The Messy Truth About Product Management

Product management, for the most part, is not heady or glamorous. Most PMs are toiling with little recognition but love it anyway!

If you take a look at the most popular product management content on the interwebs, you might come away with the impression that the job mainly involves spending investors' money on pricey lattes, leisurely designing A/B tests on the right shade of fuchsia for a button, and having deep conversations with adoring customers. A recent coaching session with a seasoned PM reminded me of the life led by the "silent majority" of PMs all over the world.

Please allow me to submit exhibit A (sanitized to protect the identify of the myriad of folks who created it):

We have here a logical representation of a SaaS application that does interesting stuff in a B2B and B2C context. Unfortunately, providing further details runs the risk of piercing the veil of privacy that I promised its author I would drape upon it. Each of the circles is an app that does complex things like providing powerful search, authorizing users, and scheduling appointments. Each element has at least one product manager. The oversimplified representation of data flow is nothing short of overwhelming, even at this high level of abstraction.

Having a panic attack thinking about planning a release for this thing? Imagine re-architecting it from the ground up. It's a bit like the proverbial rebuilding of a plane in flight. Can you imagine coordinating communication between the PMs? Now imagine marketing, sales, support, and, of course, the C suite. Now try to align all these stakeholders on shared measures of success.

Although this application is impressive in its complexity, you are unlikely to ever see it presented at a PM conference. The people who use it have absolutely no idea of the underlying complexity (nor should they). My "coachee" will spend the next couple of years helping the org move this monster to newer technology while also radically improving its usability for end users. She won't be featured on the cover of any magazines. She probably won't give a TED Talk. She won't even be able to vent about many of her challenges with friends and family because they could never relate to her pain and probably aren't that interested in that aspect of her life.

This is product management below the glossy surface (and I love it). It's really hard, time-consuming and most of us celebrate tiny, almost token victories between releases that always seem to be anticlimactic (as we've already started moving on to the next iteration by launch). Such is the life of most product managers.