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Episode 99 January 9, 2018 | 25min

Defining Product Management

Our co-founders explain what product management really means.

Show Notes

You report to the product: This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade sit down to talk about hiring product managers who do more than the hand-off. We delve into the intersection of design and engineering, why product management is so difficult to define, and the value of curiosity. We also share our top three ways to destroy your resume!

[Intro music]

00:15 Paul Ford Hey, you’re listening to Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. My name is Paul Ford, I’m the co-host of Track Changes and the co-founder of Postlight.

Rich Ziade I’m Rich Ziade, the other co-host and the other co-founder of Postlight.

PF Rich, let’s tell the people what we do.

RZ We do a lot of stuff. We’re a technology shop. This podcast is brought to you by Postlight which is a technology shop based here in New York City where we build — design and build really amazing things: apps, platforms, mobile apps, anything that can run around the world or inside of your company. We design and build it. And we are a product shop at our core. Reach out to us at [email protected] if you need our help or need anything. We love talking to people, anyway.

PF You know the key thing here too is even if you don’t need the help, somebody in your world might come to you, especially if you’re a person in technology, and say, “How do I get this built?” And instead of saying, “I don’t know,” say, “You know what? Send an email to [email protected] They’ll help you.”

RZ And just to close out the Postlight story here um we oftentimes have people visit us, we think maybe that it’s new business, but very often it’s just a good conversation and we share advice, and that’s that. And we like it.

PF That’s real. We actually — we often tell people, like, “Well, you may not need us right now, [yup]. You know, you might need us a little bit down the road. But right now you need to go a little smaller, or go in this direction, or use something off the shelf [yup]. And that’s fine.” So you can send people to us in good faith. We’re not gonna just like pick their pocket. We’re here to listen and we’re here to help.

RZ Yup. See that didn’t feel too pluggy, Paul.

PF No, I want people to know that. I feel that we’re just like — we tell people, like, “Hey, give us a call when you got a big tech problem!”

RZ Yeah, exactly.

PF What we wanna be is — the way that we thrive is we give so much good advice and help people build so many good careers out in the world.

RZ Yup.

PF That they wanna go tell someone else, like, “Oh you know what? If you have an issue, just talk to these guys. They’re pretty good and like the first consult’s free. So don’t worry.”

2:13 RZ Boom.

PF That’s where we’re at. So you know actually in keeping with this conversation our team is growing.

RZ Yes.

PF We are building out our engineering team — and our design team. But, most specifically, our product management team.

RZ Product management is a rough word. It’s a rough title.

PF What engineers do. Engineers kinda make it go, right? Like they make the software [yup]. They put it together. Designers say, “This is how it needs to work and feel and look.”

RZ And function [that’s right]. Like how do humans interact with it?

PF But it’s not just look, it’s like a whole thing [yeah, yeah yeah]. And so both of those disciplines have these really clear like deliverables.

RZ Mm hmm. I mean the best way to kind of punctuate the level of sort of definition and clarity around these roles is that you can go to school for ’em. There’s some — actually, computer engineering is a widely understood and recognized bachelor’s, master’s program everywhere. Design is now actually — it’s a growing — uh and when we say design, we don’t just mean graphic design.

PF Experience design.

RZ Experience design.

PF And so we’ve been talking about these two disciplines because they’re very well defined and then there’s a third discipline.

RZ Oh boy!

We’ve been talking about these two disciplines [engineering and design] because they’re very well defined, and then there’s a third discipline — product managment.

PF Product management!

RZ Now we’ve had a previous podcast where we actually dove pretty deeply into product management.

PF What is a product manager?

3:42 RZ What is a product manager?

PF And many of the people we’ve had on the podcast are product managers.

RZ Absolutely.

PF But we’re talking about something specific which is that we’re going out into the world and trying to hire a product manager — or several.

RZ Right.

PF And that’s tricky.

