There’s a rather annoying trend that’s been showing up within both job postings and resumes that’s just crawled under my skin in a way similar to the “ninja” and “rockstar” appellations that developers have adopted. The description that I’m talking about is that of the “full stack” product manager. Now, i totally get where this comes from — in the world of development, there are clear distinctions between developers who focus on the backend systems, the middle tier of integration and business logic, and the actual customer-facing user experience. This is because the skillsets for each of these isn’t necessarily directly transferable to another area — especially with a junior developer who generally excels at one of the three areas, and isn’t quite as competent at the other two. Now, it’s entirely natural for a developer to grow in those lackluster areas over the course of their career, to the point where they might legitimately be called a “full stack” developer. But the same just isn’t true for Product Managers — primarily because we don’t really have anything close to a clearly defined “stack” that we can master. Let’s take a look at what this means for us…
Five Differences Between a Junior PM and a Senior PM
Even though it’s been around as a formal role in software organizations for nearly 20 years (or more, depending on who you talk to), Product Management still struggles with a lot of definition problems — what is the role, how do we grow, when do we get promoted and to where, etc. One of the common issues that we run into are companies who don’t have any form of structure around their product teams, who struggle to define the actual differences between their “associate”, “general”, and “senior” Product Managers without simply resorting to the amount of time they’ve been in the role. As anyone with extensive experience in the profession can tell you, how long you’ve been doing the job has little to no bearing on your actual ability to do the job — you can work for 10 years practicing all sorts of bad behaviors that have resulted in zero growth as a Product Manager. Similarly, you can go deep and hard for 2-3 years and come out the other side as a true product leader and influencer, capable of taking on much more advanced products and projects than your companions. Here are a few of the common differences that I think draw dividing lines between a “junior” Product Manager and a “senior” Product Manager, where age is not the most important factor…
User Stories Aren’t Enough
It’s commonly accepted nowadays that we use user stories or some variation on them to communicate our “product requirements” to development teams (job stories, jobs to be done, scenarios, etc). And while this is certainly an improvement over some of the bad, old Big Up-Front Requirements (BUFR) methods that were used many moons ago, they’re still not perfect, for a wide variety of reasons. All too often, they assume that certain considerations have already been made, that certain work has already been done — when in fact it often hasn’t. Not every development team has a UX and UI member dedicated to help them achieve a story; not every product can afford to have user-story level architecture decisions being made — and every User Story has to be the result of some amount of planning and forethought, both from a business and a technical perspective. While user stories are a great tool, they’re far from the only tool that we need in our drawer to be effective. Here are some things to consider when you’re relying on User Stories as your primary method of relaying work to be done to your development teams.
Knowing Your Effort Budget
It’s amazing to me how often I talk with someone about a project they’re working on, and when asked “what’s your budget on this” they just look at me with a blank look. Let’s be real for a minute — everything we do in product design, development, and management has limits. We have limited resources. We have limited time. We have limited energy. But all too often we just assume that everything that we’re doing requires 100% of our effort, 100% of the time. But that’s simply not true. Some things are more important than others. Some things require more time and effort and energy than others. Some things that we do can slip through with a smaller amount of our attention than others. We instinctively do this, but we rarely actually plan it — and that’s to our detriment and to the detriment of our stakeholders. Laying out a clear understanding of the amount of effort that you’re expecting to spend on any given project or component can be an essential tool in any Product Manager’s belt.
Assumptions, Risks, and Constraints – The Keys to Success
One of the most important parts of being a Product Manager is making sure that your stakeholders and developers understand not only what you’re trying to do, but the surrounding circumstances in which you’re trying to do it. Often, this is a matter of discussing and managing scope; at other times, it’s making sure that people understand the schedule and resources working on the improvement; and at still other times, it’s ensuring that what comes out at the end of an iteration is what everyone wanted at the beginning of the iteration. But there’s a larger set of considerations that are of key importance to aligning your teams on — because they significantly impact the overall success of what we’re trying to do. All too often we ignore these three components to our peril, and when we do there’s an even chance that they’ll come back to bite us in the ass…
That Which is Urgent is Not Always Important
We’ve all been there — that sudden call from one of your Sales team with a customer “on the hook” but they only need this one more thing to close the deal. Or maybe it’s an escalated issue from your biggest customer that lands in your mailbox with gigantic ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!! Or worse yet, it’s your CEO who “stops by for a quick chat” about something that he overheard at an industry event last night. Regardless of where these things come from, they all have one thing in common — they’re urgent. They require your time now. They simply cannot be ignored.
Or can they? Or more accurately, should they be ignored? If you ask me, the answer is absolutely. Things that are “urgent” are thrust upon us by others with some expectation that we’ll drop everything and deal with them — not on our terms, but on the terms of someone else. Here’s why you should beware of the urgent and instead focus on what’s important…
10 Questions: Greg Hartrell
A few weeks ago, I was perusing Quora as I often do, and came across a really great and insightful answer describing the differences between a “good” and “bad” roadmap by Greg Hartrell. The answer was so good that I couldn’t help but reach out him, and invite him to share some of his insights here on my blog. Here’s a bit about Greg in his own words…
Greg Hartrell is a product leader with a 15 year history helping large teams build high performing software products and businesses. At Google, he heads product for Google Play Books and previously led the creation of their mobile game services. Before that, he was VP of Product Development at Capcom/Beeline, and a product leader for 8 years at Microsoft for Xbox Live/360 and Windows.
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