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Coffee With Sean Johnson – Product Manager, IBM Content Discovery Group

20 May 2008 37 Comments
Hi Readers,

In the last episode of CWS, we spoke to Amit Somani, Google India Product Management Head for Search, Consumer Apps and Infrastructure.. Today, We again have a very special guest – Mr. Sean Johnson, Product Manager @ IBM’s Content Discovery Group! to share his invaluable experience on Product Management. So, here we go, Coffee With Sean Johnson – To understand Product Management in IT sector better.

Coffee With Sean Johnson – Understanding Product Management Better.

Me: Sundar Rajan G S
SJ: Sean Johnson

Me: Hello Sean, Welcome to Coffee With Sundar! Can you please introduce yourself.. talk about your acads background, work experience etc

SJ: Hi Sundar. My name is Sean Johnson and I’m a product manager for IBM’s Content Discovery group, which is itself a member of IBM’s Information Management, which is in turn part of Software Group (yes, it is a very big company).

I have a CS degree and I started my professional life as a software engineer building workflow engines for large banks and manufacturers. I ended up as the lead technologist at a startup in Charlotte called Venetica, where after building another workflow engine, we decided we needed a web interface for it (this was the around 1998) and so we took a chance (at the time) and built one in Java. It was novel and relatively successful and so ended up being resold by different companies, but these companies wanted it to be independent of the content management system that supplied the content for the workflow, and so we then built a content integration middleware platform. This was a first of it’s kind and was quite successful, to the point where many large content management vendors were interested in acquiring us and eventually IBM did acquire Venetica in late 2004. I joined IBM through the acquisition as a software architect and I moved into product management about 1 year later. This wasn’t a big leap for me because in addition to my development and architecture duties, I’d been the de facto product manager at Venetica for about 6 years before we hired a dedicated product manager.

Me: Can you explain to us what a typical day @ Office would be? I am sure there will be an element of multi-dimensionality in your job. Can you explain about it?

SJ: A typical day in the life of a product manager at IBM involves 3 main things. Working with sales and customers, working with the engineering team, and working with product marketing. You might start the day participating in a sales call and demo web meeting with a customer, that may be followed by a strategy meeting with product marketing where you talk about ways to enter a new market, and then you could spend the afternoon working with engineering, participating in their Agile SCRUMs and giving them feedback on product builds.

Me: There are 2 ways for one to become a product manager… One is to rise up the technical ladder and then become a manager… The other is to pursue an MBA.. What are the pros and cons of both these approaches…? Are there differences in the roles played…?

SJ: I surely have a bias, but I can’t imagine being successful as a product manager (for a software company) and not having come from an engineering background. Your role as a product manager is to act as a bridge between the rest of the world and the engineering team. Unless you can speak the engineering team’s language and unless they respect you, I don’t think you’ll be very effective. The vast majority of engineers have a “bozo filter” they turn on whenever an MBA type starts speaking. I’m not saying it’s right, but that’s the reality of it. Good product manager candidates tend to be engineers that lack this filter so that they can work effectively with the company’s sales, marketing and executive people and that also have the strong presentation and people skills to work with customers.

Me: Can you explain the product development cycle in IT industry… Who are the various players in the life cycle and what their responsibilities are… Can you explain this with some product (without violating any NDA)

I could explain how it works at IBM… but at IBM there are so very many people involved, literally many dozen different roles, many of which are quite specialized. Unless you work for IBM or Microsoft or Oracle it’s probably not a very enlightening answer. At some level, it really only takes 3 roles. You need an engineer, a customer or customer surrogate (product managers are good for this) and a marketer and/or sales person. If you have those 3 roles filled you can develop a product.

It all scales up from there as you add more and more roles with bigger teams working on more widely used products. At some point you have usability experts, technical sales engineers, level 2 support engineers, product marketing managers, language translators, quality assurance engineers, business development, graphical designers… and my personal favorite, release managers. To the best that I can tell, release managers at IBM are the people that actually do understand the dozens of roles and the product development life-cycle of IBM and that make it all work. Needless to say, at IBM they are a product manager’s best friend.

Me: What are the metrics on which your performance is assessed? What are the success metrics for product/service? Can you explain with examples?

SJ: The metrics are pretty simple. Were you able to work with engineering management to get the release out the door on time and on budget (the product manager controls the most malleable lever in that equation, the scope) and did you make the right trade offs during development so that the product is well received in a sizable market? Assuming the rest of the team is at least competent at their job, then a product manager should ultimately be assessed on just one thing, is the product profitable?

Me: What the typical Career path of the product managers in IT industry… What are the various options available to them?

SJ: I already mentioned that I think product managers should come out of product development. The best product managers I know also came from startups or small companies where the engineers are very close to the customer and to the business of software. You won’t pick up the needed business experience otherwise.

