As digital and product transformations become more common, more Information Technology (IT) departments view their software assets as products that deserve ongoing investment and attention from a consistent, dedicated team. As IT departments change the way they operate, the role of product management for information technology is becoming much more common inside those areas of companies.
Product management in IT can be very similar to product management in other settings, but there are some key differences as well. Here’s a look at the product management role in IT and why it’s an important role from now on.
Product management responsibilities, in general
Before we discuss product management in IT specifically, we thought it would be helpful to discuss product management responsibilities in general. As a product manager, you become an expert in the needs of your organization’s customers and identify ways to satisfy those needs that are beneficial to your organization. To do this, you empathize with your customers and users, understand their needs, and determine whether it’s worth it for your organization to satisfy those needs. You put together a product strategy to draw a connection between solving your customers’ problems and helping your organization meet its goals. You then enact that product strategy by driving the development, market launch, and continual support and improvement of your product.
That means on any day you:
- Build and maintain direct, meaningful connections with your organization’s customers and people inside your organization, such as developers, sales, marketing, and support.
- Analyze your product metrics, and learn about your market and your competitors.
- Decide which problems to solve and what products to build and update.
So while you’re not the CEO of your product, you drive the development of your product and are ultimately responsible for its success. That includes the business aspects of selling the product and making it available to your organization’s customers.
Product Management responsibilities in IT
In reality, your specific responsibilities will differ depending on several factors. The same holds for product managers in an IT setting. The differences usually depend on the extent to which your organization has adopted product thinking and whether the product you’re working on directly interacts with your customers or if it’s strictly for internal use.
For example, if you work in financial services and your product is online banking, your responsibilities will be very similar to a product manager working in a B2C tech company. If you work on a claim processing system or data warehouse, your responsibilities may more closely resemble those of a B2B product manager or a platform product manager. In either setting, you still should have a product strategy, but you may not play as big of a role in creating it. Your involvement in strategy formulation depends on how extensively your organization has adopted product thinking.
Various approaches to IT product management
Some companies adopt a product approach for their IT department to deliver custom-developed software but still use the IT planning approach to determine what products teams work on. Instead of working with the people responsible for key business processes to identify potential solutions to a problem, you get a solution tossed at you over the wall.
In these settings, focus your time as a product manager on delivery activities, and you spend most of your time working directly with developers and designers on your product team.
Other companies are fully engaged in their product transformation and form product teams, including both business and technology people who work from the beginning to understand problems and identify solutions.
In many IT settings, the users of your product may be people inside your organization, and you may have an indirect relationship with your customers. That doesn’t mean you still don’t need to understand their problems. Balance solving their problems with providing a wonderful experience for the users inside your organization.
The focus on user experience is a new emphasis for many IT departments that are used to thinking that the people in your organization don’t have a choice but to use their product. While those users may not have a choice about using your product, they always have a choice about whether to stay in that job. So one way you can gauge the effectiveness of your user experience is its impact on employee retention, especially if your users are in a high turnover role.
Perhaps the biggest difference product managers in IT have from other product managers is they rarely have to market and sell their products to customers. Instead, they may have to drive engagement and adoption of their product.
Typical background of IT product managers
There is no specific required background you have to have to be a product manager in IT. Some characteristics of working in IT make a couple of different paths more common.
There’s a good chance that you’ll spend the majority of your time working with your product team on delivering your product. You may also be more likely to work on platforms with data. As a result, you may need a stronger technology background than most product managers.
You’re equally likely to come from a project management background. When organizations go through product transformations, they want to increase their product management ranks and believe they don’t need as many project managers. In some respects, the move makes sense, even if their logic is flawed.
Project managers have considerable skills overlap with product managers, but there are some significant differences as well. Project managers focus on delivering a solution, whereas product managers identify problems and identify the solutions to deliver.
That’s not to say that project managers can’t become great product managers. Those who make the switch effectively can change their perspective, so they’re willing to perform discovery to identify and deliver solutions.
And if you’re a project manager who prefers to focus on the delivery aspect of product management, don’t worry. There’s still a need for project managers in an IT setting, especially given the complicated nature of most IT departments. In those large IT departments, a product manager and a project manager can be a powerful combination.
Product Managers introduce an outcome focus to IT
As your organization undergoes a product transformation, your product management skills are key to helping your organization move from an output to an outcome focus. Chances are your IT department has a long history of measuring success based on delivering features. If you can model outcome-focused behaviors, you position your organization to solve your customers’ problems.
One key behavior involves product teams continuously discovering and identifying solutions to the problems they seek to solve. This will prevent the former pattern of tossing solution requests over the wall from business to IT and instill a stronger partnership.
This partnership better positions product teams to deliver solutions iteratively and provide an environment where they can revise their plans for the product based on the initial feedback they receive. This increases the chance that the product will solve the problem the team set out to solve and helps them avoid unnecessary work.
Another behavior is placing a stronger focus on user experience. When you introduce a stronger understanding of your users and can work with your product team to incorporate that understanding into the products you develop for internal use, you make your organization’s processes more effective and have a positive impact on your coworkers and, ultimately, your customers.
To make the focus on outcomes more concrete, you can use outcome-focused roadmaps to communicate your plans for your internal product.
By switching from project plans to outcome-focused roadmaps, you can get everyone in the organization used to planning and monitoring progress based on outcomes rather than relying on tracking outputs.
You can even use a Portfolio Roadmap to show how various products interact and keep track of key dependencies between products. This view is especially helpful for the leaders of your organization and can help make the move to planning via outcomes more real for them.
There’s a future for product managers in IT
While IT departments are not normally where you’d expect to find product managers, the situation is transforming.
As more organizations realize they must incorporate software throughout their processes, it only makes sense to use product management techniques and practices to ease that transition.
Even though you may not build the next unicorn or must-have app, you are often in a position to make a big difference to an organization, and it’s customers.