The genesis of this article happened back in May when I
posted a blog entry
containing the following snippet:
And finally, for something
completely different, don't miss the Jam Session at Tech-Ed on June 3rd.
Several of us minions from SourceGear are planning to take the stage and give
our rendition of Pinball
Wizard. It'll be me on acoustic guitar, our development manager Jeremy Sheeley on bass, and our product
manager Paul Roub playing the Evil
Mastermind Schecter PT that will be given away later that week.
BTW, I'm not a very good guitar player, but the jam turned
Anyway, the first comment on that blog post was from a
reader who said:
3 managers. Wow. Your company
must be growing and/or is fairly large.
The person who made that comment was probably using the word
"manager" to refer to "someone who manages people". If so, then yes, our
company has more than 3 managers, but not all of the 3 people playing Pinball
- Jeremy Sheeley
is actually a manager. He runs the development team that builds Vault and
- Strictly speaking, I suppose I am a manager. But people
who know me would say that referring to me as a manager is an undeserved
- But Paul Roub is a "product
manager". Here at SourceGear (and in most other companies I know), a product
manager is not [necessarily] someone who manages people.
So when I saw that comment, I told myself I should write an
article about the role of a product manager. This is that article.
(BTW, the content of this article was my presentation (video)
at the Business of Software conference
in September. For more information about this event, keep an eye on the
Business of Software conference blog.)
What is a product manager?
In short, a product manager is a marketing person who
focuses on strategic stuff and stuff that is specific to the product.
When people think of marketing, their thoughts often run to things
like logos, graphic design, and advertising. This is the communications side
of marketing. We call it "marcomm".
side of marketing is the stuff that is more focused on the product itself:
- Market research
These activities are the domain of the product manager.
I still remember the moment when I first started to learn
this distinction. Back when I worked at Spyglass, one of my peers asked, "Why
don't we have any product marketing people?"
I said, "What do you mean? We've got marketing people.
Marc and his team just spent six months deciding which Pantone shade of red
we're going to use for our logo. That's marketing, right?"
The discussion that followed my clueless remark was very
Managing Products vs. Managing People
There is a confusion caused by the word "manager". As noted
before, a product manager doesn't necessarily manage people.
To highlight the differences between product management and
people management, I'm going to start by offering a brief but reasonably
complete lecture on managing people in a software company.
A Brief but Reasonably Complete Lecture on Managing People in a Software
Stop treating them like children.
Yep, that's it. Stop treating them like children.
If you follow this rule and all of its corollaries, you will
be a competent manager, thus placing you in the top one percent of all managers
in the software industry.
Software professionals are grownups. They do not deserve to
be treated like children.
On the other hand...
Unlike your coworkers, software products deserve to be
treated very much like children. They're rebellious and wayward. They need to
be given strict boundaries and lots of guidance.
Like children, products go through stages. Joel Spolsky said that
"good software takes ten years". Those ten years are not all the same.
The life of a growing software product has six different
stages. And the progression of those stages is a lot like the stages of
parenting a child.
- Each stage requires a different approach.
- There is a gradual progression from "high control" to "letting
Stage 1: Prepare
In parenting, the first stage is conception and pregnancy.
In software, this stage covers all the time before your first product release.
The key concept for this stage is "prepare".
This is the stage where you find a product idea and dream
about what it might be when it grows up.
Product managers in stage 1 tend to make the same mistake
that a new father makes: He believes that since the mother (the development
team) is carrying the baby (writing the code), he doesn't have anything to do.
All he has to do is wait until the kid is old enough to throw a baseball around,
As a product manager, stage 1 is perhaps your most important
stage. You have a lot of preparation to do if you want your product to be
- You need to figure out your positioning.
- You need to clearly define your differentiation.
- And you need to figure out how those two things are going
to express themselves in every other aspect of the product.
This is challenging stuff, and you have to do it now. Later
it will be too late.
Anybody else remember the Apple Pippin?
When I speak at conferences, they sometimes introduce me as "the
person who led the team at Spyglass who built the browser that Microsoft
licensed to become Internet Explorer". That's true, but it is an
incomplete rendition of the truth.
