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More product managers and designers, please

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PHOTO: GOOGLE

There is typically a lot of confusion in determining what a product manager does in a technology products company. The trouble comes from the overlap of their roles with others, and that is why they are not easy to hire and even harder to create. The product manager is defined typically as “The CEO of a product”. They take full responsibility of the product throughout its lifecycle. While this role is more commonplace with technology companies, it is a universal one and not restricted to them alone. I had a strategy session with a major Nigerian bank last year, and they told me all the people in the room were product manages in their e-Channels Department. A structure like that helps the bank to be more innovative and allows their products to get to the market faster. I was quite impressed.

Sometime in 2013, I had a conversation in Boston with my mentor Kingsley Idehen the founder and CEO of OpenLink Software, and he broke down the problems with current Web 2.0 product models. Companies keep throwing developers at flawed designs and models without going back to look at first principles. His analogy is that building a product is like building a house. You need to get the location right then you design the house. It is only after a building is appropriately designed that you get the builders involved. He said that developers were like the bricklayers in the building process. You still need the architect, engineers, supervisors, contractors and electricians. The role of developers is vital but frequently overrated. The functions of “Product Managers” and Designers are habitually underrated. They are much more important than a lot of companies realise. Having built houses before, I understood what he meant.

We pivoted our company from a poorly run product startup to a “pure services and consulting” business model many years ago, but we recently started building products again, after we discovered a lot of gaps in the financial services space. We decided to do better this time around by learning from others. We realised the importance of the product management role just from interacting with successful organisations like Google and Facebook. Those companies and other successful technology companies had a lot of product managers leading their product efforts. The people who moved to leadership roles in those organisations frequently also had product management experience. Sundar Pichai, the current CEO of Google, also used to be their Head of Products.

I had always loved building products and preferred it to consulting. Products and services solve problems, but products are reusable in a way that services cannot be. Products are also more scalable than services. For us to change our direction, I had to become more involved in the product creation process personally and even attended a product management course in the UK. Being part of that training was an eye-opener to the new product process and also the concept of “Design Thinking.”

My first User Experience workshop was done at Google I/O in 2013. We had to come up with a user journey for Goggle’s commerce product “Google Shopping Express”. It was a transcendental experience. Attending Google’s “Design Sprint Academy” at Launchpad opened my eyes even further. Product Design is NOT an option for technology companies; it is an imperative. Design Sprints take the mystery out of this process. Google Ventures is a significant champion of this process, and it is frequently used by their portfolio companies. Google as an organisation also encourages wider adoption.

Knowing what I know now, I now understand more why we had failed at building products in the past. We stumbled into it from school and failed not only because the market lacked depth but also because we also didn’t know what we were doing. A lot of people currently building products in Africa are falling into the same trap.

Our schools don’t teach people how to build products; they teach people how to write programs or manage businesses. Creating a software product isn’t the job of “a developer” or team of developers, it is the job of everyone in a product team or product company. The ideal CEO should also be a great product manager.

Design and Product Management is typically not restricted to the technology domain. I recently read a book on “Creating Moments”, and the authors described how the most successful American hospitality businesses design their customer experience to make property stays memorable. A lot of Nigerian companies badly need to improve on user experience and design. I believe that product design and product management roles will become mainstream as competition increases, and customers demand better service. Any organization that ignores design and product management today will most likely not be around tomorrow.


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