UPDATED: I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Wade Danielson, founder and host of the Entrepreneurs Library. Take a listen or read the full transcript below:
If you’re interested in reading the book for yourself, you can grab a copy over on Amazon.
Wade Danielson: Today we have Jock Busuttil, author of The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management. Welcome Jock! And thank for joining us on the Entrepreneurs Library.
Jock Busuttil: Thanks, Wade, thanks for having me.
WD: Before we take a deep dive into you book, would you take a moment to introduce yourself, tell us just a little about yourself personally.
Jock’s biography #
JB: My name is Jock Busuttil, I’ve been a product manager for over a decade and working in software for a few years longer. I guess I’ve worked in a variety of different companies over the years, ranging from small startups through to huge multinational corporates, and really learned a great deal as I’ve been going along. More recently, over the last couple years, I’ve decided to branch out on my own and I’m now running my own product management consultancy called Product People. That’s really given me the opportunity to go and work with lots of different companies in many different markets, different styles of working, and it’s really given me an opportunity to really see if what I know about product management can be applied in all these different areas. So it’s really a learning exercise for me as well.
WD: Excellent. So first off, thank you for sharing that. Now let’s jump right in to your book, The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management, which was made available for purchase – actually not that long ago – January 6th, 2015. It’s coming up on two months here fairly shortly. Jock, we’ll move quickly, but we’re going to cover the top questions that our future readers and listener would like to get answered today. The first is: what was the inspiration behind writing The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management?
Reasons for writing the book #
JB: So… that’s a really good question. I think the real reason was that it was the book I wanted most myself when I was starting out in product management; by which I mean, most of the books that were available told you about how to go about doing it, but they didn’t really tell you what it was really like. So it was kind of a way for me hopefully tell a story for other people as well, that would allow them to understand from someone who’s been through that process what it really means to be a product manager: how you get there, what’s good about it, what’s bad about it, and all the stuff you don’t really get ever a chance to learn about until you’ve actually been thrown in the deep end and you’re doing it for yourself.
WD: What would you say makes your book different from others regarding the same or similar topic?
JB: I think the main difference is that, with very few exceptions, most product management books are telling you about the process, they’re telling you about the methodology, or providing you with a framework for how you go about being a product manager: you must do this, you must do that and have you have to use this template, you have to do it in this particular way. And while there’s value in those kind of books, I also think there’s also a need to bring a book into the mix that was slightly different in the approach, telling you more about the realities of product management, and more about the people, rather than the process. So really I think the book focuses more about the human element of product management, rather than the process element.
How to read it #
WD: And Jock, how did you construct the book, or how would you suggest the reader engage with it? Is this one they can jump in and out of as they need to pull out information, or did you design it to be read from front to back?
JB: Whilst it does have a narrative going through, it tends to be that each chapter is self-contained, so really what you can do, if you want to, is to read the five chapters in different order – it’s not a problem. Each chapter tells a story in itself and so, rather than diving into little particular bits within the chapters, you can get a decent, coherent story from the chapters themselves.
WD: So now we know a bit about the background and purpose behind the book, let’s take a deep dive into the content itself. Let’s take the next five to eight minutes and really let the future reader know what they expect to get out of your book.
What is product management? Balancing the ‘three rings’ #
JB: Certainly. Right – let’s start at the beginning, I guess. Really the purpose of the first chapter is to think about understanding what product management is and what it involves. It’s thinking about this concept of balancing what are called these ‘three rings’, which refers to this diagram a great product manager and good friend of mine Martin Eriksson came up with, which divides up the practice of product management into three main areas: user experience, technology and the business.
Right there in the centre of it all, in the eye of the maelstrom, as it were, is the product manager. Really what that means is that you’re balancing the varying different needs of the user experience – that’s the outside world, the people out there, their needs, their problems and the things you’re trying to solve – with the needs of the business and the aspirations of the organisation that’s creating the product, and then also balancing that with the technology, the people who are building the technology and creating and shaping that product.
It’s difficult to achieve balance in those three areas, not just in your own experience to get to being a product manager right there in the middle, but also because each of those different areas are pulling you in different directions. And that’s one of the challenges of getting everyone to work in the same direction and set a vision for the product, and get everyone aligned to it.
So that’s the main thing – describing what on earth product management is to begin with, because it’s one of those things where quite a lot of people have heard about it , but not necessarily understood what it means and actually start to understand what the job entails.
About the product manager role and how people become one #
Then we talk a little bit more about how the role of product manager evolved and how it started out at Proctor and Gamble and evolved over the last sixty or seventy years to where we are now, where now you’ve got a more holistic, evidence-led and user-centric approach to product management than perhaps there was in the past.
