Rory Lawton The role of the Product Manager in a startup

Hi Rory, please introduce yourself to our readers.

I have been in Product Management for about 15 years now. I started off as a Developer for one year, before side-stepping into Product Management, in a customer-focused role. This was at the time of the telecoms boom around Internet applications over 3G data rates and multimedia messaging (MMS).

The established telecoms network vendors were looking for Internet-applications-savy individuals to join. I was a customer-facing Product Manager, where I was actually sitting on the Marketing and Operations side, and that was my introduction into Product Management.

Since then, my role has moved much closer to the development team: working directly with the Engineers and being responsible for the product roadmap. Generally, for Product Managers, their gateway into the role will either be through the business and being the subject-matter experts, or via the technical side, which seems to be where the trend is going. My entry was through the technical side rather than as a subject matter expert.

What drew you into working in Product?

I have always found it very attractive to be in the middle of an organisation, working both with the developers and working with the sales teams. Right from the beginning, I enjoyed straddling working with the engineers and the customer-side, so I could always see what was happening with the business.

Basically, I have always had a 360-degree view. I could observe what was to come 12 months ahead; see how the product was going to be built and I’ve stayed within Product ever since then. You actually get to see where the company is going and what decisions are being made. It means you are covering a lot of ground but it’s interesting to be involved in all these decisions, particularly as a company scales up.

Can you explain how the role of the Product Manager fits into the startup world?

I moved from working as a Product Manager in large, well-established companies into working with teams in startups, which are always a lot smaller and just getting off the ground. The role in a startup will usually have a lot of responsibilities. The Product Manager will determine how quickly a product can be developed, when it is ready to be launched to market and influence the direction that a company should take with its product portfolio.

The role of the Product Manager in a startup is key to the company’s growth and its ability to deliver in time for investors, who will always have certain expectations. The Product Manager is at the middle of it all. In some circumstances, the role can be as influential as the CEO, in many cases in terms of making those early product delivery decisions.

We represent the product that is being developed, so in a sense we are the ambassadors for the product’s development. When you are the middle of that, you need to influence decisions on, for example, how much to build up a back-end that needs to be built – or what features need to be released on an app and in which order.

When you work in that environment where a lot of these decisions are being made in the very foundation of the company, the product management is often making those strategic decisions.

It’s common that the role of the CEO and Product Manager can be a confused or blurred. What are your thoughts on this?

Due to the success of mobile platforms, there has been this popular idea for the last 10-15 years that the Product Manager represents the User and should be thinking of the User all the time, which I believe is true – but only to a certain extent.

When the Product Manager sits down with the development team, they will represent the end-user. But often, the other half is neglected and the reason most startups hire a Product Manager at all is because the CEO can’t attend all of the meetings due to investment pitches, building up a management team and things of that nature.

Obviously, a dedicated Product Manager will be hired after the CEO. The CEO might be somebody who understands all aspects of the product really well – but when they can’t be there for the product meetings, the Product Manager will stand in for them.

Since PMs are at the middle and usually coordinating what to develop next, often for a lot of startups, the PM represents the CEO’s strategy to the development team.

What is the main difference between being a Product Manager in a startup to working for a more established company?

I would say the biggest difference is the number of hats that a Product Manager needs to wear in a startup versus a more specialised role in larger organisations. As the product launches and scales up, the Product Manager role invariably needs to specialise. During the early stages, a startup will often only have a single Product Manager who does everything: they are usually acting in the agile Product Owner role, but will also jump into marketing or sales finance.

Startups don’t have a team of 30 specialists doing everything – so it often falls on Product Managers to do these things, in order to get the product out the door. As companies grow in size or launch to new territories internationally, they will then need to have dedicated teams, so some of these duties will go to new specialists. You might then even have a dedicated product specialist sitting in the sales or operations teams – or on the development side, a dedicated UX/Design team that focuses specifically on the user experience.

But in a startup environment, the Product Manager will often be taking responsibility for all of these things, which is why for an early-stage company it’s good to hire someone with proven experience in product management.

If you owned your own company and needed to hire a Product Manager, what is the most important quality you would look for?

In terms of the candidate’s experience, I would like to see a track record of them successfully launching a series of products and being able to quantify the impact that these product launches had. Experience in product management is probably more important than in any other role. Because you can graduate with a degree in Software Engineering or Computer Science or even Design – but there is no formal qualification for Product Management. Learning comes by doing.

Most first-time Product Managers will come from either a technical computer science background or be subject matter experts from the business side. When I am hiring a Product Manager, I generally want to minimise risk – so I would definitely have to see that they have launched products. A successful Product Manager is one who has launched products that deliver value to the company.

