Product management

In my career working in the academic sector, I have realized that one thing that is often missing from in-house software development is “product management.”

But what does that mean exactly? You don’t know it’s missing if you don’t even realize it’s a thing and people can use different terms to mean different roles/responsibilities.

Basically, deciding what the software should do. This is not about colors on screen or margins (what our stakeholderes often enjoy micro-managing) — I’d consider those still the how of doing it, rather than the what to do. The what is often at a much higher level, about what features or components to develop at all.

When done right, it is going to be based on both knowledge of the end-user’s needs and preferences (user research); but also knowledge of internal stakeholder’s desires and preferences (overall organiational strategy, but also just practically what is going to make the right people happy to keep us resourced). Also knowledge of the local capacity, what pieces do we need to put in place to get these things developed. When done seriously, it will necessarily involve prioritization — there are many things we could possibly done, some subset of them we very well may do eventually, but which ones should we do now?

My experience tells me it is a very big mistake to try to have a developer doing this kind of product management. Not because a developer can’t have the right skillset to do them. But because having the same person leading development and product management is a mistake. The developer is too close to the development lense, and there’s just a clarification that happens when these roles are separate.

My experience also tells me that it’s a mistake to have a committee doing these things, much as that is popular in the academic sector. Because, well, just of course it is.

But okay this is all still pretty abstract. Things might become more clear if we get more specific about the actual tasks and work of this kind of product management role.

I found Damilola Ajiboye blog post on “Product Manager vs Product Marketing Manager vs Product Owner” very clear and helpful here. While it is written so as to distinguish between three different product management related roles, but Ajiboye also acknowledges that in a smaller organization “a product manager is often tasked with the duty of these 3 roles.

Regardless of if the responsibilities are to be done by one or two or three person, Ajiboye’s post serves as a concise listing of the work to be done in managing a product — deciding the what of the product, in an ongoing iterative and collaborative manner, so that developers and designers can get to the how and to implementation.

I recommend reading the whole article, and I’ll excerpt much of it here, slightly rearranged.

The Product Manager

These individuals are often referred to as mini CEOs of a product. They conduct customer surveys to figure out the customer’s pain and build solutions to address it. The PM also prioritizes what features are to be built next and prepares and manages a cohesive and digital product roadmap and strategy.

The Product Manager will interface with the users through user interviews/feedback surveys or other means to hear directly from the users. They will come up with hypotheses alongside the team and validate them through prototyping and user testing. They will then create a strategy on the feature and align the team and stakeholders around it. The PM who is also the chief custodian of the entire product roadmap will, therefore, be tasked with the duty of prioritization. Before going ahead to carry out research and strategy, they will have to convince the stakeholders if it is a good choice to build the feature in context at that particular time or wait a bit longer based on the content of the roadmap.

The Product Marketing Manager
The PMM communicates vital product value — the “why”, “what” and “when” of a product to intending buyers. He manages the go-to-market strategy/roadmap and also oversees the pricing model of the product. The primary goal of a PMM is to create demand for the products through effective messaging and marketing programs so that the product has a shorter sales cycle and higher revenue.

The product marketing manager is tasked with market feasibility and discovering if the features being built align with the company’s sales and revenue plan for the period. They also make research on how sought-after the feature is being anticipated and how it will impact the budget. They communicate the values of the feature; the why, what, and when to potential buyers — In this case users in countries with poor internet connection.

[While expressed in terms of a for-profit enterprise selling something, I think it’s not hard to translate this to a non-profit or academic environment. You still have an audience whose uptake you need to be succesful, whether internal or external. — jrochkind ]

The Product Owner
A product owner (PO) maximizes the value of a product through the creation and management of the product backlog, creation of user stories for the development team. The product owner is the customer’s representative to the development team. He addresses customer’s pain points by managing and prioritizing a visible product backlog. The PO is the first point of call when the development team needs clarity about interpreting a product feature to be implemented.

The product owner will first have to prioritize the backlog to see if there are no important tasks to be executed and if this new feature is worth leaving whatever is being built currently. They will also consider the development effort required to build the feature i.e the time, tools, and skill set that will be required. They will be the one to tell if the expertise of the current developers is enough or if more engineers or designers are needed to be able to deliver at the scheduled time. The product owner is also armed with the task of interpreting the product/feature requirements for the development team. They serve as the interface between the stakeholders and the development team.

When you have someone(s) doing these roles well, it ensures that the development team is actually spending time on things that meet user and business needs. I have found that it makes things so much less stressful and more rewarding for everyone involved.

When you have nobody doing these roles, or someone doing it in a cursory or un-intentional way not recognized as part of their core job responsibilities, or have a lead developer trying to do it on top of develvopment, I find it leads to feelings of: spinning wheels, everything-is-an-emergency, lack of appreciation, miscommunication and lack of shared understanding between stakeholders and developers, general burnout and dissatisfaction — and at the root, a product that is not meeting user or business needs well, leading to these inter-personal and personal problems.


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