As software product companies adopt agile principles, the role of the Product Manager is changing and therefore needs to be clearly defined and established. As more and more companies adopt agile principles, people aspiring to be Product Managers need to understand what’s in store for them over the next 5 – 10 years. Looking back over the past 5 – 10 years the greatest influencer on developing products is the increase in the amount of change. It used to be that Waterfall methodologies actually worked well. Why? The reason is that once all the up-front requirements gathering and design was completed the amount of change over the course of the implementation phase was negligible. Projects that lasted a year and delivered product that was still relevant, were quite common.
Times are different, we as consumers love choices; we love changing our minds; we love new and innovative products. Even users of B2B products see what’s happening with the technology in our private lives – for example, searching for information on the Web where variations in search terms are easily handled and returns the highest relevant item has become standard – so why can’t my B2B product have the same capabilities? This all ripples up to the developer of the product. Bottom-line is that the ability to embrace change is key to surviving … and with the amount of change increasing, this is becoming quite a challenge.
So the trend of switching from Waterfall methodologies to Agile methodologies as a way of embracing change continues. More and more software product companies (and hardware product companies with a software component to them) are adopting, to some degree, an Agile methodology (Scrum, XP, etc.) to help them gracefully embrace the change that will inevitably happen. How this happens is that the amount of up-front activity is reduced to the bare minimum (as compared to the Waterfall methodology) – essentially what’s required to support the first sprint/iteration is completed up-front. The consequence, however, is that the up-front work for each feature/enhancement takes place when needed during the project – more of a Kanban (pull) approach.
Agile methodologies (Scrum in particular) introduces the role of Product Owner. There is much debate as to whether this new role is in fact the Product Manager or what activities the Product Manager now performs. The Product Manager role is very broad – it encompasses strategic activities related to the current and future target markets, technical activities related to the actual product and communications/training/support activities related to launch and sales. The technical activities of the Product Manager role are very closely aligned with the activities of the Product Owner. In smaller companies these roles can be supported by a single person and as the company grows multiple people will be needed; split between Technical Product Manager and Product Owner where they work very closely together. Companies that already have an established Technical Product Manager role are in a good position to make this transition. The key is that this role must extend from the customer/users to the development team – user intimacy, feature prioritization, requirements definition and prioritization, customer validation, etc. are all part of the role. Technical Product Managers that are too deep into requirements and design need to “move” towards the users – i.e. they need to be more engaged with the users of the product.
Companies that do not have the role of Product Managers crisply defined, will struggle in their transition. Product Managers that do (or attempt to do) all of the activities encompassed by all segments of the role will not be able to properly embrace the cadence and needs of the Agile methodology. In other words, the ability to provide the up-front work at a just-in-time pace during the project will be severely hampered. Companies need to clearly define this “customer/user to development” role and staff it properly. Responding to change throughout the entire project is vital … customer feedback comes quickly, business objectives/situations change – all of which needs to be handled very quickly and in time so that development is always busy and working on the most important items.
So the bottom-line is that product companies need to staff a role – Technical Product Manager – that spans the length between the users and the development team. Whether this role is the same as the Product Owner, depends on the size of the company. Companies also need to staff a role – Marketing Product Manager – that looks for and understands the markets that are suitable for the company to embrace. For start-up companies that only have the resources to staff one position – staff the Technical Product Manager role (as defined above) first – understanding your users and building your product that delights them will pay huge dividends in the long run.