RZ Yeah I mean to give the backstory here: it’s hard to just hire by going on the internet and paying for some job sites. Um so we’ve hired agencies as well. Um essentially the agencies line up resumes for you, talk to you, consult with you. Um you give them an idea of what you want and then they go and get candidates and they line them up for you, and then you decide from there how far along you wanna take it. Agencies themselves, you know, they’re looking for markers, right? They’re looking for words, they’re looking for key sort of indicators that they’ve got someone that we may be interested in. And product management is an absolute puzzle.

PF First of all: the two words basically mean nothing.

RZ Absolutely!

PF Like, product up until I got into this discipline meant something for your hair. And management is usually running other people.

RZ Yeah, management is a fax machine.

PF In this case, product management is managing and coordinating all of the people and resources that go into making a digital product which is not something that goes in your hair. You can’t touch it. It doesn’t come off an assembly line. And getting that out into the world.

RZ I think that’s part of it. Coordinating is part of it [mm hmm]. I think another key part of it, and there’s an article on the internet called “What Makes a Great Product Manager.” Great article.

PF Who wrote that?

RZ I think — wait a second.

PF [Laughs] that’s funny. Ok [alright]. So Rich wrote a good article, it’s on trackchanges.postlight.com [yes]. Yeah, there ya go [RZ laughs]. Get in there!

5:42 RZ And a product manager –

PF Well, no, let’s pause and let them look that URL up on their mobile device [yeah] um –

RZ Uh so it’s not just about coordinating and making sure the thing goes out the door. It’s you are responsible for the quality of the thing. You are the thing’s advocate. You are unhappy, even though it’s not a bug, and it’s not in JIRA, you are unhappy with some aspect of the product. And you may have made that decision to go down path A and then they all went down path A and you’re like, “It didn’t work.”

PF Ok so they are the designers and engineers, right?

RZ The team!

PF Who are not your direct reports [no]. You are –

RZ Your direct report — well, I mean, you report to the product. That’s a good way put it.

PF Yeah, that is a good way to put it.

RZ You report to the product. Your people are helping you realize this vision. So –

PF Lemme, you know, I wanna tell you something actually, though, which is that — so I used to work in media in a lot of different capacities but I was always kind of a programmer and I would build media platforms, right?

RZ Right.

PF But actually in New York City at the time people weren’t using the term product manager so nobody would call me that. I didn’t ask them to. I didn’t even know that what I was [uh huh]. So I got out of that and then slowly kind of found my way into the business and the place that I’m in now. But a lot of people come to me, quite a few, over the course of any given month and are like, “How do I transition a more editorial or media driven role, sometimes tech, sometimes not, into your world?” And it’s really like — what’s happened is they didn’t use to ask this and now they ask: how do I become a product manager? [Yeah] and so there’s a real um –

RZ That’s weird, right? Like they don’t even know what it means but they decided they wanna be there.

7:23 RZ Domain expertise is a big part of it, right?

PF And that’s not crazy, right? Because editors, like good ones, are responsible for shaping an overall product [mm hmm]. They have a lot of input, they manage people who are not — who they don’t directly control [right], like, and they’re utterly beholden to deadlines. It’s just that like what they don’t necessarily do that much is inspect the element and figure out why something’s breaking and then write a good bug report.

RZ Yeah, I mean, we’re talking about technology product managers here. There are cereal box product managers. Like, “I need a new flavour of Cheerios.” There is a product manager [absolutely] who is doing market research –

PF Well actually the product and program management like before — so the West Coast is where this discipline really rose up, in Seattle and in the Bay Area [mm hmm] because people were shipping software and they needed discipline but a lot of the early thinking around it came from places like Procter & Gamble [sure] where they’re like, “I have to get, you know, I have to do something with Tide this year.” [Right] You know, “We need to get Tide Lemon Blasters out into the world.”

RZ Right or this competitive threat and I — you know they came out with a capsule you just throw in your washing machine.

PF Oh my god so I have to — first of all, so I have to source lemon. That’s a big deal [yeah]. Where the hell do you get 200 tonnes of lemon flavour [absolutely] for your Tide? Then you gotta change the design [mm hmm], can you imagine how many people involved in changing the design of a Tide –

RZ Branding [yeah]. Assembly line? “Ok, let’s take it. We got it. We’ve done a few prototypes.”

