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The Real Definition of a Product Manager

Marty Cagan, Partner, Silicon Valley Product Group

How are great products built? What is a good product culture? How can you get started in product management when there’s no blueprint for the role?

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How are great products built? What is a good product culture? How can you get started in product management when there’s no blueprint for the role?

So many questions for this week’s guest, Marty Cagan, Partner at the Silicon Valley Product Group and author of INSPIRED (a book that ‘inspired’ the creation of Innovatemap). In this conversation, Christian and Anna dig into the details of what it takes to be a successful product manager and how it impacts the company’s product culture. Yep, product culture is a real thing and affects how a company delivers value.

In this episode, you’ll hear how product culture can harbor and produce great (or not so great) product managers regardless of where you’re located. This is an episode you may want to listen to more than once as Marty also breaks down the difference between a great idea and a scalable product company.

Read the full transcript below.

Marty Cagan: It's not enough to provide something that your customers love, it also has to work for your business.

Anna Eaglin: Better Product, the only show that takes a behind the scenes look into how digital products are created.

Christian Beck: The businesses built around them, and how you too can innovate better product. I'm Christian.

Anna Eaglin: I'm Anna.

Christian Beck: Welcome to today's show. Some people don't know this about me that even though I live in Indianapolis now, I actually moved back here from Silicon Valley in 2011 to work with a startup here.

Anna Eaglin: Oh, so fancy.

Christian Beck: Yeah, I know. But my background is in UX, user experience design. And Mike Reynolds, our CEO with Innovatemap is actually responsible for starting the UX organization at the marketing software company that I left before joining Innovatemap.

Christian Beck: Why is that relevant? Well, today's guest has paved the way for much of the conversation around UX and product design. He's a pioneer in the product space. He also wrote the book INSPIRED, which breaks down product in a way that had never been done before. This book also "inspired" the way we talk about product because we are a product first agency, so to say I was excited about having the one and only Marty Cagan on the show is an understatement.

Christian Beck: In this episode, I was curious to know how he's seen the role of UX evolve, but beyond that what makes a great product person.

Anna Eaglin: Quite frankly the concept of a product person although not old, is still often misunderstood, and Marty gets it, like actually gets it. He was a product person before it was even a thing. He held executive product positions at Ebay, Netscape, Continuous and HP, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Marty Cagan: I've been doing tech product work exclusively my whole career. I have passed 35 years now so a super long time, and exclusively with tech companies.

Christian Beck: Over his career, Marty has personally performed most of the roles in a modern organization. Roles like product management, software development, product marketing, user experience design, software testing, engineering management, general management.

Anna Eaglin: So basically all the roles. So before we fast forward to the conversation, we want to share one thing. How does Marty know whether a product company is worth investing in?

Marty Cagan: They have the passion but they don't know how to go about making it happen. It's just execution.

Anna Eaglin: Execution is the difference between a great idea and a scalable company and that's why having the right people involved is so important.

Marty Cagan: If they've got a good compelling vision that could lead to a successful business, if they've got the right people with the right skills that can work together in good, effective ways, then the rest always seems to work out.

Christian Beck: Today Marty works with companies primarily in London, San Francisco, and New York, often what we might classify as mature markets. He helps product teams define, build and improve their processes. Even in this capacity he finds design and engineering are the easier conversations to have. So naturally we want to know what are the difficult ones?

Marty Cagan: I spend a disproportionate amount of my time trying to explain the product management side of the equation, because usually they already get the design and the engineering side.

Anna Eaglin: One thing Christian I had fun doing with Marty is tying it all back to the Midwest. Hear his take on how we're different than the Coast but more importantly, what most companies are doing wrong regardless of the perceived maturity of the tech culture.

Christian Beck: We also talk about the key differences among these markets, and his answer may surprise you. Take a listen.

Marty Cagan: Even in so called mature markets like San Francisco and New York and London, even there, those are the cities I spend most of my time in, but even there you will find what I call modern organizations working with true product culture, and you'll also find so many working the way they did 30 years ago, 25 years ago. And that just drives me nuts, you know, the fact that they could be literally across the street from a place like Google that is working one way and they could still be so backwards in how they address this.