Spyglass licensed its browser to around 120 different
companies who released products based entirely or partially on our code. All
but one of those products crashed and burned. So it would be equally accurate (albeit
far less flattering) to introduce me as "the person who has been affiliated with
more failed web browser products than anyone else on the planet". :-)
One of those products was the Apple Pippin (although I would
hasten to say that my code was not the reason why the Pippin failed). :-)
The Pippin was a disastrous example of product marketing. And
it failed because somebody did a terrible job in stage 1. The positioning of
this product was never clear.
- Is it a game machine?
- Is it a computer?
- Is it a set top box?
The answer to all of these questions was "yes". By trying
to fit in every category, the Pippin ended up fitting in none of them.
Predictably, the primary differentiation for the Pippin was
that it was lame in every category. Yes, it was a game machine, but it was insanely
expensive and incompatible with 100% of the popular games in the world. Yes,
it was a computer, but it was slow and underpowered.
Stage 2: Care
In parenting, the second stage is birth and infancy. In
software, this stage covers the 1.0 release and the time thereafter. The key
concept for this stage is "care".
This is the stage where you endure the final pain of getting
the product out the door.
The product manager has a very important role in the first
release of a new product. The labor pains are endured by the development team,
but the product manager is responsible for the launch. It is important to get
the messaging just right.
Shipping release 1.0 is a lot like the birth of a new baby:
Lots and lots of pain, followed by a brief period of pure happiness, and then no
sleep for quite a while.
In most B2B software products, shipping the 1.0 release is
more like a beginning than an end.
After a baby is born, the parents are overwhelmed with the
responsibility of its care. A newborn is completely dependent, unable to do
anything for itself. When it wants to be fed at 3 o'clock in the morning,
that's what has to be done.
Many version 1.0 products have similar needs. Users need
tech support, sometimes urgently and at very inconvenient times. That's what
has to be done.
Like the husband of a breast-feeding mother, the product
manager may not have primary responsibility for all this care that needs to be
provided. But he can be involved, and both he and the product will benefit
from his choice to do so.
Product managers and new fathers typically share one other
task in common during stage 2: Soul searching.
Every father I know has held his new baby and wondered if he
was really prepared for the responsibility.
Product managers in stage 2 need to be asking themselves
questions about the quality of their preparation:
- Is the positioning right?
- Is the differentiation sufficient?
- Is the messaging clear?
Stage 2 is not the time to start doing the stuff you
should have done in stage 1. But it is time to review. It's not too
late to make changes.
Around ten years ago, my company shipped version 1.0 of a
product called SourceSurf. It was a web-based application for browsing source
If you were to travel back in time and ask SourceSurf what
it wants to be when it grows up, it would look into the future and say, "I want
to be sort of like Atlassian FishEye". But SourceSurf
never got the chance to grow up. Version 1.0 was its first and last major release.
What we should have done was tweak the strategy and keep going. Instead, we
looked at the initial results and gave up.
SourceSurf 1.0 didn't do very well, but the product concept
was generally good. We failed to make the minor course corrections this
product needed to be successful.
Stage 3: Listen
In parenting, the third stage is the so-called "terrible
twos", (which, as all parents know, actually lasts until the child is almost
four). In software, this stage typically covers the 2.0 release cycle. The
key concept for this stage is "listen".
This is the stage of defiance and rebellion, where the
product begins to exhibit its own will.
One day when my oldest daughter was in this stage, we called
her to dinner. She sauntered up to the table, glanced at the food we had prepared,
and gasped in horror, "There's nothing here I like except butter!" :-)
Obviously children need correction during these years. But
they also need to be heard. This is the stage when "kids say the darndest
things", some of which are cute, and some of which are annoying or
embarrassing. Either way, this process is an important stage of growth.
Parents need to provide correction without crushing the child's spirit. Often
that means listening to the weird things the child says.
The product manager also needs to spend stage 3 listening.
Customers ask for a lot of stuff, and that feedback needs to be heard and
incorporated into the next release of the product. There is still time to
tweak the strategy before the product goes mainstream.
Stage 3 is the most common place where products fail. There
are plenty of examples. Almost any product that died at the bottom of the chasm was a failure in
stage 3. My favorite two examples are BeOS and Wingz.
- BeOS was a new operating system released in the late '90s.