PF So that’s your engineering.

RZ That’s your engineering. “Now I need to produce millions of these. What is the tooling that’s needed? Can we do it — was is the cost around it?” First off, they probably won’t even give you the green light unless you give them the cost per unit as to what this thing is gonna cost.

PF Oh the amount of reporting and strategy you need to do to put lemon into Tide.

RZ Sure! They’re not gonna give you three million bucks to say, “Go make a tablet. Go make a washing machine tablet.”

PF Sometimes there’s a bit of self-aggrandizement in our business. It’s really — like you know what I think a lot? I bet it’s hard to be at the US mint and get like all the pennies out. Like imagine every year when you have to change the date on the pennies.

9:30 RZ Rough gig.

PF It’s a rough gig, right?! And I’m sure they have it all worked out, you know, it’s a lot of dyes that they use [right] but still. So, look, we’re talking about hiring product managers –

RZ Yeah we’ve talked about — this was a nice angle to cover here but hiring is hard.

PF Resume comes in, what is the first thing you look for?

RZ Well I mean this is it, just to preface that, I mean this is exactly what the agencies are struggling with. They’re like, “What the hell do we look for?”

When a resume comes in, what is the first thing you look for?

RZ Well I mean this is it, just to preface that, I mean this is exactly what the agencies are struggling with. They’re like, “What the hell do we look for?”

RZ Yeah, so — yeah because there are no keywords. They’ll say, “I want a product management job,” very often. Put it at the top.

PF Objective.

RZ Product manager, right? Then there’s that objective paragraph which is usually an utter disaster. Piece of advice for people trying to get hired, ok? [Oh this one’s good, ok] “Looking to institute an efficient, um, frictionless vision and realizing product integrity -”

PF There’s a thing I like to say which is you can’t ship process. And people really like to show up and talk to you about process.

RZ It’s a shit show.

PF Unto itself, right? And I what I need to hear in order to not be having a constant panic attack about a human being, like and this applies inside the company, client — anywhere I go, when somebody’s like, “Well, you know, if you do [makes sounds] -” And they’re just like talking about like, “Well we hit our KPIs, blah blah blah.” And I’m not software come off of those roller bars that [yeah], you know, like I watch to watch those videos where they show you like how the pretzel is made or the rubber bands [yeah] because you see stuff come off that line [mm hmm]. And you’re like, “Ok, I’m gonna eat Oreo.” [Yeah] right? If I don’t see that Oreo roll off the line into the plastic bin, I start to panic. And it really takes like three sentences to put me into a state of total freakout agitation [yeah] which is usually about 90% of the applicants, that’s their objective [both laugh]. By the time they get to the actual work –

RZ Well there’s obfuscation, right? I mean this is part of like — you know when I went to law school there was this thing called the Plain English Movement [mm hmm] which was essentially: stop trying to make it look like we’re smarter than we are and that nobody else could do our jobs. Just write a contract in plain English. Um it’s ok. You’re still needed. We still love you.

11:44 PF It’s the great fear, right? That if I don’t demonstrate my value by drawing a moat around myself with obscure jargon –

RZ It’s the handwriting on the prescription [right right right]. You can never read it cuz, you know, these are experts.

PF That’s right and I’m not a doctor.

RZ Right, exactly. So, that paragraph: speak frankly, speak openly.

PF Well, I mean what’s a good look like? It’s like, “Worked with a team of five people to deliver a piece of software that made it easier to order Tic Tacs.” I mean it can be, like, you did a thing. And if you can’t prove that you did a thing, then you need to be in a big matrix organization where moving one box to another is meaningful [yeah]. Like there are actual roles where people who are just purely about process can truly thrive but it will never work here.

RZ There is — we’re gonna give away some secret sauce right now.

PF That’s alright.

RZ There is a key, key test that is given to every product manager in every interview and we look for it on the resume but oftentimes we can’t tell on the resume. We kinda just have to look for evidence of it. And the test is how far in did you go?

