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A Product Manager's Reading Anthology

A Product Manager's Reading Anthology
By Daniel Shefer
www.shefer.net
[email protected]

Introduction

When I first entered the field of Product Management, I immediately set out to find written materials on the subject. Back then, there was only a single book, a 30,000 feet overview on Product Management but nothing to guide me through the day to day activities of a Product Manager.

The purpose of this article is to present a guided tour through of some of the literary resources available that offer guidance for Product Managers in the day to day aspects of their jobs. Experienced Product Managers will benefit from these resources as well as they offer enriching perspectives.Introduction to Product Management

So where does someone new to Product Management start' There are 3 books that address Product Management, each from a slightly different perspective.  I'll start with Prof' Don Lehmann's Product Management. This is one of the two text books on this list and it's officially recommended for use in MBA courses after an introductionary course to marketing. This book offers the highest level perspective of the three books with 'Product Management' in their title. So much so, that I would recommend renaming it 'Marketing for Product Managers'. The book offers an excellent perspective on marketing for product managers and covers a wide array of subjects that include competition, positioning, pricing, market and customer analysis and even channels management, all from the perspective of Product Management. Product Management has running case studies on the premium ice cream and hand-held computer markets. I found the latter fascinating as it's evolving in front of us and is relevant to me both as a marketer and as a consumer. What you won't find in this book are the details, templates and best practices that you would need to help you in your daily Product Management activities. If you are new to Product Management and you could only read one book for an overview of the science of marketing, this is the book to read.

Product Management Skills

The next two books focus a lot more on Product Management tasks. Next on the list is Linda Gorchels' The Product Manager's Handbook. This book starts with a valuable discussion on 'why Product Management'. It's a great help if you need to educate your company's management on what Product Management is all about and goes on to list in detail the roles and responsibilities of Product Management. The book is closer to ground level than the previous one and it discusses Product Management skills that are relevant across multiple industries. Some of the vital skills that are covered are annual product planning, customer value management and proposing and launching new products. A great feature of the Handbook is the checklist for evaluating progress. Having these checklists to measure progress comes in very handy. Product Management case studies are available throughout the book as well.

The last but not least of the books on Product Management is Software Product Management Essentials by Alyssa Dver. Dver's book is a basic introduction to practical Product Management in the software industry, focusing on small to mid-sized software companies. As such, it should be required reading for any Product Manager in the software industry. The book's advantage for those in the software industry is that it is a hands-on guide detailing the tasks and responsibilities involved in this role. The book includes practical tips and best practices to help Product Managers in their day to day tasks. An important subject discussed in the book is what is needed for a quality, on-time delivery of software. On time delivery is a sore point for anyone in the software industry and this is the first text to address this issue head on. Specifically, Dver discusses the short termed release plan as a way to prevent disruptive customer demands, another very important topic. The book is divided into two parts. Product Management and Product Marketing. I liked the excellent part on Product Management. The part on Product Marketing is more of an overview for Product Managers than a detailed discussion of the topic. For Product Marketing per se, I would defer to The Product Marketing Handbook. Essentials includes appendices with templates and of course a recommended reading list'

Linda Gorchels followed up The Product Manager's Handbook with the Product Manager's Field Guide. This book starts with a review of the attributes of successful product managers. The book then deals with multiple aspects of product management. Each chapter includes an overview of the topic being discussed, reflection points, lists of competencies needed to successfully arrive at the desired results, self-assessment checklists and scorecards. Some chapters end with questions to rate your skill sets. The Product Manager's Handbook provides an action plan for becoming a better product manager. I recommend that you read the chapters relevant to your work on a periodical basis. Think of it as a periodical flossing of your product management skills.

Requirements

If you could do only one thing as a Product Manager, what would that be'  My vote would be for collecting requirements and writing accurate specifications resulting in good Market and Product Requirement Documents (MRDs and PRDs). That brings us to the next three books that discuss the requirements process.Software Requirements, Mastering the Requirements Process and Writing Effective Use Cases.

