Product managing an integrated hardware product at Square
The PM perspective: Pivoting from software to hardware
I am a lead Hardware Product Manager at Square, where I’ve worked most recently on our contactless and chip reader. But when I started at Square 3 years ago, I worked on pure software products (as I had also done for 6 years previously at Facebook). I’ve always loved that Square provides an integrated solution to small businesses with both hardware and software. But to be honest, the only thing I knew about the hardware team’s area of the office was that it was off-limits to visitors.
It wasn’t until I actually switched to working on hardware that I realized the complex inner workings of making a hardware product — especially software-integrated, mass-produced hardware.
PMing integrated hardware is not as common in Silicon Valley tech companies. While my experience is limited to Square, I’ve noticed a few key differences in making the transition from software to hardware.
Scope and Complexity
I switched to hardware because I wanted to learn about something exciting and completely new. I should be careful what I wish for — the first few months felt like information overload!
Of course, there are plenty of complicated software systems, and just as many simple hardware products — but the fact that there are so many Engineering teams involved in building hardware makes the PM’s scope quite sizeable.
A typical software PM might work with two or three different Eng teams. For hardware at Square, I can count at least nine different teams — Client (Android, iOS), Server, Embedded Software (Firmware), Hardware Security, Platform Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Manufacturing Test Engineering, QA Engineering — and that’s just for Eng. Even for design, I work with both industrial design and software product design.
Launch and Iteration Cadence
Iterating on a software feature or product is mostly within your team’s control, but hardware manufacturing, of course, involves numerous external parties in addition to careful coordination among many teams within Square. Hardware development also brings a natural timeline that means once you cross certain milestones, you hit points of no return, where changing course can mean major delays in your roadmap — not to mention major additional costs!
For example, Square’s contactless and chip reader has red and green LED lights. What if, in the middle of development, the PM had decided to add blue LEDs? Between the board design team redesigning and prototyping; the manufacturer ensuring it can produce the new design; actual production; sourcing new components (that will be delivered on time and at cost); additional testing; and updates to firmware — this process can take weeks.
Compare that to a UI color change on a software product that usually takes minutes.
It’s normal for a brand-new hardware product to take more than a year to ship. Even iterations on software updates for already-launched hardware products can require a combination of server, client, firmware, and OS changes, all of which make for a much more time-intensive process.
Physicality of a Product
Hardware is, by nature, a tangible product that ships to customers, meaning hardware PMs have another separate issue on their plates: delivery and returns!
Customers can’t just download their hardware, or sign up by clicking a button. Whether it’s delivered to a business address or purchased through a major retailer, product purchasing requires another suite of functions: supply & demand, fulfillment, logistics, packaging, and retail partnership.
Packaging plays a crucial role: it’s the first way users experience the product. Good packaging is attractive, functional, and durable, not to mention includes clear instructions on getting started. And returns are much more than simply reversing delivery logistics — what about warranties, or diagnosing issues and failures, or refurbishing?
You’ve probably seen labels on your phone or appliances proving your electronics conform to standards and certification specs. These regulatory bodies ensure that all electronic products used in a certain region are manufactured to meet a certain emission and safety standards. And guess what? If you’re creating a payment-processing device, you’re looking at an entirely separate world of certifications.
These standards are great, but sometimes they have specific set of requirements that can dictate or limit product behaviors. It provides the product team with extra challenges in coming up with ways to develop a product that meets all the requirements while not degrading the user experience.
Sounds like hardware is complex, time-consuming, and full of constraints. Why do you love it so much?
It’s called HARDware for a reason! Sorry for the cheesy joke, but that’s what makes this field great. It’s a true challenge to create beautiful, functional software-integrated hardware — and an even greater challenge when mass-producing products like Square’s hardware, that is used and beloved worldwide. There is something special about a product one can touch and feel physically that is enjoyed by so many around you.
Switching to a hardware definitely stretched my abilities as a PM. I had to step up my game in communications and creative problem solving. Documentation becomes more important than ever with so many parties involved, product decisions to be made, and requirements to be understood. Advance planning and testing is a must when any changes can throw a huge wrench in product schedules. With the level of quality Square strives, PM also ends up sweating even the small details because we want what’s best for the user experience even if it means more work — just the sheer volume of product decisions to make increases the scope of PM. And keeping a team motivated throughout a process that spans months or even years is no small feat.
I feel very lucky that I got a taste of product managing both hardware and software, and even luckier that I got to do that at Square — a company that makes beautiful solutions that integrate both hardware and software and are loved by many. So far, my experience product managing hardware products has been awesome, and maybe this post will get some of you who love challenges excited to work on one as well!