Product Management as a Profession

In our previous blogs we made an attempt to explain about our movement and how we plan to create 50000 product leaders over the next couple of years. We also spoke about PM-101 which is our flagship learning pathway to groom product management aspirants on the intricacies of products while helping them get access to world class content curated by product management practitioners and experts. Having said that it’s imperative to first understand what product management is as a profession. This is what students expect product management to be

But in retrospect this is exactly what it turns out to be

It’s a creative job that delves deep into business, technology and design. Having said that it also uses a lot of sales, persuasion and negotiation skills along with understanding human or more appropriately consumer behaviour at a much closer level. Let’s first talk a bit about the job and try to demystify it by asking a bunch of questions. What exactly is product management? Why do you need product managers? What do product managers do?

Well to give a brief history of product management, it would be a little surprising to discover that what we call today as product management started as brand management in Procter and Gamble in 1931 when Neil.H.McElroy wrote a memo to his employees identifying the need to create a brand management team at P&G that could help raise awareness about the brand and its products for better sales. From then till now after a lot of global events have happened ,that included two world wars, product management has come a long way.

Today product management profession has become an integral part of the value chain. Product managers are typically running product organisations and churning ground breaking products at an exponential pace. But then let’s tackle the answer that deals with the primordial question about the genuine need for product managers. Well if one were to read classical economics about what Adam Smith has written, one would find Smith wrote about the Invisible Hand of Free Market System. Smith dictates that in a free market economy the market would spontaneously arrive at an equilibrium killing bad services and bad products ,thereby punishing the companies producing it. Smith further elaborates in his seminal book ‘Wealth of Nations’ that if a carpenter is building a chair, he needs to build it for his customers keeping them in his mind than creating it based on his personal likes. That translates one of the biggest problems tech industry discovered post the dotcom boom of 2000, which is the simple fact that most techies don’t know what to build and its important to build something that sells. Although there was a lot of hoopla around building what one feels like because of the open source movement pioneered by Fred Brooks and Eric Raymond, it slowly became evidently clear that the entire art and science of building a product is less important than understanding the basic needs and pain points of people and then building a product or a service to fix the issue.

Abraham Maslow had earlier created a pyramid of needs that outlined the various categories of needs human beings have.

Alan Cooper in his bestseller ‘The inmates are running the Asylum’, talks about the inability of developers to comprehend human need and design interfaces conducive for human computer interaction. In fact if word id to be believed, the entire profession of Ux design, visual design and interaction design actually came out as an answer to that. In short inspite of the ‘developer developer’ monologue by Steve Balmer in early 2000s , the world shifted to product management because some really bad products were created which completely ignored the existence of a customer. But even when disruptive products were created as Clayton Christensen talks about in ‘The Innovator’s dilemma’ , they flopped because again no one took into account what customers actually wanted. Keeping all that in mind there was a need to create a set of people who could be responsible for driving the product right from conception to deployment. Today we call them product managers.

Product managers typically operate at the intersection point of business, tech and design.

They are the guys who figure out what needs to be built. Its a heavy duty job because it’s difficult to understand the pain points of customers. It involves a lot of market research and user research. It involves user interviews, focus groups and multivariate testing. It also involves helping the engineering, design, marketing and data folks to come up with the basic MVP that could be released to the customer segment as an alpha or a beta release to gather feedback. End of the day as Christensen talks about in his seminal ‘Job Theory’, the purpose of a product is to help the customer do a job effectively and the product manager has to figure out if the product is really helping a customer do that.

So quintessentially the product manager is typically the guy running the show for a particular product. The job involves a lot of persuasion and street smartness. It’s not that different from entrepreneurship if we go by the semantics of both the positions. A product manager has to use all the tools and resources at his disposal to figure out what product, feature or service a company needs to build to move ahead in the value chain. It’s a tough job since its subject to uncertainty arising out of the irrational nature of human behaviour as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky discovered. It’s no easy feat to figure out customer needs because they keep on changing. The amorphous nature of the job makes it incredibly difficult and needs people who could think clearly through the noise and come up with creative and innovative products or services that could solve a customer problem and also make proportionate revenues. Add to it the complexity when it comes to interfacing with customers and the various stakeholders and a product manager’s job becomes inadvertently more complex.

Having said all that which really sounds tad heavy, its important to discuss why this role could just be the one you’ve been looking for. A product manager’s role inspite of all the complexities is a really cool one because it really forces a person to think hard creatively. Along with that it makes a person an expert in persuasion techniques that Robert Cialdini talks about in his bestseller ‘Influence’. If that isn’t enough one becomes an expert in negotiation techniques that Chris Voss talks about in ‘Never split the difference’. It also requires one to be a completely data centric person. One needs to understand data analytics deeply to understand more about the story the data is trying to show. Although the story is devoid of a context, it still provides enough ammo to the product manager to understand the behavioural pattern of customers over time through cohort analysis or A/B analysis. One becomes an expert in business model development as a product person because every product has to monetise. Product management also tends to exploit the design skills of individuals through wireframes and mock diagrams. It also helps product managers use frameworks like design thinking to solve problems that come their way. This is perhaps the only role in the technology industry where one gets to learn all types of skills that are used in the day to day job unlike any other profession. Add to it the exponential career growth and it is perhaps one of the most sough after professions today in the technology utopia. Wish to know more about product management, connect with us at NASSCOM Product Connect and follow our webinars, posts and blogs to know more. Stay tuned as we would be coming up with another mind-boggling webinar by an industry leader and if that doesn’t satiate your soul, join us at NASSCOM Product Conclave in January. This is your chance to try your guts out for the ‘It Job’ of the millenium. Don’t let it go. Come connect with us.

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