Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board

Managing Product Managers

I've been in the role of "programmer" most of my career.  Soon, "product manager" will be added to my role.  I'm excited about this.  I'm looking forward to the challenge of taking on a broader scope for the product I've been working on for the last few years. 

But I have some concerns also.  What are the typical expectations and boundaries for a product manager's manager?  I fear that someone within my company who wants a feature within my software product will try to pressure my manager to make me add the feature.  I feel like a basic expectation for my future manager is that he stay out of it.  He should send any queries directly to me so that I can manage the product.  (Or else what am I called a product manager for?)  On the other hand what do I need my manager for?

(Please remember that these questions are coming from a programmer who has not yet had *product manager* added to his list of job responsibilties.)

Curious George
Monday, January 5, 2004

The term "Product Manager" means different things at different companies.

What is your working definition?

Mike Treit
Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Product managers at my company are responsible for:
  * communicating with end users to determine their needs,
  * translating those needs into specifications,
  * determining and setting priorities for the future direction of the product,
  * ensuring that the application gets tested and marketed,
  * keeping the programmer equipped to do their job.

In summary, a product manager is to ensure that many of the non-programming tasks get done, and to lead the product into the future.

Is this a pretty normal definition?  (For me the definition is somewhat up for grabs at the moment.)

Curious George
Tuesday, January 6, 2004

If you have buy in from the company you work for that that is indeed what you do, you are all set.

That's not to say that there will be incidences, but the incidences just need to be diplomatically managed, which is part of the politics.

If someone trys an end run around you as a matter of course, I would say that you just need to deal with it as diplomatically as you can.

Of course this is all future stuff since you've barely started with this.

Get some books on managing work relationships or negotiation if you're still worried about this.

Dennis Atkins
Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Usually a Product Manager makes the decisions about what goes into the product. Usually they're also in charge of the marketing for the product too, but that could vary between industries.

On the face of it, if someone wants something in the product and you don't, then you're the man.

Tuesday, January 6, 2004

You ought to just talk to your future manager about this. He's probably managed other people in your shoes and has a good sense of what his expectations are for you, what other people's expectations will be for you (and for him relative to you), what the role will entail, and so on. Don't be afraid to ask for his advice and insight!

As for why you need a manager, well, there are lots of possible answers to that depending on the structure of your company and a number of other factors. You never know, your manager might end up being the kind of great guy who lets you do what needs to be done and basically keeps the senior executives from mucking around in your business. Which of course is not a bad thing for you to do for your dev team so they can stay focused on development.

John C.
Tuesday, January 6, 2004

"If someone trys an end run around you as a matter of course, I would say that you just need to deal with it as diplomatically as you can."

It has to be dealt with diplomatically, but if people are doing "end runs" around you and going right to your programmers with feature requests as a way of circumventing your authority, that's *absolutely* impermissible and you need to assert your authority.  The role of manager is pretty meaningless if people are allowed do that.

A lot of times they do it out of ignorance of proper procedure so it's not always a reason to put foot to butt, of course.  But they need to be told, hehe.  :)  And of course there are lots times when it's appropriate for your programmers to work directly with end users... but never as an avoidance of your authority.  I've had managers who allowed such end-arounds and, it's like... why is this "manager" even getting a paycheck?  (thus my eagerness to blab about the issue here)

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term "end-around", which is an American Football-ism... picture what the Germans did to the Maginot Line.

John Rose
Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Well  first of all the end run I refered to was in the opposite direction. His job descript is that he is responsible for customer interfacing and is concerned not that they will go down to the programmers to end-run him but that they will go *up* to his manager to end-run his own authority as the one ultimately responsible for the project.

Secondly, and not relevent to this thread becase this is not that sort of project apparently, the ideal setup is for the users to interface directly with the programmers.

With all the best software I have ever used (and backed up by reviews of others), I know the name of at least one developer on the project because that is who writes back to you when you submit feature requests and bug reports.

With all the worst software I have ever used, I have no idea who works on the project because the managers have set up an automatic system to auto-reply to customer feedback.

Those that believe customer feedback should be kept away from the people doing the development are living in a serious state of poor development practices.

Dennis Atkins
Tuesday, January 6, 2004

"why is this "manager" even getting a paycheck"

In a very healthy and profitable project the purpose of the project manager is to make sure the developer have what they need to be productive. It is absolutely not to 'watch' the developers and to 'dictate' to them what to do.

However that is of course how most projects are managed. It is a sign of management incompetance to mismanage in this way and is a leading reason why most projects either deliver no product at all or one that the customer is completely dissatisfied with.

Dennis Atkins
Tuesday, January 6, 2004

I'm not too worried about customers talking directly to the programmer(s).  I will be the only programmer.  I will manage the product and develop it.  My main concern is customers talking to my boss (going around me).  It seems clear from the comments that this also is wrong.  Thanks all for your comments.

However, I still have the nagging question:  "What do I need a manager for?"  I've been under a product manager so long, I can't image what is needed above that level.  It's a matter of perspective, I suppose.  And I'm sure time will teach me.  But I find it's so much better to know what to expect from my manager, and what is expected of me, before I get started.  Any product managers out there that can give me some good pointers?  What have you found that works with your manager?  Or, what have you found that doesn't work?

Curious George
Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Curious George,

Not sure if this is what you're looking for but;

-Demonstrating that you have done your due dilligence and that your strategic product decisions are based on a sufficient understanding of the stakeholders needs.  It's one thing to make a decision that doesn't work out, but it's another to make a decision that doesn't work out because you didn't understand the problem space.

-Demonstrating that you have a clear understanding of the risks involved in the project and a plan (and sometimes multiple plans) for mitigating them.

-Demonstrating that you have a high degree of visibility into the project's ACTUAL (vs. planned) progress and that your resource allocation decisions are based on what is actually happening and not "wishful thinking" based on the orginal project plan or, inversely, not overly reactive.

Good luck

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home