Don’t give up on the value of product management because of bad past experiences

Maybe 10 years ago I would’ve gotten upset about an article like Spencer Fry’s No PM, no problem: how we ship great products fast, in which he explains why they don’t have product managers at Podia and how great that is. Luckily I’m now too old to stay up late just because I think someone’s wrong on the internet. Instead, I approach articles like these—ones I viscerally disagree with right off the bat—with a bit more curiosity. What is the source of the author’s assumptions? What is the data that led them to this particular set of conclusions? What is the problem they’re trying to solve, and what led them to this viewpoint as the solution?

As it turns out, we get the answers to those questions pretty early on in Fry’s post:

Why shouldn’t the developers—or designers—be tasked to work through the problems, instead of being handed a set of solutions?

Every single project, a developer is assigned what we call a Champion role and it’s that person’s responsibility to act as the PM in addition to their work as an individual contributor. This approach, as opposed to handing off a spec to stitch together with code, makes for much more engaged developers who feel more ownership of the work.

Ah, see, this makes sense! I can see why Fry concluded that PMs are unnecessary if his experience is that they (1) “hand off a spec to stitch together with code”, and (2) don’t give developers ownership over their work. The problem is likely that he has never worked with a PM that understands their role and does it well, so of course the data would lead to the conclusion “no PM, no problem”.

So let’s talk about those two assumptions for a minute.


The Myth of Velocity

Randy Silver in The Myth of Velocity:

When we measure how quickly teams ship stories & code, we’re measuring speed—how quickly they move. It’s only when we measure the effect it has on the target metric—the value that we’re after—that we’re actually looking at velocity.

It doesn’t matter how much you ship if the end result doesn’t deliver value to your customers and your company. If you’re measuring story points, you’ve fallen into the trap of measuring outputs, not outcomes. When we talk about slowing down to speed up, this is the point: the only thing that matters in this equation is how quickly we can deliver actual value. Everything else is theater.

You can’t stand under my umbrella

In You can’t stand under my umbrella the Raw Signal team makes the case for when it’s not appropriate for managers to be “sh*t umbrellas” for their teams:

When things are steady, and people know the right things to work on, teams are constrained by velocity. We know the course we’re racing, the question is just how fast we can go. In that context, it makes sense for a manager to clear every obstacle out of our way. But during times of significant change, teams are constrained by agility. It’s not that velocity doesn’t matter, it still does. But when everything has changed about the race, we need the ability to steer. A manager who tries to preserve velocity at all costs risks running us into a wall.

They go on to talk about how to Accept, Adapt, and Act in such moments of significant change.

Technical debt, product debt, and how to prioritize addressing it

Mike Fisher argues that we should rebrand technical debt as “product debt”, and I think it’s a good argument! That said, I’d like to add some considerations to two of his points. First:

We usually think of refactoring as “cleaning up” code, where we change the code to be more easily understood, perform better (faster or more efficiently), or follow current conventions/standards. The goal of refactoring is to change the code without changing its functionality; it should continue to pass all unit and functional tests. 

I take a slightly different approach to refactoring, and how to prioritize the work. I believe it’s important for teams to have a stated and agreed-upon value of “leave the code better than I found it.” This means that refactoring shouldn’t be a separate activity, for its own sake, that needs to be scheduled. It should be a natural part of feature development.

If you’re creating a mechanism for add-ons on the product, spend a few extra days to refactor the billing code you’re already working on. If you are adding metrics to the dashboard in your UI, take the time needed to refactor the front-end code to make it more performant. Whatever code you’re touching while you’re working on a project, leave it better than you found it. It is way more efficient to extend a project by a week to refactor code you’re already working on than it is to create a separate project that needs to be planned, prioritized, and worked into the roadmap.

Second point:

So, how do we ensure we are paying down technical debt when there is so much pressure to ignore it until things really break? I think one part of the answer is to use a different term. Instead of tech debt, which implies it is the responsibility of the tech team, let’s call it product debt.

