Trading with the Times

Date:   Wednesday , May 03, 2006

Product managers in India must move beyond their quaint thinking if they have to gain an edge in their career wherever they are. People who look after the products division are considered the brain behind the most successful companies. It is their ingenuity that they bring along, which helps companies to build better products, market it better and stay ahead in the market. However somehow, somewhere Indian managers seem to have lost out on various facets of team building. In the over two decade experience that I had gathered at various product companies like Xerox, Sun Microsystems, Borland and Ariba, I can say if you want to succeed as a product manager follow these six mantras.

1.Donít stretch the techies too far.
2. Commercialization of product.
3. Ability to handle failed projects.
4. Functionality Vs Quality.
5. Team and market focus.
6. Keep pace with the organizatioal direction and the changing market place.

Donít stretch the techies too far
For any organization or for that matter any team, the most important asset is the techie. They will be in the job as long as they are comfortable with it. Itís the team leadís duty to make the engineer happy at his job.

Donít over burden them and never underutilize their skills. The pressure on them shouldnít exceed over the envelope nor fall below. It should be enough or just little more than what they actually can do, then they will enjoy their job. The key is in setting the goal little high above what they can do and not beyond their capacity. If pressured there will be loss of faith leading to the engineer leaving the company.

Commercialization of the Product
For techies in the product companies, the biggest challenge is to turn their ideas or designs into successful products. They slog day in and day out to design products; they think will make the world a better place. However because of several problems, their ideas remain where it all began- a dream.

Commercializing your product is pleasurable because of the sense of belongingness attached to any product or idea. What I learnt at Xerox has helped in this manner. I realized that a company needs not just smart people, but also out-of-the-box and interesting products because thatís what really sells.

Ability to handle failed projects
One of the most exciting and yet tricky situations a product manager faces is the ability to handle failed projects. Companies have various projects at various stages of development and most of the time they donít make it to the market as the project fails and they give up on that.
Take up projects that have failed. It gives you the high assurance of turning products that will be used by the world. Itís an accomplishment unparalleled by any other achievement and a challenge career wise too. At Xerox, we had been working on a new product, however three teams felt they could not pull it off. When I took over the challenge, I brought the three teams spread over different areas together and showed how the project was doable. The teams came out with a demo within a month and product was successfully released into the market.

Functionality Vs Quality
If there is one place where the team has a drawback, it is Functionality Vs. Quality of what one is building. For quality, a product manager should stretch his team, instill a sense of responsibility and the team will know the difference between functionality and quality.

Quality comes when you have a set of old customers who demand quality and look forward to having it. Functionality comes when you are chasing the market, trying to be one up against the competition and building a market for a new product. Thatís an interesting balance and that shifts as one matures in oneís career.

Team and Market Focus
Team and market focus boils down to one aspect - market needs. One needs to spend quality time on understanding market trends and needs. A project manager should overanalyze the team and evolve. Understand where the market is heading to and build the team accordingly. If the market needs have changed, pull the team off it and put it elsewhere. This will help you to better utilize the teamís skills. When I was at Ariba we had a particular project focusing on the midmarket to introduce a cost-effective product and we spent our engineering efforts on it. When we realized the market needs were something else, we replaced the whole team with the one that could do the product.

Pace with the organizational direction and the changing market place
As I said in the first point, techies should enjoy their job and only then they can succeed. Having said that I know techies are in a catch 22 situation some times. They want to stick onto their chosen careers while the company might be moving along with the market.

This needs to be addressed. Product leaders must move their team along with wind. They should be able to convince the team that the path taken by the company is good for them. They needs to reiterate that this is the market need and this is what the company did for its survival. They should also understand that if they cannot align with the companyís goal- they could be replaceable.

Tayloe Stansbury is the EVP Ė Products & Operations, Ariba.