Marty Cagan: So it really isn't about San Francisco versus Iowa or Indiana or anything like that, it's really all about those leaders. And I think that one of the characteristics of really good leaders is they always are trying to learn from the best in their field, whatever field that is. And it leads a lot of them to... They really want to understand how Netflix works, or they really want to understand how it is that Amazon is so consistently innovative or whether it's a device or an app or software or SAS, doesn't matter, they want to know how those companies work.

Marty Cagan: And so that leads them to start that journey. And to me that journey ends at a product culture organization.

Anna Eaglin: How would you define product culture? How would you know that you were walking into a company that really got it and was really pushing things and was doing things the right way?

Marty Cagan: It's one of those things that actually takes a long time to explain but is easily recognized inside of 10 minutes. So the things that make it so easy to recognize, the purpose of the team, an actual squad or product team in a true product company, is that they are there to actually serve customers in ways that work for the business. But in a old style you know, it goes by lots of names, IT culture or project culture, whatever you want to refer to it as, but in that other style, they're not there for that. The teams are there to literally serve the business and they think their job is to do what the executives or stakeholders tell them to do. And it's just a fundamentally different model.

Marty Cagan: And now the symptoms of that are all over the place. And we talk about in a product culture, it's teams of missionaries, not teams of mercenaries. Jeff Bezos likes to refer to it as think like owners, not like employees. They're all trying to say the same thing. But it's one of those things that it does take a long time to really explain what that means to the executive team, to the product teams, to the role of engineering, the role of design, the role of product management. That's a long discussion, but the signs of it being there or not are really clear.

Marty Cagan: My favorite most telling is just give me five minutes with any of the engineers on the team and I'll know which kind of company it is.

Christian Beck: When we talk to a lot of founders, I think a lot of them are trying to understand how to leverage their backgrounds to segue into product. And so it got me wondering, are there any backgrounds from your perspective, you have engineering as a background, that you think are better suited to become product leaders than others?

Marty Cagan: And it's usually when we're talking here, it's one of the co-founders and whichever co-founder is really playing that role of how to product. And to be honest, many, many co-founders don't have that product experience. I find that's fine as long as they kind of have the right ingredients. There's a startup out of Colorado called vet2pet, and vet2pet provides software that goes to the vet clinics and that provides software for ... so it's a B2B2C solution which is you know, one of a ... really good kind of product.

Marty Cagan: The founder is a woman named Stacee Santi, which had been a long time practicing veterinarian, and she just got very frustrated with the offerings out there, which she had tried them all and they were just awful. In that space, it's a lot like the medical tech space, pretty awful solutions. And so she said well you know, I know I can do better. Classic story, right, of the founder?

Marty Cagan: But she knew what she didn't know, you know. One of the things we say is good product people know what they can't know and admit what they don't know. Then she had to learn marketing, then she had to learn sales, viz dev. I mean, you know the story of these founders, they're learning everything.

Christian Beck: But you were clearly ahead in that market, but I'm curious how your journey came to uncover a role like UX and what that looked like and sort of brought that to the surface?

Marty Cagan: Well, it was easy because I was working for companies that were among the pioneers in doing that. So for example, I would say my first exposure to what I would call professional product design which I think you would agree is serious design, was at Netscape. So Netscape was really the original internet company, and Netscape hired away from Apple, early Apple, an amazing design leader. His name is Hugh Dubberly. In fact, he runs a boutique firm in San Francisco called Dubberly Design, and he helps a lot of the very leading edge product teams.

Marty Cagan: And anyway, Hugh had set up true product design competency at Netscape. And so my teams were ... you know, I had teams at Netscape for years there and he was the one who really first exposed me to it, so you could see oh man, we have these product designers that are awesome. You know, I learned about interaction design, I learned about visual design, I learned about AB testing. We were doing AB testing really before almost anybody because we were the first place that really had interesting traffic. And it was a concept of course that existed a long time ago, but he really applied it to tech products as we know it.

Marty Cagan: And so you know, that was 25 years ago. So I've been watching these great teams, and one of the things Hugh did and still does is develop great designers.

Anna Eaglin: What do you think the next big product role is, or the next emerging role that teams are going to need?

Marty Cagan: Well, that's probably an easy one today. It's the data analyst blending ... you know, going into data science. They're a little different but over time ... because this is really a function of traffic, a function of how many users. And as the internet has exploded really, especially if you look globally, this has really become something that 15 years ago it was only the biggest companies were really taking advantage of that because they had the sheer volume of traffic.

