I wish everyone knew product management

One of my friend posted this to Facebook in the last week: “For twenty years I worked in an environment where the Company was better than the Product. In the past 11 years, this has done a 180 for me. Interesting….”
He worked for McDonalds for 20 years, the last 11 have been with software startups, including Exit41 where he and I overlapped by 6 years.
I found this one simple comment utterly fascinating and insightful. As an ex-Product Manager I do have a particular axe to grind, and that is that the product should meet the needs of the customers. No more, and no less. If you have a solid customer value proposition, and deliver on that value, sales & marketing becomes much easier. So much easier to sell a good product than to be like a used car or snake oil salesman.
I have a couple of thoughts on why it is that he might have had this comment. There are a few things that occur to me off the top of my head as to what makes McDonalds so damn good (the company not the product). But I’ll save that for once I’ve had a chance to pick the brains of some people I’ll be seeing in the next week.
I was wondering recently about the backgrounds of the most successful business leaders. I’m not talking the geniuses like Jobs or the guys who were lucky, good, and in the right place at the right time like Brin, Page, and Zuckerberg. I’m talking the normal people, the ones who get that first real leadership job in mid-career and either wildly succeed, wildly fail, or are just mediocre. Obviously there’s more to it than background: you have to have certain personality traits, charisma, vision, and the crazy ego to think you can go out there and kill it.
But here’s my own personal conceit: I feel like building a good company is just like building a good product except that your ‘product’ becomes everything. Your employees. Your sales approach. Your web site. Your marketing collateral. Your technical support team. Your partnership strategy. Your contracts. But just looking at everything holistically – the customer experience is broader than just the product you buy, it is everything from the sales experience to the after-sales support. So I wish everyone had the discipline of the product manager in terms of being able to understand what is really required; the difference between a desire and a requirement, and how to prioritise.
I also feel like everyone should work for a non-profit at some point in their career. This teaches you how to be extremely creative in a low budget-no budget situation. This is the best sort of lateral thinking you can engage in. Rather than ‘oh gee, this customer has no budget too bad’ rather ‘this customer has no budget but they can provide something that would be very valuable to us and might lead to a much longer-term relationship’ doesn’t take a huge stretch, but it takes a different way of thinking about things, and a willingness to be testing and exploring the waters.
I am finally now understanding how the lateral thinking and negotiation skills I learned are actually one side of a coin and the other is product management. Most negotiations are not fixed-pie one-time transactions, most are part of a much longer-term and broader relationship where context matters, trust matters, and being able to see the situation from your potential partner’s shoes is extremely beneficial.
Where did I leave off? Sunday my parents left for Baltimore to the south and I went with my brother to Burlington to pick up a rental car and drive to my domicile in Dover, NH. On the way I stopped by the boarding school I attended, St Paul’s School, to see Chad & Kathryn Green who now work there. Kathryn is a teacher and Chad is Associate Dean of Students. It was an all-too-brief visit but we caught up a bit, and unfortunately watched the Patriots lose to the Seahawks. Boo.
I had quite a laugh that the head of house in the dorm they were residing in, Simpson (where I had lived for my first two years there), is none other than Mark Bozek. I went to school with Mark Bozek and not too long ago I ran across a photo of him as a Third Former (he would have been about 14), standing in front of Ford with Jeff Giuliano.
Anyway, a dark drive without a GPS later I arrived in Dover at my friend Matt’s house. Knocked on the window, scared him, and was informed that I was lucky he didn’t leave his shotgun by the computer. Fair enough. Then we went out to a bar and then home, and eventually to bed.
Now this is another person of whom I’m a huge fan and who I see far too rarely. This guy has got to be more up to speed on world events, politics, history, (read: better read & informed) than 99% of people I know. Is he a software programmer? Business exec? Lawyer? Doctor? No, he works in the NH state tolls, drives a cab, and does landscaping. He also has a successful home vegetable garden, scavenges for free firewood which he splits and stacks himself, has a small herd of laying hens, and is considering raising lambs next year. One of the most interesting guys I know, and the most creative, and the most real. You should hear his thoughts on the death penalty; it’s hard to argue with them.
Moral of this story? Don’t judge a book by its cover.
I woke up the next morning all bright eyed and bushy tailed but I had forgotten how long driving takes, as I finally got a SIM card for my phone and then hit up Sichuan Gourmet for lunch with Rob only about 30 minutes after my original scheduled arrival time. The weather was a bit crazy; nearly 70 degrees and overcast. Not that I was complaining, as fall days go this one was to die for, and since I’m here for such a limited period I am enjoying being stopped at every traffic light, just looking at the trees, houses, etc. It is so beautiful here at this time of year.
One thing I don’t miss? The traffic. It was already starting at 5:45am heading into Boston Logan!! Insanity.
  • “Brady doesn’t run.” – Chad
  • “Give me a call. I’ll talk you off the ledge.” – Kathryn
  • “Any one of my fucking chickens would make a better President than Mitt Romney.” – Matt
  • “I wasn’t paying attention.” – Ellie
  • “I mean … how often does programming go wrong?” – Matt

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