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The Core Four (Product Development)
08.17.11

I've gotten a few questions lately around the core product development team. I also, to be frank, seem to have some slightly contrarian opinions about certain aspects so I wanted to write a blog post covering my thoughts on what my preferences are for a core product development team. I think it consists of 4 roles: engineer, designer, product manager, and secret sauce. Let's take this one by one.

Engineer
This is obvious and something that people understand intuitively (and realize both the difficulty in recruiting and the need for finding good engineers.) I think the reason behind this is because what engineers do is broadly inaccessible to the rest of us. We use a website or web app and don't know how it works. However, here was an intriguing question that was posed to myself (and another friend) by a venture capitalist a few months ago. What were our thoughts on product management and whether or not an engineer can simultaneously function as a PM?

I am broadly opposed to this. Being a good product manager is a skill set in and of itself. I know many great PMs who started as engineers -- no problem. But it's not simply an add-on in terms of responsbiility. A good PM has vision, creativity, business savvy, and a broad ability to manage a team. Engineers have that too -- but in the engineering realm. Again, an engineer can expand their focus and abilities to be a good PM too -- but I think that's more of a deliberate decision and something that should be evaluated specifically. One of my favorite engineers to work with -- we were in a meeting and a question was raised and he got asked it. He simply said, "That's a decision for the PM." and turned to me. Now he could've easily answered that question -- but one of the reasons I like telling that story is that it shows a great respect for not only the division of labor but also the expertise that others bring to the table. I would get similar questions -- questions that were clealry best suited to be answered by the engineer -- and I would refer them to my engineer. My engineers would sometimes even ask me questions that were best suited for themselves to answer. My response? I would give them broad business requirements and then tell them to use their best judgment on how to architect it. 

The big red flag that often happens with engineers who also operate as PMs usually involves the core nature of the product (unfortunately). In these situations, the problem that usually arises is that the product is not quite right. I don't want to say that they didn't build the right product -- but what I often see is a product that gets into market and it's a little too hard to use (because an engineer built it and they're more technically savvy than the average person; I think they're at risk of being slightly less in tune with the average user), maybe doesn't quite have the same appreciation for design (less focus on the aesthetic and more on the functionality; you especially see this with feature creep), and doesn't quite address the user's problem (some difficulty projecting oneself into the user's shoes.) It's not to say an engineer can't transition into this role (because they can) -- but I think it is another skill set and also, it's not a skill set to take lightly. Making the right decisions on all those fronts takes time and effort -- and there's a lot of value in having someone being able to put the requisite time into it.

Designer
One of the top questions I get with respect to designers is, "Do I need to hire a designer or can I just contract this out?" I'm heavily in favor of hiring a designer. I see startups waste money in all sorts of ways -- and I would like to see more startups "waste" money on design. The biggest argument I get against hiring is that there's not enough work. That they'll finish the first version of the product and the company won't need design work anymore -- so they'll be wasting money by having someone on the beach. I think this is wrong. I believe having designers on the beach is actually a great thing because then they'll search out areas to improve. Not just the core aspects of the website -- but all the nitty gritty aspects that people don't always pay attention to -- confirmation pages, email newsletters, getting the font right, the coloring scheme, etc. All this matters. Take Apple for instance. They do *everything right* -- right down to the packaging. Next time you buy an Apple product -- take a good look at the packaging. The fit and finish of the box. The thickness of the material they use. Even how they wrap the wires. They use an elegant clear plastic wrap that's easy to remove. Most manufacturers use a cheap (not even the ones you see in the supermarket) twisty-tie. This is not a waste of money. Apple has a brand, a brand value, and they protect it all costs and make sure that everything they do is consistent with it. That's the value of having great designers who have the ability to work.

The other thing I would argue here too is that design, to me, is so fundamentally important to the product. This may sound obvious, but I don't believe that design is something that you do and forget about it. It's the first thing that someone sees about your product -- it fundamentally forms a visceral connection to the user and how they think and feel about it -- probably more so than even how the product works. Finding someone good and then giving them the time and opportunity to work is critical.

Product Management
The aspect of PM I want to discuss is hiring a PM. For small companies, I'm broadly opposed to hiring a PM. I remember meeting with one startup -- they had just gotten funding, and they wanted to hire a PM and asked if I had any recommendations. My question? Why are you hiring PMs? Aren't you (the CEO) the PM? The response was very reasoned -- that he understood his strengths and weaknesses and that he would rather hire someone who was good at that aspect instead of trying to force himself to do it. How could I possibly argue with that?

If the core of your product is a product -- it's really hard to outsource that. We've seen it essentially outsourced (e.g. when the company is run by people who are rather disassociated from product management -- e.g. eBay under Meg Whitman and the site basically never changed for years). It's a weird thing to say to a founder, "You should learn to be a good PM." -- but that's what I tell folks in this situation. That's the core of the value you're delivering to a customer. How it looks. How it works. What features it has. Shouldn't they be the expert on that?

Secret Sauce
When I was in college, one of my professors was on the board of Reader's Digest and he arranged for an internship there for me. Reader's Digest was trying to figure out new media and was investing a lot of resources in the area. They had also acquired some domains including gifts.com. Sensing an opportunity, they decided to launch an ecommerce site based on gifts. (Not their core competency, but it was one of many bets for them in this new space.) I remember Tom Ryder (their CEO at the time) saying something that I've always remembered. He said, "I need to find a merchant prince." My take on this was that he understood they would be able to get a website up and running. However, when it comes to gifts, he really needed someone who just had the intuitive feel about what made a great gift and why. This is what I mean when I say "secret sauce." I don't think the combination of engineer + designer + PM is terribly difficult to get a quality product out the door. (It is really hard to get a *great* product out the door -- but an acceptable one is pretty doable.) But for most products -- whether it's fashion or sports or gifts -- there's some aspect of a secret sauce to it. The tech product exists in another industry that it also needs to operate in. It needs someone who can forge the correct relationships (with manufacturers, distributors, brands, etc.)

Take amazon.com for instance. What's the lifeblood of an ecommerce store? The products it's able to sell. If it doesn't have the right books, DVDs, electronics -- you're kind of dead in the water. Customer comes to your website, they don't have what you need -- you then go somewhere else. This was a huge problem for amazon when it was starting out so it needed people who could build those relationships (and needed to invest the time to build those relationships.)

If you're in fashion -- same thing. You need relationships of the caliber of Tory Burch, Theory, Louis Vuitton, etc. You need a great product to sell them into working with you -- but you still need the ability to close those relationships. That's a mystery to most folks (perhaps almost as mysterious as coding is to a non-technical person).

So when I say secret sauce -- I'm referring to that one aspect beyond getting something that's workable. It's not just a good product that looks and feels right. It's that vertical that your product may exist in that's the key to delivering value in that vertical. Is this a biz dev person? Is this a sales person? Is this just the CEO getting out there? I've seen all of these cases (especially the latter for small companies) -- but it's also often critical.

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