Marty Cagan: Today, I mean almost everybody, I'm like Hugh, this has got to be a core competency for you. And it's evolved, it is evolving right now as we speak. In many companies it's moving right now from a shared resource of like, maybe you've got 10 designers and you have two data analysts, to embedding data analysts on teams, at least in many cases.

Christian Beck: I think that's an interesting point. I absolutely agree that data science is a huge competency, but I'd be curious to hear what your thoughts are and how does that role get weaved properly to the product team? How do you productize the data science role in that team organization?

Marty Cagan: The first thing I would argue is don't ... I mean, it's not a replacement. Data analysts are there to help us, and I'm speaking broadly as a cross functional product team, to make good decisions based on data. I don't think that's a minor role or a dumb role, that's a critical role.

Marty Cagan: Data science is different. Data science is using data, it may be completely different data, it may be the same, but it's using data to actually directly help our end customers. Obvious examples of that are things like search results or recommendations. And I love that. That's amazing. They are ... some of my favorite things are powered by data science today.

Marty Cagan: If you look at YouTube but put the ethical issues aside and just look at how good they are at showing you relevant things, or look at Spotify and look at how good it is as recommending songs that I may never have heard but I love, or maybe I did hear 12 years ago and I haven't listened since. How does it know that? That's really data science, so that's using data for a very different purpose.

Christian Beck: Is it easy enough for you to sort of say what types of product teams would benefit from data science roles versus others?

Marty Cagan: This is a tricky one because every company kind of slices up their system differently into different product teams, and it kind of depends on how they do it. But what you do, and I encourage all the companies I work with is, look at every product team and ask yourself the question, would data science help us solve the problems we're trying to solve in a much better way? And the answer is yes on many teams and not obvious on others. So, yeah, it's like any enabling technology, it's not relevant to everything. But you kind of have to look at it and consider it.

Marty Cagan: And I think that is the job of a product team is to consider all new technologies and decide, can this help solve the problems we've been asked to solve in better ways than we've ever been able to solve before? So Google Translate is a classic. Audify, Discover playlist is a classic example. They are solving long standing problems in a way better way.

Anna Eaglin: As the Midwestern tech cities grow and get bigger, what would you want those cities to do either differently or in a more ideal way as far as building up kind of the product culture of the city?

Marty Cagan: To me this is something I'd argue no matter where the company is if they're not yet following these sort of product culture practices. And honestly, I advocate this mostly in the major tech hubs because that's where so many of them are and they're still not following it.

Marty Cagan: But so what does that really mean? It means a lot of things, really. It means getting product managers that are real product managers, not just product owners, and all the things that implies. That's often the hardest.

Anna Eaglin: What's a real product manager?

Marty Cagan: This is the subject of a lot of discussion because it's a super hard job. And it's also a job that even people who are capable of doing it often don't want to do it because it's so much work, so much effort. I kind of describe it as the person is responsible for four big things to really have a very deep understanding of the customer as much as anybody else in the company.

Marty Cagan: The second is what we were alluding to earlier, you have to have very deep knowledge of the data, which is really about how are our customers using our products, how are they using it from like a [inaudible 00:15:02] analytics point of view, how are they using it from a sales analytics point of view, how are they using it over time from like a data warehouse point of view. But the product manager needs to ... it's just part of really understanding your product and your customers.

Marty Cagan: The third thing they need to do is have a deep knowledge of their industry. The competitive landscape, what are the relevant industry trends. We were talking about machine learning before, that's an example of an industry trend. And the fourth one is usually the hardest for the product manager which is a deep knowledge of your own business. And by that I mean really across the spectrum. How the product is financed, how it makes money, what is its cost, how the product is marketed, how it's sold, the go to market as we call it. What are the business ... if there's biz dev or contracts, partnerships with other companies, what are those contracts. What are the legal constraints. Are there privacy considerations, all of this. All of the dimensions of a company. Because without ... this is what the engineers and designers are counting on from the product manager.

Marty Cagan: This is what we mean by it's not enough to provide something that your customers love, it also has to work for your business.