The most readable book of this group is Mastering the Requirements Process by Suzanne and James Robertson. Imagine a dry subject like requirements that is actually presented in a lively and fun to read way. The book is very good at detailing what needs to be detailed in a requirements document. The book offers a lot of visualization of the subject matter, processes etc. making the topic easy to learn and relate to. One of many important topics that are covered is specifying success criteria in the requirements document for validation. This is done at higher level than QA specs but is critical to communicate what a successful product looks like.

One thing worthy of note about this book is the layout. The sidelines of the text include commentary as well as references to other parts of the book and to additional reading. It is clear that a lot of care was put into the design of this book as well as in its content. Mastering makes for both fun and functional reading. Also, note the Appendix where a full requirements process is documented in both diagram and text. The Robertsons also have a feature-rich web site that includes templates, articles and an extensive survey of Requirements literature.

Software Requirements, Second Edition by Karl E. Wiegers is an extensive, all inclusive discussion of collecting and managing requirements and includes best practices and tips. This book is a must for any Product Manager and even seasoned Product Managers will benefit from reading it. The book covers many topics such as the software requirements specifications (SRS) document, business and user requirements, the requirements process, elicitation of requirements and verification etc. Two important topics that are close to my heart these days are dealing with and staying focused when requirements shift and topic of traceability. The latter is the ability to justify a feature set throughout the development process. Other things I liked about this book are the chapters on risk reduction and the requirements troubleshooting guide.

So which of the two books is better for you' If you can, get both. If you have to choose one book, right-brain thinkers should choose the Robertson book and left-brain thinkers should choose the Wiegers book.

Writing Effective Use Cases by Alistair Cockburn focuses on a critical part of the Requirements process. Use Cases offers a very detailed methodology to describe how users interact with software applications. The methodology is very useful when describing complex systems with multiple use cases where accuracy is critical. This book describes a very linear, delineated writing style for use cases. The book also includes advice for managing projects that require a large number of use cases. For those of you looking for a very detailed outline on how to write use cases, this is the book for you.

Product Marketing

We can discuss for hours what the differences between Product Management and Product Marketing are. To some, it is all about who your audience is. In this perspective, Product Management and Product Marketing are two faces of the same coin. Product Marketing's work is more outbound than Product Management's focus on development but there is a lot of overlap between the two and in small companies, the Product Manager usually fills both roles. One definition of the differences appeared in a recent posting by Gabriel Steinhardt on the PSPM Yahoo Group that read: 'Product Management's goal is satisfied customers and Product Marketing's is a satisfied sales force'. Regardless of your thoughts about the relationship of these two disciplines (or, if they are really separate), every Product Manager needs a good background in outbound facing skills to do her job properly. So that brings me to the next topic ' Product Marketing.

The best book (and only one that I'm aware of) on Product Marketing is The Product Marketing Handbook for Software, 4th Edition by Merrill R. Chapman. Written by Chapman who has 'been there and done that', the book is a unique compilation of experience, best practices and up to date information on everything from pricing through OEM agreements and from advertising to visual identity. The book offers a very practical, experienced perspective to sometimes vexing Product Marketing problems. Throughout the book, Chapman gives relevant, down to earth descriptions of how to (and how not to) plan and deliver a product marketing effort. There are case studies from every aspect of the high tech industry. No where else can you learn so much on marketing, distributing and selling software. The Handbook also includes comprehensive checklists that are also provided on a CD to helps manage the product marketing process. This book is a must if you do any outbound product work. There are many reasons to read this book.

