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Why We Think Noah Weiss is Right on the Money about Product Management

Recently came across a series of tweets by Noah Weiss on what Product Management is and isn't.

We at ProductManagerJobs.com find this fascinating and we'd like to comment on examine former product manager's perspectives on what we call the art and science of product management.

Noah has an impressive CV: he's now at Slack, but has been a former Product Manager at Google.  So Noah knows a thing or two about managing product teams.  Why we want to make sure the Noah's perspective is shared is because he is right on the money about how myths of product management do more damage to those aspiring to be product managers.  Going into a career with your eyes wide open is better than going into it expecting something that it is not.

The words below in bold and italicized are tweets from Weiss and we provide some commentary below each of his tweets.

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Noah Weiss: 1/ Product Management isn’t a major one can study, few folks graduate into, and most people learn by apprenticeship. There are number of dangerous myths about what the PM role is. Here is a thread with five…

PMJ Commentary:  We are captived already by his bold statement.  We tend to agree because Product Management is not just a science, there is an art to it.  We would even argue that this art form requires more refinement than most other managerial roles too.

Turns out, product management isn't such a cookie cutter career path.  In some ways, you have the solve the chicken-or-the-egg problem.  There is not school (though there are many popping up nowadays) that you can really take to be great at a particular product or role the manages a team that builds it.  There's so much you can do why shadowing some other Product Manager on the job -- even still this is the best way to get hands-on experience.  There's no substitute for being in the line of fire day-in, day-out. 

Noah Weiss: 2/ “PMs are mini CEOs”: This is admittedly a catchy tagline. CEOs have direct management responsibilities, decision making authority, business-level objective ownership, and often founder-level credibility for the original vision.

PMJ Commentary:  This was in a blogpost somewhere and has been misused.  The image is very viserial and I think that's why it works and has stuck around for a long time in the PM circles.

Noah Weiss: 3/ In reality, PMs have none of these. It’s a pernicious trap, because the PMs who act as if they are mini CEO for a feature are the most likely candidates for a team organ rejection. Teammates want product leaders, not dictators.

PMJ Commentary:  Having been a Product Manager in various settings, we can safely say that Weiss is correct -- we don't have any direct managerial responsibilities, no real decision making authority on many matters and we don't necessarily have direct ownership on the digital products we are building.

I advocate that at the end of the day, Product Managers are a manager of people who make the product.  To make it even more clear, you are a stewart of the product team, being part of it and transcending it sometimes too.

Better titles for roles like product managers are Product Lead, I find.  A leader is a better image than a manager and it's more accurate that you are leading the team rather than managing them.  In a truly agile/scrum team, they are suppose to be self-organized and you as a product owner or product lead really is there to clear the path, lead the way and continuing clearing the path a few steps ahead for the team to navigate through.

Noah Weiss: 4/ “PMs are the decision makers”: Many people who convert from another role into product see it as way to get to “make the calls”. It’s a common pattern, especially for disempowered engineers on dysfunctional product development teams.

Noah Weiss: 5/ PMs are responsible for the pace and quality of decision making. Full stop.

PMJ Commentary:  Absolutely.  There are always going to be exceptions but before we name off all the exceptions, I think what Weiss is doing here is setting the record straight for those that are aspiring PMs who expect that they will call all the shots in the job. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In a matrix organization or a medium to large sized company, product leads often are the ones that galvanize decisions from all the stakeholders: business sponsors, developers, designers, analysts etc.  The reality is that the product managers are the catalyst for the decisions.

A few symptoms of poor product management:

  1. slow decision making
  2. "gateway" type decision making
  3. poor decision making that doesn't maximize value (be it business or customer or others)
  4. takes many Sprints to get the work done

Noah Weiss: 6/ That does not, however, mean they should make even a small fraction of decisions themselves. They should be the ultimate facilitator: pull the best ideas from their team, coordinate with xfn partners, get exec context, etc.

PMJ Commentary:  Again when it read this I think it's very important to lay down that PMs do not have the final say.  In fact, the best PMs would practice getting feedback from all stakeholders, building trust to the point where people will freely offer real opinions to you and also coordinate with all the stakeholders to get it done.

Noah Weiss: 7/ They should lay out well-researched tradeoffs, time-box deliberation, and structure great discussions.

PMJ Commentary:  Being a master of handling trade-offs is understated.  If there is one sure thing that all PMs must do and do well is that there is always a need to prioritize work.

There will never be enough people, enough time, enough money to do the job and there will always be too many demands for new features, fixes for tech debt etc.  And for a good product or service that's how it should be -- too much stuff to do and not enough to do it.  That's how we know you have a healthy backlog.

Prioritizing things is easy, but it's the "making sure everyone is on the same page" part that is the most challenging parts of a product manager's job.  Weiss says that every decisions should be well-researched and that is true.

Decisions made in isolation or too slow to make is a leading indicator of a dysfunctional product team.

Noah Weiss: 8/ Only in rare situations should they actually “make the call”. When they do, it withdraws from their organizational capital account balance. That needs constant deposits as a counterbalance.

PMJ Commentary:  I've been in product teams where we do have the make the call.  And sometimes making the call can mean breaking a tie between two different ways of thinking within the team.  Making the call doesn't necessarily have to mean making the final final decision, but just nudging one side over the other sides the emerge.

Being able to make the call is different than making it.  In fact, I would argue that even though Product Managers are all placed in the organization to actually make the calls, the best thing for PMs to do is to withhold judgement or decisions but allow a space for the team to come to their own thoughts and ideas and bring them to the table.

