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How to Make Managers, the dreaded BBQ question. and what the heck is DevRel?

One Knight in Product newsletter
One Knight in Product newsletter
There’s probably a whole article to write about fake AI in products, but for now just remember that there are a non-zero number of products claiming to use AI that probably just use a bunch of if statements.
Series B ... confirmed!
Series B ... confirmed!
New podcast episodes
Here are two fabulous One Knight in Product episodes to delight your ears 🎧
Firstly, we have Silicon Valley product discovery coach Jim Morris on the importance of data-driven experimentation and discovery to make sure you’re making products your customers actually want. Check out Jim’s episode here.
Secondly, I wanted to find out a bit about all these developer relations (DevRel) people I keep seeing pop up over Twitter, and how the role intersects with product management. I chatted to DevRel experts Tessa Kriesel & Wesley Faulkner about all this and more. Check out their episode here.
Level up your technical skills with Skiplevel
The next few episodes of the podcast are sponsored by Skiplevel. Do you struggle with communicating with dev teams and understanding technical terminology and concepts? In episode 98, I hosted Irene Yu, founder of Skiplevel, an on-demand training program that helps professionals and teams become more technical in just 5 weeks… All without learning to code. Learn the knowledge and skills you need to better communicate with devs and become more confident in your day-to-day role with the Skiplevel program. Go to Skiplevel and use code OKIP75 to get $75 off the program until the 15th June, 2022.
Book recommendation
I’ve seen The Making of a Manager by ex-Facebook VP Julie Zhuo around and about but never picked it up. I’m a big fan of management and leadership books in general and I have to say that Julie’s book is a well-written, accessible and very honest guide to the trials and tribulations of moving into management and growing as a manager. I recommend this book to both new managers as well as those who kind of blundered into management without much coaching (like I did!)
The existential angst when PMs are asked what they do
For a while on the podcast I used to ask the “BBQ question” of my guests… the basic format being along the lines of:
You’re at a BBQ & are chatting to your sister’s new boyfriend, getting on famously. He’s an accountant or something. He asks you what you do for a living & you say “I’m a product manager!” & he says “What’s a product manager?”
I stopped asking this a while back (and can’t even remember why I stopped) but I did ask it on Twitter recently and the replies made me think a little bit about the types of response you get.
The fundamentalist
This is the type of person who wants the world to be just like Inspired. When asked by a layperson what a product manager does, they’ll respond along the lines of “it’s my job to discover a product that is valuable, usable, and feasible”. This is accurate (in “proper” product companies at least, rather than the dreaded feature factories), but it isn’t going to resonate with anyone who hasn’t read the book or who doesn’t know what product management is already.
The abstract philosopher
The answer here is more along the lines of “it’s my job to deliver value to the customer”. This is similar to the fundamentalist approach but somewhat more abstract. What does “delivering value” mean? Don’t other people in the company deliver value? The trouble here is that it doesn’t mean anything to anyone, probably not even most product managers.
The giver upper
The response here is probably to just say “I make software” or “I tell the engineers what to do”. In many ways this is probably the easiest response that will shut the other person up and let you get onto your next hot dog. Just make sure your engineering team isn’t standing nearby.
The other type of giving up is just to say “I’m a project manager” because a lot of people will understand that. It’s ok, we won’t judge you for getting through a tricky situation (and, let’s face it, there are lots of project manager product managers out there… we’re here for you!)
The analogiser
This is the type of person who will try to find as close an analogy as possible that resonates with the layperson asking the question. If they’re talking to an accountant, they’ll try to explain how their job is to make sure that the platform an accountant uses does what the accountant needs. If they’re talking to a kid they might try to explain it in terms of making sure their favourite toy has all the right bits and pieces. They’ll probably gloss over the gory details and concentrate on describing it in the questioner’s frame of reference.
In a non-product scenario I would almost certainly try to use this approach.
Does the answer matter?
Obviously, the question is light-hearted but the range of answers does point to a deeper sense of existential angst amongst product managers who really don’t know how to explain what they do; either to their friends & family or (worse still) to their colleagues. It’s no secret that many product managers are not in ideal product companies and their ways of working diverge wildly from what you might see in most books. And, to some extent, that’s OK. Sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. But I do believe that product managers should be more bullish about the value that they actually bring to the company. I’ve seen too many examples of interdisciplinary snark recently, with designers dumping on product managers or developers dumping on product managers.
So much of this boils down to the lack of obviously tangible output from product managers. This absolutely does not mean that product managers are not valuable, but that the value that they provide is somewhat taken for granted by their peers. We deliver through the efforts of our colleagues, and too many people are still conditioned to judge people based on concrete outputs rather than the thinking that got them there.
We have to stand up for the value of product management as a practice!
That's all, folks!
TL;DR - product management is hard to define to non product managers, but product managers should never be shy of explaining the value they bring to their companies.
I hope you enjoyed the issue! Please share it with any product management friends you think might enjoy it too.
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