Engineers and Sales People

I remember before I moved to Silicon Valley and started working as a product manager at Google, I always experienced work as being primarily done by two groups. There were the ones making stuff, and they were simply the engineers. And then there were the ones who were trying to sell the stuff engineers made, namely sales people, marketing, or just business people in general. I just called them sales people. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people, especially technical people such as myself, who still see the world roughly along those contrasting lines. But boy was I wrong.

When I came to the valley in 2005, I had never heard of the role product manager. The description made sense to me, sort of. Someone who understands technology, but isn’t going to work in a technical role, can be highly analytical, understands users, thinks about features, vision, direction, coordinates among various stakeholders, blech! It sounded super exciting, but I remember when my friend Gokul Rajaram, who initially convinced me to apply at Google, described the role to me and a group of fellow newcomers: after everyone else in the team has done their job, it’s your responsibility to catch everything important that didn’t get done and make it happen. I still think it’s true, but it didn’t make it any easier for me to figure out this new job I had just signed up for.

I once heard that if you think some role is unnecessary, it simply means you haven’t worked with a person who’s good at that role. You think marketing is a joke? You probably haven’t spent any meaningful time with a good marketer. You see, as I was working on the initial version of Google Maps for mobile I realized that my highly simplified view of the world was simply wrong. There’s a big difference between people who are selling stuff and those laying out corporate strategy or doing the finances. There can even often be big differences within those groups: there’s frontline sales, sales engineering, sales support and so on and so forth. You get the picture, and the same is true for engineering; there’s testing, designers, back-end, front-end, site reliability and it goes on and on. But it how does product management fit into this whole picture?

Of all those roles, product management is the one that’s hardest to map out, and I think it’s because it’s the one that lies between the engineers and the sales people, if we go back to my old worldview. Their primary allegiance is with the product and its users, not any particular part of the company or function. In fact, the word manager in the title has confused a lot of people: product managers usually don’t manage people until they’re very senior, but instead literally manage the product! Duh!

Getting to the heart of what a product manager does is not at easy task. In fact, it’s not enough to simply describe what a product manager does you need to really understand how to do product development in user centric manner. That’s why there are no books about product management, or degrees that teach it.

I strongly believe every company should apply a product development centric approach to building their business. It doesn’t matter whether you are building physical hardware products that are sold through various channels, or you’re offering services to a particular consumer audience, or really anything else. Thinking about what the company does in terms of products being offered to your users and customers (there can be a distinction) is a very healthy way to ensure you are offering something of value and making the world a better place.

Over the next weeks I will be writing about the various parts of product development based on my experience building several large consumer products from ground up, including Google Maps for mobile, Google Voice Search, Siri, and Google Assistant. If you’re interested in joining along, be sure to follow me on Twitter. I don’t have a mailing list, but if you’re worried you might miss updates, just DM me your email address and I’ll be sure to email you whenever I post something new.

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