neck out to prioritise and make the tough calls (hopefully supported by data) on how you get there quickest. It’s also about building and leading a team and putting them in the best situation to do better than you could ever do. Focus, discipline, and trade-offs. [Insert joke about how product managers can stop reading here]
The first documents I turned to were fairly epic posts written by a former Amazon engineer about what it’s like to pitch to Jeff Bezos. I recommend you read it and its follow up in full. The short version? Be succinct, be prepared to articulate yourself fully in writing (rather than powerpoint), and internalize the icky-to-a-Brit but informative “leadership values” of the company. I would argue that they make better products in a more disciplined way than anyone else.
Amazon is undoubtedly a company that is on fire, executes ruthlessly on a clear strategy, and delivers wildly successful products. They have developed a remarkably simple and powerful approach to product development that I’ve stolen much of for Safari. They “work backwards” in tiny teams. This means starting the whole process off with the press release you’ll use to launch the product when it’s done. The (flawless) thinking is that if you can’t summarise your product/feature in a headline that makes people know exactly what you’ve done and why they want it, your product will lack focus and probably suck as well. Read more about working backwards from Amazon’s CTO, and on Quora.
Product management is all about discipline and decision-making, not groupthink or consensus. That means sticking your neck out. Another no-brainer idea I stole from my research was the idea of the “Directly Responsible Individual“, which I got from Apple.
At Apple any product, and product sub-task, has a DRI attached to it. The process works incredibly well. Every project has a cover sheet with a list of names on it next to a task. So everyone knows exactly who to turn to for doing X or Y. No task has two DRIs so there’s no ducking the blame. It’s surprisingly hard to do, but a great project manager (which is not the same as the product manager) will make sure those roles and responsibilities are assigned and understood.
Product vs. project
It’s worth talking about project vs product management. Some people confuse the two, and while great project managers can make great product managers they should never, ever be the same person on a project. The two have totally opposing, although complementary, priorities.
The product manager is focused on delivering something that will delight the user and deliver on the business requirements. The project manager is focused on getting a list of tasks done in time. I have spent a lot of time as a project manager, and while I have huge respect for PMs, I absolutely hate doing it. What product managers should learn from project management is the ability to prioritise ruthlessly, make never-ending tradeoffs, and swap out tasks on the fly — especially in an agile development environment.
Finally here’s a few of quotes I found that do a great job of boiling product development down:
“Any idiot can think of new product features. Only a great product manager can take them away.”
“If we haven’t got data, then we’ll use opinions instead. Starting with mine.”
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
“Take the single most important feature, do just that, and polish the hell out of the experience”
And some of the sources I leaned on heavily for my research:
- Ian Macallister on Amazon’s Product Development Process, at Quora
- Microsoft program management
- Joel on software:
- Cindy Alvarez’s 8 Non-Useless Interview Questions for Product Managers
- How to hire a product manager
It turns out that these tips on how to fake it have been incredibly useful to me in the last six months, so any further advice is most welcome.