What do you call a guy who hangs out with a group of musicians? A drummer.
What do you call a guy or girl who hangs out with a bunch of engineers? A product manager.
It’s a fact that every music group needs a good drummer and every startup needs a good product manager. The problem, as the jokes imply, is that neither the drummer nor the product manager is truly appreciated by his colleagues at a startup.
The reason? I suspect it is because many young entrepreneurs do not completely understand the role product management plays in the success of their venture.
A good product manager should define the product — its features, it positioning, and its benefits. He or she should be able to communicate with the customers and influence the engineering team. He or she needs to understand their market and make difficult tradeoff calls without compromising the product. He or she needs to understand how to beat the competition and how to build product traction.
A good product manager is critical to building the business.
Charlie Watts: Product Manager?
When Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were forming the Rolling Stones in the early 1960’s they knew that they needed a drummer to deliver a solid backbeat to keep time for the band and provide the rhythm to create a unique sound for the Stones.
Richards and Jagger set their sites on Charlie Watts — a skilled jazz drummer who played with a London blues band called Blues Incorporated.
Charlie had largely given up his musical career and was working at the advertising firm of Charles, Hobson and Grey. Richards and Jagger had to convince Charlie to leave a steady job at the ad firm to join their new startup, the Rolling Stones.
“There are very few drummers like that. Everybody thinks Mick and Keith are the Rolling Stones. If Charlie wasn’t doing what he’s doing on drums, that wouldn’t be true at all. You’d find out that Charlie Watts IS the Stones.” – Keith Richards
Rhythm and Beat
What did Charlie have that Richards and Jagger needed?
Charlie had that unique combination of technical skills to maintain a steady beat on every Rolling Stones song and the musical ear to create special rhythm for the band.
What has this got to do with product management?
I believe that a product manager also needs a similar combination of skills. He or she needs the technical skills to research and define product requirements, to prepare product collateral, and to evaluate the competition.
But a good product manager (like a good drummer) has to have more than that.
A good drummer has a feel for the music and what the band can do and uses these to provide rhythm.
A good product manager has a feel for his market and customers, can synthesize a large set of data, and use this sense to create a unique market position for his or her company.
Poet and Plumber
Mario Cuomo, former Governor of New York, once said:
“Good public administration is a combination of poetry and plumbing.”
I believe any good product manager is both a good plumber and a poet. If the plumbing is not working, then the company is in trouble. At the same time, the company needs some poetry to separate it from its competition.
Product Management By Company Type
I spent many years in product management in Silicon Valley with leading companies like Apple, Cisco, and Broadcom. The skills I learned in product management have served me well.
The role varied in each company because of the nature of the product development process and sales cycle.
Product Mangers in semiconductor companies, like Broadcom, are directly involved in each individual sale. One Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) or Original Design Manufacturer (ODM) customer can drive significant volume of your semiconductor component. As a result, semiconductor product managers closely resemble sales people more so than marketing professionals. They are very visible to the customer.
Companies like Apple and Cisco, on the other hand, have product lines that are sold through scalable distribution channels. Product managers are less involved in the individual sales and instead focus on product definition, positioning, pricing, and messaging. They make sure that the sales collateral is in place for the sales and distribution teams. Product managers at these companies are mostly invisible.
A good product manager is highly valued at a large company. Large organizations need the skill set to make sure that their products are launched and well managed through their lifecycle.
A good product manager can make or break a startup these days. He or she can define and shape the product a young company needs to break away. A good product manager can find the mix of marketing activities that provide the traction a startup needs to generate growth.
The Evolution of Product Management
Startups in the web and mobile space have access to data that was not available just a few years ago. This has made product management more real-time because product management teams can develop, deploy, and test products and features much faster than before.
Before product development and market development activities were serial. Today, this real-time marketplace allows product managers to combine the product development and market traction activities together into one task. Weinberg and Mares in their new book, Traction, identify this as the 50% Rule.
Product managers have had to expand their skill set to operate in this real-time marketplace.
But good product managers still need to be a master poet and plumber.
Like good drummers, they need maintain the beat and find the rhythm for the product.
This article is part of my Product Management guide.