The Minimum Viable Product Manager & Ownership

It’s been an interesting day at STORM Tech HQ today (oh, that’s where I work btw! Learn more about us here), with a couple of small things that happened which made me think about my very unquiet role in Product:

  • Had a quick discussion with one of our product heads about her plans for her platform and how I can help her substantiate the theoretical framework behind it.
  • Reviewed the resume of a candidate I had to interview for culture fit and leapt to the conclusion that the candidate has the profile of a potential product manager.
  • Was asked for advice by someone in our people operations team about the chances of a fresh graduate getting hired for, basically, my job but for a different product.
  • Interviewed that same candidate from earlier and took my conclusion back to wherever the heck that came from. The guy’s not a PM, period. (Although, he’s really qualified for the position he’s applying for.)
  • Was invited to give a talk at my alma mater’s career fair for engineers, covering my job as the company’s all-around product minion (yes, that’s what APM stands for and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).

All of this made me contemplate on what it is exactly that I, a product minion, am supposed to be doing. Actually, what am I even doing here? Me, the psychometrician who didn’t really know what product management was? And what makes one “a good fit” to be a product manager anyway?

I was so quick to think that today’s candidate would make a good one because of the experience detailed in the resume: tech sales, market research, startup business development. Then I also dished out advice that being a fresh grad isn’t a huge disadvantage as long as the person has proven project management skills and has been exposed to tech startups before.

After this afternoon’s interview, however, I realized that experience and skills are not the strongest indicators of a good product person (note: the point of the interview was to validate culture fit; the product fit was just something I personally wanted to explore). So there I was, talking to someone who seemed so qualified on paper, when I realized that the candidate seemed to lack that one quality I looked for in any team member — the same quality, I believe, is the basic requirement in product management.

Ownership. I don’t have a formal definition of this quality so I usually just give examples of how this can manifest. The easy interview question for this is asking the candidate to describe their greatest achievement or failure. Whether it’s a petty accomplishment or a million-dollar error, the topic lights a fire inside anyone with a sense of ownership. You can hear it in the way they talk about it, or see it in the way they’re proud or ashamed of it. Anyone who owns their work won’t be able to erase the smile on their face when talking about a challenge they were able to conquer. Anyone who owns their work will have a hard time brushing off their guilt over a mistake.

Anyone who owns their work knows exactly what it is they did or did not do that led to the outcome of their work. Anyone who owns their work can be trusted to do the work even when no one’s watching. This anyone can be a sales agent, a web developer, an accountant, or a messenger. Whatever the job is, you can trust that they have a feeling of responsibility over it.

Product management involves owning the product and everything else that comes with it. I’ve seen product heads that have no prior technical experience design systems with developers. I’ve been around an introverted product head who attends repetitive client meetings just to learn more about what the users might need. Product managers who have a sense of ownership do not think twice about doing the gritty work — even when it’s out of their comfort zone, even when it’s below their pay grade, even when it involves gaining new competencies overnight, and even when they have to do everything by themselves.

Even without the conventional experience and skills needed to complete the perfect product manager profile, I think it’s possible for anyone with the ownership quality to grow in Product. I mean, that’s the idea behind the MVP, right? You put the product out there with just the bare minimum functions so you can start learning and iterating.

The Minimum Viable Product Manager should have that bare minimum: ownership. From there, learning and iterating should be second nature. That ownership seed will be enough to help the MVPM grow with his product.