03015 An Interview With Alyssa Dver

Alyssa Dver is the author of the book Software Product Management Essentials

Today’s issue is devoted to an interview with Alyssa S. Dver, author of the newly published “Software Product Management Essentials, A Practical Guide for Small and Mid-Sized Companies.”

“Often, we Product Managers get so caught up in what we have to do, that we don’t have the luxury to do what we’d like to do to make the product successful.”

In this interview, Alyssa explains why she wrote the book and talks about her software product management experiences, giving some useful advice to those Product Managers who find themselves facing similar challenges.

Ms. Dver has many years of experience in software product management and is currently VP and Chief Marketing Officer at SEDONA Corporation. In addition, she teaches the material found in the book at business schools and professional associations. You may have read some of Alyssa’s recent articles in Business Week on topics such as Real-Time Enterprise (RTE) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM).

The book is a hands-on guide complete with time-saving checklists and templates for every stage of the product life cycle. It is published by Anclote Press, which is run by Peter Fingar, author along with Howard Smith of the pioneering work “Business Process Management, The Third Wave.”

The book has endorsements by presidents of the PDMA chapters (www.pdma.org) in New York and Washington DC, and of the Boston Product Management Association (www.bostonproducts.org), not to mention the co-founder of the AIPMM (http://www.aipmm.com/), Steven Haines of Sequent Learning Networks and Steve Johnson of Pragmatic Marketing.

While the book will soon be available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, I encourage you to order it directly from the publisher at www.anclote.com, to support a business that is bringing pioneering and truly useful works to the software industry.


What Made You Decide To Write This Book?

“I have been doing – and managing – product management for over a decade now. And every time I hired Product Managers, even those with product management experience, the learning curve has been dramatic. In addition, when interviewing potential product managers, I found it very hard to judge how effectively they had managed products.

But I can easily tell if someone’s resourceful and a hard worker. My philosophy is that I can’t teach a person to think, but I can teach someone how to be a Product Manager.

So this book provides a number of defined processes and raises many issues one faces as a Product Manager. It’s a training guide for new Product Managers that are brought on. I haven’t seen anything on the market with that kind of information. There are classes you can take, but most of them are oriented to very large companies, and very rarely to software products.”

“This book provides ways to prioritize … when there’s not a lot of other resources to rely on.”

What’s Different About This Book On Product Management?

“First off, product management of a software product can be radically different. For example, you have a continuous release cycle, constantly gathering requirements and implementing new features. Compare this to, say, a baby diaper. With software you’re typically coming out with major new features every three to six months.

And software products in general are very technical. This means they require Product Managers with technical acumen as well as the ability to communicate this information to people who may or may not be technical. You need a critical mix of technical skill, creativity, and business savvy.

Secondly, this book is geared to small and mid-sized software companies, because they operate differently from the bigger ones. They don’t have the same resources or time, and few defined processes. As a Product Manager in such a company, you are therefore faced with the challenge of prioritizing and compromising when there’s so much to do.

This book provides ways to help prioritize all those different needs when there’s not a lot of other resources to rely on.”

What Is Unique About The Role Of A Product Manager?

“A couple things come to mind. The Product Manager typically has all the accountability for the product, but usually not the direct line staff responsibility. You don’t directly control people and resources. Managing by influence is a challenging thing.

Secondly, in a small software company the business plan for the company usually is the product plan. The Product Manager inherits a lot of the business plan, and becomes responsible for the details of reflecting this in the product. The business is the product. They’re inseparable.”

What’s The Biggest Challenge For A Product Manager?

“If you’re good, as the Product Manager you become the be-all and end-all of all decisions related to the product. But you also need to work with the senior managers, because the issue is who really holds the ultimate power when the product is the business. Each Product Manager has to figure out what decisions he or she can make without executive approval.

There is not the same predicament if you are, say, the head of Customer Support. You know your domain, you know the scope of your authority. The scope of authority for a Product Manager is often fuzzy, particularly in small companies. In fact, the CEOs of many small companies are former engineers or Product Managers, and so it’s often hard to get them to let go of the controls.”

“Product management is often a lot of common sense, but if you don’t have a way of prioritizing an overwhelming set of tasks, it doesn’t matter how smart you are.”

What Was Your Happiest Product Management Success?

“A couple accomplishments come to mind in the area of managing the product management function. I worked for a company that experienced a round of layoffs during a bad time in the economy (sounds famliar!). I had been working with an individual who was a great person with a great attitude and a good thinker, who was unfortunately in the wrong job where he wasn’t performing well – and was therefore on the list to be laid off. I begged and pleaded and turned somersaults with senior management to figure out a way to pull that person into a Product Manager role within my organization, putting my reputation on the line.

After I got approval to do this, this person became a Product Manager. He worked hard to use the methods and processes I had developed and trained him on, and just a year later was voted one of the top performers of the division. That’s in a division of 500 to 600 people with $170 million in revenues.

This reinforces the fact that product management is often a lot of common sense, but if you don’t have a way of prioritizing an overwhelming set of tasks, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you’ll get bowled over. This person helped me refine a lot of the processes described in the book.

