It Takes a Rare Breed of People to Become Product Managers: IPL Guest Insights

It’s certainly no cake walk managing world class products and beating your own game day in and day out. Ever wonder about the challenges a Product Manager faces on a day to day basis? And, who better to throw light on the psyche of an effective product manager than a business leader who dons multiple hats. Himanshu Palsule is the Chief Product and Technology Officer of Epicor, working on delighting 20,000 customers across 150 countries.

Prof. Rahul Abhyankar hosted a fireside chat with Himanshu at the Institute of Product Leadership’s recent ‘Day in the Life of a Product Manager’ seminar at Bangalore, where he and the audience caught Himanshu at his candid best.

Here are some insightful excerpts:

What’s a typical day in your life?

I wake up at 5am. 5:30-5:45 am is my quiet time on my iPad. I am curious by nature, so I read a lot. Thanks to the Epicor team here, the day starts by 6.00 am and then goes on till late in the night.

What would an ideal day in your life be?

Ideally, in a day, if I’m not building products I would like to spend time with customers. To me other than these, there is nothing more significant. So, if I were to choose my day’s schedule, I would, obviously have a fairly large team, trying to get ideas out of them and work through various products, or I’d be with customers.

So for a day in my life, I wish it was all about products and customers, as that’s what I’m really passionate about. But, the reality of the situation is that you have to get into meetings, have financial discussions, you have to deal with sales, finance and marketing.

Is it advantageous for a Product Manager to come from an engineering background?

I think there is a huge risk in having product managers come from an engineering background., There are plenty of engineers in your business to begin with. So, it’s not a new art or science. You’re just adding to the number of developers or testers that you have.

The other issue has to do with what engineers do: we’re very linear in our thinking – I’m an engineer. A lot of what product management has to do is deal with non-linearity. The wheels on the luggage weren’t a function of the circumference of the wheel and the fit into the luggage. It was an idea around the problems to be solved.

Another topic I’ll get into is the question – Is the return on investment behind the ideas? Absolutely, profitability is a factor of success of the product. Sometimes, with an engineering mind it is more about the art of the product rather than the commercial success of the product. So, you don’t have to be an engineer to be an excellent product manager and don’t let anyone tell you that.

What is your philosophy of hiring product managers?

You need both hard and soft skills. For hard skills, there are two extremes. You need to know the content and you need to know the concept.

The content is – what is this? What is this product? Its software, features, functionality, technology stack, how it works, cadence, releases, etc,. I think, in today’s market there is an over-emphasis on content. A lot of product managers we have are accidental product managers. They were in quality, support or engineering. And the next logical move seemed to be product management.The other side is concept. Do you understand the product? Do you understand the price? Do you understand the positioning?

Both content and concept are important, sometimes orthogonal skills that you need. More importantly, if I’m hiring for a product manager, the soft skills that I look for are – Curiosity, Context and Collaboration.

I love C’s! You need to have curiosity. But you need to have context around it. What is the environment that I’m working up for? What is the profitability of the product? How is the customer willing to pay for this? What is the limitation of my distribution channel? What is the architectural set-up? What is the stack I use? There has to be context to the curiosity. You get a lot of curious product managers coming up with a lot of ideas that don’t go anywhere. And you get people who are so contextual that they don’t really think out of the box.And finally, you need to be collaborative. Product management is hard. Outside of the CEO, it’s the hardest function in the company. That’s why product managers a rare breed.

What is your guidance for Product Managers to become more strategic?

A good product manager has to understand profit and loss of the product at the end of the day – at least for established companies. For a startup, it may be a little different because you’re the owner and you may have money to burn. The definition of strategy, for me, is the choices that you make. We have an ERP product with a total of 76 modules. Everything is going to be a choice. Do I add this feature? Do I add this technology? Do I change the user interface? Do I move to new version of SQL server? Do I look at Internet of Things? Do I look at robotics? A strategic product manager is able to take these choices and make a judgement based on the context.

It’s an evolution every day. That iterative non-linear thinking that you are going to apply today is going to make the difference between you being very successful in your job or you being just good at your job.

What are the habits of a great product leader inside and outside of work?

Curiosity is very important. Having that curiosity to find answers where answers are not obvious is the job of a product manager. What’s your job if you don’t create that additional value of being nonlinear in your career? Again, there’s no silver bullet. It changes from company to company completely.

You have two types of product managers. You have the ones who are skeptical—those who think this is not going to work. That’s good. And then there are those who are cynical —‘No this will never work’. You should fire that product manager because you can’t be cynical about your own product as a CEO. You have to have passion about your product. All the way, as they say, from cradle to grave, from womb to tomb, you have to be passionate through the whole journey.

What’s the product manager’s role in driving innovation?

There’s no easy answer. The job of a product manager is to solve an unsolved problem with the customer. If there is clarity in the jobs to be done, then as you listen to the hundreds of ideas coming from engineers, you can pick the two or three that are the most relevant. We all should brainstorm and have the funnel that let’s that one good idea come out.

How important is domain experience?

It’s important. Obviously, you cannot be a product manager and know nothing (the domain). I may be different. Domain is nice to have. It’s not a must-have for me when we look for good product managers. It’s easier to learn the content; harder to learn the concept. I can teach someone what manufacturing is. I cannot teach that person how pricing works or how do you monetize a product. You have to be good at that. At IPL, you can learn all of that.