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You Might Be a Product Manager If…

It’s time for the 2009 edition of Product Beautiful’s semi-annual “You Might Be a Product Manager If…” list.   Please add your own in the comments below.

You might be a Product Manager if:

  1. You’ve created a roadmap through 2015
  2. You can’t remember working less than 70 hours a week
  3. You’ve lost your hair (if you haven’t consider yourself warned!)
  4. At your annual customer summit, you stay late to setup and test products for the next day while Sales runs up a historic bar tab
  5. You used to be a programmer but were too extroverted
  6. You used to be a salesperson but were too introverted
  7. You use customer interview techniques with your spouse to discover the root cause of their problems so you can build a “solution” (”That’s interesting…tell me more!”<smack>)
  8. You wake up at night worried about getting your product’s feature-set right or hitting your ship date
  9. You find competitive and win-loss analysis fun (ugh, I can’t believe I just realized I find those things fun)
  10. You walk through the store and look at products thinking “what problem does that solve?”
  11. You do a SWOT analysis before making any major purchase
  12. The last thing you do before you go to bed and the first thing you do when you wake up is to check your email
  13. You’ve ever written “The System Shall…
  14. You never have less than five #1 priorities
  15. You’ve sat behind the one-way mirror at a focus group
  16. One or more of the following groups is pissed at you: Sales, Development, QA, Tech Support, Marketing, or Operations. Special bonus if you get all at once.
  17. You enjoy writing requirements that constrain easy way out from the Programmer.
  18. You’ve actually learned how to herd cats.
  19. You own an iPhone.
  20. You wonder how the iPhone product manager prioritized all the possible features.
  21. You wonder how many engineering hours it took to create a new feature in your favorite web app.
  22. You try to envision the next 3 design updates for any product you see.
  23. You think in Use Cases.
  24. You’re always looking for an alternative flow of events.
  25. You can’t live without OmniGraffle or Visio.
  26. You had to reset expectations with management, customers, engineering, and finance.
  27. You had to produce a WW product forecast for sales since they are too busy to do it.
  28. You enjoy watching “How It’s Made.
  29. You plan “features” for your children and have a “roadmap” for their skill growth
  30. Your wedding included a powerpoint presentation.
  31. Major life events require a MS Project file.
  32. You get “phantom buzzing” in your pocket when you forget your Blackberry.
  33. You’ve talked to more customers in the last month than all of your executives combined.
  34. Your marketing person said “you’re technical…explain this to me like I was 10.” then, “…now like I was 3…”
  35. You know what all of these are: MRD, PRD, BRD, Functional Spec, sprint, scrum, CAB, spiff.
  36. Your favorite question is “why?”
  37. Your favorite application is Excel.
  38. You’ve built your own product P&L template in Excel to save time.
  39. You’ve used your P&L template across multiple companies.
  40. You know what the “analyst dance” is, and you’re definitely a PM if you’ve done it.
  41. You know what your customer is going to say before they say it.
  42. Your spouse knows who your 3 biggest competitors are by name.
  43. You’ve flown on every major (and some minor) airline this year.
  44. You’ve used Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook to connect with a customer.
  45. You’ve dreamt about competitive kill sheets.
  46. You’ve been to ProductCamp
  47. You’re the one your CEO comes to when he/she really wants to know how things are going.
  48. “They” remembered your revenue commitment but not your product’s funding.
  49. Everyone thinks they do a part of your job.
  50. You’ve ever had to explain to a founder or executive why customers don’t want their great new idea.
  51. You’ve been asked for the revenue impact of deleting a single feature.
  52. You’ve been held accountable for Development’s schedule slips.
  53. You’ve been the person that everyone brings the hard questions to at the trade show booth.
  54. Caffeine is one of your primary food groups.
  55. You spend more time with your development counterpart than your spouse.
  56. You write a blog about Product Management…gulp!

Special thanks to my twitter friends: @joshua_d, @imusicmash, @chriscummings01 for contributing to this list!  You can follow me on Twitter, too.  Happy New Year!

