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Web valleyofthegeeks.com

Lonely at the Middle

Zack Urlocker
Wednesday, January 13, 2010

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Middle management bluesA lot of people wonder exactly what a product manager actually does. I have product managers who work for me and I'm still wondering.  People question: What's it like to hobnob with marketing gurus and industry execs at high falutin' conferences? Frankly, I've puzzled over this myself. I'm usually much too busy trying to keep the documentation team from killing R&D until after the product ships, anyway. Then they can get QA involved and at least make it a fair fight.

Product managers do whatever it takes to ship great products. Although not directly involved in coding, testing, or writing documentation, they are the experts when it comes to creating the screenshots and the slogans. If you've got creativity, vision, or a cellphone that does email, you could already be on the fast track to success in product-management.

Missionary Positioning 

PMs spend a lot of their time making sure that the product is positioned properly. A good product position is unique, differentiated, and easily represented on a t-shirt.

Thorough knowledge of industry trends is essential to positioning a product effectively. You gotta spend an enormous amount of time with leading edge software such as Doom--and pouring over research reports--like ones written by Spencer F. Katt.

For example, a good PM would spot a trend like client/server computing, combine it with the growth of the Internet, and propose a product called "SQL-Surfer". A great PM would come up with "3D SQL-Surfer with Visual Death-Match Objects."

Lose Friends And Influence People 

Don't buy into the common misconception that PMs are just marketing bozos. They're not; a PM's area of interest is much broader than that. In fact, real marketing folks--the kind who wear power ties and flash their MBAs--wouldn't be caught dead eating lunch with a PM. After all, most PMs don't know the difference between sushi and shiatsu. Being seen in the company of such people could turn a power lunch into a front-page scandal in PC Week.

PMs aren't very popular with the R&D team, either. R&D knows that PMs are likely to ask annoying questions like, "Is the beta ready yet?" All you can really do with R&D is keep them focused on building a great product--and keep 'em the heck off the Internet.

All this makes for some very lonely lunches. But no matter; it's faster to knock back a couple of Maalox turbo lattes while reading through the weekly trade rags to make sure you haven't been misquoted. (Or at least have some plausible denial ready when you find you were misquoted.)

Customers and Other Problems 

A product manager's key role is representing the needs of customers. Customers are to products what crashes are to programs: If you're not on Windows, you won't have 'em. The reverse is also true, which is why there's been so much delay getting Longhorn to market.

Representing the customers' needs is also the best way to gain credibility with the R&D team. If you don't know what customers need, just make something up and call it "market research." A good product manager must always reinforce the customers' perspective, as in, "The customers would like to know if that beta is ready yet."

So next time you're coding away and find yourself envying the glamourous life of a product manager, keep this addage in mind: Those who can, do; those who can't, make screenshots.

About the author
Zack Urlocker is a pseudonym for a Silicon Valley software executive. He is currently working on a Hollywood screenplay, "Valley of the Geeks." The views expressed here are the result of his many experiments in advanced caffeine consumption.

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