The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management


By General Assembly

By Jock Busuttil

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This firsthand road map will tell you what it takes to create a product that meets a customer’s needs — and avoid the pitfalls of product failure.

Did you cut through traffic on your Segway today? Cool off with a delicious can of New Coke? Relax at home while listening to some music on your Zune?

Despite years of research, countless products like these see high-profile launches, only to end up failing to connect with an audience.

The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management will help you create a lasting product and take you through the field of product management with candid stories and a litany of real-world experiences.


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Product management is arguably the most sought after position in tech. Every week I meet recent college graduates who want to know how to get into the field. What used to be viewed as something of a workhorse position—the "business" person on a software team—has blossomed into a highly prized role consisting of an alchemy of art and science. Expert PMs are true rock stars in their companies, blending a wide range of skills in pursuit of product perfection. When done well, product management is a great and inspiring thing to behold—a product team all marching in the same direction, toward building an experience or feature that serves the customer even better.

But what makes a good product manager? That's one of the great mysteries any organization seeking to truly delight customers must solve. Those who learn the essential skills can play an exciting and vital role in a company's success, whether in a small startup or a large, established firm. But what are those skills? And how do people get into product management?

Many hard skills are involved: communication, project management, analytics, and technical understanding. But a whole host of intangibles are also key: a certain kind of magic that comes primarily from experience. This book shares not only the hard skills but also some of the magic as well, and it is full of stories of the good, the bad, and the ugly of product development and launches. For example:

Why did the Segway fail to change the world? Why did those who love Fritos want nothing to do with Frito Lay Lemonade? How did Apple, the company that has honed product launches to a science, go off script in launching Apple Maps? This book reveals the ways in which product managers come to understand the market, and how they can keep teams working in harmony.

Our vision at General Assembly is to build a global community of individuals empowered to pursue work they love by offering a wide range of courses that share the practical insights that make the difference in a successful tech career. Since 2010, we have grown from one small space in New York City to nine campuses on four different continents offering courses ranging from twelve-week intensives to two-day introductions and two-hour workshops. Our community has grown to hundreds of thousands of students and practitioners, and, through this book, our community now includes you. As with the other books in the General Assembly series, we've sought to bring to you the essential, hands-on wisdom that is the hallmark of our courses. Our goal is to equip you with the perspective you need to become a product rock star, whether you're a beginner or an experienced product manager looking for ways to improve.

By reading this book, you are taking a vital and important step in pursuing a career you love, and we hope it will be a great help to you on that journey.

—Jake Schwartz

CEO, General Assembly


When inventor Ross F. Housholder filed his patent1 in 1979 for "forming a three-dimensional article in layers"—the process that would become 3-D printing—I doubt he envisaged his creation becoming as affordable and widely used as it has. Today, 3-D printers create everything from replacement human organs to rocket parts, food, and even self-replicating printers.2 We have the privilege and good fortune to be living in a golden age of information and technology in which we can access the collective knowledge of the human race instantly, carry supercomputers in our pockets, and see today's greatest innovations become old news overnight. Through technology we have the means to enrich our work and leisure time in ways people even just a few years ago could only have dreamed about. It is easier, cheaper, and quicker than ever to create technology products in both software and hardware, and the pace of innovation is still accelerating. Standing in the eye of this maelstrom are product managers.

Product managers are there to marshal the chaos, to calmly remind everyone caught up in the technological gold rush that all this headlong product innovation can't exist just for its own sake; it has to have a purpose: to enrich the lives of the people who use the technology. Product management is one of those professions people tend to end up in more by luck than by design and then discover it's right for them. The role has never been more necessary or in demand for both technology startups and more established companies, and this is an exciting time to be a product manager.

This book is about the art, science, and skill of product management. The world doesn't need yet another textbook introducing a methodology or framework on the subject, so I haven't written one. In fact, much of what you'll read in the chapters that follow will provide you with helpful examples of what not to do. I will give you the inside track on avoiding all the product management pitfalls I've stumbled into over the years.

I've collected some of the most intriguing stories I could find to illustrate to you what product management is really all about, and to tell you from my own personal experience not only how to be successful at it, but how to enjoy it. I'll tell you how the role came into being, how it's continuing to evolve, and why it's such good news that there's no prescribed route to becoming a product manager. While I'm at it, I'll show you how to determine value with a half-empty bottle of water and how Maslow made me a safer motorcyclist.

This book is also about products, so we'll delve into examples of the good, the bad, and the ill-advised to learn why they succeeded or failed. Navigating the fine line between product success and product failure is one of the trickiest parts of the job, and I'll introduce the product manager's set of navigational tools, including the nine most effective ways you can increase your product's chances of success. We'll look at how a Japanese professor devised a way to predict customer delight, the story of the hundred-million-dollar assumption, how a riddle from ancient Greece can bring your product greater success, and how woodworkers and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN can help you determine your target market. I'll uncover how focus groups nearly caused the Reebok Pump to be stillborn and how difficult it can be to avoid testing bias in Rwanda. I'll also clear away some common misunderstandings about Lean Startup theory and show you how Apple and Google create their minimum viable products (MVPs) the right way.

