How MDMA Helps Me Find and Teach Product Managers

Ivan Kuznetsov
Dec 1, 2020 · 5 min read
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This year, I interviewed over twenty product managers. My colleagues went through a variety of courses and simulators, generating qualified feedback. Communication and work with them helped me understand a simple fact: there are no such a speciality as product manager in IT.

To be more exact, the role itself is there, but the profession is not. There are other specialties though: project manager, designer, analyst, marketing specialist.

Most of the companies where you apply for a product manager position are actually looking for a project manager. But they use a more stylish name and, no doubt, will add something about metrics to the job description.

Most candidates are project managers, designers, analysts or marketers who understand something in related areas and can (or think they can) combine functions of different specialists.

Hypotheses, A/B tests, custdev and other buzzwords are quite flashy, but even kid can learn the ideas behind them, if there are working processes and tools. Articles, courses and conferences highlight these ideas pretty often, and one can get an impression that improvement of a product through the constant speculation and experimentation is the very hard skill of a product manager.

However, I noticed that two people who have access to the same tools, share the same understanding of the product management basic theory, are in the same environment and go through the same processes can, however, deliver absolutely different results. And until a certain point, I did not understand how to teach product managers to be more effective.

According to the model of Ichak Adizes, there are several management styles, depending on a manager’s competencies that fit into acronym PAEI:

  • P — producer
  • A — administrator
  • E — entrepreneur
  • I — integrator

A good manager should be able to perfectly perform one or two functions, but also know the rest at least at a basic level.

Typical combinations are PaEi — the “ideal” entrepreneur and producer who is able to pull himself together to set up processes and talk to people if needed, and pAeI — (Adizes calls this style “Governor”) — a strong administrator and integrator who still knows how to work and take responsibility.

There are also specialists who have not developed any skills at all, for example, P-E- — a lone workaholic who is not capable of dealing with people or building processes.

I came up with my own product management pattern called MDMA:

  • M — Management
  • D — Design
  • M — Marketing
  • A — Analytics

One or more of these qualities may be emphasized, but all of them must be present in one way or another to make the work effective.

Typically, product managers are people with a background in project management who are interested in related areas and have hard skills in one of them.

In my experience, designers are the least likely to become product managers (it is much better for a designer with managerial skills to stay in design management). As for me, the path looked like this: Development -> Development Management -> Product Management.

Starting a career in IT with management is not the best solution, because it is the most underpaid and difficult role, compared to your colleagues. Besides, it is very difficult to stick to this position without work experience in the industry. It’s better to gain experience in a sphere where you will be judged by your hard skills — for example, in analytics or development — and where you can gain experience without overtaxing yourself with a huge responsibility.

It is necessary to have experience and skills in different areas in order to speak the same language with colleagues. It is very difficult to communicate with analysts without understanding what the normal distribution and statistical significance are, and how the median differs from the average. Same with designers: no wireframes, no dialogue. That said, it often takes years to dive into these notions.

Management experience is a communication experience that cannot be gained by reading a book or taking a course — you’ll have to work with people. And the best way to understand people is to walk in their shoes — i.e., share their work experience.

Proponents of classical management theory may argue that a real manager doesn’t care whether his mission is to build an airplane or to manage trench digging, but in the real world planes are designed by people who devoted years to aviation industry, starting as regular engineers.

How Does MDMA Model Help Me Work with Product Managers?

You can’t find perfect product specialists, but you can find those who can make a given product better at the moment.

First, you need to understand what qualities your team lacks the most.

Lack of responsibility and ability to make decisions? Maybe, performance is poor? I’d be looking for a PaEi manager with an Mdma profile.

Everyone runs around, prepares releases, makes changes, but still no results? I’d focus on finding paEI with mdMA profile. pAeI would be okay as well, provided that ‘I’ is much stronger than ‘A’, because there will be a constant conflict between administrator and producers, and without advanced integrator skills, you won’t get what you want.

In a team with a strong technical leader, managerial skills are less needed than marketing and analytical ones. In a product with poor UX and UI, you need someone with a background in design.

In the same way, educating managers who are already working on a product, you can upgrade the product itself.

Instead of regular courses in product management, I recommend my colleagues to focus on the current needs and their personal MDMA chart, and study analytics, design, marketing, project management or even technical management.

Moreover, coding is an essential skill, and basic programming courses are a must for any IT specialist, no matter CEO or an office manager in an IT company.

Why Didn’t I Include Programming or Engineering Skills in MDMA?

Strong technical skills as they are, without management skills, are more characteristic of a system architect than of a product manager. During my practice, (quite seldom but still) I have met very strong engineers who can manage a product, but just do not want to — so I didn’t put engineering skills on the list, although I believe that any position in IT requires basic programming knowledge.

About the Author

My name is Ivan. I’ve been working in fintech in different positions (from project manager to CEO) for 8 years now. You can learn more about me on my website.

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