First Things First: How Does A Product Manager Start?

Product managers need to know how to get things started
Product managers need to know how to get things started
Image Credit: Andre Chinn

So you are in the process of starting your brand new product manager job. Congratulations. Now what? What is the first thing that you are going to need to do? As we all know, there are a ton of things that you could do including creating a product development definition, but where to start? I recently had a chance to start a new job as a product manager for a startup that had never had a product manager before. What I did right off the bat might provide you with some answers to this question…

Version Control

The startup up that I joined had a great product (in my opinion – that’s why I joined them!) and they already had some customers. The reason that they were willing to hire me is that things had started to get out of control and based on what they had seen on my product manager resume they believed that I was the one who could help them regain some control. Right off the bat I started asking some basic questions. One of them was “what version of the product are your customers using right now?” The answer was silence. They really didn’t have versions.

You know how this story goes. The startup had created some software, they had gotten their first customer. That customer had requested changes and so they made the changes and gave them updated software. Other customers came along and the process was repeated. No concept of version control was ever created because it really had not been needed. This was an easy product manager task: I created a version control system.

No customer ever wants to be using version 1.0 of a product. Because the company had already delivered multiple versions of the product I decided to call the next version “3.0”. After that I created a schedule where a new version of the product would be created every two months and we would call it “3.1, 3.2, etc.” I talked with the head of sales and found out that they had two big selling periods each year. I then had the version number go up by an integer (“4.0, 5.0”) just before those selling periods so that the sales teams would have something important to talk with their potential customers about.

To Get To Where You Want To Go, You Need A Road Map

One of my next questions for the product development team was “what changes do you plan on making to the product?” Once again, this question was answered with silence. Basically what was going on was that the phone would ring, a customer would have a request, and the development team would get to work. I put a stop to that. I told everyone that it wasn’t so much what our existing customers wanted that mattered (although it was important), but rather what our potential customers wanted.

I set about creating a road map for the product. I decided that there were four different types of features that we might want to spend time on creating. The first set of features would be for the organization that managed our customers. The next set would benefit specific groups of our customers, but not their management. The third set would benefit everyone. The final set of features was for the people in my company – it would make it easier for us to both support and deploy the product.

When I met with the product developers I explained the new road map to them and told them that I wanted to have a balance of features to be implemented into each release. This way each release would meet everyone’s needs just a bit. I then got effort estimates from the developers for each of the features that we knew that we needed to be working on. I used these estimates to create a plan for which release each of the features would be included in.

It’s All About Support

When your company is a small company (or even if it’s a big one), keeping the customers that you have is just as important as getting new ones. What this means is that the customer service that your company provides needs to be top notch. When I joined my company, they had a customer support system set up; however, customer requests were not being dealt with well.

I brought both the development and the support teams together and we had a talk. What seemed to be missing was any sort of formal communication between the two departments. Customer requests for things that that the product did not do would come in and then would just sit there because nothing was broken and everyone had something else that they needed to be doing.

I scheduled a weekly meeting where both teams would come together. The meeting was run by the support team. They would go stepping though all of the new feature requests and as a group we would evaluate them (can do, should not do, already do, customer is confused, etc.) When we decided to implement a new feature, we’d assign it to a developer and the support ticket would be on its way to being resolved

What All Of This Means For You

When you find yourself in a new product management position, one of the first things that you need to work out is just exactly what your first steps need to be. Sorry, you’re not going to find this documented in your product manager job description. In my situation I was the first product manager that my company had ever had and so there was a lot for me to do, the trick was to determine what order it should be done in.

I started by creating a release process that had unique numbers associated with each release of the software. After that I worked with the development team to come up with a road map that laid out the changes that were going to be made to the product going forward. Finally, because product support is such an important area, I brought the support and development teams together and we created a system to make sure that valid customer requests got worked into the product in a timely fashion.

Did I do everything perfectly? Probably not. Did I make things a lot better than they used to be? Yes. I have to admit that even I was a little surprised at how quickly the rest of the company adopted the release numbering system and the other processes. Today there is a smooth flowing system in place that allows everyone to clearly communicate about the product. Its my hope that the product management processes that I’ve been able to put into place are going to make the company be a big success!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What’s the best way to tell existing customers when you implement a new product versioning system?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

I’ve got a question for you. If I asked you to prepare a bowl of cereal, would you know how to do it? I’m willing to bet that you scoff at this question: everyone knows how to do this. You get the cereal out, get the milk out, get a bowl and a spoon, put the cereal in the bowl, pour some milk on top of it and then you’re done. However, when folks in South Africa got cereal for the first time, they boiled water and then added the cereal creating a nasty mush. Clearly the cereal product managers had some work to do here!