Product management: the business side of technology

The Product Leadership Days conference hosted by Tolpagorni Product Management took place in Gothia Towers in Gothenburg, Sweden. (credit: Gothia Towers via Flickr) The Product Leadership Days conference hosted by Tolpagorni Product Management took place in Gothia Towers in Gothenburg, Sweden. (credit: Gothia Towers via Flickr)

Product management jobs are becoming increasingly popular among Carnegie Mellon graduates. For students who understand technology but may not be interested directly in coding or developing software, product management provides a unique opportunity. Product managers remain close to the development efforts but are also engaged in strategy discussions and product planning.

Last week, I attended the Product Leadership Days conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, hosted by Tolpagorni Product Management. This conference was focused exclusively on product management, which is the practice of overseeing and leading the planning, development, deployment, and maintenance of various products. The practice of product management is typically performed by a product manager or someone with a similar title. Product managers are sometimes referred to as mini CEOs that are solely focused on a single product, or a portfolio of products, instead of an entire company. Products can run the gamut from a small application that is part of a broader software system to an entire suite of software products.

Henrik Johnsson, from Tolpagorni Product Management, led the Product Management Essentials course at the conference. This course highlighted a number of interesting and important product management lessons. One key idea is the relationship of product managers to other personnel at a company. Typically, product managers interact with people from development, research, design, marketing, sales, and executive leadership. This can become a balancing act across different divisions in a company, and product managers are responsible for maintaining the flow of the product development lifecycle.

Day-to-day tasks of product managers can include researching product pricing, interacting with salespeople, planning new product launches, and managing the supply chain for an upcoming product development push. The varied role of the product manager guarantees that no two days are the same.

Another key lesson from the Product Management Essentials course is the use of the Three Horizons Framework for product planning. In this framework, the first horizon is a focus on operative targets. These targets can be thought of as goals that need to be accomplished in the immediate or near future. The second horizon is a focus on strategic themes, which could include updates to products or development of new products. The third and final horizon is a focus on long-term visions, such as entering new markets or developing entirely new product segments. As a product manager, these three horizons must always be in sight and in mind to enable the current product to move forward and to enable future products to succeed.

Following the Product Management Essentials course, a series of nine product managers from various industries spoke throughout the second day of the Tolpagorni Product Leadership Conference. Each speaker shared their unique perspective and how product management differed in their industry. One speaker, Molly Stevens from Uber, described her use of “insight sprints.” Similar to development sprints, insight sprints are held with research and design teams to generate new ideas for development based on customer feedback, data-driven testing, and other market-related inputs. The results of these insight sprints are eventually used by design sprints, which formulate the initial framework of a new product or product update. The output of design sprints becomes an input for development sprints, which lead to the final result.

Another speaker, Matt LeMay, focused his remarks on the critical skills necessary for success as a product manager. Instead of the technical skills discussed during the Product Management Essentials course, Matt LeMay shared a key mantra for product management: “clarity over comfort.” It’s critically important to ensure that all parties, like developers or salespeople, are clear on important decisions and next steps. Oftentimes, clarity is sacrificed in favor of making a senior manager happy, or comfortable, by sharing information that is not quite accurate or fails to address possible risks.

In general, the role of the product manager is central to the success of a company’s products. Product managers interact with all divisions of a company to move a product through a typical lifecycle and to ensure its success during launch.