I’ve often gotten the idea that a Yahoo! Product Manager is more or less the same as our Program Management. Their new CEO, whose attitude I like (she happily discourses on the things she thinks are ridiculous about their products – something that she’ll start to stop doing once stuff is built under her), seems to have a proverbial bee in her proverbial bonnet about (at least some) Y! product managers. From their Q109 quarterly earnings call:

“We sort of had one product management person for every three engineers. So we have a lot of people running around telling people what to do but no-one is f**king doing anything. [apology]. The point of the matter is first we’re getting all of the engineers, like, on the same page; we’re getting rid of a lot of those product people that, you know, whatever.”

First, I’d love to talk to the person who has to generate the transcript for that call. That cursing is now filed for eternity with the SEC. :) Second, good for her recognizing that there are too many PMs running around doing basically nothing.

In my ongoing search for “truth and enlightenment” when it comes to the PM job, it’s been very clear to me that Program/Product management is one of those jobs in which the PM can be basically irrelevant. Even more problematic, the PM can easily be a hindrance to the running of the project.

To the first point, there is fundamentally only one job discipline that is irreplaceable in a software development, and that’s the one that types the braces, semi-colons and/or angle-brackets. If your job does not involve doing that, then your job is not critical. PM, for the most part, does not involve coding. So PMs, are, by definition, extra weight.

To the second point, the PM occupies a unique position in most software engineering structures – sort of the hub of a bumpy wheel (with dev, QA/test, design, usability, marketing, planning, customer support, etc. being the spokes). The PM at that position can wield a lot of influence, but can also slow things down, create confusion, and can also basically become pompous little buggers.

I often ask PMs to remember the first part, to create some humility, and the second to create a sense of responsibility.

Ultimately, the combination of these two failure scenarios for PMs means that many, many PMs fail while still on the job. In short, a PM who suffers from the second problem will be sooner or later relegated to irrelevancy by other spokes of the wheel. But since they probably still run around producing good PowerPoint decks, their irrelevancy will not be noticed by the management of the organization.

At least until a new Sheriff rolls into town with different ideas.