The second trait that I would look out for is a sense of personal responsibility. A Product Manager has to own the product – and own it in terms of the ultimate responsibility. For example, if the QA team doesn’t have the resources to get through their backlog or the Engineering team can’t release features quickly enough, then the Product Manager has to be responsible for all of these internal dependencies and how they impact the delivery. They need to have a sense of ownership and responsibility so the product crosses the finish line or hits a particular milestone.

You can’t have a Product Manager who wants to check in and check out of their responsibility. The CEO is giving them that responsibility – so the Product Manager needs to be someone that they can tell once and go ahead and work on it and come back the task being completed. That is the key trait I would look out for.

When should a company bring in a Product Manager?

That’s a good question. Typically, companies will be founded by a small team, it might just be one CEO and a senior engineer – i.e. someone with a business idea and someone with a technical solution – and then they will often start to build up an engineering team to develop the product. In my opinion, you should consider hiring a Product Manager as soon as you start hiring developers because somebody has to own the roadmap and product management decisions.

In the beginning, when the product is just getting off the ground, product management is still being done, it’s just being done by the CEO or CTO. Hopefully, they are documenting what they are doing when they making product and roadmap decisions. I think you should introduce a Product Management as soon as you have a software or back-end engineer, so somebody can own this, become the expert, and so the teams know who they go to for making these decisions.

The problem is, it is often a role that is undervalued at the early stages of a companies growth. Because the headcount budget isn’t seen to be going into product deliverables straight away, often startups will hire a Product Manager far too late.

I have seen many startups where the headcount has reached about 20 individuals without a Product Manager being hired. That is far too late – when you hire a Product Manager, it takes a while to perform the analysis and set out a plan for the development.

Without dedicated Product Management, there is a risk that a key user interface is completed without the due diligence or perhaps that an inexperienced Engineering team may have made incorrect assumptions about dimensioning a platform or security.

What can be the consequences of not hiring a Product Manager early on?

To be honest, I have never seen a Product Manager brought in early enough! I guess this is always going to be the case, because of the chicken and egg situation. The problems that I have witnessed include design decisions being made too quickly, based on gut instinct rather than proper discovery. I have also witnessed developers crawling over themselves to meet the business pressure for a launch date, which means a product incurs significant technical debt from the beginning. This damages the company’s prospects long term. 

You may notice that very often there will be a significant gap in the time between the launch of version 1 of a product and the second substantial release with new features. If you had proper Product Management in place, you would have proper conversations between engineering and product and business team, it wouldn’t just be one way.

Other than the role of managing the product development and planning the roadmap, this additional diplomacy is a key function of the Product Manager that is often overlooked. Disciplined stakeholder management helps coordinate the expectations between the business and the development team; the sales team needs to understand what speed they can move at and when to push new features to new customers.

The role of the Product Manager is very varied, can you talk to us about this?

The role is different in each different industry – but more importantly, it’s different in each company, because each company has its own culture. For example, whether the Product Manager is responsible for any product design depends on each company – on mobile applications, they will often have to do the wire-framing – so it depends. There is no size fits all approach, in agile methodology you talk about the Product Manager, there is huge variation in what this role means within a company and what other related titles to use; Product Owner, Business Analyst or sometimes even Program Manager.

I have an analogy that might be helpful in explaining this. The Product Manager is ultimately the sole individual responsible for the development and delivery of a product – so on a film set the equivalent role would be the Director. The Director works closely with Producers, locations scouts, actors and actresses, visual effects artists, and so on. Of course, the Director relies on each of the specialists to contribute to the final cut, but someone needs to be ultimately responsible for making key decisions, such as reshooting a scene or changing out an actor, if it is not working out. You need to have one person responsible for making these decisions. When many decisions are made by committee, the film suffers.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?

Without any doubt, the biggest challenge has always been not having enough development resources to get through the backlog at a pace I would like. There is always a lot more that you can do – and choosing what to do, and in what order is the Product Manager’s job. So the challenge is always deciding what you are going to build in what order and being able to say no to some things that may seem attractive, but being able to justify why you make each product decision.

Unfortunately, as a Product Manager, you are saying “no” a lot more often than you are saying “yes”. It takes time, particularly in software. If you have big systems that are to be scaled up, there is a lot of planning that needs to be done and some business areas are complex and it just takes time to understand these. The sales team or CEO may be thinking of a solution to a problem, but will take weeks or months for a development team to get there, on top of their existing backlog. The biggest challenge is catching up where the product needs to be and finding the resources to do that.

What is your favourite part of the role?

I love the combination of being able to see the business/product opportunities that exist while at the same time having a deep understanding of the technology being used to solve them. It is also exciting being able to see where the company is going and who the users are. You often get to have a say in the philosophy that a company adopts. Although we work very closely together, a Product Manager’s role is very different than that of a Developer.

