As much as I worship the Cranky Product Manager from afar, I have a slight disagreement with her in this recent post. Her latest target, a perky PM plebe named Scott Buchanan, is not what I’d call a product manager. But Her Crankiness overlooks something important: at Microsoft, where Scott "Sparky" (not his real middle name) Buchanan works, the people who do the product management function are called "program managers." In Microsoft argot, "product managers" are really product marketers.

Still, the Crank Product Manager does have good reason to grumble about what Buchanan represents. (He’s a bit too young and naive to blame him for doing anything but what his new employer asks him to do.) His self-professed lack of technical ability is a problem for product marketing. How exactly does someone in his position reach the conclusion that Microsoft Office is "an exceptional product?" And more importantly, how does he "make the job of deploying and adopting our software as clear, simple, and inexpensive as possible" if it took him 30 minutes to find the latch that opens his laptop? Particularly when you’re dealing with big change management challenges like "updating Microsoft Office across all the computers in a 10,000-person organization"?

I’m glad that Microsoft hires people to help users apply technology to resolve business challenges:

I also have to figure out how to connect with customers directly, to convince them that every day they delay deploying Microsoft Office they miss out on real business value. In both cases, this takes a clear understanding of their functional (bits, bytes, deployment tools, etc.) and emotional (superstardom, frustration, support, etc.) needs, and ultimately, clear and simple messages about the value of Microsoft Office.

However, he doesn’t seem to be acting like a participant-observer, and more like a traditional marketer, talking at customers instead of listening to them. Here’s the customer interaction from Scott’s faux-but-representative schedule:

8:39 a.m.—Scoot over to the Executive Briefing Center (EBC) to talk with a group of customers about the business value of Microsoft 2007 Office. Every day, executives from dozens of companies (and countries) attend all-day presentations at the EBC to learn how Microsoft products can help their business.

Ahem. If I were Scott’s boss, I’d be asking him why he’s not looking into questions like, "If executives regularly send big spreadsheets full of financial data to each other, how might they use the Office tools better to avoid the inevitable giant e-mail attachment problem?" Use Scott’s own description of his job, "unlocking value," you need a deep understanding of both the tool and the problem to help people understand how to use one to fix the other. If Scott lacks the technical skill to understand the tool, and he’s not devoting a lot of time to understanding the use case, then how exactly is he going to help people "unlock value?"

Unfortunately, enthusiasm is no substitute for this kind of insight, which takes time and skill to develop. I hope Scott doesn’t have to earn it the hard way–but he won’t be the first one who has.

[P.S. Scott, if you really do fist-pumps when receiving e-mail, or you’re proud of your Zune, I wouldn’t trumpet those facts quite so loudly. Unless you spend the rest of your life at Microsoft, you might not want to be known as the fist-pumping, Zune-loving guy.]