The launch of a product is an art form all its own, and we'll take a look at the many lessons leading brands have learned the hard way in launches, and how even Apple, the master of the craft, could orchestrate a stunning failure. I'll show you why a humble roadmap is the best way to help a team stay on course, and we'll look at why you sometimes need to fail, why you should look forward to a good crisis, and why Netflix deliberately sabotages its own systems from time to time.

What kinds of people will you be working with? We'll take a look at the full team, and I'll draw on the many lessons I've learned the hard way to help you survive unscathed and even enjoy the experience. I'll share with you how situational leadership made me a better manager, why emails are as addictive as slot machines, and why sometimes you just have to say no to people.

Because there are so many people and parts of the process to keep track of, managing time may be the most foundational skill of a good product manager. I'll share the methods I've found most helpful, revealing why there's no point in trying to multitask; why so many of us, including myself, have a natural tendency to procrastinate and how to overcome that; and how an ancient paradox can help you manage complex tasks more easily. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey. May it be as enjoyable for you to read as it has been for me to write.

Chapter 1


Plummeting tail-first into cloud cover (where I shouldn't have been) at the controls of a Bulldog T1 trainer aircraft, a few thousand feet above Royal Air Force Mildenhall's military air traffic zone (where I definitely shouldn't have been), I realized three things:

1. I'd failed miserably to execute a relatively straightforward maneuver called a stall turn.

2. I had to learn to prioritize the task at hand rather than allow my inner monologue to distract me.

3. I probably wasn't cut out to be a pilot in the RAF.

While I'd love to proclaim, "And that's when I knew I was born to be a product manager," my route into the profession was more circuitous, as it is for almost all product managers. I had been planning to join the RAF when I finished my undergraduate studies, but that flawed stall turn told me I would have to switch to plan B. (Not a bad lesson for a future product manager, about which more later.) I'd never even heard of the role of product manager when I graduated, though.

Even today relatively few people outside the world of technology have heard of the job. When I'm at a party and someone inevitably asks, "So, what do you do for a living?" I always have to explain that product management is different from project management. (At which point my companion often hurries away to the bar. Now I sometimes just tell people I train dolphins.)

There's a good reason the job isn't better understood. Although it originated in the world of consumer products, product management is now mainly associated with the high-tech sphere and is rapidly evolving to keep up with the pace of innovation. It's this breed of product management the book focuses on, though many of the fundamentals are the same and apply to the job as practiced in any sector.


One of the best descriptions of what a product manager does was crafted by Martin Eriksson, a product manager I've known and respected for a number of years who started the hugely successful ProductTank monthly meetup series in London.1 Eriksson describes the product manager's role as it changes through the life cycle of a product. First, the job is not only to define the vision for the product, but to understand the product's market and target customers and then to work with the product team to add a dose of creativity to make the product more alluring. It's then about evangelizing the product vision and inspiring those making the product with that passion.

Switching from the creative to the analytical part of the brain, a product manager proceeds to plan how to actually execute that vision through product iterations, design, and roadmaps. Then, zooming in from the broad plan to the fine detail, there's the day-to-day problem-solving, working with the development, design, and other teams to remove the obstacles in the path of the product while keeping the overall plan on track, and working with the marketing and sales teams to plan and execute the launch. After launch, the job becomes gathering and poring over information about how people are eating, sleeping, and breathing the product in order to assess its success. Then you do it all over again.

As you can imagine, the job is somewhat like spinning plates;* it's a tricky balancing act to switch focus continually between the long and short term, the big picture and the fine detail. That's a large part of what makes the work so stimulating and why a successful product manager requires a diverse set of social, commercial, and technical skills, and above all else the ability to empathize and communicate with many different groups of people on their own terms.


Product management Venn diagram courtesy of Martin Eriksson ( and Mind the Product (

The product manager is right there at the center of it all, negotiating the inevitable push and pull between the needs of the users (user experience, or UX), the demands of the business, and what happens to be possible (or not) with the available technology. The three-rings diagram that illustrates this concept was created by Martin Eriksson. He jokes that only a product manager would think of the job in terms of a Venn diagram, but I think the image is very helpful as a shorthand overview of the dynamics within a company as it creates, launches, and evolves a product—and as a reminder of the challenges that arise in the eye of the storm. Let's take a closer look at each ring of the diagram.


