Two recent posts at Write That Down touch on the same issue. First, the author of that blog, Adam Bullied, argues that product management is intrinsically not that hard. The difficult part is learning to be a product manager:

I do in fact recall when I was first put into the role. It was exciting, but at the same time, really ridiculous. Not for any other reason than, I wasn’t working for a more senior product manager to kinda guide me a long and instruct me on what to do – I was in there on my own learning as I went. It turns out, this is ideal for me, but I recognize it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.

This leads me to admission number 1: The job is damn near impossible when you first start. Actually, scratch that — it’s damn near impossible when you get 3-4 months in. This is because, at least from my experience, it takes people about that length of time to really wrap their heads around what it is they are supposed to be doing. And I believe this is where most would sink and maybe start believing, “this job is WAY too hard for me, or anyone, to really do.”

Adam’s path to product management is typical. Since there is no formal training to be a product manager, people arrive at product management via other jobs. (Shameless plug: One of my upcoming research documents uncovers exactly how varied those backgrounds really are.) In many cases, product management is a marriage of convenience between the individual and the organization. I think that I can do product management; my employers believe they should have product managers, but often don’t have a clear idea exactly what they should do.

Somewhere in Plato’s allegorical cave, there’s an "ideal form" of product management. Not everyone has the arete of a product manager; unfortunately, given how the recruitment process works, it’s hard to know who has the right temperament, and who doesn’t. Product managers don’t start with the skills they need, because there’s no training.

Since many technology companies handle product management this way, it’s not surprising that, as Adam describes in his other post, these firms bring product managers into projects late, almost as a last resort, and certainly not at an organizational level equal with the development managers:

A long while back I spoke with a recruiting manager for a very large social networking organization in the Bay area. He informed me that they were “incubating” product management in development, and the CEO “may decide” at a later time product should have a seat at “the executive table.”

Wow. That’s a whole lot of words telling me potentially a couple of things: 1) development is driving all product, which tends to be a common setup. And it’s not usually the best thing in the world. But then again, I’m heavily biased. 2) the CEO thinks they are doing a fine job and don’t want anyone challenging their decisions, execution, etc….

Let’s not even go near the question why many tech industry executives think that product managers are less capable of devising innovative products that will give a company a competitive edge. Instead, let’s treat product management, for the moment, as purely a service function, needed to support the people with the giant, pulsating brains in the development organization. What do these technologists need from product managers, from the moment they first walk through the door?

  • Validation that no one else is building the same product, or an analysis of what the competition is doing.
  • Identification of likely target customers, by which I mean people in particular roles doing particular tasks.
  • Validation that the product will be sufficiently helpful that these people performing these tasks will pay the company for the privilege of using their technology.
  • Based on information gathered during the previous steps, ideas for additions, subtractions, or modifications to the current product design that will increase the likelihood of its success.

If I were someone starting a new company, with the time-to-market clock ticking constantly in the background, I’d want someone to provide these sorts of assistance as early as possible, to ensure that we’re not wasting time and resources. So why is the attitude of the CEO whom Adam cites earlier–we’ll bring in someone with a product management title later, and improvise the PM function for the time being–fairly common in the technology industry?

The culprit, I suspect, is the idea that anyone can do product management, because people from a variety of different jobs start being product managers with no prior experience, and learn by doing. (How often they learn what it really takes to be a product manager is unknown.) However, as is the case with any job, not everyone is necessarily good at it.

We all know a few tasks that we’d never master, or even want to. For example, I suspect that I’d make a terrible accountant. I love math, but I lack the patience needed to spend my live combing through spreadsheets. Other math-related activities, such as statistical analysis, fit my personality and skills far better.

The same principle applies to product management. Not everyone can excel at the tasks listed above. For example, discovering the real business problem behind a feature request is a skill. Having enough interest in customer use cases to learn that skill, and then to continue applying it, is a question of temperament.

As someone doing research on the technology industry, I’m always willing to hear how suppositions like these may be wrong. Until then, this line of logic leads to obvious conclusion: the technology industry clings to a conceit about product management, that anyone can do it. If what product managers do has any value, there’s a price tag attached to that error.

[Postscript: This post breaks a personal rule about the length of blog entries. I’ll return to briefer posts later. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a way to substantially reduce the number of words needed to handle this topic.]