Noah Weiss: 9/ “PMs are the idea generators”: More than any other product dev role, PMs are judged nearly exclusively on the output of their team. Unlike eng or design, there are few independent artifacts to hang their hats on.

PMJ Commentary: There is a phrase about ideas: "Everyone has ideas, just as everyone has belly buttons."  Something to that effect.

I think this doesn't just apply to PMs but also Founding CEOs or anywhere working in digital.  Ideas are dime a dozen and execution of the work is far more important than what is the work itself.  Now it's not to say that PMs don't have the primary responsibility for how the product gets built, it's to day that coming up with new ideas or feeling the pressure to "own" the idea is a product management fallacy.

Noah Weiss: 10/ The degenerate case is PMs who think their ultimate work product is new ideas. They churn out 10x more concepts than their team could ever build.

PMJ Commentary: The myth here is that ideas cannot stand along by itself and cannot be the sole responsibility of the PM.  Product leads distill ideas generated from elsewhere, users, developers, business, marketing, sales etc.  Product people can have ideas, but the idea is to minimize the mindset that raw ideas is what fuels a product backlog.  Erase that from your memory.

Backlog for a mature product should be a function of "pulling" information from users rather than "pushing" ideas generated from the core product team and this includes the product manager.

Noah Weiss: 11/ This has a two-fold downside: their team execution suffers without sufficient PM attention, and it stifles the potential creativity from non-product teammates.

12/ PMs do need to immerse themselves in context and research to prime coming up with great product ideas. In an ideal world, that’s a constant team exercise the PM just happens to drive.

PMJ Commentary: The great thing about working in Agile and Scrum, at least the idealistic versions of it, is that the team should be self-organized.  This means that any team member is really the product "owner" and takes on part responsibility for it.  Certainly the absence of a real product owner that is what happens, but even in the presence of one, the team should fill in the gaps in knowledge, in effort, in responsibility to support the creation of the product and serve the users.

Your team, should they be great hires should adopt this mindset of boundaryless roles.  That means that ideas can come from anyone in the team and the environment that the PM creates fosters people to want to come up with ideas and to challenge ideas that might be old or limiting.

13/ “PMs have to be great at company politics”: Unfortunately, at the largest companies this one is a bit true. But at companies in the thousands or smaller, that degree of politics only happens when shared alignment breaks down.

PMJ Commentary: The context is important here.  Not every company environment has an easy environment to work in and there are plenty of companies where office politics can play a role in how successful you are as a product manager.

The shared alignment that Weiss speaks of is so key to everything, isn't it.  What my comment would be here is that alignment is not a set it and forget it type thing.  It's dynamic, it's constant and its always needs to be renewed.  Building trust is key and building an environment where people are safe to make the best decisions with the information that they have at the time and not punished for making decisions of any kind is the way to build trust and loyalty.

Noah Weiss: 14/ Great PMs are an antidote to startup politics emerging. They keep disparate groups bought into a shared vision of where the company/product needs to head.

15/ This requires developing deep domain knowledge, communicating compelling, and setting an inspirational strategy.

PMJ Commentary: Technical degree (which Weiss talks about below) is not necessary, but deep domain knowledge is important.  Couldn't you tell from hearing someone speak on a topic if they are an expert or just pretending to be?  There is no faking that and you may be able to fake it for a few times, but over the long-term it's gaining the knowledge that will make you communicate more confidently and also anticipate the risks in your team and your product with more vigor.

Noah Weiss: 16/ “PMs need technical degrees”: I believe this started with Google’s hiring of CS students directly into product, as a backlash of the MBA influx during the dot-com bubble. Though I was one of them, I disagree with the premise.

The key takeaway is the not every product requires someone to have a technical degree.  Having said that, the human resources and people operations teams of technology companies have more and more trended toward PMs with technical degrees either with an engineering, computer science or equivalent background.

This is definitely a reactionary thing what Weiss describes of his days are Google.  Google has since talked about hiring people who are terms "Smart Creatives" no matter what their alma mater is or what bachelors or masters degree they chose to pursue.  Frankly, we are all human beings with a complex set of interest in skills. The key thing to remember is that we can adapt and learn everything given the space and time, but it's hard to teach someone to take initiative, think critically and do what is right.  It's what we try to instill in education, but it's also one of those soft skills that is tough to teach.

Noah Weiss: 17/ While a technical foundation is certainly useful for PMs, like every hiring heuristic applied unconditionally as a filter it produces far too many false negatives.

Agree with Weiss wholeheartedly.  Technical foundation is but only 1 factor in choose a good product manager.  There's many factors involved and this prescriptive way of hiring is one approach, but there are many other cases that are the exception.

Signalling from a candidate with a technical degree can sometimes be misleading.  The truth is that hiring is hard and more startup founders should devoting more time to that.  It's not easy to overcome bias, or these signalling be it passive or active.

18/ PMs do need to have a deep curiosity about the underlying tech, humility about the details, ability to develop strong partnerships with engineering, and a voracious learning appetite.

The key skills here are all traits that intrinsic to the candidate.  We can learn almost any subject matter given time and being in the right environment, but it's harder to teach an employee genuine curiosity, showing humility when it's needed, being able to build good relationships and having a willingness to be a continuous student.

No about of apprenticing or schooling can really prepare you for that -- either you are that way or that you've learned to make sure you bend that way.

Noah Weiss: 19/ In summary, just a few dangerous PM myths to avoid: mini CEO, chief decision maker, primary idea generator, political savant, and tech degree required.

Readers, what do you think?  Any other myths that you think product managers are known for?  Anything that Noah Weiss mentioned that was the exception for you in your experience as a PM?  Write below in the comments and we'll add your feedback to the post!