PF Right.

There is a key test that is given to every product manager in every interview… The test is: how far in did they go? …We’re trying to get a sense of whether they handed it all off from design — like were they the relay guy? Did they just take the designs, grab ’em for a second, hand them off to engineering, and that was it? Or did they go inside?

RZ And what that means is usually a product manager has designers — in our world, there’s designers, engineers, QA people at their disposal, and when you’re asking them — and this is the interview process: we’ll say, “You know what — “ We’ll give them like three minutes on the history: tell us where you came from, college –

PF What do you do?

RZ What do you do? Take us through your career. And then we run a scenario and we pick one of the jobs they had and say, “Well, so tell me about this — this looks like it was a big one.” And they say, “Yeah, so um they told us they needed to go to version five from version four.” “Ok, well keep going. Tell me how — who defined it?” They’ll say, “Well, we worked together with the team, blah blah blah blah blah, we defined it.” I’m like, “Ok, so you were involved?” “Yeah, absolutely.” That’s one step in. If you’re like, “No, I got it handed to me,” that this was the thing to get built –

13:52 PF That’s a tricky one because when somebody — we are a vendor and we work with clients. And if somebody comes to us and if most of their experience is working with vendors, it can be hard for them to switch sides.

RZ Absolutely, absolutely. Exactly.

PF So that’s tricky.

RZ Right, so test one. Uh so ok now, “You know the thing you wanna build.” They’re like, “Yeah, absolutely. We knew where we wanted to go.” “Ok, so you’ve got a team here. How’d you communicate it to the team?” And I always end it with, “I mean you didn’t gather them in a room and just ramble on what the thing was gonna be. What’d you create? What were the artefacts you created?” And that — that’s another tipping point, right? Like are they gonna cross this line now and say [mm hmm], “Ah well, no, we just drew it on a whiteboard.” Warning sign goes up. Right?

PF And again, not the worst in the world.

RZ No, not the worst thing in the world.

PF You should get — but we’re looking for people who can start to think strategically about the product and articulate it in a very specific way.

RZ Mm hmm. And now the big test. And here’s the big test: the big test is you have a designer — you have designers, the bigger projects, you have engineers on the bigger projects, right? You have more than one. And you start to dig into the project and they’re walking you through it and you’re trying to get a sense of whether they handed it all off from design — like were they the relay guy? Did they just take the designs, grab ’em for a second, hand them off to engineering, and that was it? Or did they go inside? Did they go into the design? Did they work with design? Did they actually mark up the design and have issues with design? And then finally, when it felt good, came out of design, and went over to engineering. Now there’s gonna be problems in engineering, did you just talk to the lead engineer and say, “Hey, make those problems go away”? Or did you go in and do you understand just enough to go in?

PF And if you’re not super technical, which is also fine [it’s fine], do you have the skills to build a really good relationship of mutual trust with engineering? It has to be a situation where they can be like, “Hey, I don’t think that’s gonna work.” And you can go, “Tell me why so I can understand.” And they go, “Sure.”

RZ Yeah. Exactly!

16:07 PF It’s gotta be this very organic give and take cuz if you’re there with your heels dug in [absolutely] like, [in a deep, mocking voice] “I told you guys, I need this.” [Yeah] And you decide to go all Steve Jobs on us [right], our engineers will come and complain to like me and Rich [yeah] and say, “This person isn’t gonna cut it.”

RZ Right right. That willingness to sort of dive into the other disciplines to defend your vision and advance your vision is absolutely key. If you’re — if it looks like you’re traffic copping, that’s not gonna work. At least for us. I mean sometimes people need project managers. Just people who are just keeping track of the JIRA tickets, totally respect that role, but a product manager is going in wherever they have to go in to find out what the hell’s going on. A lot of –

PF Like you said: the product’s the boss.

They go to work everyday for the product and they build good relationships that make sure that they can keep that product happy and motivated cuz it’s the product that is going to determine their success.

RZ The product’s the boss.

