Throughout the course of my career, I have been lucky to work and find placements for incredibly talented professionals in the product space. One thing that still surprises me, despite the fact I’ve been working in product for almost 10 years, is just how varied the expectations around the role are.
Sure, there are as many philosophies on the role of a product manager as there are letters in the alphabet. But we’re nowhere near getting to a point of agreement on the basic question of, “What makes for an effective product manager?”
To elucidate my own understanding of product and the professionals within that space, I decided to bring a few of them together to discuss their role and what they believe makes them successful in it.
Bas Van Helvoort is a Senior Product Manager at Volvo Cars. Initially starting his path towards a career in product at a Creative Agency 8 years ago, Bas progressed towards a product role from a researching role without even realizing it.
In that role, Bas was performing market research and interviewing customers – both skills that would go on to be incredibly valuable in his future product role at Volvo Cars.
“Right now, I’m overseeing the app development. After you purchased or subscribed or bought a car, we make sure that it’s as easy as possible to get information through our app. I oversee a team of four product owner where we develop the app and the thinking around it, for the business and for the customer.”
Product Management has an incredibly broad remit, and, for Bas, this was part of what drew him towards a career in Product Management despite it only just now starting to gather momentum as a recognized career route.
“You have to deal with things like going into tech debt, or going into design, or into stakeholder management. The broadness if it is something that always spoke to me.”
I was keen to ask Bas what he thought made a good Product Manager.
A PM Looks for the Sweet Spot Between Building the Right Thing, and Building It in The Right Way
Product Managers are often the bridge between development and the rest of the business. Serving as the ‘middle layer’ a lot of their time is spent gathering requirements and feedback to turn into actionable insights for the development team.
Somewhere in the haystack of feedback and requirements is a needle or, as Bas describes it, a ‘sweet spot’ that provides value to as many people as possible.
“We try to find the sweet spot between building the right thing and building it in the right way. We can build great products but if no one’s using them then there is no value, or we can get lots of people using a product, but if it’s not great – it’s the same problem. Finding that sweet spot is hard and it’s a key skill for PMs.”
Value is a word that keeps on cropping up in my conversations with Product professionals. Focusing on providing value to customers and stakeholders. It’s an idea that everyone can get behind because it’s so simple but, as Bas mentions, finding valuable ideas isn’t always the hard part.
“Everyone can come up with ideas, a good PM will make sure the right ones get in to production through experiments.”
Many of the Product Managers I’ve spoken with have a technical background and may have worked similar roles to the developers they’re now working alongside. Others will have come from different paths where they will have picked up many of the softer skills needed to be successful in a PM role.
For Bas, there isn’t a perfect route and there aren’t any hard and fast rules round the level of technical knowledge a PM will need. All that matters is that a PM demonstrates that they have an affinity towards what they’re working with and aren’t afraid to roll their sleeves up from time to time.
“You should want to try out some programming in the same way you want to try out some business cases because, at the end of the day, the developer will be thinking about the business case so why shouldn’t a Product Owner also think about the tech stack? I don’t think it’s a requirement to understand the code but understand the concept and the consequences of your choices. That’s important.”
Does your to-do list today give you a full picture of the scope of your job? Does it accurately portray the responsibilities you hold and the impact you have—both on your team and your organization at large?
Probably not, and that’s okay.
A core tenant for Bas’ product management methodology is a focus on outcomes as opposed to outputs.
“It doesn’t really matter how many points you finish during a sprint or how many features you’re delivering, even though that’s easy to measure. The most important thing to focus on is outcomes. If you focus on that it means that when you launch, you’re also then following it up and asking important questions like is it actually helping us?“
Kristofer Tingdahl is the Head of Product & Operations Manager at Sigmax. With a somewhat unusual background, Kristofer entered Product Management from Geology.
I’ve always been quite technical in my approach to things. And even as a geologist, I was very much on the numerical side and, by extension, software development.
Having worked with software development professionals since 1998, Kristofer slowly moved into management, business development, and business administration with a large portion of his career spent at a company in the oil and gas industry with dGB Earth Sciences. During his time there, Kristofer had a prime goal of developing software to find oil through the processing of huge amounts of data.
Kristofer moved to the US in 2005 and joined dGB Earth Science’s American unit as Head of Software Development in. This role required a lot more interaction with clients and their technical requirements that his previous role.
