FAQ: What is a product person?

After almost 10 years in the New York tech scene, there continues to be one question that I get asked most often: “What is a product person?”

It is a topic that has been addressed by many (including Hunter Walk, Marty Cagan and Ben Horowitz) but it's important because hiring good product people remains one of the hardest things to do in NYC.  The reasons are multi-fold, but it's important to start with a basic understanding of what a product person should be for a startup or tech company.

In my first post, I decided to answer some basic questions about product managers based on my experience in hiring and running product teams:

What is a product person?

In one sentence, it is a person with a broad understanding of business and technical problems , with the communication skills to understand all constituents, and the ability to communicate the requirements of a solution clearly and credibly to all parties (including engineers).

What is their primary function?

I often say that a product manager’s job is “to go to meetings, so that engineers don’t have to.” The product person acts as the collection point for all requirements and feedback form stakeholders. They synthesize that information, codify it, prioritize it and communicate a cogent solution to the engineers in a way that they can understand. They are also responsible for measuring the progress and post-launch success of the product/feature, so that the business can hold them accountable to the defined success metrics.

Do product people need to be technical?

As usual, the answer is it depends. The more technical the solution to the problem, the more technical the product person needs to be. If you are selling widgets online, it probably isn’t as important.  If you are building an analytics solution, you need a more technical product person.

To say it another way, the product person has to be technical enough that they can credibly communicate with engineers. If you have hard core engineers working on file systems, that is a different level of engineer than a PHP engineer building Wordpress templates. An effective product manager is different in these two situations.

Where do you find good product people?

Unfortunately, there is no training to be a product manager. The only way to learn is to do it. You have to make decisions, see the mistakes and then learn to recognize those going forward. 

It’s all pattern recognition. You have to see the patterns before you can start to recognize them. Working in a good product organization is how product people are born. Starting your own company is another path. Getting an MBA can give you a set of patterns to recognize (case studies, methodologies, etc.), but there is not real substitute to getting burned by your own decisions and learning from the pain. It is more of an apprenticeship than an area of study.

Why are there so few product people in NYC?

This could be a whole post on its own, but the brief answer is that I attribute it to a lack of what I call “Big Tech.” There is a fairly standard product development process in the big tech companies - Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Yahoo etc. To my previous point, they are the breeding grounds for great product people.

Because only Google and Yahoo have a real, sustained engineering presence in New York, there are not a lot of well-trained product people hitting the streets.  Those that exist, are extremely well paid and hard to extract.

There is also the effect of Media and Advertising industries.  Product people in these organizations are often project managers that have been rebranded, so they often don't transition well to the tech or startup companies.  They come from large, monolithic organizations that are very risk averse.  The difference between the media/advertising world and the tech/startup world is underestimated by many people. Transitioning from these organizations to the crazy tech world is very difficult.