The Product Manager: Between the Vitruvian Man & the Manbearpig

I was invited to talk at Techsylvania about flavors of product management. This post is based on that presentation. 

The Rise of the Vitruvian Man

Product Management seems to be the hottest role right now. As we move to an age where customer experience makes the difference between services, having someone that can keep the customer in mind at all times is becoming more and more important. 

That’s why some said a PdM is like the CEO of the product. Another very popular interpretation of the role is one of a person who sits at the intersection of Engineering, Design and Business. 

These popular “definitions” can make us feel nothing less than an incarnation of the Vitruvian man.

In a business world full of Dilbert characters we are nothing less than a representation of the perfect, well balanced biz man. Heck, we are like Linus Torvalds, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos combined.  We rock! 

The Reality of the Manbearpig

In the real world however, things could not be further from the Messiah-Like figure all these articles can led you to believe.  

The truth is the perfect harmonising figure we have been discussing about does not exist: We didn’t graduate from the Product Management Academy. Our skills are different from one another. I am willing to bet that if you are ask your bosses for your job description and we were to compare notes we would not get a one single definition that would match. Twitter asked their developers what is the role of product manager and very few had any ideas. 

Now that we think about it the PdM is less of a Vitruvian being. He more accurately resembles the Manbearpig from the South Park show. To refresh your memory: the Manbearpig is half man, half bear and half pig. 

We come from different backgrounds and in a lot of cases this hugely influences what type of product managers we are.  Think about it: We all drink the (same) Kool-Aid: read the same books, we all sleep with Ben Horowitz’s “Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager“ paper under our pillow. But somehow we all do different things. Our professional upbringing doesn’t only influences our day to day behaviour but can also be our Kryptonite.  Let’s explore some product managers archetypes:

The Engineer

The most popular type is the engineering-lead. It might be because most product managers have engineering backgrounds. I am one of them. And in reality, for a lot of business executives we are nothing more than translators. We poses the strange gift of understanding the business product needs (as dictated by the executives themselves) and (through some form of dark magic) transcribing them them into engineering dialect (which, as you well know, is a ancient form of Klingonian).  

The main  goal of these type of product managers is to ship software. Quantity is a top KPI. It’s usually the type of product manager most business folks love because  …. productivity. The core activity is to take product requirements from the client-facing units and break them into small-enough tasks an engineering team can execute on. The risk with this approach is that we might build a feature rich product that no-one needs. 

The Project Manager

A similar type is the project manager. There are companies where the roles overlap or are combined into one. 

These types focus on shipping software as fast as possible, but most project managers approach every release as a project that needs to be managed. Lacking the engineering know-how to understand the long-term implications of  these decisions can create problems. The huge risk here is that after a long string of successful releases the whole development team comes to a halt, the engineers throw their hands in the air and ask for a full rewrite.  We all have been there at one point or another. If you haven’t yet, you are too young and it’s only a matter of time. But a bad re-write is an event that can kill companies. It’s what Friendster did. Tok bad they are not around anymore to tell us how that went. 

The Marketeer

We then have the  marketing types. In a lot of companies product and product marketing are rolled into one. The thinking here is that nobody’s better suited to promote a product than the person who was responsible for building it in the first place. Especially when the product is more complex and requires a very technical marketing approach. The risks in this case is the product definition phase could be bypassed altogether and engineers end-up with high level requirements. As the devil is in the details you risk getting bad products with long development cycles. Business folks get frustrated that engineering can not ship and the whole thing can turn into a blame-game. 

The Artist

The artist is another type. A lot of designers who end up in a PdM role show pay a lot of attention to the experience of the user. How the product looks or how it makes users feel it a the focus on a day to day basis. This people are usually very uncompromising, and there is a risk for this behaviour to  lead to a rocky relationship with the engineers. 

So... Are We All Screwed?

Not really. Our background influences our behaviour more than we would like to admit. We developed ourselves as engineers or designers. But that is not what our job titles are anymore. And we can all succeed in this strange new world, of either Vitruvian men or Manbearbigs. As long as we know what our main job and responsibility is: to own the decision making for the product

For some of us, our engineering experience can lead us to doom. Or we can take advantage of our systems thinking approach to step up our game. Marketers … you can use your communication skills to bring anyone on the same page. Same goes for all the rest.  As long as we remember that our role is about facilitating information flow between departments rather than expertise in any one area. 

We will prevail! Manbearpigs Assemble!