For the second installment of my “10 Questions With…” I reached out to one of my mentors in the PM/Consulting space, Rich Mironov. I met Rich many years ago at ProductCamp Seattle, where he was giving a presentation about the struggles and challenges of the role that really spoke deeply to me and where I was in my career. Over the years, when he’s passed through town I’ve tried to maintain a connection, bouncing ideas off of him and mining his depths of experience for pearls of wisdom to help me grow as a Product Manager. I’m happy to present his 10 questions here, and for those of you who don’t know him, here’s a quick bio:
Rich is a 30-year product management veteran based in San Francisco. He’s an unrepentant blogger at www.mironov.com, author of The Art of Product Management, and coach/consultant to product management teams and startup executives. On occasion, he parachutes into software companies as interim VP Products. He thinks a lot about the strategic and organizational challenges of running product management teams.
What does “Product Management” mean to you?
Product managers live at the intersection of real customer needs, technical viability and smart business models. Every day, we probe for real-world problems, sort those worth solving, and collaborate with developers/designers/users on valuable solutions. And, we relentlessly motivate our functional counterparts to build and sell those solutions.
How did you wind up becoming a Product Manager?
Like most product folks, this was accidental. After a few years as a software developer, then a break for an MBA, I took a corporate strategy job at Tandem Computers. This was a mix of M&A and technology futures, with little actual impact on the product set. The company was setting up a product team to build connectivity to Apple/MacOS… “Do you want to be the product manager for that new group?” “Sure. Whatever that means.”
What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to be a Product Manager?
Have some frank discussions with a few current product managers; follow one around for a day. If possible, participate in some product activities at your company and get a taste for the work. Product management looks much sexier from the outside, and many folks are interested because they think the role carries authority.
What is the most commonly overlooked ability that separates the “1%” Product Manager from the rest?
An instinctive ability to quickly sort through the mud and find the gold. What 3 really important things did the customer say in your hour’s interview? Which 2 backlog items will move the needle, versus the other 998? How can we reframe some geeky technical option as the next killer capability?
What’s the best advice you’ve personally received or read that positively affected your approach to Product Management?
Focus on Jobs to be Done (JTBD) and problems that customers actually recognize as important problems they need solutions for. So many folks who’ve relentlessly taught us this in their own ways over the years (Clayton Christianson, Alex Osterwalder, Teresa Torres, Des Traynor, Scott Sehlhorst, Jeff Patton…), yet I still fall into imagining problems I think customers should have, and solutions I think they should want, and economic value I think they should easily be able to capture. Less important what I think, more important what’s true…
What are the biggest challenges that Product Managers face?
First, we demand an astonishing range of skills from product managers: deep tech chops, design eye, perceptive customer interviewing, gravitas in front of major customers, story writing, miraculous revenue prognostication. No one is good at all of this. And every minute of focused work is stolen from sales/market-size interrupts. So it’s hard to manage time, to grow skills, to remember to celebrate wins.
Second, soft skills matter as much as technical depth. Every day, we have to motivate/cajole/push/encourage folks who don’t work for us to help create great products. (Hint: no one works for us.) We need to stay humble, study up on Myers-Briggs, focus on the mission and customer joy.
What are the biggest challenges for Product Leaders?
I work mostly with product leaders (who manage teams of product managers), and I sometimes step into companies as the interim/acting VP of Product Management. I see a range of organizational issues that can’t be solved by individual product managers, so need to be solved higher up in the management ranks. For companies with a half-dozen or more product managers, these include:
- Creating executive support for a planning and prioritization process that can survive escalations from sales teams and very large customers. We can’t say “yes” to every shiny object. Instead, we need to slow down the “hey, I just talked with a customer, and…” cycle just enough to weigh impacts and trade-offs. Train every exec to laugh out loud when Sales says “this is really easy, probably only 10 lines of code.”
- Driving agreement about what’s generally part of the product manager’s responsibilities and what’s not. Sales should do most product demos (not Product); Engineering should do QA testing (not Product); Marketing should design customer collateral (not Product). We sometimes lean in to help with each of these, but there’s no time left for product management if we’re doing everyone else’s jobs.
- Keeping HR from creating activity-based metrics for promoting and rewarding product managers. Going to meetings, writing user stories, and presenting roadmaps are necessary activities – but I don’t want bonuses to be based on how many meetings my team attends, or how many user stories they write, or whether roadmap PPTs were submitted in time. (Otherwise, we’ll get more meetings, more stories, more PPTs, and crappy products.)
Product leaders need to create the conditions that let individual product managers succeed. That means addressing the company-wide issues that every product manager faces.
What’s the biggest difference you find between smaller startups and larger established companies in relation to Product Management?
Small startups have one (or only a few) product managers, with the founders still leaning in to play Chief Product Opinionator. Their challenge is to focus on a few things, get them done and fully delivered, and move on to the next things. There’s no well-defined box for product, so they carve their own role boundaries out from the chaos. Creating strategy and just a little process when there hasn’t been any.
Big companies have many layers, many processes, many stakeholders, multi-volume strategies, and an endless appetite for internal communication. Roles and responsibilities are chopped into tiny pieces. It’s easy to live in a small box (“senior product manager for consumer-side reporting infrastructure”) but hard to deliver any end-customer value. Large-company product managers need to rally support for whole products/solutions in the face of too many silo’d sub-organizations. And spend at least 45 minutes every day doing something of strategic value – customer interviews, competitive analysis, pricing models, architectural collaboration with Engineering – since the rest of the day is lost to feeding the corporate beast.
As the founder of ProductCamp, what advice do you have for people who want to build local Product Management communities?
Get out and create something: a camp, a meetup, an excuse to drink beer with nearby product folks. You’ll make great connections, swap war stories, find out that your problems are the same ones that everyone else has. (It’s not just you!). Share what you know and who you know. 200 Product Camps ago, we started PCamp as a one-time thing. Who knew?
What advice do you have for Product Managers struggling to balance agility and Agile development with planning and strategy?
I think this is a false trade-off. The greatest waste comes from building the wrong things, or building unimportant things while critical things rot in the backlog. If we do our jobs well – which includes intensive analysis of customer problems and deep interviews with live users and careful separation of Jobs to be Done from our proposed solutions, then our agile development teams will build great stuff and we’ll sell heaps of it. (After which, we buy the t-shirts and pizza.) If we skimp on market validation, product strategy and pricing/packaging for customer value, then our high-velocity teams will waste half of their velocity on meh.
At the micro level, there’s always a calendaring battle between our development teams (who want us at every standup, sprint planning meeting, retrospective and design walk-through) and our sales/marketing/support teams (who want us on every customer call, trade show, webinar, copy editing session, escalation meeting). If you’re an “end to end” product manager who is responsible for both market input and scrum-level development team activities, that means you must thoughtfully manage time on both sides – setting realistic expectations about what you’re able/willing to do. And carve out time for actual thinking, strategy, learning.