The Big Company Survival Kit for Startup PM’s

There is so much territory to cover on this topic that this is probably the beginning of another series.  This post focuses on differences and expectation setting between small and big companies, and lessons learned making the leap between the two.

I’ve always considered myself a startup kind of guy, and for the past two years I ran Product Management at a small company called NetStreams.  However, two months ago an opportunity came up that I had to consider, and ultimately took, to help Dell build out their SaaS business.  Over these two months I’ve formed some new opinions about how Product Management is different at a small company vs. a large company.  Now that I’ve bounced between small and large (NetSolve to Cisco to NetStreams to Dell), the contrasts are stark and important – especially if you are considering changing jobs.


Scope is very different between small and large companies – but not how you might think.  My assumption was that coming into a large company, that roles would be very well defined and delineated, and that the scope of your role would be set.  The reality is far from that – I’ve found that there are plenty of opportunity to define what Product Management means.  This may differ depending on the part of the business you are in (legacy/sustaining vs. new/conquest).

In the startup world, very few people know what Product Management is or does.  So there is a lot more education that you need to take on.  Explaining to the Development team for the Nth time about what Product Management does can wear you down.  Butting heads with Executives who believe that their experiences trump the data you’re bringing back from the Market can wear you down.  The excitement from seeing the decisions you make and the products you bring to Market gives you a boost.  The energy/excitement level is much more boom/bust in a startup.  Big companies want a steady hand on the wheel.

Business Opportunity

Who do we want to be (when we grow up)?  In a small company you are constantly asking and answering this question.  Often times, the answer changes and evolves over time.  In a good Market you’re faced with the question of “It’s not what do we need to do to succeed, it’s which of these excellent opportunities are the best?”

In the large company, you are already grown up.  Now your job is to sustain, and not screw up the business.  Even minor risks look much bigger.  Do we want to push the envelope on a product?  Maybe not if it means we’ll end up on the front page of the NY Times for something bad.  “The unknown” takes a much bigger place in planning and you devote a lot of effort to reducing the unknown variables.  The good news is that you have a big team and lots of people to help.  The bad news is that decision making can be infuriatingly slow and involve dozens of people with competing priorities.


When you’re at a startup, you’re all in the same “rowboat in the ocean.”  Everyone must contribute for survival, and it is pretty easy to see who is dead weight.  This fosters tight teams and passionate arguments over everything, but there is always a family feel (or at least there was for me), meaning that everyone is doing what they genuinely believe is best to make the company succeed.  There’s just no room for ulterior motives.

Lots of people talk about the politics inside big companies, and some of that is true.  However, at least in my experiences it isn’t as bad as most people portray.  So much of this has to do with how you carry yourself: are you “above the fray,” and not interesting in having political conversations?  If yes, you can avoid much of the mess.  If you enjoy that kind of thing (why?), those conversations and people will seek you out.

Note that not proactively involving yourself in politics does not mean being politically unaware.  You always need to know your manager’s motivation and your manager’s manager’s motivation, and what drives the team around you, so you can pull those levers at the right time.

Context is very important in a larger company.  For example, big company have lots of semi-overlapping products and projects that are competing for scarce resources.  Is the person you’re talking to someone who owns a competing initiative?  That may not be a bad thing, maybe you can find common ground between your projects and collaborate on requirements – but always keep your market justification for your product at the ready so you can pull it up when called upon.

Someone recently described large companies to me as “tribal.”  If you’re in a company of 50,000 people, all searching for justification for their own jobs and their own products, thought patterns can change to “What’s best for me, What’s best for my group, What’s best for the company.”  In that order; it’s survival.


Small companies meet face to face and in the hallways.  Decisions are made informally and sometimes with little deliberation.  If you’re not careful that can cause lots of flapping in the wind downstream, as individual contributors catch up with the “strategy of the week.”  That problem is compounded because many executives in startups are in their first executive position and were great individual contributors or team leads but possibly poor department heads.  Communication filters down through the organization as fast as Word of Mouth can take it.