Technologically, BeOS was very cool, but it fell into the chasm because it
never found a niche on the other side.
- Wingz was a new spreadsheet released in the late '80s.
Wingz had features that Excel doesn't have today. But to survive, it
needed to get popular with a small group of users and spread from there.
I liked Wingz a lot, but I think most people thought it was just too
I often wonder if these products might have succeeded if
they had been more willing to listen to the very early user feedback and change
course accordingly. This might have meant allowing the product to become
something its parents never dreamed it would be.
Digression: Looking across the chasm
Since I am employed by a version control vendor, the chasm
situation that is most interesting to me today is the Decentralized Version
Control System (DVCS).
Notable examples in this category include open source tools such as Git,
Mercurial, and Bazaar.
Today, these products are not yet mainstream. They have a
lot of buzz in certain communities, but the vast majority of all companies
doing software development are still using centralized tools.
Will the DVCS tools make it across the chasm?
Stage 4: Talk
In parenting, the fourth stage is the time from elementary
school to adolescence. In software, this stage typically covers version 3.0,
which is often the first release where the product can be considered
mainstream. The key concept for this stage is "talk".
Parents at this stage often express amazement at what their
child can do. "Little Bobby is just amazing! Seven years ago we made this
baby and now I can carry on an actual conversation with it!" Stage 4 arrives,
and quite suddenly the parent realizes that their baby has become a little
Similarly, software products in stage 4 have reached the
point where most people can actually use them. They're mainstream now.
Previous releases were really only popular with early adopters and people who
have lots of patience. But release 3.0 is polished enough to be a productive
solution for more than half of its target market.
Stage 4 is when products and children begin to develop an
unhealthy level of focus on the competition. When kids go to school, they
begin to learn that they can make themselves feel better by making others feel
worse. It will take them many years to unlearn this lesson, to learn that
mental health and personal peace come from the disciplined choice to not worry
so much about others and take care of yourself.
Similarly, stage 4 products should probably not be terribly
focused on the competition. If you don't have good differentiation by now,
you're not gonna get it. Take care of your own customers.
The most important thing for parents and product managers in
stage 4 is talking.
This is the stage where kids need information, and it is the
last stage when they are actually willing to listen to anything you have to say:
Parents need to talk to their kids about the risks ahead. Tell them about the
heartache and consequences that can come from poor decisions about smoking and
sex and drugs and being a fan of the Chicago Cubs.
Similarly, stage 4 is the time when a product manager's
primary job is providing information. Your product is mainstream now. People
want it. But to help them realize they want it, you have to give prospective
customers lots of information. You need whitepapers. You need demo videos.
You need product comparison documents. And so on.
As an example of a product that didn't do so well in stage
4, I cite my own company's flagship product, SourceGear Vault.
Vault is very popular and has been a success for our
company. But when it comes to providing all the different kinds of information
that a mainstream product needs, we dropped the ball.
Right around the release of Vault 3.0, the product started
to get lots buzz through "word of mouth". People would come to our website to
get product information, but the stuff we had there was just too anemic.
To our credit, we realized our mistake and took steps to fix
it. We hired a product manager to focus on this kind of thing. But still, we
got a late start, so even now Vault is still catching up to where it should be.
Stage 5: Balance
In parenting, the fifth stage is the teenage years, from
adolescence through high school. In software, this stage typically covers the
post-3.0 releases. The key concept for this stage is "balance".
This is the stage where a child wants you to stop calling
them a child. It is a time of transition to adulthood, defined by rebellion.
No stage is more trying and difficult for a parent than stage 5. Every parent
wants their children to eventually become independent, but few realize just how
painful the journey will be. The teenage years are a lot like the terrible
twos. When the child doesn't get his way, his anger can be quite explosive.
However, instead of lying on the ground kicking and screaming, he shouts "I
hate you!" and slams his bedroom door.
But just like the terrible twos, this stage is a critical
part of growing up. The parent must strike a balance. This stage is the time
to start steering a bit less. Let the teenager take a bit more control over her
Stage 5 is when children and products spend a lot of their
time asking for things they don't need:
- But Dad, every other teenager on the planet has unlimited
- But Mom, I can't wear a dress that I already wore once! I
have to get a new one!