PF So they go to work everyday for the product [right] and they build good relationships that make sure that they can keep that product happy and motivated [mm hmm] cuz it’s the product that is going to determine their success [right]. And so — I mean so resume wise, sort of three things right away, right? Like too abstract, too process driven, and it’s not about getting stuff out into the world, into the app store, onto the web [right]. You know URLs are very powerful [laughing] in this situation, apps that shipped. A lot of things you can’t see because they’re private or whatever but anything that’s actually out in the world is a powerful indicator [for sure]. So too abstract is bad. Not bad. Just not right for us. Too much of a traffic cop, just moving it along, moving it along, not really treating the product like your boss, but treating the product like a peer. You just wanna — “Yay, ok, everything’s working. Engineering still likes me. Design still likes me. I got it back. Let’s get it into production.” [Right] that sorta thing. That’s a red flag. And I think the third one is just hasn’t really thought about product yet, is like very engineering oriented or very design oriented, wants to make a career move but hasn’t really considered what that is [yeah] but is just like, “I know I wanna get into product.” [Yeah] you need to tell a story about, “I wanna get into product because -”.

RZ Yeah. I have a family member, actually, who wanted to get into product management. Change careers. Actually pretty dramatic change. Right out of technology and into this new career of product management. And he was kind of probing it and took a couple of classes, like sorta those daylong crash courses and whatnot. And he came back to me, he said, “Rich, I don’t think this is for me.” I said, “What’s going on?” He’s like, “I understand all of it. It makes sense to me. Um I just don’t if I can be loud enough to be a good product manager.” [Hmm] and I said, “What does that mean?” He’s like, “Well, I mean, your main job seems to be to just go into different rooms and tell people what’s happening and what needs to change and you have to be kind of forceful with it because a lot of it is not science. It’s not that there’s a bug. It’s not that it’s spitting up the wrong number, but it’s literally just not jiving with what you want. And that’s a big deal.”

19:07 PF I get that, right, but I’ve also seen really effective PMs go into that same room, whether it’s a Slack room or whatever, and just ask questions.

RZ Oh I envy those PMs. I’m a sledgehammer PM [mm hmm] and I consider it a strength and a flaw all at the same time. The PMs that can just get everybody lined up, I think they’re magicians.

PF They have to be really in the mix. I think it’s very hard to be that kind of high altitude PM and not be [yeah] — like you’re — the way that Postlight’s working right now, it’s really hard for you to be in on a project.

RZ It is.

PF On a day to day basis [it is]. So when you are managing things or giving feedback it’s from a pretty high altitude [yeah]. If you’re in there every single day and you’re really nudging around and you’re looking at every pixel as it comes into being and talking to the engineers. You get that. You get to ask like, “Hey, wait a minute, what about blah blah blah? Could we move that a little to the left? Is the user gonna get this? Who’s gonna change that copy?”

RZ Frankly, a lot of this is subjective and strong opinion is important. Uh it’s just –

PF It is but it doesn’t have to be expressed in that like Steve Jobs [no, no] throw a tomato [it doesn’t] at the wall.

RZ It doesn’t. It’s just this is personality type that starts to bleed in here.

PF And we def — but we have both.

RZ We have both.

PF We have very firm like foot down PMs, we have look you in the eye and tell you, “I don’t think this is good enough” PMs, and we have, “Hold on a minute, let’s talk about this” PMs [yeah]. And they align well with different kinds of clients, different kinds of projects and engagements –

RZ And different kinds of teams.

PF Doesn’t really connect to their overall ability to ship a product or their overall skill level [right]. Like, it’s just different temperaments work really well here. So, there’s no specific person. Like, there’s no like brash like, “I’ll tell you what’s up!” That can actually send us in the other direction. It’s that ability to see the whole thing and have a certain attitude and opinion about it. So, look, we should –

RZ The main message I would leave with is: how far in did they go? When you’re reading that resume, did it seem like they were a diplomat? Just trying to get everybody to sign the thing or were they going in?