Another aspect of startups is that most communication is verbal – there aren’t memos, Project Managers doing daily status updates, etc.  If you miss a meeting, you need to seek out someone from that meeting and get a face to face update.

In the large company world, PowerPoint rules.  I recently had to give a presentation to an Executive and I was shocked at the amount of time that my manager and I spent wordsmithing.  The reason is that at a larger company, there are so many people vyying for your time that you get overbooked for meetings, and can’t make all of them.  So you ask people to send you the deck, and PowerPoint becomes a defacto memo.  If you’re used to all of your slides coming with your voiceover, forget it.  Your slides must stand on their own, and deliver your message clearly, concisely, and quickly.  The good news is that it’s good practice to hone your message down to the key points, a skill I obviously need help with as evidenced by the length of my posts.

Another big difference in the big company is that you’re on a campus.  There are multiple buildings and you’re working with people in different areas, cities, timezones and countries.  Meeting face to face just isn’t practical every time.  The result is conference calls.  Lots and lots of conference calls.  It’s a culture shock at first and you need to amp up your active listening skills to make them work.

Execution and Overlap

Small companies don’t have overlap because they can’t afford to.  On the other hand, execution lags because you don’t have the resources to properly develop, QA, document, market, or sell.  That problem is compounded because most startups (not all) don’t wish to set a target market, believing that they really can be all things to all people and are deathly afraid of turning down any business.

Big companies are execution oriented.  They have formal measurement processes and you are judged every six months or every year on your performance.  Measurement is a good thing, but it also fosters a culture of justification – you need to show why you exist and what you’re doing to advance the business.

Normally it is a good thing to have lots of execution minded people running around picking up dropped balls.  The problem is that in a company with 50K employees, sometimes the right hand doesn’t know that the left hand exists, let alone what it is doing.  There have been multiple times at both Cisco and Dell that I’ve been in meetings doing introductions and have given the standard “this is who I am this is what I’m doing” and had people approach me after the meeting saying “wait a minute…I’m working on the exact same thing!  What’s your name again?”  Just finding the right people can be half the battle.


Big companies have lots of resources, but you have to fight to get access to them.  Big companies spend a lot of money on research, customer interviews, focus groups, product testing, etc.  Unlike a small company, there aren’t a lot of long shot bets in a large company.  You need to be able to illustrate ROI and time to payoff, or you’re dead in the water.  If you can, you’ll get access to what you need to make your product successful, and if it’s not…it’s on you.

You also have leverage resources when you’re at a larger company.  You can negotiate better deals, you have multiple companies that want to tap into your sales force and installed base, and you can use these to put together partner solutions that may be superior to other offerings in the Market.


My wife and I recently had a baby girl.  I started at Dell on a Monday, and Addison (at right) came on Wednesday.  One lesson learned is not to start a new job and have a baby in the same week.  However, it enabled us to take advantage of the better benefits that a big company brings to the table.  To cover the family at the startup would be have been just short of $1000/month.  Now I pay less than a fifth of that.  For better coverage.  And 401k matching.

At the startup you get lots and lots of equity.  Will it ever be worth anything?  Part of that has to do with you and the work you put in, there is also luck and timing involved.  I’d advise anyone going to a startup to understand the time frame to a liquidity event very clearly before making the leap.  Are you willing to accept that standard of living for five+ years?  What if your family situation changes?  Something to consider…

Making it Work

Can someone with a small company, entreprenural heart be happy at a big company?  Ask me again in a year.

Changing Jobs in Product Management: Interviewing and Offer Evaluation (Part II of III)

This post is part of a three-part series about changing jobs in Product Management. Part one was about doing a self-evaluation and farming your network.

Feeling naked in the negotiation process?After you’ve done your evaluation and reached far and deep into your network (which you are doing anyway – right?), at some point someone will find you.

The point of any your search is for you to find, but also for you to be found, because hiring managers and companies will make a much more lucrative offer to someone they feel like they’ve vetted. I highly encourage raising your online profile through creative PR. It’s not about putting yourself out there to find a job, it’s about being recognized as a “go-to” Product Management expert in your field/geography/niche. Face-to-face events like ProductCamp are great for showing your depth of expertise, which you can leverage into fun online conversations down the road (aside: every city should have a ProductCamp. Email me if you want help setting it up).

