5 Minutes With Scott Sehlhorst (Tyner Blain)

Scott Selhorst, Software Product Manager at Tyner Blain

In 2005 Scott founded Tyner Blain, a business that focuses on software product success. As a small company he “play[s] different roles for different clients, as well as the ‘president/founder/blogger/evangelist’ catch-all role”. We are fortunate to have Scott contribute his thoughts on Product Management. He shares his insight as a Product Manager who lives and kicks through software development life-cycles.

“I really like the answers that your previous interviewees have given, with a focus on value, profits, and responsibility. I think my perspective is colored by working much more on new products than existing products. Given that view, here’s how I would describe my approach…Product Management is the act of identifying and valuing opportunities in the market, and then defining a product vision that exploits those opportunities (or more commonly, solves those problems). Product Managers act strategically, and start with abstract opportunities and valuations. For example, “people would pay a lot of money to conveniently have their entire music collections available 24X7.” Product Managers research to understand the market at the next level of detail – identifying constraints and specifics. Extending our example: “People won’t carry a device around unless it is convenient”, and Product Managers do make some design decisions- like deciding that a device is the way to attack the particular market opportunity.

Once there is a product (or at least a product idea), Product Managers also help make the product successful in the marketplace. Product Managers will prepare information that marketing and sales can use to sell the product. Product Managers will understand the competitive landscape, helping to identify opportunities for differentiation, and strategies for making sales easier (not tactics for closing individual sales). The best way to draw this line in the sand is to ask, “Is this (activity) for one customer, or many customers?” Product Managers should focus on the multi-customer activities.

In smaller companies, Product Managers are often asked to do things that aren’t Product Management, which is one of the biggest challenges – how companies leverage their Product Managers. Companies dilute their Product Managers’ effectiveness by having them do tactical “other stuff”. Product Management isn’t giving demos, defining error messages, or specifying that only Corinthian leather is acceptable, but Product Managers do this stuff all the time. It happens because Product Managers have the skills to do these things, and in small companies, having a skill can mean having a responsibility. This happens so much that defining what Product Management is becomes almost impossible. Pragmatic Marketing puts it best with this question: “If your Product Manager is doing that, who’s doing the Product Management?”

The second challenge is for people to recognise the benefits of good Product Management. It can be hard to quantify the savings of avoided mistakes and impossible to identify the size of a “missed opportunity”, making it hard for executives to appreciate the value of a Product Manager.

The first challenge can be addressed, but the second one will require a shift in mindset that I think will happen slowly at best. It took decades for companies to appreciate the value of a strong IT department and that was with hard data to back up the message. Really, these are two manifestations of the same problem – a lack of appreciation of the value of good product management. And they aren’t universal problems, just endemic ones.”

Scott, thanks for taking the time to add to our blog. The two challenges you’ve listed hit it home for many Product Managers out there and I’m sure they will have a chuckle about all the ‘other stuff’ they’ve ended up doing to ensure an outstanding and profitable product.