People often interpret the UX ring purely as representing the user experience team, that is, the people within your organization responsible for the design of your products' interactions with users. Instead, I'd like you to think of this in the much broader sense of the experience of your users. More importantly, this ring encompasses not only your UX team but also your target market—specifically, the needs and problems faced by the intended users and buyers of your product, the context in which they operate, and the way they experience your company and product, not just the specifics of how features are designed to solve their problems. The UX ring represents the outside world and its needs.


Whether your company is for-profit or not-for-profit, at a bare minimum it needs to sustain itself, and its ability to do so is dependent on the success of the products and services it offers. From the perspective of the business, a successful product is one that is used and valued by customers, and one that is profitable. A business also has other needs, such as maintaining its reputation with customers and its relationship with investors, as well as all the practicalities of operating on a day-to-day basis. The business ring represents the needs and aspirations of your organization.


The pace of technological change is rapid, so a product manager needs to keep on top of the advances being made and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the technologies that will play a part in the creation of the product. Opportunities can arise simply because a recent innovation renders a problem more easily or cheaply solved than before. Your development team (which some companies call engineering) plays a crucial part as your interface to these technologies and in realizing the product vision. The tech ring represents both the technologies and technologists that shape your product.


I'd love to continue by telling you how wonderfully easy it is to sit at the center of the three rings in complete and masterful control, but I'd be lying through my teeth. Some days it can feel like you've roped yourself into the hub of a bizarre tug-of-war between the various groups of people you deal with—and they're all pulling you in different directions. But in the challenge lies the reward. We don't do this because it's easy—we do it because we can.

The good news is that there are only so many tensions that can crop up among the three rings; thereafter they're just variations on a theme. From time to time, senior management will throw wrenches into the works, development teams will head off track on science projects, marketing teams will ignore inconvenient facts that spoil their message, design teams will create beautiful but impractical mockups, sales teams will be concerned with their commission over all else, finance teams will keep you as far away as possible from their numbers, and legal teams will veto anything that has even a whiff of risk. We'll delve into the issues regarding managing and communicating with the team in chapter 3. Finding the right balance between the three rings is tricky. It's surprising how many companies delude themselves into thinking that they've achieved a balance between the needs of their market, their own business aspirations, and the available technology. Companies often go off course by almost completely ignoring their market, perhaps because they've become too enamored with their own technology or because their own corporate objectives have distracted them, or sometimes both. (We'll take a look at a few cautionary tales in the next chapter.) That's why more and more companies are beginning to realize that they need to restore balance to be successful. They have a significant, urgent, and valuable problem that's solved by hiring good product managers. (How supremely handy for those getting into the profession!)

Most people who know a little about product management think it's a new discipline, a technology role for the technology age. Actually, its roots go way back to the first half of the twentieth century, to a maverick at Procter & Gamble, purveyor of such global brand giants as Gillette, Duracell, and Pampers. P&G has always been an innovator. The company started out in 1837 as a humble soap and candle maker.2 By the 1930s, it had diversified into cooking and household cleaning products, and when it pioneered product sponsorship of shows on network radio by sponsoring the Ma Perkins radio serial, what we know as the soap opera was born.

In 1931 a young and ambitious promotion manager named Neil McElroy, who had been put in charge of promoting the Camay soap brand, was frustrated that Camay always played second fiddle to P&G's leading brand, Ivory. In a famous memo to management, he argued for the creation of the role of "brand manager."3 This person would take overall responsibility for the commercial success of a product, managing it holistically like a business in its own right, conducting field studies and collaborating with other departments within the company.

The role as it's now performed in the tech sector is in many ways fundamentally the same, but it has been tailored to tech needs and capabilities.

This is a great time to get into the profession because it's become a more dynamic role in recent years. When product management was first adopted by the tech sector, products were created using the Waterfall serial project development process. All the product requirements were defined up front, and then the product was built, tested (maybe), and launched (thrown haphazardly out the door). Midproject changes were almost impossible to make, and particularly nimble companies managed two or—gasp!—three releases a year. Over the last decade or so, innovations in technology have opened up new ways of working. With the strong influence of Silicon Valley leaders like Google, eBay, and Facebook, product management evolved into a more central role, and it's now undergoing another wave of change.

This new wave is driven by many factors: the explosion of web-based development tools; standardization of the use of particular programming languages, software frameworks, and platforms; and, most of all, data. Arguably product management always has been driven by data—McElroy advocated the use of field studies to gather data "to determine whether the plan has produced the expected results"4—but the key difference now is that data is so much more readily accessible, more easily analyzed in greater quantities, and often available in real time.

Organizations have begun using their new capabilities to apply rapid iteration methodologies derived from Lean Manufacturing5 to product development. It has become easy to test whether a hypothetical change would improve a product by actually building multiple versions and running a randomized controlled experiment (also known as a split or A/B test) to see which one performs better with actual users. Imagine you're trying to improve the click-through rate for a particular button on a web page and you believe that making the button more prominent will achieve this. To test this hypothesis, you would show different pages with variations of the button, including the original version (or control), to visitors at random, comparing the results to see which version has the best click-through rate. Such real-time data analytics allow companies to rapidly improve products, sometimes creating many iterations in a single day.