No one gets a formal request to interview right off the bat anymore. You’ll get an email, probably from the HR or recruiter, saying that they saw your profile on LinkedIn and you’re a match for some talent that they are looking for. This is where you critically need to have done your self assessment so that you already know if this company is one of your targets, and why. If you’re interested, ask to have an informal meeting with the hiring manager, which may be face-to-face or a phone screen.

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You Don’t Really Own Your Roadmap

Here's your sign!Sales people hate looking stupid. Unfortunately, we often put them in positions where they look very stupid by changing plans and roadmaps, which is our own fault. How do you keep the trust of your team when your business, roadmap, and customers are shifting in the sands around you?

There are lots of reasons that plans change, some good and some bad: the Market shifts, the competition makes a play, or the company dosen’t hit its goals and has to layoff developers, which pinch your resources. All of these create a refactor in your roadmap.

There are several tactics you can use to lessen the impact of changes to The Plan. I’ve written in the past about the importance of separating your Roadmap from your Release Plan. This simple change, and the cultural impact at the Executive level down to the developer level of thinking that “a product/feature on the Release Plan is locked in and cannot be changed” is huge. Remember that Release Plan’s mean that the product or feature’s release is imminent and committed – your Release Plan should never cover >6 months.

Also, realize that you don’t really own your roadmap. The best you can do with the roadmap is plot a general direction for a product or service, but when it comes down to it, the Market and the Business own the roadmap. The Roadmap is not yours; you are the steward of the Roadmap. I see products and companies fail all the time because they set their roadmap and expected the Market to bend to them; it doesn’t work that way.

One-off deals can also derail the roadmap. In a smaller company where there is immediate revenue pressure, the allure of a special deal that “just needs this one feature” is huge. Are you ready to turn down a million dollars in revenue? Most Executive teams are not. Be able to illustrate how any proposed feature or product changes to your roadmap delay or eliminate your entrance into new markets or buying personas. That changes the special deal conversation from emotion-based to data-based.

New Development VP’s also have a tendency to take roadmaps off course. The reason: they love changing technology architectures. I carry a cross on this one since I’ve been burned before, from a CTO who changed the team from Java to .NET…which meant retraining some developers, dumping other developers, and hiring new developers. We lost 12-18 months just spinning – it was stupid!

When you see the VP of Development pushing for a change in development platform or underlying technology, drill closely into the details of why. Most Dev VP’s aren’t dumb enough to say “it’s because it’s a fad” or “because I want to get quoted in CTO magazine!,” and they will come up with legitimate sounding reasons why the old platform sucks and we really, really need this new one. You need to provide the voice of reason – with today’s technology, you can build an adapter to and from almost any technology without having to rip up your entire platform. If it’s that strategic to change your platform, the company should be able to justify the expense of building a parallel platform next to the existing one without disrupting current development.

One type of project that can be completely immune to external forces taking them off roadmap is the open source project. Since developers in this model often develop for themselves and not for the Market, oftentimes they don’t care what their users are asking for. Other open source projects are more flexible to the wants of their Market and do adjust their plans.

What other reasons pop up for taking you off roadmap, and how do you combat them?

How to Be Strategic

Roman Helmet“You should be more strategic.” “Product Management needs to focus on the strategic.” “I’d love to be more strategic, if only I wasn’t stuck doing all of these tactical things!”

Do any of the above sound familiar to you? Being asked to be more strategic, or wishing to become more strategic has been around as long as someone called themselves a Product Manager, but what does it really mean? How can you become more strategic when everyone is vying for your time – all the time?

Strategic is a term that has lost meaning since it became part of the Executive lexicon. Everyone wants to “be strategic,” because in the information economy we associate the most value with the people who come up with the best thoughts. Being tactical is, amazingly, viewed as a negative. You can hear the connotation drip from people’s mouths when they say it: “Oh, he’s a good candidate, but I think he’s too tactical.” Everyone wants to be the chef, no one the waiter…as if the food will cook itself and walk out to our customer’s tables.

