Dan's Blog

February 23, 2010

What good are Product Managers?

Filed under: Product Management,publishing — ddswanson01 @ 10:32 am

I’m not an expert Product Manager yet, though I expect to become one, but one thing I am an expert on is things that can happen if you don’t have a Product Manager, and today I’ll describe an incident that shows some of these things. I’m talking about a time when my company didn’t have Product Managers, and I’m depending on memory, so the details might not be exact, but the incident described below did happen. The company desire to lower costs by avoiding incidents similar to this is one of the reasons the PM position was created, back around 2001 or so.

A new edition of a textbook and an ancillary software product were released. Instructors who had used the prior edition of this textbook and software started calling the famous author, because the software for the new edition was missing one of the features found in the prior edition. Instructors threatened to go back to the old edition, or worse yet, adopt a different author’s book from another publisher.

An extremely important part of the Product Manager’s job is to uncover market needs and address them in new products and product upgrades. This missing feature was not just a market need, it was a critical need for the product, and any good or even adequate Product Manager had better recognize critical needs and prioritize them accordingly.

The missing feature was a skill-building exercise. The student was presented with a problem similar to a homework problem from the book. The student solved the problem and the program verified the answer. If desired, the student could then solve another similar problem, and the program would present a different problem each time. Solving similar yet different problems was supposed to build the student’s knowledge about this particular type of problem.

The problem was conveyed to a project manager and although I didn’t actually see the specifications that were provided, my later experience with the feature suggests they were something like this:
· Create a self-grading skill-building exercise for this product.
· Do it fast and cheap

The upgraded product was quickly re-released. The new feature did not resemble at all the skill-builder from the earlier version; it had apparently been designed by the developer based on the specs above. Tech Support quickly became intimately familiar with this new skill-builder; it seemed that every student who used it called support. In addition, the author got even more calls from instructors about the new feature than there had been about the missing feature. There were two problems with the new feature:
· It graded the first problem it presented to the student correctly; every subsequent iteration of the problem was graded incorrectly.
· The presentation of the problem was such that even when it worked correctly, it did not promote student learning.

Our hypothetical ‘good or even adequate’ Product Manager would have insured that these issues never made it into the release. The PRD would have given more details on what the skill-builder should do, and the test cases in the user stories would have avoided both issues.

The bad feature was quickly updated and the product re-released (still without a PM) and guess what? Only the first issue was addressed. Whoever prioritized these issues didn’t understand that a skill-builder that doesn’t promote learning is as useless as a skill-builder that doesn’t work. Our PM would have prioritized these issues correctly.

What did this particular problem cost us? We could accurately compute Development and Testing costs, Tech Support cost and the cost of scrapping bad inventory and building new inventory (three times!). Sales provided the dollar value of lost adoptions. Harder to calculate are: costs for future lost adoptions; opportunity cost of reassigning the development resources; the dollar value of loss of goodwill from authors and customers and damaged morale of the product stakeholders, and the resistance of the Sales Team to selling this product in the future.

What is clear is that the lack of a Product Manager had a direct impact on the bottom line. Perhaps for a single textbook the expense wasn’t that much compared to the bottom line. But we sold over 200 textbooks. The example above was an extreme case; most ancillary products didn’t have issues as severe or expensive as this one. But with over 200 products and less than 1 Product Manager, there were definitely other similar issues.

We did learn from this incident and others like it, and Product Managers were hired and Product Management methodology adopted. And our products got better!


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