And with that, it’s understanding people’s individual paths into product management are not necessarily direct. You don’t do a university degree or something at high school which teaches you to be a product manager. Rather you gain all these experiences through lots of different roles and jobs and you gradually find yourself in the position where you yourself have achieved that balance between the users, technology and the business side of things, and so you yourself are now ready to become a product manager.
But when it comes down to it, product management is really all about the fundamentals of understanding users and their problems and being able to solve them with the viable, sustainable, profitable product.
Checking you’re on the right track #
That takes us into the whole thing about checking you’re on the right track, and so there’s that great story of the Segway, which if you’re not familiar with it is the self-balancing, two-wheel scooter, which you mostly see in shopping malls or on adventure trails, that kind of thing. The thing about the Segway was that it was really based on the fundamental assumption, in fact it was a hundred million dollars worth of assumption, which was first of all that everyone would want one (they didn’t); also that it would be legal to ride, which was such a fundamental problem when it was illegal to ride in 32 states [in the USA] when it was first launched.
So this whole thing about checking your assumptions and making sure that you find out the obvious things about your product’s viability before you launch into the expensive part of building the thing is really, really important. So we talk about the problems and the questions you need to ask about whether it’s something, this problem you’ve identified is worth solving; whether there’s a market for it; whether there are people – real people – within that market who are actually going to buy the product. So we explore that, then we talk about the counterpoint, which is all these startups that think, rather like the Field of Dreams (the Kevin Costner film), “if we build it they will come – the customers will come and buy our product just because our product exists”. And of course that’s complete nonsense.
People have to need your product, it has to be fulfilling some kind of solution to their problems otherwise there’s simply going to be no motivation for them to buy it. And so there’s lots of ways you can actually test out these assumptions you have, to make sure that you are on the right track, before you go out and build the thing and realise that you’ve built something that nobody needs. So that’s the first obvious bit of how do you make sure you’re building the right thing.
Product management is actually about people #
But then we turn from the products and the markets and the outside world a bit more inwards to the organisation itself. As you’re probably getting the feel, actually product management is not so much about products – I mean, it obviously it is – but it’s actually about managing the people involved in your product. The people who work with you, the specialists across all these different functions like sales and marketing and design and development. All these people are really intimately involved in making your product happen and making it a success, so really it’s about understanding and empathising with where they’re coming from and how you can speak to them in their own languages.
Working with developers… #
And so we go through a variety of these different groups of people that you’ll be most likely to be working with. We talk about developers and how they’re miracle-workers: they have to create from your ideas and your product vision the actual tangible thing, and that’s a real skill. But they can also be hard work sometimes! So you have to learn how to work with them well and understand what makes them tick.
… and designers… #
Then similarly, you’re talking about working with designers. These are the people who both create both the visual elements and the usability of the product, how intuitive it is to work with. And generally speaking, they’re pretty well aligned with the product manager because you’re all interested in the needs of the users. But they can also go off and be lost in the wonder of their own design, disappear off down rabbit holes. Again product managers have to work with them to get the best out of them and keep them on track, and make sure you’re all focusing back on what is possible and practical within the time available.
… and with sales and marketing #
And then we talk about marketing and sales, and what tough jobs they have and understanding that they each have their own interesting quirks. You have to understand what they need and how you can work with them and get the best from them. So that’s really important to understand: you’re working with all these different specialists, and without them you’d never be able to achieve the product you have. You can’t do it by yourself. So that’s really important to remember.
Success and failure for products #
And then it’s thinking about success and failure. So even if you do all the right things, and even if you do everything right, there’s still that chance your product won’t succeed. There’s a number of things you can do to increase your chances of success, but it doesn’t necessarily assure success.
We talk a bit about how you have to make sure the whole product is ready, it’s coordinated, the launch is effective, information is being spread around the organisation, the right information to the right people at the right time, making sure you learn about what succeeds, what doesn’t. But when it boils down to it, it’s really about learning. It’s about really remembering that you don’t know everything up front, you can’t survive on guesswork, so you’ve got to be continually learning in the way you evolve your product and the way you learn from the market. And it’s really that move towards agile ways of doing product management that facilitate and provide more opportunities to learn as you go along.
Time management and procrastination #
Then, as we’re rounding out the book the last thing we cover is time management, which is one of those soft skills that is so important because you’re juggling all these different things and keeping all these plates spinning in the air – you need to be able to organise yourself. But it’s not necessarily something you’re born with. And so I talk about the fact that I’m actually usually quite disorganised, I’m not very good at managing my time, and it’s something I’ve had to learn and get a lot better at over time.