Christian Beck: I was going to ask how you would sort of learn product management because I feel like I get this question on the UX side. And usually my answer is go get a master's degree in HCI, but that's not always great. Sometimes you've got to find other ways to sort of learn it on the fly, like what you just mentioned here, a deep understanding of the customer, or how the customers are using the product, or knowledge of your own business. How do you fill in that gap for a product manager starting something new that's part of the founding team where no product exists yet, your coaching of that sort of product manager versus one that's in a larger enterprise or even in a software company that's got over 50 employees, how do you advise somebody when the product itself doesn't yet exist, and customers maybe don't exist?

Marty Cagan: Well, it is easier actually with design because there are great academic programs all around the world today. There weren't, you know. I mean, there's been HCI programs as you know, but most of them were from a very different era. But today there's great ones all over. So there are really two ways to become a great designer that I know. One is yeah, go get an education. The other is go work for somebody awesome who is willing to take the time to really develop you. But those two work.

Marty Cagan: With product it's harder because there really aren't academic programs. So the most common effective option where most of the best product people I know learn product is by working for somebody that's been there done that at a good product company, which is why in my experience it's so bifurcated in the product world. We have a small number of really capable product managers, and then we have this huge number of, let's just say they've never seen good, they have no idea what it looks like. Because their boss has never seen good, they have no idea what it looks like, and so you kind of get the blind leading the blind. And there's not nearly enough of the people that have had a chance to work for a director of product management at a great company.

Anna Eaglin: What does better product mean to you?

Marty Cagan: To me, doing great product is really coming up with solutions customers love but, and this is a big but, which is it has to work for your business.

Christian Beck: You can connect with Marty Cagan and what he's doing with the Silicon Valley Product Group at svpg.com. And also as a side note, I would highly recommending picking up his book INSPIRED wherever books are sold. It's the seminal product book that everybody should read in this industry.

Christian Beck: I think a good place to start would be with Marty's definition of what a real PM is, a product manager. How did you capture that?

Anna Eaglin: I mean roughly, I believe what he said was that a real product manager or a modern product manager, I don't know if he used those words interchangeably but-

Christian Beck: No, maybe I wrote down "real."

Anna Eaglin: I wrote down "real," too. But it sounds really harsh, doesn't it-

Christian Beck: Yes, yeah.

Anna Eaglin: ... it's like a real product manager, a real product manager. Deep understanding of the customer. So they know their customer, they talk to their customer, they're very customer informed. He said a real product manager is using data, can use data, so knows what metrics to look at and knows how to employ them. There is ... he said a real product manager would know their industry competition.

Anna Eaglin: So they know their competition, they know how they stack up, they know how they differentiate, and then finally-

Christian Beck: And they know industry trends.

Anna Eaglin: Yes, please.

Christian Beck: So like they know ... competitors know the industry but they also understand trends. For example, with ... I'm thinking back to Dan Moyers of 120WaterAudit, he also needs to be aware of regulations or trends or what policies are being shifted on a national level that would affect water testing and things like that. So it's like, knowledge of industry competitors, knowledge of industry trends.

Anna Eaglin: Another aspect of a real product manager that he mentioned, not connecting it to an actual real product manager, but is product culture. And it was an interesting idea that he talked a bit about.

Christian Beck: So product culture. It's hard to define, but if I look at my own personal experience and yours, we've at least become aware of design culture. When we're talking about a good design job when we're talking to other designers, like what makes a good design job he always says something like, "Well, make sure they have a good design culture."

Christian Beck: I never really had to define it in that case, but if I were to kind of work backwards from that, what am I saying there, I guess it would be when we started designing like a decade ago, we were always talking in the design industry about engineering driven companies and how it's hard for design to get a foot in the door or get a seat at the table that helps make decisions. So when we talk about design culture, I think we were saying does the leadership team respect design and make decisions based on good design.

Christian Beck: So that's my best example to draw on when I think of product culture. So I wonder how does that translate to having or establishing a good product culture at a company?

Anna Eaglin: Marty mentioned in our interview that a product culture values customers over business. And that makes a lot of sense. It seems like a balance from what we've heard from other people, what we've experienced, that it's customer focused for sure. You know your customers, you design for your customers, you build for your customers, you listen to them, you get feedback, but at the same time you're balancing engineering. So you've got a great engineering team and they have a seat at the table. That's something that Marty talked about too, is your engineers are part of the process, they're not just ... you're not just being super prescriptive with them.