Wikipedia defines strategy as:

“…a long term plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal, most often “winning.” Strategy is differentiated from tactics or immediate actions with resources at hand by its nature of being extensively premeditated, and often practically rehearsed. Strategies are used to make the problem easier to understand and solve.”

You can boil that down to strategy is about having the best plan. Whenever I hear people talk about not being strategic enough (or I catch myself doing it), three thoughts immediately pop into my head:

  1. Being strategic is not binary; you don’t wake up one day and say “today I am strategic!” It is a journey and a destination.
  2. If your goal for being strategic is to be well regarded, to be a leader, and to “win,” remember that people follow leaders that inspire not only by their words but by their actions. Even great strategic thinkers have to get into the tactical muck and implement their grand plans.
  3. You can control how strategic you are by your own actions. If being strategic is about having the best plan, and by extension the best/smartest/most agile thoughts, you can train your brain to be a step ahead of your competition and your peers. Here are some thoughts on how.

I’ve been fortunate to work with some really bright thinkers so far in my career and picked up a few tips on how to be a more agile thinker. Everyone has their own processing style, for instance I like to digest and think on a topic for awhile before coming up with a plan of action, but you might be a snap thinker who can do all of this on the fly – if so you’re ahead of me! Note that some of these questions overlap in scope.

Ways to be a Strategic Thinker

  • If we take the current action, what will be the downstream results to X, Y, Z? How will they likely react? How will we counter-react? You can’t get through a strategy discussion without a chess analogy, so here you go. These questions help you anticipate the moves of your competition, channel, etc, and decide beforehand how you want to react, so you’re not caught flat footed.
  • Who and what else are connected to this decision? How will this affect them? I like this question because it forces you to think through the implications of your decisions early. It’s easy to sit back and say “let’s change our distribution model” or “let’s move to SaaS!,” but being able to accurately predict and describe the challenges of plan of action will help guide you to the best choice.
  • Ask the Five Why’s; This sounds like a something out of a kung fu movie, but the Five Why’s are real. Five Why’s is a B-school/consulting method that says if you ask “why” at least 5 times you can get to the root of the problem. It’s all about digging deeper. Observe:

“I hate your company.”


“Because I have to wait for tech support for 3 hours to get someone on the phone!”


“Because your product didn’t work right when I plugged it in!”


“Because when I went to training they didn’t tell me I needed to hold the reset button while I plugged it in to load the factory settings!”


“Because your training is a joke, it’s all sales and no technical!”


“I only went because I couldn’t get a sales guy to call me back!”

In this example what appeared to be a product problem may actually be a sales, training, and support problem..

  • What external influences will affect me in the future? If your competition introduced a product tomorrow with the same features as yours at half the price, how would you react?
  • What internal influences will affect me in the future? If your company downsized and you lost half of your development staff, how would you react? What if you faced mega sales and had to quickly scale up?
  • Where is “good enough” okay, and where do we really need to invest to provide an out-of-this world experience? You can’t do everything perfect all of the time.
  • If I had unlimited funds, what one product development would move the revenue/profit/customer satisfaction needle more than all others? Which needle is more important to move?
  • If I had only one development dollar, where would I put it and why? This is closely related to the question above it.
  • Why are we winning today? Why are we losing? You need to understand your current stance if you want to build a solid future plan.
  • What do we do better than everyone else? Do you understand your core competency?
  • What problem do we need to solve for the customer? If you don’t know this…find out fast because it’s probably different than your assumption.
  • What barriers exist to prevent us from winning? Is it better to smash through those barriers, or route around them? Sometimes the only road to winning is to go through a competitor. But it’s 3-5x more difficult/expensive to gain a new customer than to recruit business from existing customers. Is there a way to win business without a head on confrontation?
  • What can we do that’s never been done before? I love this question because it’s challenging. It doesn’t just apply to engineering either, you can apply it to Marketing and Sales as well.

What other ways do you use to be a better strategic thinker?