“We were asking questions of clients: how do they use our product? What’s the added value of the product? All these things on the commercial side. I always enjoyed that and was one of the few technologists at the company who would love to stand in a booth at a trade show. Simply because that gave me opportunities to understand the challenges of current and prospective clients.”
With a passion for understanding his end-users, Kristofer was demonstrating the skills that would make the role of product owners such a good fit for him in the future.
Staying in the US for the next six years, Kristofer became the Manager for Operation in North and South America. This was Kristofer’s first exposure to executive level work – a post which he must have performed well in as after just a few years he was given the opportunity to move into a CEO position and move back to Europe.
On this journey, Kristofer saw product management from the perspective of both the development and the commercials. After 18 years at dGB Earth Sciences, Kristofer moved on to Sigmax – a company which provides municipalities and parking providers with outstanding software for civil law enforcement in Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. At Sigmax, Kristofer oversees a suite of products with a team of one proposition manager and four product owners in product-oriented scrum-teams.
With such a long and varied career, I was excited to listen to Kristofer’s thoughts on Product Management.
Serving all the bridge between technical teams and non-technical teams, the product manager often must walk a bit of tightrope with and make decisions that are ultimately for the good of the product. But making the decision alone won’t stand you in good stead, you need to then be able to translate the rationale behind that decision to all parties involved.
“Sometimes it’s about finding the compromise yet and a lot of that is to do with communication. How do you explain to your developer or technical staff that, from a commercial standpoint, we’ve chosen to do this, and it means that we may not be using the chicest technical solution as the time to market is crucial”
Of course, this goes both ways with the Product Manager also having to frame the technical difficulties to management in a way they understand.
“You can’t just stand in front of a board of directors and say you need 200,000 euros to re-build the architecture. You need to be able to explain and translate. You know, we have a current architecture, which means that our operational costs are too high. Not only operational costs in terms of hosting expenses, but also in how many people need to maintain it. And so, you build your business case because there must be the spider in the web, but more so you must be able to explain things in the language they speak.”
Some large products can take years and years to turn around due to all the moving parts. Patience, then, is a core tenant of Kristofer’s product management methodology. Especially when dealing with Legacy Systems.
Modern start-ups can develop products free from the constraints of legacy models, processes and systems. Other companies aren’t so lucky.
Kristofer, who has worked in startups, small companies and medium sized corporates, is a good example of how patient a product manager needs to be if they’re going to succeed in a diverse range of companies.
“Things that were built 10, 20 years ago are still in production and you need a great deal of patience in dealing with that, because the migration is never quick enough. There is tremendous progress in software and the SaaS paradigm, and it is easy to forget that older parts of the software were built with the best-of-breed paradigm at that time. It should however foster diligence in selecting your software platforms. It should also encourage good software design, as legacy software can work perfect in newer hosting models – if it is well designed.”
Being able to really understand the people you’re speaking with is an invaluable skill for Product Managers, not only will this help as you try and bring these internal stakeholders on the journey with you, but it will also help you build better products from feedback.
“I want people who can see the same problem from different fields and be able to switch those fields so you can choose the right arguments depending on who you’re talking with.”
But it still goes back to having that balance and being the spider who sits on the web above everything else.
“Having the balance of the functionality thinking and commercial thinking and technical thinking is key. I have some product owners who are very functional, and they do not care about the technology underneath. And that will strike back.”
Admitting that this sounds like a bit of a cliché, Kristofer still believes it’s very important that Product Managers have an innate entrepreneurial spirit to push them through difficult times.
“Seeing success in the long term should drive you, that’s why I think I’m successful myself. Even if I do not have a stake in the company, I see myself as an owner of this product and therefore it’s my kid and I want to see it grow and mature. That’s what drives me and that is an element of entrepreneurship.”
Magnus Lageson is Lead Product Owner at mobile payments service, Swish. Graduating with a master’s in computer science, Magnus joined Ericsson where he began work in the payment space.
“Ericsson were trying to establish a global payment standard. I’ve been in payments ever since.”
Since Ericsson, Magnus has worked within a Telecom and in a local clearinghouse, a small start-up for a bank and consulting within the payment industry. Finally, for the last five years, Magnus has been the Lead Product Owner for Swish and has seen the organization grow from three people to twenty with development outsourced.