Similarly, dealing with distractions and context-switching and about how multitasking doesn’t actually work as an approach because your brain isn’t wired up that way. And then for me, again the personal thing about procrastination. It’s really difficult sometimes to get started on something unless you’ve set yourself a deadline or promised it to someone. And just really recognising what sets you off down that path of procrastination, how you can avoid it so you can actually get stuff done when you need to.
What does success look like for a product manager? #
I guess to finish off as a kind of epilogue, it’s about thinking about what success means. And one of the things that occurred to me is that quite a lot of product managers get assessed by how successful their products are, so it’s very difficult to separate the product manager from the products they create. I challenge that and say, maybe there’s a way to assess what success looks like for the product manager as a person as well.
Without ruining the ending of the book, there are some fundamental lessons about achieving balance between work and life and all these different aspects, which was one of the hardest lessons I learned over the course of becoming a product manager. So I really wanted to finish in a way saying, if this book is about product management and encourages you to get into product management, remember that product management isn’t your life, it’s merely the means to an end – to go and get the money that will allow you to go and do the stuff that really matters in life. The product isn’t your baby, a job is just a job, so just keep everything in perspective and try not to get too stressed out by the whole endeavour. And that’s really the book in a nutshell.
WD: Jock – you did a fantastic job of taking us through the book and you covered a lot of different ideas, and that’s why I think the next question is so relevant: if people could take away one concept, principle or action out of everything you’ve just discussed with us, basically your entire book, what would you want that to be?
The most important takeaway #
JB: I think first and foremost, it has to be empathy: the ability to put yourself, as a product manager, into the shoes of your users, your customers, the people in your organisation that help you create this fantastic product, and understanding what their needs are over yours, because ultimately you’re not going to be the target market, the customer for this product. What you think is irrelevant – your opinions are not the main thing. Which is why it’s so important to empathise, to understand and see things from the perspectives of all these other people you’re dealing with.
WD: Jock – do you have a favourite quote from your book, I know that’s kind of an odd question, something you wrote that might impact the listener today, and also share briefly what it means to you?
Favourite quote #
JB: There’s one particular bit: one of the things, when I’m talking about the different groups of people you work with to actually create the product, are designers. For me – I don’t have a creative bone in my body – so I think that good design is magic. So when I’m talking about what a good designer can do, I use this quote:
“Good designers can take the complex and make it profoundly simple. Great designers will also stir your soul and bewitch you with the beauty of their design.”
And that was one of the things that really struck me when I was working with really good designers, is that they will just cut through the complexity of the thing you’re trying to create, and bring to back to this profound simplicity that still has all this complexity behind it, but make it so easy to use and so easy to understand for the customers.
WD: Well Jock, so people can reflect on that a little bit more, we’ll put that quote and explanation in the show notes at theELpodcast.com. So now we have to ask for a book recommendation. Not any recommendation, we’re asking for THE recommendation. So if there’s only one book you can recommend our listeners based on the way it’s impacted your life and created a lifestyle or paradigm shift, what book would you suggest?
Book recommendations #
JB: Ha! Well, maybe an odd choice. It’s not necessarily an entrepreneurial book, but I think from a life perspective, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is one of the books that has fundamentally changed my view on bureaucracy and humour, and all those kind of things. It’s one of those books that I’ve always kept coming back to. If maybe you’ll allow me to cheat a little bit, I think in terms of a business book, Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore is the seminal one to start with if you’re thinking about building products or starting a business.
WD: Oh, that’s fantastic! You know what, we’ve actually had that first one that you’re talking about, The Hitchhiker’s Guide…, we’ve had that one referenced before. And I’m glad, because I didn’t want to put a stipulation on it that it had to be an entrepreneurial book, so thank you for sharing both of those.
Jock – before we depart, can you recommend the best way for listeners not only to get more information on you, but also get more information on your book, The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management?
Finding out more #
JB: Yes – if you want to read more, I write a blog called I Manage Products and that’s at imanageproducts.uk. So that’s where you can see what I’ve been writing more recently. If you want more information about the book, it’s available at a variety of places, but probably the easiest way is to grab it from Amazon. You can search for it using the title or my name (if you can spell it!), then you’ll be able to find it there.
WD: Perfect! Well Jock, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your book with us.
JB: Oh, thank you very much! It was a real pleasure talking to you.
Jock was interviewed by Wade Danielson of the Entrepreneurs Library Podcast in March 2015.