Where Product Meets Design - James Jordan on the Evolution of the Product Manager

July 19, 2023


Alex Smith: Where Product Meets Design is brought to you by Fuego UX, a UX research, strategy and design consultancy. Hey, James, thanks so much for joining the show today. So good. 

James Jordan: Yeah. Cheers, thanks for having me on.

Alex Smith: Yeah, no doubt. And to get started, can you give the audience a little bit of context in your journey in product management?

James Jordan: Yeah, sure. So I'm the founder of productivity. So productive as a product management group, a company. We've been running for just over a year. But I founded the business after working in the tech recruitment industry for the last 17 years. So I know a bit about the general scene where tech meets design meets product management. And so yeah, I founded the company a year ago. Just the product management positions? Anything from sort of PO, through to CPO for startups and scaleups across the US.

Alex Smith: Awesome, cool. Are you ready to hop in lightning round questions?

James Jordan: Oh I’m buzzing for it.  Let's go.

Alex Smith: Nice. Let's do it. What's the common myth about product management?

James Jordan: I'd say a common myth is a lot of companies think that you need a certain background, right? So you need to come from, say software engineering, to be a good product manager, we need to have like a, you know, CS degree, or something like that. It's just not true. I think, you know, a good product manager will totally depend on the need of a customer. So you know, customer might need someone who is more technical by nature, and therefore what that might lend itself to someone from a software engineering background. They might need someone that's more design customer focused, and therefore maybe someone from like, design or customer success, or presale, support, background, lend themselves to being a good product manager. But I generally think it's all, yeah, it'd be a great PO you must have done this, we must have this particular background is wrong. I do think there are a list of skills that they need, we can maybe get on to that a bit later.

Alex Smith: What's one thing about product that no one agrees with you about?

James Jordan: That's a kind of a good one. I don't know if people disagree with me on it. But I will say that I think there's just a lack of awareness about what product management is and how nuanced it can be versus other functions. So I think, if you don't know product management, and you're kind of new to it, or your companies that hire, it's like, hey, we just need a product manager, you everyone's all the same, you know, they kind of have the same skill sets. Like, that's definitely not the case. So I think the fact that there's so many variables makes it almost more bespoke. So I think, I think, you know, people are not aware of it will disagree with that. People who are in the know will know that it is incredibly, incredibly varied.

Alex Smith: What's one underrated or indispensable tool for product? 

James Jordan: I think, like underrated skills, I suppose that I look for for product professionals are, I think, like relationship building skills. I mean, we know it's a key part of most people at any job. But I think the ability to build relationships, to influence people to resolve conflict, to negotiate, and direct people towards a common goal, I think, is a really important skill. I see some indispensable ones are probably just like curiosity, you know, you've got to be curious. If you don't have that in the bag, I think you'll struggle as a good professional. 

Alex Smith: Cool, I'd love to switch gears to kind of like what you're seeing in the market now. Are you seeing teams still kind of hiring very niche roles, like product marketing? And then, you know, more tech focused product roles? Are people looking for generalists? How are companies kind of knowing, hey, this is the right number of product managers on the team? And we're good or hey, we need 10 more?

James Jordan: Yeah. So I think there's a few things to unpack there. So really, as of like, June 2023, the market, you know, a lot of companies are looking for Lean teams, or they want to do more of that as the general vibe. So as far as product management is concerned, you know, if you're running efficiently, you're probably having one product manager to, you know, a team of say, six, seven, maybe eight engineers, but I'm kind of seeing that stretched out a little bit more. So product managers having to do a lot more work with bigger teams. And so therefore, what it's requiring is more of a generalist skill set. So I only saw this kind of stuff. And I think a lot of people's perception is hey, if I want to stand out in this market, I've got to have really specific skills, and excel in certain areas. I actually think in a tighter market, you have to be able to do more things, or certainly be more willing to take your hand to more things. So generalist PMS. So product managers who can do a bit of execution of our strategic work can lead people but also do I see work toward more customers, direct the business wherever it may be? Those people are highly valuable right now, so I'm definitely seeing a push towards that. Yeah, I'd probably. So that's called the main thing. I think companies that are looking to scale naturally will want some specialisms. So what you tend to find early stage companies will favor a jack of all trades type product manager, as maybe the first hire, who can lead but also do IC work. As they go to meet their second or third eye, they'll look to build out a small team of PMS underneath them, and they might cut them by like, Hey, you're working more closely with engineering, I need you to then go work closer with the customer. So you don't then you start to see some division, then equally depends on where the products are up to, you might also find some companies are, hey, we're in growth phase. So you know, we'll have some PMS working on just maintaining our products. We need some other PMS to come in and figure out how do we scale this? You know, how do we take it from 100 customers to 1000 customers? So that's when you start seeing more nice roles, like you asked about wild like growth PM, for example. But there's lots of different roles out there, lots of different specialisms.