“We have the full ecosystem of merchants and the electronic ID solution, which is another company. So, we have to be a spider in an extensive network to get everything together and keep the user journey efficient because we have nearly 8 Million users across Sweden.”
I was keen to understand what Magnus believes makes a good Product owner.
Gathering requirements and ensuring they’re in good shape is the bread and butter of a Product Owner. Within that process lies the fine art of prioritization, something that Magnus has spent his career perfecting with COVID-19 and the new way of working making this even more important.
“Especially in the new way of working, every day you must be prioritising so that we are getting the most output from every possibility.”
Magnus, who was on his own for four years, but Getswish has recently made a hire to help him handle the various products requirementsthey receive from business owners – these requirements can sometimes come in at the highest level and require definition.
“It’s a matter of trying to define and gather requirements to get them where they want to be. “
Magnus believes that curiosity is an important trait for a Product Owner or Manager to have. It helps them stay ahead of the curve, always have an eye to the future and, more importantly, give requirements the Indepth attention they deserve – even when that means saying no.
“I sometimes introduce myself as a troublemaker and problem solver. Because you cannot say yes to everything, sometimes a No is the right answer after an extended period of pondering and exploring.”
This is where curiosity comes into play. Curious in the sense that you’re excited to solve a problem and explore a possibility. When it’s your job to passionately explore all avenues and use cases, it helps if you’ve got a certain level of experience in the area, you’re researching but is often trumped by sheer enthusiasm and interest.
“I am happy that I have a technical background. For a very tight for technical product, I think it is important, but I think one of the key elements is this that you be very curious about the product and have an interest in the product and where it is going. If you if you do not, then it is not the place to be.”
Alongside curiosity, transparency is another word that comes up a lot in my conversations with Product Managers and Owners and links very closely to the establishment of a vision that others around you can strive to attain.
“Transparency is key. It’s hard to motivate developers if they do not understand where they are heading. For our resellers, and merchants, we try to be transparent too. Sometimes there are delays and we are incredibly open and explain the reasons why we could not deliver in the period or why we are ahead of schedule too, for that matter.”
Being open with communication, whether it’s positive or negative information you’re transferring, is key to building stakeholders trust and has garnered Magnus and his team plenty of respect over the years.
“It means all the different parties within the ecosystem are more likely or willing to adjust to the current situation. Instead of hiding and trying to put up a smokescreen.”
It’s the latest and greatest business bingo term, the Minimum Viable Product, or MVP! It even has its own children now, like Minimum Loveable Products (M♥️Ps), Minimum Marketable Products (MMPs), and Minimum Marketable Features (MMFs). It’s made it up to the executive level, and almost every organization I work with these days has at least heard of the MVP.
Although it’s reached somewhat of a ‘buzzword’ status, the MVP is still an incredibly useful tool that Magnus believes every PM or PO should be using to great effect.
“You have to be good at breaking things down. Delivering an MVP is important because you can get it out and test feedback and it also shows where you’re heading.”
Not only does it help you gather important end-user feedback, but it also gives your team a boost – this is an often overlooked but vastly important feature of an MVP.
“It also gives a good confidence boost for the team that they see that they deliver value to customers and to the market. Sometimes MVP is a real buzzword, but when it’s used in a good and effective way, it can be valuable for everyone.”
Malin Osterberg is a Product Owner/Manager at Academic Work. Starting her career in tech support, Malin started to gravitate towards business intelligence and started working with a company within the Pharmaceutical industry. After working on the BI system there, Malin moved into a System Owner role where she had her first experience of leading a system and product team.
After ten years in this role, Malin took on a role as technical account manager for a CRM system. After just a few years Malin decided she wanted to change her path. With all the transferrable skills needed, like project management, stakeholder management and technical knowledge, Malin decided to pursue a career in product.
If it isn’t already obvious, Product Management or Ownership means different things to different companies. For Malin, it means being the go-to-person for the business.
“If I look at my business stakeholders that I have now. I have a feeling that they think that I’m their go to person. Speak to Malin and she will make sure that our ideas and needs to be transformed into new solutions.”
Naturally, this comes with a certain amount of pressure and, although that’s something Malin relishes, it may not be for everyone.
“I like that pressure of knowing that they are my customers and that I have to work on getting them what they need. At the same time as balancing between priorities, time and what is really needed. At the end of the day, we don’t just want to make a product, we want to make a product that gets used.”
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