Here’s another: I was working at a small company that didn’t just have few resources, it was clearly under-resourced. We couldn’t really do product management the “proper” way. So we rallied the entire group and gave various people parts of the product management role. We still used the processes to keep things orderly and help us communicate across the team. In this way, the job got done despite no one person having the entire responsibility as Product Manager. Ironically three of those people are on to new careers in product management.

(Of course when it comes to accomplishments, the book has gotten a great response so far. Pre-reviews have been very positive, and a number of product management and marketing organizations have already endorsed it. I’m hoping that with the book just now being published, the best is yet to come!)”

What Was Your Worst Product Management Experience?

“If the owner or the senior manager over you is the founder, inventor, father or mother of the product, it’s very hard to become the champion, which is what the Product Manager is first and foremost. People in the company – sales and support reps, engineers – always want to go consult the one who has the most knowledge of and intimacy with the product. It’s very hard to assume the crown in such a situation. I’ve encountered this a couple of times, and it’s likely to be the case in small software companies and startups.

I have run into a similar problem if you have a very talented head of Engineering. The Product Manager may wind up competing with the manager of Engineering. Sales and support will go to Engineering first for help, instead of to you, making your job all that much harder.”

“If you have the customer perspective, you carry the day when it comes to being THE person to go to with questions about the product.”

Any Advice On How To Handle These Problems?

“Yes. You need to do your homework. And don’t ever stop doing it. You need to always be reading up on and using the product. But most importantly, get out into the real world with your customers and prospects.

Also, the more you’re out at customer sites, the more you get the advantage over Engineering or top management. You will never know as much about the code as the engineers, nor as much about the business as the CEO who wrote the business plan. But if you have the customer perspective, you carry the day when it comes to being THE person to go to with questions about the product.”

(Editor’s Note: A past issue, Become an Industry Subject Matter Expert, provides tips on this. You can request this as explained under Previous Topics below.)

What Important Changes Have You Implemented As Product Manager?

“Let’s see now, there’s the approach to Requirements, specifically the notion that everyone should have an open voice into product requirements, but at the end of the day it’s the responsibility of the Product Manager to own them, prioritizing and deciding what goes in a particular release or not. This is easier said than done, but the book very specifically outlines how to gather, manage, and prioritize product requirements.

This next one goes hand in hand with Requirements. It’s using a time-based release cycle versus a feature-based one. (Editor’s note: This is the same idea as Committing to Fixed Release Dates discussed in last week’s issue.) The time-based cycle makes the Requirements process more challenging. It requires more discipline to meet deadlines, you have to do it more often, plus you have to be smarter about working with Engineering to get good at planning and forecasting exactly what can be developed in a set period of time.

Another, more unusual accomplishment is having put the Product Managers in the position of being the product representative to the analyst community. To be successful at this, it takes media training and market knowledge. At most companies you see the Product Manager as the demo giver in front of the analysts, while the CEO or VP of Marketing does the rest of the talking.

Analysts can represent a huge source of customer requirements and market data. Therefore it’s critical, especially in a larger organization, for the Product Managers to find ways of being the front line with the analyst and consultant community. Let Marketing talk to the press, and executives talk to investors. But use Produce Managers to get a good relationship going with analysts.”

“The Product Delivery Team touches the soul of all operations.”

What Advice Do You Have For Implementing Such Changes?

“Nine out of ten times, once a company has adopted a development cycle, the coordination of the overall product delivery process is critical. A cross-functional Product Delivery Team can be a formal meeting of a group of people as described in the book, or be more informal. But its purpose is to get everyone who is involved in the release and delivery of the product to belly up to their responsibility.

This is by far the hardest task. You wind up dealing with people’s vulnerabilities, with company politics, people’s jobs. Implementing the product delivery process dredges up a lot of unexpected stuff. People are fearful of putting what they do on paper. To succeed, you must be very patient. I remember in one company where it took over a year just to get a successful checklist of steps required for product delivery. It takes lots of meetings with individuals and senior managers, demonstrating the delivery problems that have arisen because of the lack of a defined process.

You need to just keep sticking to the process and making your point. Keep holding regular meetings and act professionally. Eventually peer pressure leads to people participating. The Product Delivery Team touches the soul of all operations. And you as the Product Manager have accountability without direct line responsibility. But you can be sure you’ll catch the flak if there’s a problem.”

How Would This Book Have Helped You If It Had Been Available At The Beginning Of Your Product Management Career?

“It would have helped me in two respects. First of all, it’s chock full of templates – from non-disclosure agreements to product delivery checklists to a product business plan. These templates, in combination with the tips in the book, provide you with the complete list of questions to ask yourself.

This book would have helped me be more prepared, organized and productive. It gives you a running start, even if you’ve done it before. You can use it as a sanity check at any point in the product lifecycle.”

The Benefit

“Product Management is a lot of common sense, but here’s the reality: if you can take away the stuff that is rote, and turn it into a process, you’ll have that much more time to focus on the pieces that are strategic, creative, and unique for that product. Rather than spending time worrying about the basics.

Often, we Product Managers get so caught up in what we have to do, that we don’t have the luxury to do what we’d like to do to make the product successful.”

— Alyssa Dver, as interviewed by Jacques Murphy of Product Management Challenges.

“(The book) gives you a running start, even if you’ve done it before.”


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