For independent-minded developers, a product manager can be a tough sell — particularly in small companies. Most mobile app developers like having control over their work. Making decisions gives them ownership and lets them feel like their contributions are valued. They’re often comfortable working directly with designers and project managers to structure the development process and set goals, waypoints, and deadlines.
They may worry that by giving a product manager ownership of the product life cycle, they’ll become just another cog in the machine. That’s not always an unreasonable fear. Managers have to strike a careful balance, uniting multiple roles seamlessly, while still valuing the input of each individual. Bad product management can end up playing different departments against each other, making everyone feel disempowered.
But a good product manager can be tremendously empowering for developers — along with everyone else. They can foster creative collaboration, eliminate conflicts and disconnects between different departments, and ensure your product vision stays on track.
Why You Need a Product Manager
Startups usually have an informal structure based on close collaboration, particularly in small companies. When there are only two or three people in the room, it makes more sense to divide up tasks as they come in than to create formal roles. You might be a market researcher in the first phase of the project, then help with design and prototyping in the second phase, and finally become lead developer the third phase.
As the company grows and funding comes in, the roles become more specialized. You might get to be the de-facto head of marketing, a sales team representative, a designer, and a QA specialist — but the process is still working the way it’s supposed to. Your product is shipping on time. You’re setting the right priorities and hitting your benchmarks. Your audience is growing and your product is staying in alignment with customer needs.
But sooner or later, your organization starts to outgrow its management. The first time this happens, it’s typically due to the increasing workload of the CEO. As new roles are added, it gets harder and harder for the CEO to hold down day-to-day management and product strategy tasks, on top of other necessary functions like securing funding and representing the company. As a result, little things start to break in your mobile app development process. Your team struggles to set priorities. Deadlines get pushed back. Quality assurance slips a little, causing delays and extra work, or even customer complaints. And even when those issues are the result of problems with management or organizational structure, the developers often get the blame.
Bringing in a product manager can help you address growing pains and get your company back on track. They can help you align feature requests, patches, and other tasks with an overall product strategy, eliminate communication issues that may be hamstringing your process, and get everyone to work together as a team again.
Product Management and the Corporate Lifecycle
Product managers also help developers in more seasoned companies. As your organization grows, your focus generally has to switch from pushing the envelope to consolidating your gains. Your audience is growing and you’re gaining market share, which means more customer and market data to analyze and you need to scale your product strategy up to serve this mass audience.
At this stage, the instincts of your mobile app design and development team may not fit your actual needs as a company as well as they once did. Developers may want to continue to roll out new features to push the envelope and miss the fact that a simple upgrade would do more to satisfy customer demand. Changes in the product designed to bring in new customers could end up inadvertently alienating your existing base. Your team will need to dramatically change its approach to the product life cycle.
Bringing in another product manager can help you start functioning like a mature, established company. Instead of riding on instinct and rapid innovation, you can drive your decisions with concrete data. For a mobile app development team, a seasoned PM who has been through it all before can help orchestrate the internal transition and rework your internal processes to better leverage your market power.
The Risks of Product Management
As you can see, product managers do not occupy a single, consistent role across organizations. They may have a radically different task, depending on both the stage of company lifecycle and the needs of a particular company. The breadth and flexibility of the position led to some legitimate pushback against product management in the mobile app development world.
Self-described “product development nut” John Cutler makes a strong argument that you don’t necessarily need a product manager. The core of his argument is that the PM role is so broad that in practice, it’s often used as a way to paper over deep organizational dysfunction instead of fixing it.
To illustrate, he quotes a pretty typical product owner description:
“‘Part of the product owner’s responsibilities is to have a vision of what he or she wishes to build, and convey that vision to the scrum team. This is key to successfully starting any agile software development project.
The product owner is commonly a lead user of the system or someone from marketing, product management or anyone with a solid understanding of users, the market place, the competition and of future trends for the domain or type of system being developed.’
Wow. That sounds awesome. This superhero will figure it all out for us and we’ll be off to the races. We’ll have someone to blame if there is no vision. They’ll know what to build and we’ll build it. So we dutifully assign these people to 6–12 engineers, regardless of whether those 6–12 engineers build a singular product and hope for the best.”
In the end, product managers are often just used as an excuse for organizational failure, and are sometimes set up for failure from the start.
“The reality is that most product managers are overworked, spread too thin, and under-empowered. They’re the go-between. What people recognize as ‘bad product management’ can almost always be traced back to deeper organizational challenges. These challenges manifest in the connective tissue of the organization (the product team). Product management makes for a convenient scapegoat.”
Cutler isn’t against product managers in all cases, but he stresses the need to ensure you’re hiring a PM for a good reason — not just because it’s an expected role in your organization. That’s a crucial point. Your project manager isn’t a superhero. They need to have a well-defined job that allows them to effectively coordinate your team and deliver value to your customer. To accomplish that, you need to decide what type of PM you need.
Types of Product Managers
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to defining a product manager role or hiring the right person for the job. The needs of a young company focused on rapid innovation and sounding out consumer interest in new products are going to be different than those of an established organization focused on improving customer reach and growth. That focus on growth will, in turn, be different than the needs of a mature corporation which is improving its internal infrastructure and automation.
Because of the radical differences in the role, it can be useful to divide product managers into types. Airbnb Director of Product, Jonathan Golden, identifies three types of product management roles:
- Pioneers: These are the types of product managers you usually want in a relatively young company. They are driven by innovation and “creating something brand new in the world.” They love prototyping, are comfortable with risk, and can help you outgrow your early pain points.
- Settlers: While pioneers appreciate risk, settlers are focused on growth and optimization. Once you’ve found a market, a settler can build on the work of a pioneer, helping you reach more people.
- Town Planners: Town planners are the PMs who help you move beyond your startup phase and become a mature, data-driven company. The ideal time to bring in a town planner is, “when it’s time to build the infrastructure and systems necessary to handle scale and accommodate your product’s use cases, current and future.”
Sachin Rekhi, founder & CEO of Notejoy uses a different three-tier project management paradigm:
- Builders: According to Rekhi, builders are “what most folks would classify as the classic product manager,” and are skilled at “defining the ‘what’ for their product.” These road mapping ninjas understand your users and can optimize the product for the chosen segment.
- Innovators: Once you have your product, an innovator can help you find a market and tweak it to fit your niche. The author describes innovators as “truth seekers that take a hypothesis-driven approach to validate and iterate on practically every dimension of their product strategy.” They can take a good product and turn it into a perfect customer fit.
- Tuners: Tuners are all about optimization. Many are growth hackers who look at metrics like sales, signups, or paid subscriptions. They love running tests and can help you build a better mobile app testing process, while driving growth of their chosen metrics.
All of these types of project managers can help mobile app developers, depending on the developer’s needs. Need help accelerating your prototyping and mobile app development process? A Builder or a Pioneer would be an excellent fit. Having trouble finding your market? Bring in an Innovator. Already have a great product and an established process? A Settler or a Tuner could help you expand your reach.
These frameworks are just guidelines — they’re only as useful as you find them. The role of a product manager is extremely flexible and can accommodate a wide range of management needs. Set your PM up for success by taking the time to tailor the role to your company’s unique structure, culture, and goals.
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