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Rich Mironov on Bad (and Good) Product Management

By David Allsopp

If you work in Product Management and you haven’t heard of Rich Mironov, then best keep this to yourself, and jump onto his blog, pronto, where he’s been blogging about software product management for 18 years.

A veteran product leader with more than 30 years’ experience in software Product Management in Silicon Valley, Rich spent about 15 years working for well-known companies building enterprise software. Over the last 18 years, he’s worked mostly on his designing product organisations and mentoring Chief Product Officers/VPs of Product. When he’s not doing that, Rich also drops into San Francisco Bay area companies as an interim Head of Product.

Rich sat down with Ivy Hornibrook to talk about bad – and good – Product Management.

Don’t Tolerate Bad Management if it’s Making You Miserable

“The number one thing I see that undermines product and engineering teams’ success is senior executives who help too much,” said Rich.

“Executives who frequently interrupt their own teams and who are extremely frustrated about lack of progress on the committed stuff that’s in the roadmap – this is a big problem. Often, those executive interrupts are the top reason for roadmap slips.”

Rich suggests that, with a real shortage of experienced Product Managers in Australia, people don’t need to tolerate bad management if working there makes them miserable.

“Last time I checked, there was something like 12,000 open Product Management jobs in the San Francisco area.”

“I know there’s also a shortage in Australia, proportional to your population. Companies that really want to keep their Product Managers need to treat them well because there’s another job in the next building or the next floor.”

“I don’t think a Product Manager can dig us out of this problem by themselves, because it’s not a problem solely within Product Management’s control,” said Rich.

There are plenty of good CEOs and executives who want to listen and understand and have a great reputation, so everyone wants to go work for them.

“We all need to get smart about seeing these frequent executive interruptions for what they are. And consider changing your company if you’re being treated this way.”

The State-of-Play in Australia

“There’s a shortage of companies in Australia that are mature in their product culture and thinking, and there’s pushback on how applicable product thinking is,” said Rich.

“I spend a lot of time in New Zealand, a far smaller market, as well as Ireland, which is about the same size as New Zealand. There are just not enough people in Ireland, for instance, for any domestic-only software company to succeed. If you expect to grow, you must target a larger audience, whether that’s South Asia or North America or Europe. Pick your place.”

Essential to growth and embedding product thinking is building a company culture where decisions are based on data rather than opinions, particularly in relation to servicing a small percentage of your clients who want something outside the box – a “special” or one-off or custom piece of integration.

“I spend most of my time on the enterprise side where this is particularly acute. But if you’re at a consumer-focused company, where you’re going to have to sell 10 million units of something next quarter, it turns out no one user or buyer or customer is so big that they get to escalate feature requests to the CEO,” said Rich. “We get to do A/B tests and make choices and do discovery to address the bulk of the audience or the mass market.”

“In consumer companies, you’re looking to make $7 a month times 12 months times five million people. And while you may worry about churn and seek to reduce it, there’s far more rationality and data-driven views. It’s more about marketing than selling.”

Rich sees a lot of shared understanding between marketers and product people, because of their focus on evidence, data and conversion rates.

“The really good enterprise companies that are product companies have partnered up with professional services companies so that the product company sell the standard stuff and pass all of the special work to custom development firms that are better equipped to do it. This is a great division of labour. If you’re a professional service company, you love this stuff because you get paid by the hour.”

“As you go downstream to the SMB market, you need to have either less and less customisation or more and more partners. I’m thinking of Hootsuite, Salesforce or WordPress, where they have lots and lots of partners creating lots and lots of add-on stuff. So the big company sells the core platform and then customers pick and choose from hundreds or thousands of add-ons from smaller players who fill in the gaps.”

Leadership Patterns to Watch for

“I think I’ve probably done more interim VP of Product gigs than anyone. I enjoying parachuting in for three months or so, to help a company get on its feet from a Product Management point of view, and then help hire my full-time replacement, so I can move onto the next thing,” said Rich.

In his time acting in interim leaderships roles, and working closely with CEOs and executives, Rich has noticed several trends and patterns.

“One pattern, particularly when CEOs have moved up from Sales leadership roles, they tend to be much, much more focused on sales and marketing. And if they don’t have much experience in how products are actually built, maintained and supported, then they can tend to drive the product and engineering teams to do things that aren’t sustainable.”

“Lots of one-offs, lots of ‘can’t we just squeeze in this one extra thing?’”

Too many specials add up to a long-term deficit in product features and maintainability and tech debt. Over time, it becomes increasingly hard on both the engineering and the product teams, and the product people are blamed. The Head of Product may be let go, or is under too much pressure and leaves. When that happens, Rich is often called in to push back on the rest of the executive team.

“I have the freedom to act and speak honestly – I’m not afraid of getting fired, and I’m not there for the long term, or to make friends or vest stock. I’m there to fix a particular issue around the executive table.”

Again, Rich spoke of enterprise software and the troubles that follow when the entire engineering, support, onboarding, and professional services staff is working on finishing the things already promised one-off to early, individual, current customers.

“This is hugely disruptive. Often we can’t take on any new customers because we expect each of them to need something special – and there’s no one left to work on that next special thing for that next special customer.”

If you’d like to follow Rich Mironov’s work, you can read his book ‘The Art of Product Management’check out his websitefollow him on Twitter, or see his experience on LinkedIn.