The Two Leaders You Need To Build Great Products

William Allen
Jan 8, 2015 · 3 min read

Product is a very tech-centric word. But what do we mean by product? P&G and Unilever call their products brands. A more traditional business might call them SKUs or lines.

But whatever we call it, it simply means the thing that you create.

There are two types of leaders needed to create something great: Architects and General Contractors. Each is uniquely critical, and by understanding and valuing each role, you maximize the chances that your product will be a success.

There’s an enormously popular product that illustrates this well. Your home.

At some point, your home started as an idea in the mind of an architect, the first type of leader we need to build great products. We all know what an architect does: design homes and buildings. An architect’s work isn’t just about appearances — it includes sophisticated engineering. What sort of roof is appropriate for this climate? How tall can we make this home while using the least amount of materials? Furthermore, architects think about the interactions that happen within a space — where do people want to congregate in their home? How does walking through their front door make them feel? What are the things everyone expects from their home but don’t know to vocalize?

A great architect understands people, materials, physics, and aesthetics. Yet by herself, an architect only has a vision backed by amazing CAD models and beautiful presentations. That’s where the general contractor comes in.

The general contractor works hand-in-hand with the architect to bring the house to life. Yet the general contractor doesn’t necessarily swing a hammer — instead, she oversees the various teams who do. She, too, designs — but she is a designer of the process of building a home, not of the home itself. She brings together the engineers with the plumbers, the electricians with the carpenters, the vendors with the inspectors. She manages these interactions at the right times with the right finesse and the right eye towards the final vision. Importantly, she holds each of these teams accountable for showing up and playing their role; if just one party is late, the whole product suffers. Her job starts when the architect finishes her designs and only ends when the homeowner moves in.

Whether it’s a new mobile app, website, platform, or connected-home device, products in tech require the same two types of leaders.

Your product lead is your architect. She needs to understand people (what do users want?), materials (what’s the newest technology that we can leverage?), physics (roughly, how do these technologies interact?), and aesthetics (how do we make this product beautiful?).

And yet the vision she brings to the table is only part of the story. It must be paired with the builders — back-end and front-end engineers, DevOps, iOS and Android developers, and more. Here’s where your general contractor comes into play — she rallies these troops and brings the product to life.

Some great CEOs play both roles, especially at the beginning. But you see them increasingly specializing as they grow — Steve Jobs (architect) ultimately paired with Tim Cook (general contractor); Mark Zuckerberg (architect) with Sheryl Sandberg (general contractor). And at large companies with multiple products, some end up dividing the task among many different roles — engineering managers, product managers, project managers, and heads of design all overseeing their (overlapping) part of the process.

So whether your product is built by a small team, or pieced together by a massive organization — know who is playing these two key leadership roles. Empower your architects to do what they do best: design beautiful products. And make sure your general contractor does what she needs to do: get that product out the door.

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