Product Management and Development

Beyond Software Architecture by Luke Hohmann. I'll start the discussion of the book with the following statement ' this book is a must read. Beyond Software Architecture is the only book I'm familiar with that discusses the inter-relationship between business requirements and technology. Beyond Software Architecture should be read by both Product Managers and System Architects so that they can better understand each other's domains. Product Management and Development need to understand the impact on business that that every technical decision re. the software can have. This book goes beyond paying lip service and starts with: "Why software architecture matters'" The book sets common language and fosters understanding of how each team's decisions impact the other. To facilitate the communications between these two functions that see the world from different perspectives, Hohmann uses two terms:

  • Tarchitecture - The technical aspects of the software design.
  • Markitecture - The marketing aspects of the product that have an impact on the system architecture.

One of the great things about the book is that it offers practical guidelines that are relevant to the day-to-day life of Product Managers and System Architects. The book is a great reference for making technical decisions based on business cases. Some of the many issues that Beyond Software Architecture discusses are technical such as portability, usability, performance, API, release and upgrade policies, security, "out of the box" experience, licensing, logging and deployment architectures. All of these have impact on 'marketing'. Each chapter ends with exercises that help evaluate where your organization stands with the relevant issue. In short ' A must read.

From Idea to Product

Companies have learned (the hard way of course') that innovative ideas are not enough. They need to screen them so that the limited resources available to develop them will be used effectively. To do this, companies have to set up processes for screening and processing ideas. This is where From Idea to Launch at Internet Speed at Internet Speed by Catherine Kitcho comes in. The author writes from experience. In the nineties she managed the New Ventures Program at TRW-ESL. The book is based on her personal experiences and includes insights from many marketing professionals. Today Kitcho is a product launch consultant and is known as the "Launch Doctor".

From Idea to Launch encompasses two themes:

  1. A guide for creating an internal innovation process for taking ideas and turning them into profitable products.
  2. A detailed discussion of the criteria that make an idea a good candidate for turning it into a product.

The book discuss the screening of product ideas, business models, market strategies, speeding up product development, partnering and lessons from the dot-com boom and bust. It also discusses business and marketing plans as well as product launching tactics.

Most chapters end with relevant questions Product Managers should themselves ask as well as checklists.

High Tech Marketing

For a thorough discussion of marketing for Product Managers, see: Introduction to Product Management, above.

After discussing books that cover Product Management and Product Marketing, this anthology would not be complete without books that provide new Product Mangers with basic understanding of the markets in which they operate.

What would you say about a book that was endorsed by Thedore Levitt, John Sculley, Robert Noyce and Thomas Perkins' The book with such a pedigree is Marketing High Technology by William H. Davidow.  Davidow was behind Intel's marketing campaign that started with Intel being the underdog in their fight with Motorola over the first chips (the 8080 family) and ended up being the dominant player in the CPU market. In a nutshell, the book is about the concept of a whole product. But it's a lot more than that. The book starts with the story of the author's part in the marketing war that took place between Intel and Motorola in the 80's. Davidow goes on to detail his perspective of marketing activities as a form of civilized corporate warfare. As it turns out late in the book, Davidow was the Product Manager at HP for their 2116 computer. It's amazing how the problems he encountered 20 years ago managing his product are still relevant today (but many of the companies are not). While this book is the oldest one in this list, it is still very relevant. When looking back at this book, it's amazing how much is packed into a moderately sized volume. Highly recommended!

Clayton Christensen will enter the annals of technology management as the person who identified, diagnosed and offered solutions to the vexing problem of the disappearance of whole sectors of industries. One example is the vanishing of the mini computer industry within a couple of years. In the 'pre-Christensen times', such phenomena were usually brushed off by blaming 'poor' management. But think of it, could all those companies have had bad management, all at the same time' Christensen set out to research that question and in 1995, came up with The Innovator's Dilemma. The book won the business book of the year award and rightfully so.

Christensen does two things in this book. First, he defines disruptive technologies and then he describes the internal processes within companies that prevent incumbents from fighting upstarts with disruptive technologies and business models effectively. Christensen describes how common sense management cause companies to migrate into higher end products, leaving their flanks exposed. When this happens, companies that address underserved niches with new technologies are able to successfully own the established companies' low end, low margin customer base. In light of this, it is not so surprising that at first, most companies are happy to migrate up the food chain, leaving the 'low end' customers to the upstarts. That is, until they wake up one day without a customer base and with old, irrelevant technology to boot.