I think this is a good first step to getting more teams to care about technical debt—but it’s not enough. One of the issues with getting technical/product debt prioritized is that often “the business” doesn’t see the value in statements like “we’re going to clean up the code so that it doesn’t break a few months from now”. Instead, we need to frame the work in terms of the benefits to customers and/or the business.

For instance, we could make the case that refactoring this piece of code would significantly increase our deployment speed, which would mean faster time to market. Or we could argue that fixing our slow staging environments would result in happier, more productive engineering teams.

With technical debt—as with most things in software development—the thing you do is never the main thing. The main thing is what the thing you do enables. What value it brings to customers and the business. That’s the framing we need for working on technical debt.

The Cynical PM Framework, a business-first approach to product

Frank Tisellano in The Cynical PM Framework, a business-first approach to product:

Every product, every feature even, serves a function in your business. It has one of three jobs:

  • Acquire new users or customers
  • Retain those users or customers
  • Expand engagement or revenue per user or customer

Link roundup for February 19, 2023

Underwater Photographer of the Year—2023 Winners. These are so great.

Impostered. Great post from Mandy Brown about the need to reframe how we think about imposter syndrome. “I’ve started to think less about imposter syndrome (a description of a person’s experience with it) and more about being impostered (a framing that draws attention to the systems and structures that lead people to believe they are imposters). While the former framing remains useful in many contexts, the latter creates space to consider not only the symptoms but the root cause of the phenomena.” []

What’s So Funny? Very good essay about the current state of stand-up comedy, and what makes something funny. “The audience whooping and applauding Roseanne’s ‘anti-woke’ comedy is not reacting with laughter at a previously un-acknowledged truth, but instead expressing approval for the point of view that they already knew they agreed with. This is not the same thing as laughter in response to a joke.” []

Why Are You Seeing So Many Bad Digital Ads Now? “Social media advertising, once a niche art practiced by specialist agencies, is now easily available to anyone. Many of them are eschewing targeted ads — placements intended to reach specific audiences, usually at a higher cost — in favor of a cheaper spray-and-pray approach online, hoping to catch the attention of gullible or bored shoppers.” [NYT gift link]

Traffic Lights Need a Fourth Color, Study Says: Here’s Why. Yeah what could possibly go wrong. “For the dawning age of the self-driving car, transportation engineers from North Carolina State University are proposing the addition of a fourth ‘white light’ whose function would be to alert humans to simply ‘follow the car in front of them.’” []

The people who live inside airplanes. Ok I kind of like this idea. “By the end, she had a fully functional home, with over 1,500 square feet of living space, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and even a hot tub — where the cockpit used to be. All for less than $30,000, or about $60,000 in today’s money.” []

Move past incident response to reliability

Here’s an interesting article by Will Larson with advice on how to move past incident response to reliability in our products. Among other things it reminded me to watch out for “incident legalism”:

Incident legalism is when an incident response and analysis program—trying to better drive reliability improvements—becomes focused on compliance and loses empathy for the engineers and teams operating within the program’s processes.

He goes on to propose a more holistic, expanded model for reliability to help teams diagnose their systemic problems—and how to solve them:

Finally, you study the mitigated incidents, determining how to prevent them from recurring, and they become remediated incidents.

How to build human connections in an async workplace

This is a great post by Chase Warrington for the Twist Async newsletter on How to build human connections in an async workplace. They make this really important point about what human connection is actually about on a remote team:

I’ve come to realize that team culture and human connection is primarily built by how you work together—not how you socialize together. […]

The work we do is what actually brings us together. That’s ok (and frankly healthy) to admit. One of the biggest benefits of remote work is that it provides you the opportunity to spend more on the people and things you care about outside of work. Let’s not sabotage that with a bunch of forced and awkward social events for teammates to attend on top of their work duties.

I think we forget this too often. Doing a fun online social activity together doesn’t improve team culture if we haven’t also made sure that actually working together is safe, healthy, and enjoyable.


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