Thursday, March 03, 2016

When Should a CEO Hire a Product Manager?

A company usually starts with an idea, or a couple of people getting together over an idea. That idea percolates and becomes the center of attention for the founder(s) or CEO. Obsession over details and getting things just right is the norm. This is all goodness. Hopefully that obsessive effort takes off and the CEO is forced into running a business, instead of nursing an ember of an idea.

I have never been a CEO of a company, but I've watched them. The responsibilities seem endless. Build the right team, which means hiring and interviewing. Keep the VCs happy, which means flights and travel and presentation prep. Go find the customers and evangelize, more travel and more presentations. Make sure the company can make payroll, reviewing the finances and financial planning. Prioritizing the companies limited resources to get the biggest bang for a buck. There is a lot more than that, but even those alone seem like full time jobs. Some of this is easier if there are co-founders and division of duties is forged. But often co-founders have the same vested interest in knowing all the details of the business, and thus never fully leave the other to handle their tasks without at least being in the know.

All this, then a developer wants to know what should happen if a user taps the help button. The product needs help, but who's going to write all that content and figure out the user flow back into the app?

The CEO's job is to focus on the big picture, the big moving parts and the future of the company and product. You've heard the phrase "Hire to your weaknesses", but the CEO often doesn't accept that a lack of time is his or her weakness. Or often feels that since the idea was theirs, no one else will understand it. Building a software product and worrying about the details takes time, and lots of it. It's not accepted today to ship something where the details aren't thought out, a single bump in the user experience can cause 1,000s of users to jump to your nearest competitor. Moreover, that bump is what they remember about your product, it'll take a lot of work to convince them to come back as they think of your product as unpolished.

The CEO needs help, but how do you know when? Here are some signs a CEO should look to getting a product manager as soon as possible to help build your product:

  1. You find features in your product that you had no idea were even in planning
  2. You haven't used your own product in the last 2 or 3 releases
  3. When you do make it into the office, there is a line developers outside your office waiting for you to make a business decision for your product
  4. Each email you get from internal employees starts with "Sorry to bother you again, but ... "
  5. You feel the momentum of development has slowed down, and developers don't have butts in seats coding up a storm
  6. You find a product request from an important client that's three weeks old and you haven't mentioned it to the team yet
  7. Your development team is telling you which features they want in the product and most of them are over half completed
In many of the above examples, the development team is missing the product direction, the answers to what's next, or what business decision happens at this stage of the user experience. The day-to-day of product management!

One thing I've learned about developers, is they like to code. If there is nothing to code, they will make something up to code. This doesn't help the company, and it doesn't help the end user. My worst nightmares are when developers don't have customer features to build, so they wish to re-architecture the product. While a refactor is necessary from time to time (future post on this topic), it's a lot of development and engineering with very little end value for the end user.

Without product direction the direction of the product turns from a targeted, to shotgun approach. The long term vision of the product that customers can visualize disappears. You end up with a lot of features that are indeed nice to have, but don't add a lot of value to the end user. Such as:
  1. A forever changing foundation of the app or service bent to whichever developer has the more convincing argument at the time
  2. A set of unpolished quasi features that loosely fit together, instead of a cohesive vision of intended value
  3. Broken flows across pillars in your organization (aka, the org chart is showing) making users stumble around inside the product
  4. A lack of investment in larger customer requests
  5. Slick animations in areas of the product that are rarely used
... to state a few.

When a CEO finds themselves too busy to keep the product moving along at an acceptable pace, with features directly targeted to the customer, it's time to think about a product management role. Essentially, as soon as the CEO can't spend more than 50% of their time worrying about product direction.

Find a product manager who shares the vision of the product, and spend a lot of time with them. Initially, a huge amount of time. Let them play with the product, then spend more time with them. Lastly, bestow them on your dev team and watch the magic unfold. The CEO will walk away with more time, and a better product as a result.

Once hired, it's important to keep the Product Manager and CEO in sync at a minimum on a weekly basis. I could write more on that, But The PM Mind Meld by Ken Norton tackles exactly that.