Sunday, August 18, 2013

What is a Product Manager? (And why hiring one can save you a lot of money and headaches)

In the tech world, the role of Product Manager (PM) is well known within any successful software company. But outside the tech world, I frequently get blank stares when I tell people I am a PM. So what does a PM really do? And why are they useful? And why would using one for your technology projects save you time and money? 

 At a high level, a good PM should heavily guide the vision of the company’s products using input from customers and management. Or, if you are an organization working with a PM on building a website or technology product, the PM should work with you to translate your vision into what actually gets built. 

The relationship piece is really the key. A PM is the glue between the customer and the engineer. 

They can also play an important role as traffic control — managing all the different stakeholders (client services, sales, marketing, engineering) that want to have input on a project — to keep things moving. 

Imagine you want to start a fashion line and had no experience designing clothing. You want the clothes to be a made a certain quality and embody a certain style. You wouldn’t go to a clothing manufacturer and say “make me some clothes that are edgy, cool and high quality.” 

Who knows what you’d end up with? So yes, you’d hire a designer to design the individual clothing pieces. But you’d also make sure that you had someone who could work with you to make sure that the designer delivered what it is that you were expecting. You’d also need help working with the manufacturer, distributors, and retailers to ensure that your clothing was manufactured properly and handed off to the proper channels to make sure it could be sold. 

It’s the same with technology. 

Honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen folks try to go it alone under the assumption they can simply work directly to the developers to build what they want. Then they are disappointed in the end when there is a communications breakdown and tons of time and money are wasted going back and trying to fix things (and this is no dig on engineers, but it simply takes a lot of work that is not programming related to translate concepts and vision into technical specs or even wireframes). 

It’s much easier and more cost effective to build something right the first time, then try to change it later. 

A solid PM should help you both create your vision for what you want to build, and work with the developers to make sure they deliver what you want. 


Top 5 Product Management Tools for under $100

Below are my top five favorite PM tools. With these you should be able to run an amazing product development process on a start-up budget. As a bonus, all of these tools are very user friendly so don’t worry if you’re not very technical. 

5. Snagit
Great for quick design work or page manipulations. Take quick screen captures and use their really solid editing tools to manipulate existing designs.
Price: 30-day free trial then $49.95 per license.

4. Confluence Wiki or Google Docs
Confluence has a nice wiki for writing tech requirements, sharing wireframes, product roadmap, etc. Or, if you want to go even cheaper you can honestly get by just using google docs. The benefit to a wiki, in my experience, is that it’s a little easier to keep things organized and link back and forth to things, but honestly, you won’t lose much going with google docs. I have also heard that Wiki Spaces is a nice free wiki option, but I’ve never used it and can’t vouch for it yet.
Price: For Confluence, if you host it yourself (which I admit I have never done), you can get it for $10 for 10 users (if you want them to host it it gets expensive). Or, Google Docs is free obviously.
Such a great way to get lightening fast feedback on new features before you release them. This is probably the most expensive tool on the list, but if you are super pressed for time, but don’t want to launch a crap feature set, it can be a lifesaver.
Price: Each user test is $39.
2. Balsamiq Mock-Ups
Awesome tool for wireframes. Super easy to learn and use, even for the super technically inept.
Price: 7-day free trial then $79 per license.
1. Pivotal Tracker or Jira
Both are great project management and bug tracking software. I’ve heard Pivotal Tracker is used currently by many hot new start-ups (AirbnbLoosecubesVayable, etc.). And it’s totally free. Jira is less pretty,  but has a lot more functionality and is more flexible. But it also costs a bit more. If you have no budget, go for the former, if you have a little to spare, go with the latter.
Price: Pivotal tracker is free (but not sure for how long…), Jira is $10/mo for 10 users if you host it yourself (and considerably more expensive if you use their hosted version).