Often, the engineers have their hands deep in the code: they see how the API is built, they manage the architecture, but they can be little removed from the strategy. It’s not always transparent what direction a product is going in – so often I find that engineers, even though they are working with the technology they can get frustrated when they don’t know why sales decisions are made.

You can often find situations where the Engineering team and sales team will be blaming each other for things going wrong. But as the Product Manager, you see all of this and you see why key decisions are made.

I love the role. I have been offered opportunities to be Head of Product or to lead Product teams in the past, but I genuinely prefer the role of Product Management itself rather than the line management of the resources. On the other hand, I could invest time in skilling up and diving deeper on the engineering side, but I’m actually more interested in being in the middle of this and influencing all of these decisions. It is really rewarding!

In software development, when things are going well, being Product Manager is the most interesting role and one of the most rewarding, as you can see everything coming together. Of course, it is always a team effort, but you are there when the decisions are being made. On the downside, when things aren’t going so well you are also in the middle. You generally see most of the pain points and you are trying to help fix those as well!

What is the best industry to be working in as a Product Manager at the moment?

I have really enjoyed working with mobile technologies, particularly since the advent of the Android and iOS platforms. I was already a Product Manager before these platforms were released, working in mobile and web. When the mobile and tablets became popular over the past decade, the potential of these platforms became enormous very quickly. Instead of clicking on a website, users had a personal device that they carried with them at all times. It was possible to build much more personalised products and products dedicated to specific tasks. Analytics were much more useful. Because of this, being a Product Manager for the past 10 years has been very exciting.

In terms of product launches, the industry I have enjoyed the most might have been in the eBook industry. I worked on a Cloud platform for libraries: working with new UIs for these tablet devices, solutions for checking in and checking out books and seeing how technology could deliver content E2E from the publishers down to the end-user was really interesting. It was fascinating to see all of those pieces of new technology come together in such a short space of time.

If you were to start your career again, is there anything you would do differently?

Good question! If I were to start my career again today, I would spend more time honing my deep analytical skills, models and database queries. When I started my career in product management, I had been a developer for a short time and took ownership of a particular technical subject matter: image, audio and video codecs.

These days, development occurs at a much more rapid pace and decisions need to be data-driven. We can measure how users interact with our product more and more, so a more analytical approach is required. In the past few years, we have also witnessed the rise of the new discipline of Data Science, almost separate from the development team. Analysing all the metrics does require new skills and I would spend the beginning of my career focusing on developing these specific skillsets.

Is there anyone you take inspiration from?

There are a few very smart, influential product gurus that have very sound advice to give. This can be particularly useful at the early stages of your career, or if you are considering a leap into product management for the first time. For example, Marty Cagan and Roman Pichler’s books are extremely inspiring and can clarify the role for you. I don’t have any individual professional role models, as each industry is so unique – and these books, as useful as they are, always give you a simplified, condensed version of the role, that covers many industries and companies.

I have found that different companies have many varied philosophies of what the role of Product Manager entails. Marty Cagan and Roman Pichler can give useful templates and help clarify the role, but ultimately, each organisation is going to have a unique approach.

The people who have inspired me the most are individual Product Managers that I have observed in action, both at senior and junior levels. Some of the Google Product Managers, that I was fortunate enough to work with, could waltz into extremely high-pressure environments and just nail it each time! They were often juggling core teams with extremely competent Lead Engineers, UX Researchers and Designers and succeeded in holding the fort and managing the product. These first hand-experiences have set the standard to me, rather than the second-hand advice. In the end, the only way to be a good Product Manager is through experience.

Is there any advice you would like to pass on to someone starting out in Product Management?

The main advice that I would give is that first of all, you own the product, so that there is no one else you can defer to you. You just go in from day one and you own the product. If there are problems with the software development organisation and deliveries are behind – these problems are yours now! Own the product from the beginning.

The next advice would be to respect the developers. In the absence of a competent Product Manager, developers tend to get a tough time because they are being asked to deliver to unrealistic expectations. They are often working hard through a back-log and are seen to be late because the business team may not understand the complexities of software development. As a Product Manager, you need to defend them; own the decisions around their platform and become the ally of the developers. Make sure you understand their reasons for doing things and let them know you have their back, when necessary.

Also, be prepared to talk to the senior management team, whether it’s the CEO or sales team, and be prepared to set their expectations and external commitments from the beginning. Don’t end up at a point where promises made to investors are one or two years out of sync with what the development team can actually deliver, because then communication has clearly gone wrong.

Thanks, Rory!

Connect with Rory on LinkedIn 

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