Me: What is the skill set required for a product manager? How does one build such skill sets? Also can you talk about skills need to handle rapidly changing sector like IT.

SJ: I’ve hit on this a lot already so I’ll just touch on the last part of the question. I think you need to be a life long student of the field. The guy that gets his CS degree and thinks he’s done and spends the rest of his non-work hours watching reality television is not going to develop the skills needed to be a product manager.

Beyond a CS degree there are some obvious skills you need such as the ability to present to customers and at industry conferences. But more than a specific skill set, you need to develop a base of knowledge. You need to spend time with the sales organization learning how a deal progresses from an email address of a prospect to a closed deal 9 months later. You need to spend time with marketers to understand how hard and expensive it is to generate a quality lead. You need to spend time with quality assurance and support teams to understand the ramifications of ill defined features. You need to spend time with software executives to learn how a software business operates, how contracts are negotiated for example or how a partnership is put together. You need to learn the domain that your product is in and become something very close to a domain expert in it. You need to know your customers, their business, their challenges and their opportunities. You need to know your competitors as well.

More than anything though, you need to develop a comfort level with all of this so that you can say “no” to everyone when need be. You need to be able to tell a sales guy, “no”, he can’t have that feature to close that deal because you know it will never close anyway. You need to be able to tell an executive, “no” we can’t ship it this quarter because it won’t sell without a “widget segmenter” feature. You need to be able to tell an engineering manager “no”, he can’t have an extra 3 weeks to refactor the “widget segmenter” because it’s just not going to matter to the customers. You need to be able to tell a marketer, “no” you can’t build a product for that market segment, it has to be narrower. You need to be able to tell a customer, “no” he can’t have that feature because it’s not going to make his business problem go away. Products don’t succeed because of “yes”. Yes is easy, but not very useful in building an excellent product. It takes a lot of experience to get to “no”.

Me: Wow.. That was an amazing reply! I am sure to keep this in mind.

Me: What is the best thing you like about product management as a career? What are the occupational hazards associated with it?

SJ: The best thing about product management is probably the variety. It’s an excellent job for the generalist… the restless soul… the multi-talented, multi-tasker. As far as an occupational hazard the hazard that I see hit product managers most often is that it’s a bit of a tweener role. Not quite in engineering, not quite in marketing, not in sales, not managing people. There is no obvious career path of where to go next once you’ve mastered product management. It should be a great breeding ground for software entrepreneurs though. I say should instead of, because I’m not actually aware of any specific examples of successful CEO’s coming from product management. In theory though, it’s an excellent job to have before starting your own software company because you really get a lot of experience in all aspects of a software business.

Me: Thanks Sean for sparing your time and answering these questions.

SJ: Thank you for the great questions Sundar.

Readers, hope you enjoyed this episode of Coffee With Experts, where Sean Johnson has shared a lot of information from his experience.. For previous episodes of Coffee With Experts, click here.




  • Ram said:

    Wow. Quite insightful. Atlast, I am tempted to show some respect for Product Managers. The best part is this

    Products don’t succeed because of “yes”. Yes is easy, but not very useful in building an excellent product. It takes a lot of experience to get to “no”.

    How many times engineers have had the guts and the insights to tell their managers no? At least, in my case its very less. Nevertheless, Yes is not an indication of subservience, but I see it as an indication of confidence and a willingness to take up the challenge, whenever the requirement is technological.

  • Varun S said:

    I think this is one of the best interviews I have seen at CWS.. Not to mention our very dear Sundar has been keeping it as the status message as “MUST READ!” as if he will come beat is if we dint, but I think the status message was a fitting one 🙂


    [PS: I dont know which goal box I am hitting]

  • Product Management in the IT Sector | DesiPundit said:

    […] Sundar Rajan talks to Sean Johnson, Product Manager at IBM’s Content Discovery Group on his experiences in Product Management in the IT sector. […]

  • nikhil said:

    A great interview. Just discovered your website, great stuff. Kudos to you and all the best.

  • Sreekanth A Kidambi said:

    Sundar!!!! I appreciate these interviews make u n ur Blog very proud!!!! But things I learn in this is ” People Management Skills”…It all boils down there!!!! Yes…Humans are doing frm the beginin off its race but SOME MASTER IT…one among them is Sean Johnson!!!! 🙂

  • Weekend Reader: 7June08 » The Productologist said:

    […] Coffee With Sean Johnson [Coffee with Sundar] […]

  • Weekly Reader: 7June08 » The Productologist said:

    […] Coffee With Sean Johnson [Coffee with Sundar] […]

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  • Soumik said:

    tHANKS for this wonderful discussion on PM role…would plan to get one soon and see the challenges of saying NO!!

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