Great Engineers Versus Product Managers

Who is the new Product Manager?

I’m enjoying the question “If my startup has great engineers and designers, why do I need product managers?” over at Quora. I’ve added my own response, but would encourage anyone reading this with knowledge of the field to also add their thoughts.

My answer basically hinges on one key question:

Should great engineers and designers focus on their functional areas or spend time with responsibilities that might detract from their core value-add?

I’ve heard variations of the original Quora question over the years. It’s a valid question that is by no means cut and dry. Many times,  it comes from people who don’t fully understand the product management function. They view the PM as the expected visionary for the product roadmap, but miss out on the other roles they play. Therefore, if their engineer or designer has a stronger, more coherent vision of a product or service, it becomes difficult to see the value of a product manager.

Don’t get me wrong here, most product managers will want to be considered the product visionary!  However, I fear many managers find PMs with backgrounds that can’t match-up to their engineer’s “greatness” and so dismiss the idea of hiring one. The problem now is that no one is minding the other responsibilities: meeting with customers, supporting the market launch, working with suppliers, and generally being the point-of-contact for anyone with a question. It’s good for  development to be involved with these areas, but it has to be tempered with the good sense to keep your team focused on delivering product.

For those who aren’t familiar with the many hats product managers can take on, take a look at Pragmatic Marketing Framework. While no product manager could possibly handle all these roles, it demonstrates areas where they might be helpful. I would suggest anyone who is debating “product manager or not” take a quick look at this and ask themselves two things:

  1. If needed, do they have anyone covering these roles?
  2. Does anyone in my development team have the cycles to cover them?

If the answer to either of those questions is no, hiring a product manager to help might be worth looking into. Defining the role quickly will be extremely important, especially if there is resistance by an established development team who feels they are losing “control” rather than gaining extra “support” for their mission. Depending on the need, product management can report into development or marketing. As there can be some natural conflict between these two areas, settle this quickly. Putting a product manager into a role that has a nebulous reporting structure and has unclear responsibilities will invite criticism regarding product manager role’s effectiveness. I can’t over-emphasize the need to think this through clearly before bringing anyone in.

Since all parties have the same end-game, the relationship needs to be positioned as one of complements. The introduction of a product manager shouldn’t be a power grab, ESPECIALLY if a talented development team exists already. There are far too many industries who need the deep insight that R&D possesses, wrestling with them only hurts everyone in the long-term. Product managers can be very valuable employees, so spend the time properly defining and communicating the role. As you find the candidate who fills those needs, the return should be immediately obvious.

Note: Regarding the Pragmatic Marketing Framework, I only use them as a reference. I have not attended any of their seminars, so I have no opinion on effectiveness. Their use here is only for ease of reference.  Other product management training approaches exist, but I feel theirs is the easiest to absorb.

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