Product management is an oft-overlooked aspect of both software and physical product development, despite the fact that product managers are key to both processes.
Put simply, product managers are responsible for overseeing all team members who are collaborating on a project. An extension of this role is taking on a large amount of responsibility for the finished product, whatever it may be.
Depending on the specifics of each circumstance, product managers may even be asked to manage multiple projects concurrently, which only amplifies the need for incredible organizational abilities.
Also, product development timelines are rarely 100% linear. In the world of corporate R&D, there will almost definitely be moments when the outlook for the entire project needs to be changed in some way, or times when the project needs to be taken a step backward to resolve an issue.
With so many balls in the air at any given time, product management requires both organization and a great deal of flexibility to make sure that everything comes together to create a high-quality product that meets or exceeds development goals.
Exceptionally talented product managers are able to do all this and more while also keeping their own sanity intact.
It takes a vast range of skill sets and years of hands-on experience to become a skilled product manager, but this article will discuss the foundations of this role and will give interested parties a taste of just how dynamic this work can be.
A love for the work
Ashwin Chandranathan is a successful product manager who fits the role perfectly.
In fact, a recent conversation with Chandranathan revealed that he always wanted to become a product manager:
“I worked toward becoming a product manager by developing different skills throughout my career. I love working with technology and helping developers build products for customers that make their lives easier. My previous experience as a Test Engineer, along with my MS in Telecommunication System Management helped me to achieve this.”
Chandranathan is working as product manager and Technical Liaison for Vicon Industries Inc., where he has led research and improved product performance while also taking on a large amount of responsibility that spans many different tasks.
Skilled in a wide variety of network protocols, streaming protocols, OSs, and applications, Chandranathan has a deep understanding of the technical underpinnings that make these products possible.
Chandranathan provided us with insights on the topic of product management, specifically in relation to his own experiences in the field.
Organization and prioritization
The early stages of product development typically involve planning and ideation. This is the start of the development roadmap.
Of course, skills such as organization and prioritization are needed every step of the way, but here at the beginning, both of these are absolutely critical.
If there are problems with organization at this stage, the likelihood of creating a viable product, let alone a successful one, is slim.
Likewise, prioritizing specific tasks will play a huge role in scheduling and setting deadlines.
Let’s say the project is a piece of software. If the product manager doesn’t prioritize the finalization of a core feature set, there will likely be programmers waiting around much longer than they should to find out which features are worth prototyping.
What may seem like a simple mistake may indeed lead to a cascade effect in which other team members can’t make significant progress with their own tasks, and from there, the entire project could easily be delayed.
But if the product manager knows exactly what needs to be prioritized and how far along everyone is, adjustments can be made much more deftly.
Again, these skills are a consistent part of the process, and as Chandranathan points out, staying updated is key to everything else:
“As a product manager, I need to know who is working on what at every moment, and I need to make sure that each team has everything they need to complete their goals. Of course, my ability to communicate plays a significant role in being able to handle all this effectively.”
The value and necessity of that consistent and effective communication is one very important reason why product managers can’t focus solely on the technical aspects, either.
Everything circles back around to balance, making adjustments as necessary so that the team can do the best work they’re capable of doing.
Updating the strategy
Even in light of the most stringent and detailed organization and planning imaginable, it’s almost an inevitability that either a mistake or some other kind of unexpected event will happen along the way.
These issues can take many different forms.
Maybe a key team member is unable to work for a prolonged period of time. There could be security vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.
Or there may be milder problems, such as a feature taking much longer to build than expected.
While it’s certainly unfortunate when problems arise, product managers don’t have the luxury of crying over spilled milk, as it were.
Even under relatively normal conditions, Chandranathan is constantly looking over the current strategy and assessing the benefits of making changes to that strategy.
“Because our software development is very iterative and uses a fast-paced, agile method, we need to shift course in product strategy and planning more frequently. I review the strategic plan on a regular basis to ensure that my team is on track and that the plan itself continues to make strategic sense in light of fresh information.”
Imagine pushing forward on a road trip according to a route that was predetermined six months ago, one that doesn’t take into account various road closures, traffic concentration, or any of the other potential hazards and delays that are very common.
The trip would suffer as a result, and the other passengers might even start to lose confidence in the driver.
Similarly, product managers need to stay aware of possible outcomes and adjust the course to achieve the best results.
Lessons on leadership
One critical trait that a product manager needs to utilize at every stage of the development process is strong leadership skills.
Managers need to be good leaders, period, and though there are varied interpretations of what it means to be a good leader, when it comes to product management specifically, results tend to speak for themselves.
product managers have to be able to identify problems and solutions with ease, and those problems and solutions aren’t limited to the technical aspects of a project, either.
There may be interpersonal issues or repeated scheduling mistakes that end up putting the entire project into a bottleneck.
Chandranathan feels that a lot of the ingredients that make for effective leadership come down to the manager’s headspace and a few key principles that can help guide you along during difficult stretches of development.
“It’s critical to understand your strengths and shortcomings. The same goes for getting to know your team. Leadership is being able to support and influence others, supporting and empowering others by understanding their strengths and weaknesses. And you can’t accomplish everything on your own, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Being honest with your team helps to establish and maintain a sense of trust.
When team members trust you as the product manager, they will be much more likely to share vital concerns and questions about the project.
They will also be honest with you about their professional limitations, which then allows the product manager to make key decisions about where each person would be utilized best.
Releasing features and products
At the end of the long road of product development is the release date– the tail end of the roadmap.
Even if there has been a fair amount of testing prior to release, it’s still a moment of truth when the product is officially offered to the client or the general public.
This is where the product manager needs to stand by the team’s work and also take feedback which can potentially inform future updates to the product.
For Chandranathan, this final stage of the process is definitely one of the most exciting and satisfying.
“I get a lot of joy from engaging with customers and teaching them about how our product can address their problems because I’m aware of all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. It’s a wonderful moment for me.”
As previously mentioned, the product in question may not ever really be “finished” if there’s room left to update software, etc.
But regardless of whether the product will undergo additional developments, this is when product managers find out how well the product suits the users’ needs.
Of course, there’s rarely much time to rest on their laurels as the next project is likely already around the corner.
product managers need to master a wide variety of skills to navigate this process, but when done well, this role can be extremely rewarding and result in successful products that serve specific needs.
If you feel enticed to pursue such a role yourself, just remember that overseeing the creation of the world’s most critical products, whether consumer- or enterprise-facing, comes with a great deal of challenges.