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Spare Me From Blog Posts By “Product Guys”

Techcrunch, which is on a steep decline in the post-Arrington era, recently ran a guest post by Aaron Harris, co-founder & CEO of Tutorspree with the inflammatory title “Spare Me from “Product Guys.”  The title itself is actually terribly misleading, as the article isn’t the expected rant against product managers, but a “tutorial” for people who aspire to “lead product.”

Apologies for the liberal use of quotes in the previous sentence, but this post struck a nerve with me.  So much so that I wrote a hasty, and admittedly flame-ish, comment dripping with sarcastic condemnation.  I feel bad about that.  Even though I find Harris’ perspective sorely lacking and tone oddly condescending, it’s not fair to throw out the drive-by hate without a proper explanation.  So, here’s my take on the topic of “product guys.”

Harris states in his post:

“When I decided I wanted to lead product, I went and talked to friends who were product managers. If you don’t have friends that are PMs, try to stalk one on Quora until you can get a meeting. Make sure you have the questions you need to ask ahead of time. Pick their brains about what they read, how they think about feature design relative to user needs/wants/haven’t even thought about.”

If you can look past the silly initial statement “when I decided I wanted to lead product” (this is the BS tone I referred to), this is some obvious and harmless advice.  If you don’t know anything about a topic, ask people who do.  Sure.

He goes on to say that once you’ve talked to people who know about the thing you want to do, you should read some books and blogs about the topic too.  Good books and blogs, mind you, but unless you’re Will Hunting, you probably won’t get very good at something by reading about it.

Harris then states that you should “build, screw up, build” and:

You are not, fundamentally, a product person until you actually build products. In order to get to the point where you can build products, you need to do a hell of a lot of work, and you need to iterate on your own knowledge.”

Again, sure.  If there really are people out there calling themselves “product guys/gals” without at least some involvement in building a product, then yeah, those people are deluded.

Like Harris, I didn’t start out my career working in product.  I came to it mid-career after spending time as a researcher and marketer before landing my first first gig as a product manager.  In that first gig, I actually started off managing other product managers and was expected by the team around me to provide leadership pretty quickly.

I certainly read a lot, talked to a lot of people and, by the very nature of the job, I got products shipped.  Did any of that make me a competent, let alone great, product manager?  Nope.

Great product managers ensure the right things get built, at the right time and in the right way.  They also ensure those things make your company money by helping potential customers (or sales people) understand how those products solve their problems.  Oh, and they also make sure the teams building, marketing and selling these products feel great about what they are doing and confident they are building/marketing/selling something that is solving HUGE problems for customers.

Product managers are researchers, evangelists, project managers, marketers and sales people.  And yes, they guide the creation of products and experiences.

The core flaw in Harris’ assertions is that “doing product” is mostly about working with engineers to build stuff.  Really, his thesis boils down to this (my words):

“Hey, people who want engineers to work on your ideas.  I’m talking to you.  Make sure you read up and give coding a shot so that you know the right terminology so you don’t use the wrong acronyms when talking to engineers.  Oh, and don’t treat engineers like they are your bitch.  Then they will work on your ideas, and once they do, you will have built stuff and can more credibly call yourself a product guy/gal.”

Damn, there I go again with the sarcasm.

In fairness to Harris, there are LOT of people who think like him, and most of them are non-technical founders of start-ups, just like him.  These people are driven by their ideas and are largely looking for vessels to help them come to life.  I certainly appreciate that Harris is trying his best to be as knowledgable and respectful as possible when he asks people to build his ideas, but fundamentally he is no different than the “product guys” he criticizes, who choose the bull in a china shop approach to getting the products they want built.

Building great products isn’t, and never will be, about the idea.  It will never be about the “visionary.”  It will always be about building solutions for problems, validated through research, by teams who feel they deeply understand and want to solve those problems.  It will always about understanding how to translate those solutions to customers via great interfaces, marketing and the well-trained salesperson.  It will always be about happy customers.

When I started my career in product, it was understanding these principles that helped me get great products built.  I earned my team’s respect by demonstrating this, despite my lack of formal product management experience.  I earned engineers’ respect by demonstrating this, despite my embarrassing lack of technical knowledge.  I earned the respect of marketers and salespeople by demonstrating this & giving them the tools to be successful.  I earned the respect of the board room by making them money – they didn’t care about my product management rants 😉

If you want to be a great product guy or gal, read all the books Harris mentions, talk to lots of knowledgable people and treat engineers like humans.  Then spend the other 95% of your time on the being a great researcher, evangelist, project manager, marketer and salesperson part.

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