Monday, February 20, 2012

Product Management: Trust is not optional

So you are a product manager now?  Is that a move up [from engineering management role]?
- Anonymous recruiter

Good percentage of product managers start their product career after exploring engineering career path.  I am one of them.  Having started out as coder, I stumbled upon an opportunity to try out my product management aptitude.  I took that chance with a bit of hesitation.  I think one reason was because of lateral move.  In addition it was not clear whether product management role was something that I would enjoy or be good at.
Market-driven focus is important, yet
building the internal trust is a big prerequisite
One thing I can tell you about product management is that it's not engineering management.  In engineering position, your main challenge is making sure your engineering team is operating at healthy capacity producing good quality product.  You worry about things like defect counts, code reviews, release cadence, each developer's productivity, etc.  Your list of worries are defined by people you manage.  It is classic management role.  You are being measured by the team that you have direct influence over.

In product management position, it is quite different.  My main challenge is making sure that I have successful product in the market.  I'm worried about whether the product has minimal viable feature set that provides enough value for customers today, and how that feature set will change with competitors in the market.  I am concerned about how market is changing, and what it will look like in 6 to 9 months for tactical goals and 12 to 18 months from now for longer term strategic initiatives.  I represent the product when customers and executive team are not happy with the product, and I listen to what they have to say about list of features they want to see.  In all these activities, product manager takes responsibility for product success and failure, yet product manager does not manage any group who are required to make the product.

There lies the biggest difference that I see between engineering management role and product management role.  Product managers cannot succeed without support of all the teams involved.  Let me say this another way.  Successful product managers have to become leaders across multiple organizations to create greater organic team who can work together toward common goal: to make a winning product.

Being a leader in this greater team is not an easy task.  It's certainly not handed down to you when you start your first day as product manager (this is reinforced by no direct reporting structure).  You have to earn it.  You have to prove to others that you are worthy of their trust and that you are serious about taking on that responsibility. I think this is a reason why you see so many product managers internally promoted to wear the product management hat.

In order to be effective leader, you have to build trust with people.  If you are trust worthy, that is, if you are truthful and follow through on your word, team will respond to you.  I think that is the single most challenging aspect of product management role that I see different from engineering role.

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