Ask A Good Product Manager

Your product management questions answered

How do you manage a licensed enterprise software application?

Posted on April 22, 2008 · 1 Comment

Question: Is managing an internal-facing licensed application like managing a product?

I have recently been asked to manage an enterprise software application utilized by our IT organization. The application is not our product. Multiple and often competing stakeholders have an interest — they are my market.

We purchased the application and licenses, and then we customize the application to meet our needs. There are quarterly releases from the vendor with enhanced functionality, bug fixes, etc.

I will be the only “manager” of the product and am really also a stakeholder. There will be no other managers — I am responsible for managing the product to meet stakeholder needs, including my own.

I have a Project Management background and am familiar with the product and our stakeholders from both my Project Management role and my developer role. The application is highly customizable so my role will involve managing the customer needs/configuration releases, standards, etc.

My gut tells me the role of Product Manager will be different that my usual Project Manager approach. Would formal Product Management role and methodology be suggested as an effective approach? I don’t want my approach to entail much organizational change but am looking for some key guideposts, etc.

Answer from Bob Corrigan of ack/nak: When I read this job description, here’s how it sounded to me:

“Hi, Bob, we’d like to talk to you about a product management position.”

“Terrific. Tell me about the problem the product solves in the marketplace.”

“Well, that’s a problem, because the product isn’t something we ship to customers. It’s an internal tool we license and use that helps us create the solutions we bring to market.”

“So who are my customers?”

“Our IT department. Oh, and you too, since you’d be living in IT.”

“So I’m not just the manager, I’m a user?”

“Yes.”

“Interesting. So why do you think you need a product manager?

“Because we need to balance the needs of multiple and often competing stakeholders who have an interest in what the product does.”

“And. . . as a user. . . my needs would be competing with theirs?”

“Correct.”

“Who does the development of new capabilities?”

“The vendor does.”

“And they’re balancing the needs of multiple and often competing stakeholders who have an interest in what the product does too, specifically all of their customers.”

“I guess that’s right.”

“So I can’t have any confidence that specific feature enhancements or bug fixes that our company needs will be addressed by the vendor.”

“Well, we do pay maintenance.”

“That doesn’t generally give you the ability to prioritize or force features or fixes.”

“But they’ve been very responsive.”

“I’m sure they have. So let me ask this – when you say that the job needs to balance multiple and often competing stakeholders who have an interest in the product, that refers to how the product is configured for use, and the sequence of how those configurations are integrated into the product, right?”

“That and more.”

“Would the ‘more’ include planning, definition, analysis, design, development, quality control, release, utilization and maintenance of the product?”

“Why yes, that’s a nice way of putting it.”

“OK, here’s what I’m thinking. This is a great job for an experienced IT project manager who would like to learn to be a product manager, because it requires a lot of the techniques and skills associated with being a product manager. Understanding the needs of a target market, prioritizing how you serve that market, those are PM disciplines. But the logistics of managing all of the various phases of how the application is customized. . . that’s a project management job.”

“So what do you recommend?”

“Find an experienced IT person in your company who knows the application, is a tested project manager, and introduce that person to the idea that they will be the product manager of this tool. Treat it like a product that would go to market – look for the biggest return for time invested, find out how each incremental release will align with the strategic direction of the company.”

“I think we have someone like that in mind.”

“I don’t think you need a full formal PM process – just a mindset that this person is the repository of the voice of the customer, and that this person is going to be more than someone who owns the project plan. Just be careful to imbue the role with authority, so that all of the people whose interests this person needs to balance know that he or she is the ‘owner’ of the application. It’s that sense of ownership that makes someone a PM.”

“So why don’t you want the job?”

“Because the product itself is not market-facing, and because the company can’t control the resources who work on the product beyond configuring it for internal use. To a PM, those are two big strikes.”

“But you think that taking a PM approach towards managing it internally is a good idea?”

“It’s a great idea – but only if you staff it with someone who is also a capable project manager with an IT perspective on how the product will be used internally.”

1 other answer so far ↓

  • Roger Allen // Apr 24, 2008 at 12:34 pm

    Great answer! I came across an interesting post about a week ago. I think that the author makes sence. Project management is undergoing some changes. I would be interested in getting your feedback on it.

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