I recently published a post on our internal wiki describing the product management role at HubSpot. A good number of folks suggested that this would be great discussion for our external audiences as well, so here you go.
What exactly does a HubSpot product manager do? This should be an easy enough question to answer, but in reality it's a bit more complex to describe than one might think. Part of the problem is that the product manager position is different in every company. There really is no one-size-fits-all way to go about the job, and that’s as it should be. Good product companies build engineering and product organizations that match their own unique cadence, customer needs, trajectory, market, and opportunity (among other things). And as your business grows and changes, so should your product team.
We at HubSpot continue to evolve our product organization as circumstances change, but there are a few things that we hold fast to because we believe they set us up for success. A big part of that is the role played by the product manager. But in order to understand the product management role at HubSpot, it’s important to start by understanding the technical team structure as a whole.
The Technical Team at the Center of the Universe
In HubSpot engineering land, all things pivot around the idea of small autonomous teams. At the center of the team is the technical core, typically composed of a tech lead and two developers. The team is then rounded out by the addition of a UX Designer and a Product Manager. This team, as a group, owns their own designated product area. It’s important to note that the product manager is not the product owner. This is often the role of the product manager in other organizations, but we don’t believe that this is the best structure for our needs. The product manager co-owns that product area with his or her team. Product Managers at HubSpot are also not the day-to-day project managers of the technical teams. Tech leads are the project managers on the team. I’ll have more to say on that in a bit.
What the product manager does own is what can be referred to as “the problem.”
Every product team’s job is, essentially, to solve problems for their customers. Solving problems involves two key components: (1) Understanding the problem, and (2) creating the solution. At HubSpot the product manager owns the “problem” and the technical team owns the “solution.” The “problem” is defined by whatever is likely to produce the greatest value to the customer and the business at large within the area of influence. The “problem” is both long-term and short-term in scope. It addresses the immediate challenges that the customer is experiencing, while still keeping an eye the longer-term vision of the product as a whole. It involves sifting through the myriad feature requests we receive from customers and identifying the often unnamed, as-yet unmet need that underlies those feature requests. It involves balancing the priorities between the things that are broken today with the things that need to be built tomorrow.
This, my friends, is not an easy job. Truth be told, there are no easy jobs at HubSpot. If you have an easy job around here, my guess is that you aren’t doing it right.
On the other side of the coin is the tech lead and team. Their role in defining the solution involves understanding the problem as deeply as they can. So the Product Manager serves as a resource for the technical lead and her team as they try to grapple with what the problem truly entails. The PM is a facilitator of the problem discovery process. Sometimes this is a simple matter of showing a developer the problem in the product. Sometimes it involves working with the resources at hand to engage directly with customers.
After the tech lead and the team starts digging into the solution, the PM continues to serve as a resource. The PM is there to help the team determine the problem-solution fit. Have we solved the core use case? Is the solution the minimum viable product (if that’s the goal at the time)? Are we on track to add customer value? Improve EV? Is it ready to ship? These are the questions that the PM helps the tech lead and team assess as they work through their solutions.
An integral part of the team puzzle is the UX designer. The UX designer owns the way in which the user experiences the solution. In many ways, the designer provides the bridge between the definition of the problem and the creation of the solution. He or she will work with the PM to understand the problem, then work with the rest of the team to find a design solution that fits the situation and the overall product. In the perfect world, the designer is just one step ahead of the tech team. To be clear here, product managers are not designers. Unlike PMs, who need to be comfortable being many steps ahead of the team, designers can’t get too far ahead of the team, or the solution they devise might become out of step with the problem itself.
The HubSpot Product Manager Skillset
So that takes care of what the PM does and doesn’t do within the framework of our team. But who are these PMs? What kind of person makes a successful PM? Again, this will vary from company to company. In some companies, being a PM requires extremely deep technical skill. Often this will be the case in an organization where the PM is driving the overall project management of the team. And in these scenarios, the technical team essentially reports to the PM. At HubSpot we leave that sort of management to the tech lead, and ask our product managers to focus on being champions of the customer instead.
So what does it take to be a PM at HubSpot? Our most successful PMs are:
Insight-driven and data-inspired
Being able to make decisions quickly and effectively is paramount to PM success. Sure, it’s pretty dreamy when you have a pile of data staring you in the face with a blindingly obvious problem to solve. But most of the time that’s -- well -- just a dream. As a PM, you still need to be able to make decisions with the data you have -- or don’t have -- and still somehow establish a track record of making the right decision. Making snap decisions based on your gut can be dangerous, but sitting on indecision and letting your team get lost in a fog of obscurity is just as bad. You have to be the type of PM that understands the customer well enough to not get stuck on either end of the spectrum.
Motivated by progress and guided by passion
If you don’t love the product you’re working on, and don’t love making it better every day, then this simply isn’t the role for you. Your team needs to feel that passion emanating from you every day. Passion and energy are infectious.
Able to see around corners
Satisfying the current demands of your customers isn’t going to allow you to make the big leaps. The best PMs have a knack for being able to read the tea leaves and think about how to solve for or eliminate the customer challenges in ways that the customers themselves would never dream of.
I am horrible at learning languages. It’s just never clicked for me. Luckily, the type of multi-linguistics required of PMs has little to do with foreign languages. It’s about speaking the various languages of your business, customers, and team. The best PM must be equally comfortable speaking to customers, a sales rep, a support engineer, or a developer on their own team. No, you don’t have to be technical per se, but you do need to know enough about how the pieces fit together so that you can work with your technical team to find the best solutions you can.
Product management, at its core, is an exercise in learning. You need to be constantly learning about what’s going well and what’s not within your realm of influence. Learning from customers, learning from developers, learning from competitors, learning from designers, learning from management... the list goes on and on. If you aren’t interested in operating outside of your comfort zone, you’re going to have a very bad time as a PM at HubSpot.
Relentlessly focused on customer success
We believe that the greatest enterprise value derives from our customers’ success. If you make your customer a hero, you win. Another way to think about this is that what you’re in the business of building isn’t a product, but a successful customer. Don’t think of the product as your baby. It’s really hard to give your baby a new face. And sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do in order to make your customer more successful. Get attached to your customers’ success rather than your piece of the product, and you’ll be on the right track.
A product manager at HubSpot is a bit of a different animal than a product manager at another company, it’s true. But the PM role has evolved over time in tandem with the evolution of our team structure, and our understanding of how we can best serve our customers’ needs, into one that we believe works great for us.