Christensen did not rest on his laurels for long and proceeded to address the question, 'OK, what do we do now that we understand the problem'' In 2003, he came out with The Innovator's Solution. This book is a must read as well. It starts by going over the theory detailed in his first book and then continues on to describe how companies can prevent upstarts with disruptive technologies from eating their lunch. The book presents criteria to discern if a technology is disruptive or not and proceeds to offer solutions to many of the challenges that disruptive technologies present. Identifying disruptive technologies is a very important issue as research has shown that significant wealth is created mostly in disruptive markets. Sustaining technology just doesn't offer the same bang for the buck. 

As someone who witnessed how disruptive technologies wreaked havoc in two companies I worked for, I highly recommend both these books.

No reading list would be complete without one of high-tech's defining books of the nineties. Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore is probably one of the most famous, and most translated high-tech books of all times. This famous work (yes, before the bubble) started from a consulting project at Unisys. Geoffrey Moore was hired to answer the question: Why, if Burroughs and Sperry's products (the companies that combined to form Unisys) were technologically more advanced than those of IBM at the time, was IBM constantly outselling them' The result of this project is what has become known as the Chasm theory.

In his book, Moore applies a 50 plus year old theory of the technology adoption life cycle to high-tech products. Moore's usage of the term 'chasm' and his graphical description of the stages in the technology adoption lifecycle are now a mainstay of any introduction to high-tech marketing. The chasm imagery is used to describe how high-tech products initially sell well, mainly to a technically literate customer base (=geeks and technophiles), but then hit a lull as they try to move on to mainstream buyers. In a nutshell this lull, or chasm, is caused by the significantly different buying criteria of the next group up the food chain. These new buying requirements are fundamentally different than those of the earlier buyers and only by surgically attacking one niche at a time (the bowling-alley approach), is a company able to move forward without going out of business in the process. If the product and marketing strategies are successful, companies can move into the 'Tornado'.

While there is no doubt in my mind that this is a great book, a comment (from a wise friend) is warranted. The Chasm model works well when discussing higher-end products but its relevance to retail products is limited. In those areas, there is little resistance to new products; after all, the audience is fundamentally different. How many people really wanted to type after experiencing a word processor'  With retail products, the ability to innovate rapidly is more important than "crossing the chasm."

Crossing the Chasm is a must for anyone trying to master high-tech marketing. So much so that I would think twice about hiring anyone who had not read it.

Now that you've 'crossed the chasm', now what' In his second book, Inside The Tornado, Moore follows up with describing the market dynamics of hypergrowth that follow the successful traversing of a chasm. A 'Tornado' is a fascinating change in the behavior and pace of the market. Customer expectations as well as the power structures among the market's players all change and demand can outstrip supply. A new environment requires a different approach.

Moore has authored several more books expanding on the above themes and I recommend them as well for advanced reading.

Positioning

Sooner rather than later, as a Product Manager, you will have to address your product's positioning. Ries and Trout have made a name for themselves as the gurus of positioning.  Positioning, The Battle For Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout should be your first stop. This book covers everything from why it's important to how to do it and gives many examples on the way. We tend to forget that in addition to our product, prospects are aware of direct and perceived competitors. The former compete on functionality, the latter on mindshare. Whoever 'owns' positioning has to deal with the problems of communicating to an over-communicated prospect base. With good positioning, you can not only position your own product but also position your competitors to your advantage.

Differentiate or Die: Survival in Our Era of Killer Competition In this book, Trout presents his vision on differentiating and positioning. After dismissing common marketing techniques such as quality and pricing as futile (can't say I agree with that too much), Trout concentrates on which differentiating ideas will set you apart from the pack: Being first (and staying there), owning a discernible attribute, having a heritage, becoming the preference of a particular consumer group or even being the most recent arrival in a product arena are just some of these useful differentiates.