Anna Eaglin: But also, I think it's more that you look to the business as well, that a good product culture can balance all of these things well. They can listen to their customers, they can ... you know, but then make sure that what they're doing aligns with their business goals, it aligns with the vision, that they're not going after a market that doesn't make sense for them.

Anna Eaglin: So I definitely agree that I think the customer focus is like the lynch pin of a product culture, but the real excellent output is being able to balance all of those things well.

Christian Beck: Yeah. I feel like when I was coaching designers in the past on you need to understand the business to affect your design, it kind of realized that the product manager is really the role that helps do that really well.

Christian Beck: When I think back to even my own career, I feel like I was a better designer when I was paired with good product managers because they helped me with the customer lens, because in design you think of like the user lens, is it easy to use, but product managers also look at that same individual and then think, what do they want. What do they need, how does what they're asking for tie to the broader direction that the business is headed in.

Anna Eaglin: Yeah. And to what Marty said too, I think it also goes to the fact that it's a great product culture it seems like, that can harbor and produce great product managers. And that has nothing to do with the market that you're in, that there are great product cultures here in Indianapolis and there are terrible ones. And there are great product cultures in Silicon Valley and there are terrible ones. And it's more about the business that you're in, not the place.

Christian Beck: I think I want to actually talk about that for a second because even ... no matter where you are, there's a good chance that even if you're starting a company, you won't have product management there to draw on. We've also seen the same thing in design where if you're the first designer and you don't have other designers to learn from, so how are you starting it.

Christian Beck: But the definition of a good product manager can kind of give you a blueprint. For example, if you don't have a product management background which ... pretty much nobody's going to because they don't have degrees in product management. But I feel like if you have one of those four things to start, that would be the way to start as a product manager without that leadership available.

Anna Eaglin: I definitely agree with that.

Christian Beck: Now, and the question for you though, because you work with a lot of startups yourself in your work, and you kind of act as the fill in product manager sometimes. What's interesting to me is this intersection of customer and businesses makes total sense, but what do you think is different, or how do you translate that if you have no customers to start when you're a startup?

Anna Eaglin: I think it's like, you don't have to have paying customers to know who your customers are going to be, right? So you can still do that research. You still should ... I mean, you obviously have a target. Maybe you're trying to hone in on who that target's going to be, but you can still do your research and you can still learn about your customers. And I think at a startup, this business customer relationship and juggling act is a lot easier because these things are much closer together. Your business is your product. It's for your customer.

Anna Eaglin: So I think it's much easier than when you get to maybe multi product or the enterprise level because those things are so tightly coupled.

Christian Beck: And to recap that for our listeners, what Anna just said is it's really easy to be a startup product manager or to be a product manager for a really large company, but really hard when it's a startup.

Anna Eaglin: Yep, that's right.

Christian Beck: So if you're complaining and you're-

Anna Eaglin: On the record.

Christian Beck: Yes, that's what we all heard.

Anna Eaglin: Blame me on Twitter. I am ready for it.

Christian Beck: Yeah. @betterproduct underscore-

Anna Eaglin: @Christian.Beck.

Christian Beck: No, I think what you said makes a lot of sense. And I'm glad you covered that because I know some of our listeners, they come from different sizes of companies, and to hear that half of the product manager role is based off of customers which you don't have quite yet, it's helpful to understand how you still do that when you're still growing a product.

Anna Eaglin: Right. And at the same time is even a startup, a lot of times you're leading the market, right? Like you're building the vision. So it's understanding your customer is more about how are you going to bring them along and show them this great future you're going to give them.

Anna Eaglin: Thanks so much for listening to the show this week. If you haven't yet, be sure to subscribe, rate and review this podcast.

Anna Eaglin: Until then, visit innovatemap.com/podcast and subscribe to learn how you can take your product to the next level. As always we're curious, what does Better Product mean to you? Look us up on Twitter @innovatemap, or shoot us an email at podcast@innovatemap.com.

Christian Beck: I'm Christian.

Anna Eaglin: And I'm Anna. And you've been listening to Better Product.

Christian Beck: To Better Product.

Anna Eaglin: Drop mic.

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