I first encountered a true Product Manager a couple years in at Expedia, and the experience with good Product Managers led me to becoming one, years later. I’m going to write them up to talk about what makes a Product Manager effective to their team, as I saw them do.
Two brief paragraphs to explain a distinction: Expedia as a Microsoft spin-off had Program Managers, of which I was one, which if you haven’t met them, I’d recommend some of Joel Spolsky’s writing (for example, his definition of the role). You’re an individual contributor — no one reports to you — and responsible for taking varying amounts of business direction, a team of developers and testers, with some fraction of a designer’s time if you’re lucky, and charged with making great things happen. Responsibility without authority. As a bonus, if you’re really good at your job, your team gets the credit, and you take all the blame when things go wrong. Given a goal, a program manager figures out what’s possible, how to get there, and then leads the expedition.
A product manager at Expedia provides the “what we’re doing.” That can be stack-ranking improvements to a particular page or feature, or a whole shopping path, product, or site. They’re responsible for the spreadsheets and figuring out what the right features are.
(All of this changes as Expedia ages, but ignore that for now)
Anyway. Enter Marcos. I love Marcos. Marcos knew how to do all of that stuff, he had a vision, and the powers that be gave him money to spin up a huge team.
As Expedia did, they assigned a Senior Program Manager for the overall thing, and then mid-line ones like me picked up individual pieces (I’d do, say, the re-jiggering of maps pages and related content).
Here’s what made Marcos special:
He set the vision. He took the time to say “here’s what’s happening in the wider world of search, here’s why this is important, here’s how we’re going to react now with the constraints we have.” When I and another Program Manager were still skeptical, he booked a huge chunk of time with us to just sit, listen to us, and either convince us or convince us to give it some time and see whether it worked out or not.
This made my work so much more effective. I’d be looking at something like the map widget and be able to ask “given this choice, which of these better fits what we’re trying to accomplish?” and almost always be able to make a choice and keep going. And that was true for everyone else – developers, testers, fractional designers.
Marcos made good, quick decisions. I often see Product Managers (and really, everyone) confronted with a question pause too long. More data needs to be gathered, research completed, stakeholders consulted, and all the while time’s a-wasting. Better a good decision immediately than a perfect decision long after the opportunity had passed.
When we’d hit an issue with serious business ramifications — or that looked like they’d be trading one project goal off in favor of another — we’d get a hold of Marcos and say “Vendor Foo is threatening to end-of-life the API we were using, I’ve got two alternatives but one’s massively expensive and the other will require us to leak business data to someone who long-term we know is going to be our enemy”
Marcos would listen intently, ask a couple questions (“Are they threatening because they want something, or are they really trying to end-of-life this?” “Will they help us move over?” then pause, and it felt like the number of seconds he spent approximated level of complexity of the decision, and then he’d say “stay with Vendor Foo. I think they’re bluffing and if they’re not, the cost to maintain support will be less painful than the other options.”
This was so great — we could then get back to making progress right away, that entire problem lifted from us.
Marcos admitted mistakes. Making good decisions quickly means sometimes you blow the decision, and if you’re not a strong product manager, that’s the worst. Marcos would start calls with what he’d gotten wrong. “Hey everyone, so it turned out we were the only person still on Vendor Foo’s old product, and they’re going to shut it off August 1st. We’re going to keep working on them to see if we can extend that, but we need to go with another option. I’m sorry about the wasted work.”
And because he was so honest about it, and because being quick in making the good decision so often saved us so much time, he’d built up an enormous well of goodwill with everyone. So what if Marcos made one bad decision out of twenty, or ten?
Marcos reported results. When we’d launch, he’d follow-up to talk to us about whether we were seeing progress, if we were getting closer to (or farther away from) our goals. We’d get updates on what our competition was doing, and what we might learn from their next steps. We’d get more background and raw education: for almost all of us, we were new to SEO entirely, and understanding concepts like how doing quality SEO also meant improving the user experience — and when they’d come into conflict.
He participated. He loved progress almost as much as I did, and he’d see the value in our increments and make course adjustments if the demos revealed something new. He was a Product Manager who’d see a sprint demo and want to ship it immediately because he’d realize it was a compelling value, and he’d see that what we’d thought would be release-quality would require more work.
It was my first time seeing someone take on and handle adeptly the “what’s the right thing to do?” role, freeing the team to find what was possible and attack the problems, and it made a lasting impression that would eventually lead to me putting on the cap myself.