Product Management

In May 2008, Mary Poppendieck did a presentation on leadership in software development at Google. In it, she points out that at Toyota and 3M the product champions are “deeply technical” and “not from marketing”. The reason this works, she states, is that you need to “marry the technical possibilities with what the market wants”. If the products are driven by marketing people, the engineers will constantly be struggling to explain why perpetual machines won’t work, even if the market is screaming for it. So, while other companies are building all-electric vehicles and hybrids, your company is chasing a pipe-dream.

Innovative ideas are not necessarily technically complex, and may not always require top technical talent to implement. However, such ideas are often either quickly duplicated by other players, or rely on user lock-in to keep the competition at bay. E.g. Facebook and Twitter are technically simple to copy (at small scale), but good luck getting even 100 users to sign up. Nest made a nice thermostat, but soon after the market offered cheaper alternatives. Same with Dropcam. With no lock-in, there is no reason for a new customer to pick Dropcam over something cheaper.

To be truly successful, you therefore need to have the ability to see what the market needs, even if the market is not asking for it. If the market is outright asking, then everyone else hears that, and thus it’s hardly innovation. That doesn’t mean that you should ignore the market, obviously you have to listen to the market and offer solutions for the trivial requests that do make sense (cheaper, better security, faster processing, higher resolution and so on), and weed out the ones that don’t (VR, Blackberry, Windows Mobile). It doesn’t matter how innovative you are, if you don’t meet the most basic requirements.

However, it’s not just a question of whether something is technically possible, it’s also a question as to whether your organization posses the technical competency and time to provide a solution.If your team has an extremely skilled SQL programmer, but the company uses 50% of her time to pursue pipe-dreams or work on trivialities (correcting typos, moving a button, adding a new field), then obviously less time is available to help the innovation along.

Furthermore, time is wasted by doing things in a non-optimal sequence and failing to group related tasks into one update whenever possible. This seem to happen when technical teams are managed by non-technical people (or “technical” people who are trained in unrelated areas). Eventually, the team will stop arguing that you really should install the handrail before the hydrant, and simply either procrastinate or do what they are told at great direct (and indirect!) cost.

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At GOTO 2016, Mary states that 50% of decisions made by product managers are wrong, and 2/3 of what is being specced is not necessary and provides no value to the end user, therefore, she argues, development teams must move from “delivery teams” to “problem solving teams”, and discard the notion that the product manager is a God-like figure that is able to provide a long list of do-this and do-that to his subordinates. Instead, the product manager must

  • able to listen to the market
  • accurately describe the technical boundaries and success criteria for a given problem
  • be able to make tradeoffs when necessary.

To do this, I too, believe the PM must be highly technical so that they have the ability to propose possible solutions to the team (when needed). Without technical competency (and I am not talking about the ability to use Excel like a boss here), the PM will not be able to make the appropriate tradeoffs and will instead engage in very long and exhaustive battles with developers who are asked to do something impossible.

Is Mary correct? Or does she not realize that developers are oddballs and mentally incapable of “understanding the market”? Comments welcome.

 

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