These two books discuss two important concepts. The first is that customers are the ones that position your products and not the other way around. The second is that they do so on a virtual ladder and that on each rung of the ladder can only hold a single item. For example, when asking people which car is safest they will only come up with a single name. It is your job to either get them to place you in a good rung or to help them create a new ladder.

Regis McKenna is considered one of the father's of high tech marketing in Silicon Valley. When Davidow (Marketing High Technology, see above) needed a marketing guru to spearhead Intel's CRUSH campaign to fight Motorola, he hired McKenna. McKenna wrote several books on marketing and the one I recommend in this context is Relationship Marketing. This is a good book on positioning. The book discusses building relationships to help a company dominate and own markets spaces in this age where relationships with customers are so important.

Evangelizing

Do you take part in the efforts to evangelize your product' You should. If so, get your hands on Selling the Dream by Guy Kawasaki. Kawasaki, a Silicon Valley icon was behind much of Macintosh's marketing effort. That should be enough to convince you. To research this book, Kawasaki even went to a Christian evangelism 'how to' seminar to learn from the best. Another good read by the same author is - How to Drive Your Competition Crazy where he discusses High Tech guerilla marketing.

Sales

Regardless of your thoughts about sales reps, your company will live and die by their ability to sell your product. Not to mention that one of your rolls is to support the sales organization. So whatever you can do to understand what they do and how they do it will help you help them and create a better rapport between you (Marketing) and the Sales department.

Before discussing several books that cover the issues of how to sell, I will recommend two articles that I wrote with Product Managers in mind: Ten things you need to know about sales and Nine things you need to know about supporting sales. These articles offer neophytes a good understanding of what Sales does and how to support the Sales organization.

And now to the books on selling. I'll start with Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets by Michael Bosworth. The book describes multiple tools and techniques to sell a solution instead of selling a technology. It helps you find the customer "pain" and how to leverage that to sell a solution for that "pain".

It's all about the questions you ask. Socratic Selling by Kevin Daley is relevant to more than just selling. When sales reps bring you along on sales calls, you will probably want to ask a few questions (ALWAYS let the sales rep lead the Q&A). Socratic Selling is all about how to ask questions to get to the answers you need. This approach respects the customer while recognizing that the customer has the power.

You Can't Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar by David H. Sandler. This book is out of print but definitely worth the effort of finding it. The book is a guide to the Sandler system of sales. It offers examples of successful and unsuccessful sales to illustrate ideas on how to turn ordinary salespeople into crack sales reps.

Most of us are probably tired of the concept of 'spinning'. Despite the negative connotations, I recommend Spin Selling by Neil Rackham. For those of you who have a need to understand the science behind selling, here is a book that will explain some of the differences between simple and complex sales. Spin Selling is based on a large research project during 12 years of selling. The book explains why major sales require a special set of skills compared to that of a simpler, emotional sale such as selling a car. After reading this book, you will have a better understanding of why enterprise deals seem to go on forever.

User Interface (UI)

I can't stress how critical the usability of products is to their success. When was the last time, your computer illiterate uncle asked you for help to find a missing window that was simply hidden behind another one' The basic problems of usability and the philosophy of why things must be usable are addressed in The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper (no, this is not a book about your current employer'). This is the usability gospel according to Cooper and is a must read before really understanding usability. In his book, Cooper explains why we need to create good interfaces. He describes the many user-hostile concepts deeply embedded within the software development process and how some of us have become desensitized.  The Humane Interface by Jef Raskin is another high level book, focusing specifically on software interfaces. The author worked on the user interface for the Apple Macintosh project (parts of which were adapted from the groundbreaking work by Xerox-PARC). Raskin shows how many interface concepts are dead ends, and that to make computers significantly easier to use, requires deliberate effort.  