Part of a class I teach on product management involves the students practicing their quick-draw wireframing skills by sketching a well-known website on the whiteboard for the rest of the class to guess, like a geekier version of Pictionary. One of the websites I ask students to draw is Facebook. The reaction is invariably the same: first the student smiles with recognition, thinking it easy to draw. He thinks about it a little more. A look of mild confusion replaces the smile as the student realizes he can only remember what it looked like a few years ago, usually before the introduction of the timeline. Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, described one aspect of his company's philosophy as: "Move fast and break things."6 Instead of running extensive focus groups on every new feature to gauge its users' reaction, Facebook just sends the features live,7 making changes only when the users' howls of annoyance become loud enough, as was the case with Beacon, an ill-advised privacy land-grab.8 But analyzing data is just one of a blend of techniques Facebook uses, as Nate Bolt, head of design research at the company, describes:

It's common for studies to have three or four redundant data gathering methods. Some of those data gathering methods will be qualitative and some will be quantitative. We have a pretty badass analytics team that's gonna give us trends and insights and show us things happening on the mobile builds that we wouldn't get out of qualitative testing. And then a lot of times, we'll go investigate with the qualitative stuff.9

This is one way in which the role of the product manager is so important: in balancing the hard and soft sides—or left-brain versus right-brain factors—in developing and launching products. Data analytics can be a siren call luring a company away from listening in a more qualitative way to its market, neglecting human measures such as satisfaction and enjoyment. As Aaron Levenstein, professor emeritus of Baruch College, delightfully put it, "Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital."

Which is why the right-brain interpretive and creative skills are still so important to the job. Replacing all direct market contact with pure data analytics just doesn't present the full picture. Despite having around one billion users worldwide10 on whom to run multivariate tests,11 even Facebook cannot rely on data analytics alone—it still needs to engage with and listen to its market.


A product manager's role is to own and be ultimately responsible for one or more product lines. And that means really own. To say that the buck stops with the product manager is an understatement. A true product manager will go and find the buck that's buried on someone's desk. But to be effectual, this ownership must come with the authority to make the decisions needed to steer the product to success. With their combination of extensive market understanding, intuition, and creativity, product managers are the people who can see a new opportunity emerging; visualize the product needed to take advantage of that opportunity; then enthuse, corral, and provide the necessary detail to the various specialists they work with in order to bring the product to life. Sometimes that new opportunity arises unexpectedly from the development of another product, as the scientists at Pfizer found with their new drug, sildenafil citrate. Although it was originally designed to lower blood pressure and treat angina, early clinical trials showed that the intended improvement in blood flow caused by sildenafil also happened to cause male erections. The drug is now better known as Viagra. But more often the product manager must recognize that the market has moved on,12 so the product in turn must change or be killed off.

A product manager's role is essentially about providing three things: context, perspective, and vision. The context is a portrait of the real people in the market who have a particular problem or need, and describes the environment in which they experience it. That might be when they're out walking their dog, working at their office, or driving in their car. Perspective provides an honest appraisal of how effectively the organization and its product are going about solving those problems. Possibly most important, vision is used to motivate and align everyone involved in creating a product by describing the product's potential.

Without strong product management, the vision can often be corrupted by organizations for a few common reasons.

They've Stopped Empathizing

People at a company that's focused on maximizing its revenues, profits, and share price to the exclusion of all else have probably ceased to care about their customers. They've become inwardly focused, forgotten about the outside world, and are more concerned with solving their own internal, corporate problems rather than those of their target market.

They've Forgotten the Real-World Benefits of Their Products

If a company's forgotten how to empathize with its customers, it's probably also in the dark about the real-world benefits its product brings to people's lives. Like how Jeff doesn't tear his hair out every time he uses the accounting system. Or how Clarissa, who's lost all her wedding photos because of a broken hard drive, discovers they've been automatically backed up to the cloud without her realizing it.

They've Stopped Dreaming

People don't dream


On Sale
Jan 6, 2015
Page Count
176 pages

General Assembly

About the Author

Established in early 2011, General Assembly is a global educational institution that is building a community of individuals empowered to pursue work they love. Both on campus and online, GA engages students with practical, hands-on learning taught by instructors working in technology, business, and design. For more information, you can visit

Luke Miller is a user experience designer and researcher. He began his career in UX with the Wall Street Journal and moved on to help form the new Yahoo! mobile product office in New York. In the same year he cofounded Tumbleweed, a production studio that makes mobile storytelling experiences. He holds an MS in information science from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

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