When Product Managers compete for developer attention

Jessi Hempel’s The second coming of Facebook is a very interesting profile of the company and where it’s headed. There’s one paragraph in particular that has stuck with me for the past few days:

At Facebook developers choose the projects they want to work on, and product groups compete to woo them. Managers sent out reports highlighting the product teams that were doing a good job. Pretty quickly teams realized that if they wanted to get praised in the weekly memo, they needed to start recruiting mobile developers.

My first thought was that this is a great idea. If you want to get something done at Facebook, your idea has to be interesting and challenging enough to convince developers to work on it, otherwise it just won’t happen. I’m sure this weeds out a lot of ill-conceived project ideas.

But there’s a problem with this approach. If Product Managers have to convince developers to work on their projects, they are going to pitch ideas that have a big chance of being interesting to… developers. Not to Facebook users. So there’s a danger that the product features being pushed out are wild and challenging and extremely interesting, but don’t meet user needs particularly well.

In the example cited in the article, an internal weekly memo effectively changed the company’s entire roadmap by shifting attention to mobile. Not that shifting to mobile is a bad thing, but too much focus on things like who gets praised in an email has the potential to seriously derail a company.

Still, the idea is really appealing: making Product Managers effectively vie for developer attention ensures that the PMs do their homework so that they can sell and defend their ideas to the company and to customers. That’s a worthy cause. It would be great to make some form of user validation part of what happens before projects are pitched, though. I guess I just remain weary of the prevailing myth that we are like our users.