Now that we have been properly educated in the 'why' we need good interfaces, lets see how to implement this knowledge. The following list is by no means comprehensive but definitely recommended. A practical book on user interface design by Alan Cooper is About Face. This is a must read for anyone who works on designing user interfaces. Even if you have a user UI designer in house, you need the enough understanding to communicate the interface's needs and the ability to evaluate the results. The book covers a wide range of subjects, from understanding users and the goals of interface design to an analysis of the major Windows user interface components. Cooper is very insightful. He also runs a UI consulting firm and has a free newsletter on the subject GUI Bloopers Jeff Johnson discusses some of the more grievous errors in user interface designs. Jakob Nielsen, a usability guru himself, wrote: 'Better read this book, or your design will be featured in Bloopers II''. Enough said.

Now that you know what a good design is user interface, it has to be validated with its target users. One way is to create paper prototypes. This technique is described in Paper Prototyping by Carolyn Snyder. This book should be required reading for any product manager who works on UI and does usability testing. It's a practical, how-to guide that will walk you through creating and testing paper prototypes for all kinds of interfaces. The book includes case studies and examples of real world examples of paper prototyping at work.

Pricing

One of the questions that arise when defining a product is, how much should it cost' The price is the most influential contributor to the company's bottom line as well as a positioning statement and requires a lot of attention. Whether the product is a commodity or a critical enterprise application, you had better do your homework. A general overview of software pricing is given in my article Product and Pricing Strategies. The first book to read after that is considered the fundamental book on pricing: The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing by Thomas Nagle & R. Holden. Unlike many "text books", this book is relevant to the high tech world.

Another good online resource on pricing is the Marketshare website.

The Software Development Process

Trying to get a better understanding of the software development process' Wondering why the project is still not on schedule with all the new developers that were hired' The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (The 1995 edition) by Frederick P. Brooks is a classic when it comes to managing software projects. If you put aside the author's expectation that ADA will be the next hot thing (the first edition of this book of essays was written 25 years ago!), it is definitely worth reading. Focus on the chapters that discusses project delays, optimal software project sizes and what happens when programmers are added to a software project team that is running late (the project takes longer). Another interesting part is where the author looks back at his original essays and compares his predictions to the reality today. Tech-history buffs will get a kick out of the book as well.  

Another book for non programmers is Software Project Management  by Steve McConnell. As a non programmer, I found it very helpful in understanding some of the difficulties inherent to the software development process. The book includes many tips and indicators to help management keep software projects successful and on time.

More Than Just for Fun'

Being a history and techie buff, In Search of Stupidity: Over 20 Years of High-Tech Marketing Disasters by Merrill R. Chapman (see his Product Marketing Handbook above) wins my award for being a funny as well as educational book about high tech. The book is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand how high tech got to where it is today. Most of you remember the Sinclair, Commodore 64 and Apple II computers and many other things that have bit the dust long ago. This book explains why some great products and companies are no longer around. The book is relevant to any one in high tech marketing and not only for its humor. Behind the cynical humor (a matter of taste) and history are insight and hard learned lessons in how not to manage and market high tech products.

Summary

I hope you enjoyed this article and the books that you choose to read. Please feel free to send me comments and recommendations for additional books to be added to the anthology.

-- Daniel Shefer

About Daniel Shefer

Daniel Shefer is a Product Management and Product Marketing professional with eight years of product experience in the software industry. During his five years with Interwise, he was instrumental in product design, and establishing and managing the product management and the product marketing operations. Additionally, he has also managed technical sales into Microsoft, Avande and others along with driving technology partnerships with 3rd party vendors such as PeopleSoft and Docent. Daniel technical skills include expertise in VoIP, video, communications and collaboration, applied networking and both the ASP and enterprise software models.

Daniel's Software Product Management & Product Marketing website is www.shefer.net. You can send email to [email protected]

This article and its contents copyright (c) 2004 by Daniel Shefer.

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