Alex Smith: how to present? Well, one of the things I'm curious about is the types of cultures where PMS, you know, thrive and succeed versus the cultures where maybe they're not allowed to, to grow as much. I mean, I think it's a role that requires a ton of trust and a certain level of autonomy to go, Hey, I'm gonna go talk to these customers, hey, I'm gonna go learn about this subset of engineering, like, what cultures do you think, provide that opportunity for growth and success? And on the contrary, which ones do you think need to evolve?

James Jordan: Yeah, great question. So I hear all the time from people who are looking to leave their jobs, right? So where it goes wrong, and where there's a big indicator of what needs to happen is think companies who know that need hire, hire for product, you know, say you're an early stage company, and you're like, hey, we need to find a product manager to own this full time. Because the founder is probably the person who's got it to a point and needs to hand it off. That founder and mid leadership team and even the rest of the business needs to be ready to have a product manager. So that's almost like the first thing that I think needs to happen. So does the business understand a bit about product management and what that looks like? I mean, clearly, it will be might be a first step for them. And you talked about trust, trust, collaboration, radical candor, I hear that term being used quite a lot. But just being able to talk openly and honestly, without any sort of bullshit is really important for a product manager.

Alex Smith: I think a few questions here. First is like, where are you seeing product and design collaborate and the organizations that you work with? And second being? How do you suss that out? Product Manager, like their ability to understand and work with designers?

James Jordan: Yeah, good questions. So naturally, an organization, right, it's kind of like that tripod, you got, obviously product design and engineering. Sometimes I feel like in organizations, the PM can encroach on the designers territory, especially when it comes to like the, you know, the interview phase, the discovery phase, aligning on the goals and the expected outcomes, but that's actually where it works quite well. So from when I'm working with customers who are trying to hire product managers at different levels, the way they operate best with design is when the two kind of go hand in hand, right? So the product designers and product managers are both involved in the interviews and demos with customers. They're both involved in conversations with the internal teams, you know, to make sure they're identifying the pain points, because I think the biggest friction between all three teams is alignment, you know, like, if we're not aligned, we're going to build something that is dead. Or we have the wrong expectations. It just doesn't it misses the mark. And that's where I think having representatives at the table for both design, engineering and product management is really important. So that's where I've seen it work really well. Where I've seen it work poorly is where one of those three kinds of encourages on the other end starts. barking orders the other. But it's tough, right? I think in smaller organizations, where there's fewer people, there's a, there's less of an established function for each one. That happens a little more often, right? They're stepping on toes, whether it's intentional or unintentional. But I think once you got a bit more of an established business, maybe like a Series A Series B, where they're starting to get folks from the different functions at the table. That's what I've said it worked quite well.

Alex Smith: Yeah. And James, where can people go to find more about you and find more about Producto?

James Jordan: Yeah, I mean, I'm pretty active on LinkedIn. I post regularly about all things product management, job seeking, hiring, what to do, what not to do, things I've learned over the years. So definitely connect with me on LinkedIn. I'll follow why. Why post on LinkedIn, I've got website, which is WWE productivity. lynda.com I can maybe share after this after this conversation. If they want to find out a bit more about the business, what we're all about seeing the type of customers we were working with. We're very transparent about what we do and very real about making an impact in the product management community.

Alex Smith: James, thanks so much for coming on the show today.

James Jordan: No worries. Thanks for having me.