- But Dad, ALL of the other word processors have a grammar
As product manager in stage 5, you need to give your product
some slack. It's time to let customers have some of the features you have been
resisting for years. Even if you don't think the feature is a good idea, as
long as it won't destroy the product, you should seriously consider letting it
But you still need some boundaries:
- A parent must begin to let the teenager be what he wants
to be. But don't let the kid ruin his life. Leave enough boundaries in
place to ensure that he can finish the journey to adulthood safely and
without doing something he'll regret for decades.
- Similarly, a software product can ruin its life in stage 5
by shipping a bad release. A product manager needs to be a champion for
quality. It doesn't matter how great version 3.0 was. If version 4.0 is
buggy and unreliable, the product's reputation will probably never fully
The perfect example of a product that ruined its life with
poor quality is Microsoft Visual SourceSafe.
Today, SourceSafe is the punch line to almost every joke
about version control. It is widely despised and generally regarded to be
Before Microsoft acquired SourceSafe, it was an outstanding
and highly respected product. This product didn't become the mostly widely
used proprietary version control tool for no reason at all. SourceSafe redefined
the industry by bringing more ease of use than any of its predecessors.
But under Microsoft's parenting, SourceSafe ruined its
life. Versions 5.0 and 6.0 were disastrous. I would bet that SourceSafe has
more disdain per user than any other profitable product in history. My company
has made megabucks from the world's dissatisfaction with SourceSafe.
Ironically, the latest version of SourceSafe probably
doesn't deserve quite the level of scorn that it receives. I haven't used
SourceSafe 2005, but I understand that it's not actually that bad. They fixed
a lot of problems.
But the product has become something that people love to
hate. Now it's too late. The world will never trust SourceSafe again.
Stage 6: Let Go
In parenting, the sixth stage is adulthood. In software,
this stage covers the time when the product is considered mature. The key
concept for this stage is "let go".
This is the stage where your work as a parent is basically
done. From now on, any mistake your child makes is their own fault. You have
to let go.
Similarly, a product manager doesn't have much to do anymore
when a product reaches maturity.
For both parent and product manager, this is a time to
celebrate the successful end of a long and sometimes difficult journey.
Both parents and product managers often find it difficult to
let go. But it is important that you do.
You're a product manager. Your job is to help define and shape
the identity of this product.
Once the child is "all grown up", you need to stop trying to
help it figure out what it wants to be. It already is.
Let the folks in marcomm, sales and support handle
everything from now.
This product is done. Go find the next one.
The two most obvious examples where product managers refused
to let go:
- Microsoft Windows
- Microsoft Office
These products are done. They've been done for years. Unfortunately,
Microsoft has largely failed to find its next product. So, because Microsoft
has nothing better to do, they continue to sell us new releases we don't need
and create contrived reasons to force us to buy them.
Naturally somebody is going to gripe at me for saying that
the two highest-revenue software products in history are a failure. I'm not
saying that. What I'm saying is that these two products were stunningly
successful in stages one through five, and that doesn't change the fact that
their execution of stage 6 has been awful.
The product manager and the parent both suffer from an
abundance of diverse opinions. Your local bookstore has hundreds of titles on each
topic, many of them offering conflicting advice.
This article contains lots of my opinions about parenting
and product marketing. Some of my readers will agree with me. Others will
think I am wrong. (The ones in the latter group will send me email.)
The problem with both parenting and product marketing is
that everybody knows how to do it, but nobody really knows how to do it. You
read everything you can, and then you do your best.
And in parenting, your best is probably good enough.
This is one very important way that product management is
completely different from parenting: Most parents are successful.
Very few parents completely fail. We spend many sleepless
hours worrying, but in the end, stuff tends to work out. If you love your kids
and give them your best effort, they're probably going to turn out OK.
In contrast, most products fail. Marketing is field where effort
and "doing your best" are not usually sufficient.
The Pippin didn't fail because there was no product manager
-- it failed because its product manager was a nitwit.
Microsoft isn't flogging us with Windows Vista because they
don't care about finding new products. Microsoft tried to find their
next product. They tried very hard. They assigned their smartest people to
the challenge. They spent many millions of dollars searching for it. But they
never found it.