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Engineers are the worst Product Managers you could hire

Hiring engineers to be Product Managers is one of the worst decisions you can make.


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Asaf Atzmon

3 years ago | 5 min read

Ok … I’m going to piss some people off with this post; to make things worse, some of them are my close friends. Would it help if I start by saying that I, myself, am a software engineer that has practiced product management through large parts of my career?

Secondly, I’m sure to make some wild generalizations here which will do injustice to many great product managers who happen to have a background in engineering, but I’m trying to make a statement here, and you can’t make a statement without highlighting insights which are based on generalizations, and you can’t make these without potentially hurting some people down the way… so, I apologize for it.

Now that I got this out of my system, let me say it:

Hiring engineers to be Product Managers is one of the worst decisions you can make.

Desirability, Feasibility, Viability

There are many definitions of Products and Product Managers; to me, it all comes down to the fundamental objective of finding a Product-Market fit. One of the most common sets of attributes to capture it is what has been originally defined by IDEO as the Desirability, Feasibility, Viability trinity.

While some may argue that this perspective focuses mostly on the innovation phase of a product, I am deeply convinced that this Innovation is the core of product management, and it’s a critical phase throughout the continuous lifecycle of a company, whether it is with coming up with a new product, or figuring out the next features to add to an existing one.

Sure, there are other aspects of Product Management such as “rallying the troops”, “managing the backlog” etc. and while important, I regard them as lower-skill “product technicians” work, that is rarely the reason for a product to fail.

Coming back to the matter, we can follow these definitions for DFV:

  • A desirable solution, one that your customer really needs
  • A feasible solution, building on the strengths of your current operational capabilities
  • A viable solution, with a sustainable business model.

Source: IDEO

I believe there’s a reason behind the order of those three traits. You have to start with what the customer wants. This is the outward look and is the most critical aspect of the product work, thinking from the outside-in as I discussed in a previous post.

The second pillar is focused on looking inward, to find the company’s assets, values, and mission that can put it in an advantageous position to be the one to build the desirable solution a win at the marketplace. Lastly, you have to figure out a collaboration model that works both for you and your customer.

This is the inward-outward look that has to cater both for the value you bring and the value you capture back and to bridge between the two. I chose to use the term collaboration model rather than business model deliberately, as I believe it has to do more than with “how I make money of it”; it is about building a long-term sustainable relationship with your customer.

The Product Superhero

Mastering these three circles may seem like an impossible task that calls for a superhero figure; it’s no wonder that the majority of products fail to make it to commercial success. It might be worthwhile to try and consider what are the key things that we should look into in Product Management, keeping the DFV diagram in mind:

  1. Empathy — the holy grail of the design-thinking process and the cornerstone for customers’ understanding.
  2. Behavioral Studies — customers are human-beings; they are being driven by behaviors that are rooted in the anatomy of our brains. Understanding the mechanisms behind people’s choices has been proven as a successful recipe to build desirable products.
  3. Incentives Theories — along psychology, figuring out the economic models that govern people’s choices is highly beneficial to reach products’ goals.
  4. Storytelling and narration — as a civilization we are attracted by stories; products that tell a story create a better attachment with customers.
  5. Strategy Thinking — scoping your “playing field”, identifying your arsenal and figuring out an attack-path help validating the feasibility of your company to win in the market field.
  6. Analytics Skills — the ability to generate insight out of pure data.

The list is not exhaustive; it could have included other relevant sources of knowledge and skills, such as design, architecture and even experiential marketing from the world of retail, but i hope it makes the case of the rich and broad frame of consideration that must be applied into the role of Product Management.

So why on Earth would you hire an Engineer?

In writing this post, I did a simple search for ‘Product Manager’ in the Jobs section of LinkedIn. Regardless of the location or company type, almost every job posting had the following requirement (often as the first one):

B.Sc in computer science or related discipline

This concurs with my own personal experience; product management is often a phase in the career path of an engineer or software developer making his way to more customer-facing or business-oriented positions. It is not surprising given the fact that many of those companies themselves are run by engineers.

Why is that a problem? because engineering is all about finding a simple and effective solution to a clearly identified problem. Wikipedia defines it as “the use of scientific principles to design and build machines, structures, and other items”. It is, by nature, a narrow-minded focused practice, and it falls flat in its ability to solve complex unclear problems.

In its highly popular Ted talk, Daniel Pink demonstrates how focused-thinking is ineffective in addressing “thinking out of the box” challenges such as The Candle Problem. But, in today’s highly accelerated complex environments, product-market fit challenges look much more like a candle problem than a schoolbook engineering one.

Source: Duncker, Karl (1945) On Problem Solving

Secondly, and I will risk generalizing here, but engineers often tend to be low on the EQ meter; definitely not the first option that comes in mind for exercising empathy. They are more comfortable with machines and well-defined and deterministic codes of behavior (such as in programming language, network protocols, and specifications) than with the irrational, incentive-driven “machine” which is the human-mind.

They are more likely to be socially awkward, compared to people from many other backgrounds. I can safely say, that beyond the analytical trait, on average they fail miserably on almost all the measures I defined above.

Unlock a Wealth of Talents

We are missing out big-time, as we keep complaining on the lack of STEM studies to fill in a growing number of open positions, while at the same time, failing to attract pools of talent that can significantly upgrade our product performance.

Why not consider the following alternative job description:

An early-stage company building an experience to disrupt the way <fill in the gap> is looking for a multi disciplinary talent to define and execute the customer experience.
Qualifications:
Ability to show empathy and deep customer understanding on emotional, psychological, economical, societal and functional levels
Ability to build narratives, create compelling stories and translate them into an immersive experience
Ability to think in strategic terms, identify a competitive landscape and build a winning route into the customers’ heart
Background in design, architecture, economy, psychology, screenwriting or any other discipline with high affinity to a requirements above

Our world is becoming more complex; customers more sophisticated and problems more rich and deep in nature; unless we match it up with a rich and broader mindset to problem-solving, we can’t hope to remain innovative.

Originally published at UX Collective

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Asaf Atzmon

I’m passionate about product, strategy and innovation.


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