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The builder product manager

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

The build craft

In a product management team there needs to be diversity of skills and people talent to take on the business opportunities as they come. There are workers who are comfortable with chugging along doing the everyday tasks and making sure that products and platforms are operating optimally.

There is another group of workers who get more excited pushing the boundaries and dabbling with the creation of new products and experimentation. This is where builders come in.

Builders are comfortable to be dropped into the deep end and swim their way out. They are good at absorbing a lot of information in quick time and are able to ask questions right away. Its a versatile skill to have and makes them an ideal candidate to lead new unchartered bodies of work. By nature builders are probably more suited to be introverted as they can take their time to digest and work in isolation and do a lot of the heavy lifting by themselves. Their cordial relationships across the organization is a plus as they are non-confrontational in nature and have a genuine graciousness about them, where they are able to pull people together and craft out the possibilities and the way forward to figure out the work which needs to be done.

The need for product teams to have builders was not common in the past as products and systems typically did not get replaced that often. Further more the job to build was given to the engineering team to figure things out based on a set of business requirements (typically the waterfall project management era). There is a generation of builders today who are in senior management because they built the products and platforms of the last generation. Think of the folks who built the e-commerce platforms between 2000 - 2010, delivering the first generation online platforms.

Fast forward to today due to the advent of the the digital propositions, tech startups of the world and the unicorns in the B2C space a lot more activity is happening in the build phase within these companies so you will find that virtually every one of these new age companies have builders in them.

So while there are more builders out there today what is lacking is the domain experience for the sector the business is in. Startups are typically young in their talent pool and the lead team are also young entrepreneurs who see the world differently and are excited to disrupt the status quo of legacy businesses which have been around for a long time. The challenge is therefore to find builders with the desired skill sets with some level of domain expertise and industry foresight.

What makes builders

  1. Ability to sieve through mountains of information to arrive at the crux of the idea, solution and product which needs to be delivered. At this initial stage there is a tendency to paint out the blue sky vision of the ideal end state, there is a lot to digest and the skill here is to figure out the building blocks and zero in on whats achievable and what the MVP/MLP should look like.

  2. Able to motivate and drive teams to reach the goal post rests in the hand of the builder. The top down executive thrust from management can only communicate what the executives want to see delivered. The builder is the friendly marshal who steers the team forward through their art of influence.

  3. The builder has a practical mindset from their years of experience of seeing project succeed, some fail and some stall. This means they know there is no point in trying to commit too much i.e to boll the ocean. Their object to get a MVP/MLP out there in quick time by focusing on the here and now and making sure there is positive momentum. Its very easy to be tempted to commit to more and then get entangled in a web of chaos and confusion.

  4. A smart builder knows that they cant do everything and they need everyones expertise to come shining through. They do this by putting forward the first steps of the plan and design and Is open to being challenged as this will help fine tune the proposal and make it real. The builder is effectively spreading the execution risk at this stage and is not strong headed about their own idea. They know their role is to make it happen but not necessarily to own the entire execution risk.

  5. Demands from management will always exceed what can be delivered as the traditional constraints of scope, time and costs kick in. The experienced builder is aware that something needs to give and is comfortable to negotiate with stakeholders to strike a balance which would still deliver commercial value to the business.

  6. A lot of projects start with just a handful of resources being assigned and the idea is that as project moves forward more resources will need to be sought. An influential builder Is able to navigate through the corporate hierarchy and get to the decision makers / sponsors to get resources assigned to the project.

  7. A builder Is able to craft out the product vision and the all important narrative to rally the organization behind the project. This vision needs to be crystallized and revalidated at different stages and its the job of the builder to work with the team to get this done.

  8. Builders should be prepared to wear multiple hats and be able to work under tense situations and is willing to take on tasks which are under resourced to get things moving. There will always be situations where a certain resource or skill is in shortage and the builder should be comfortable to take some of the tasks on while resources get assigned at a later time.

  9. Every project has plenty of naysayers and a builder has to have a product mindset and be committed to the vision. While being pragmatic, the builder should proactively address the issue of the naysayers and figure out what is the underlying concern which is contributing to their negativity. There would be items here which may be valid and need to be addressed as the project pushes on. Winning the support of the naysayers may be crucial for success, as they may be part of a separate decision making process or forum which the project may have to go through during the governance process.

  10. A builder leverages their past experience and is able to break down tasks and figure out the sequencing and dependancies. Is comfortable to also project manage the role till the project comes to a phase where a seasoned professional can take over the activity. The builder also has a strong sense of what the priorities should be for the team to work on and is a capable decision maker who is able to make decisions on time with conviction.

Many product professionals don't see themselves as builders or perhaps even don't realize that they are builders. Doing a career retrospective on what you have enjoyed working on in product management may lead to you realizing that you are perhaps a builder and this is the part of your daily work which gets you excited. As a builder you may be tempted to stick with the product which you have finally created and wait till the next exciting initiative comes your way. Its worthwile to stick around with what you have built so that you and the team can share the spoils of success and recognition before marching off onto the next big thing.

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