At the heart of product management is the ability to discover the customers' pain and then leading the way in solving that pain in the best way possible.

Guest Commentary, Guest Commentary

February 22, 2017

7 Min Read
John Shapiro

In the early 1990s when Intuit's QuickBooks accounting software launched, it was an unknown product and priced twice as high as its nearest competitor, with fewer features. Yet it very quickly became the US market leader. And, it still is.

As a product management leader at Intuit, the story about the creation of QuickBooks is one of my favorite pieces of corporate history. It’s fundamental to how we help small businesses succeed today. It’s also a revealing tale about what a strong product management function can do for an organization as it tries to build products that endure and adapt to new customer needs.

Product management roles have existed for decades across the corporate landscape. But a new generation of “PMs” and product leaders are enjoying increased attention as tech companies expand their ranks to better compete through holistic approaches to product development. According to the Wall Street Journal, MBA candidates are embracing product management jobs as a way to combine marketing, design, and problem-solving skills. Top business schools, including Harvard, Cornell, and Northwestern, are among those rolling out new programs. Many tech companies, like Facebook, Google, and Intuit, have created PM rotational programs to serve as bootcamps to help undergrads jump into this exciting function.

Way back when, just as they do now, teams at Intuit included a strong role for product management to help spot and solve customer pain. In the case of QuickBooks, the pain was accounting.

Small business owners had started using another Intuit product, Quicken personal finance software, for business accounting even though that wasn't its intent. They were drawn to it specifically because it was not complex accounting software, and because Quicken provided enough accounting-style functions for them to get by. The product team initially thought, “Well, they’re just using it wrong; they should be using accounting software.”

Enter a pivotal insight delivered by the team, who asked, “What if we create accounting software that doesn’t feel like accounting software and doesn’t require small businesses to know accounting?”  

Other accounting tools in the marketplace required users to navigate debits and credits and other accounting concepts. But QuickBooks used language in its interface that was easy for small business owners to understand. You just entered business forms like invoices and bills, and the accounting happened behind the scenes. 

Solving the pain of accounting is what allowed QuickBooks to achieve breakaway success.

But where exactly does a PM fit in? Why is product management necessary?  Let’s take a closer look at the role and what it can do.

Project management done well

Product management is a craft and a function. Companies looking to foster a product management culture should hire for and build the capabilities that support it. PM is often described as something that fills in the gaps between other functions. To a degree, that's true. But in some ways, anyone good inside a company can step in to facilitate stuff that's not happening. Product management is much more, and it’s important to create, cultivate, nurture, and grow the craft of PM in your organization.

A product manager's job done well means discovering the customer pain and galvanizing and motivating the team to solve for it in a way that’s 10x better than alternatives. But product management is a spectrum. Depending on the corporate culture, the role can be anything from “leader” to “order taker.” In my view, order taking will only get you so far, and it’s not an environment that will attract rockstar talent.

In a sales-driven business-to-business company, for instance, you might have 10 customers paying you anywhere from $2 million to $10 million. If a customer asks for something, you're going to go build it. That’s order taking, and it’s fine up to a certain point, but it rarely leads to breakthrough product development.

An engineering-driven culture, on the other hand, might rally behind a mission to build cool technical stuff based on a belief that customers trust your expertise and will like whatever you build. In that environment, the PM coordinates between design, engineering, and other roles to bring it over the finish line. Again, that’s fine up to a certain point, but limiting in that you’re relying on your own vision rather than working to achieve a customer insight born of true empathy. You’ll often be disappointed to learn that either the customer pain was not significant enough or your product didn’t solve it the right way.

To be effective, the product manager must be the leader and driver of the team. Even though the team rarely reports to the PM, he or she needs to motivate, galvanize, and direct the team. A sales or engineering team that does an end-run around a PM to get something built to their own specs will disempower the role and often end up with a cobbled-together product that’s short of its full potential. Your organization as a whole should embrace the benefits PM brings.

[For more about effective team building, read How Cross-Functional IT Teams Can Work Toward A Common Goal.]

At companies where PMs are leaders, they drive the conversation around finding the right problem to solve and then diving into the solution. The only way to do that is by going out and understanding customers better than customers understand themselves.

Uber is a great example. One team at Uber is organized around the ride experience. That team has a mission. Uber’s ideal state is that moment you think you need to go somewhere, a car shows up and takes you there, seamlessly.

Uber’s team has narrowed in on the customer pain of “I need to get from Point A to Point B.” Everything else – hailing a car, pulling out an app, picking between different options, evaluating costs – is friction. Uber is relentless about eliminating it. A good PM can help your company be relentless too.

With that in mind, here is some of my best advice for inspiring product management thinking:

Flex the muscle. Good product management comes through practice and instinct. Maintain a small side project, or think about the annoying things in day-to-day life. What is the pain? What might be a better way to solve that? Consider the TV remote. You use it in the dark, and yet only three buttons on it light up, and they are not the buttons you care about. Then look at a Logitech Harmony universal remote. All of their buttons light up as soon as you pick it up. They’ve identified the gap; that’s PM thinking.

Be technical. PM’s should build credibility with the technical people they work with. A PM does not have to have a computer science degree, though that obviously helps. If that’s not your background, take an eight-week online course in Javascript so that you can write basic code. Or take apart electronics and put them back together. The idea is to demonstrate technical interest and acumen.

Lead with energy and positivity. PMs lead through influence. A PM is not the CEO of the product; no one reports to him or her. PMs must energize, motivate, and lead through influence rather than hierarchy. They must be the boundless source of energy and drive that will motivate the team to work nights and weekends to deliver awesome things that customers couldn't have dreamed of but now can't imagine living without.

John Shapiro is Director of Product Management for QuickBooks Online at Intuit. He is a software enthusiast with a strong engineering background and business mindset, guiding his team to relieve the complexities of accounting for 1.6M+ small businesses around the world. Previously, he was Director of Product Management for Payments at Intuit, where he was responsible for helping small business owners quickly and easily get paid by their customers. Before Intuit, John was at Adobe where he was the original product manager on Creative Cloud, founded and led an internal startup to help websites drive repeat traffic via notifications, and participated in a consumer creativity incubator. He started his career at IBM and Google. John holds a BS in Computer Science from Stanford University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary

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