21:10 PF I have a couple of — we have a couple of rules, right? And we won’t give away all of our questions but we’ll ask people about — there are certain things that are just part of the infrastructure of technology. You know just like — and for me it’s the inspect element rule. Like, I love a person who goes in and is like, “Oh something’s weird with this page,” and then they will go in and just like look in the console a little bit and try to figure out what the hell’s wrong.

RZ You don’t have to know code, even, just look around.

PF You’re just like, “What’s going on?” And so they’re happy to go under the hood even when they’re mystified. That reduces — everybody around them then calms down because it’s like, “Oh well they knew where the problem was.” And that can narrow things down for the engineers and it just means that you’re in a different kind of conversation. That’s a big one. I think the last thing that’s key is that there’s a couple critical filters, right? Like there’s a person who can set up a straightforward old-school media website and has done that even at a relatively large scale. Then there is work that’s longer, dryer: financial services, lasts might be for six months, needs a lot of user research, needs a lot engagement with the client.

RZ Navigating people [yeah]. That’s another big one you’re stumbling on which is every product manager has a customer. Rarely do you get the R&D, “I’m gonna put this out in the world and see if anyone likes it.” Usually the customer is either over your head or calling you every three days, how do you manage people?

PF That’s right.

RZ Outside. Like, the people who are — you have been brought in to ship the thing, how are you handling that person? Cuz sometimes they’re gonna be irrational, sometimes they’re gonna be emotional. It’s just, you know –

PF There’s a huge thing too which is like a lot of — one of the things that we do well — we can always do better on this, this is always a struggle for any agency. We don’t have a lot of death marches. People don’t usually stay on the weekends, they’re not here late at night. You come in, you do your work, we communicate clearly to the client what’s gonna happen this month and that is the responsibility of the product manager. So [yes], if you are setting the pace, you know, how do you set that pace? Because very few things actually happen over like six week periods, you’re thinking three months, six months, nine months [yeah]. You have to keep people motivated, interested, how will the work be interesting? If they are not totally aligned with the subject, like, how do you them to be interested, engaged? If they’re an engineer or a designer. [Right] and you hope that we’re gonna do good work, right? And so you hope that doing the research, thinking about the user — I mean I’ve never done a project, and it doesn’t matter who the client is, where I don’t kinda fall in love with it. You could tell me right now, like, “Paul, we’re gonna do a website, a portal, for America’s sewage.” You know, “We’re gonna bring all the sewer providers together.” I don’t really have a lot of thoughts about that industry. At three months in, I’d be like, “You got it — you got me. Nothing is cooler [RZ laughs] than what we’re doing for sewage right now.”

23:57 RZ Yeah yeah.

PF In all seriousness.

RZ I mean it’s a certain passion, right, that’s needed. Like –

PF I wanna understand how that works [right] which I think is a big thing, right? There has to be a fundamental curiosity about the systems of the world [yes]. It’s not just one discipline, and it’s not that you used to be designer and you wanted to level up, or you were an engineer and you wanted to figure out what the next thing was, it was like, “I had a home base and I had a set of things that I wanted to uncover about the world. I wanna know how things really work.” And that is, to me, like, that curiosity defines the product manager [music fades in].

RZ Golden advice, dude!

PF We should wind it up and let people know that A), and this is very important, if you’d like to be a product manager at Postlight, it’s a great time –

RZ Hit us up!

PF Get in touch!

RZ [email protected]

PF That’s right.

RZ Talk to us.

RZ We would love to talk to you. We are actively hiring. We’re also hiring in engineering and design. We wanna hear from everybody.

RZ Yup. Visit postlight.com and you’ll see the job postings.

PF That is exactly right. So, look, well [email protected], give us five stars on iTunes, anything else that you need to say?

There has to be a fundamental curiosity about the systems of the world. It’s not just one discipline, and it’s not that you used to be designer and you wanted to level up, or you were an engineer and you wanted to figure out what the next thing was, it was like, ‘I had a home base and I had a set of things that I wanted to uncover about the world. I wanna know how things really work.’ And that curiosity defines the product manager.

RZ No.

PF Alright, time to go.

RZ Bye.

PF Bye [music ramps up to end].