What Do Product Managers Do - Chris Russell Interview

This article was originally published when I worked at AOP, on 12 July 2011


How is the BBC going about explaining what product management is?

We've tried various metaphors. I've always struggled when people ask outside of work what I do. You say: 'I work for the BBC website.'

- ‘So, you write the stories?’ - ‘No, I don’t.’ - ‘So, are you writing the software?’ - ‘No, I’m not writing that – I’m kind of making sure that it all comes together, and everything delivers, and we stay one step ahead, and delivering value…’ And at which point they tend to walk away because it’s not particularly easy to understand.

BBC Conductor

I think we’ve struggled with that explanation of what product management is sometimes around our own organisation, and the metaphor we’re now using is that it’s like the conductor of an orchestra: In the same way that each orchestra has different parts and the first violins come in, and the various other instruments come in at different times, and make the sweet music: each product is a bit like that, and the Product Manager, if they’re fulfilling one role, they are the conductor, knowing when to bring in talents and how to produce a great experience.

How is the BBC’s training programme for Product Managers working? The training we’ve done in two phases: we started with the Product Managers and those running the ‘technology products’, such as the content management systems, and then we’ve rolled it out to starting to bring in other areas – other disciplines and teams from the BBC who wanted to know more about Product Management as its profile has grown. You really can’t learn it from a book though, you can’t learn it just in a classroom. But I think there’s some real value in getting people together to discuss the shared issues, and hear case studies. Some of the most valuable have actually been case studies shared by other media organisations, because there’s a tendency at the BBC to think we are unique and it’s the only place to be facing these challenges, and it’s clearly not. The whole media industry is going through this huge change and this huge challenge, and is introducing product management, to a smaller or greater extent. So it’s been really useful just to get people together to share that, as well as their war stories, if you like. You can learn the theory, but far more you can learn from just having people talk to one another.

Are other BBC departments outside Future Media getting involved in the training? What we didn’t want to do was to make this just a thing for Future Media/Product Managers/Technology. We wanted to bring in people who are working in BBC marketing teams, in audience research, in user experience and design – and people from all around the BBC… to learn more about product management, and share what they know about product management.

What is the BBC’s take on the relationship between Editorial and Product? I think in the software industry, there’s a widely held belief that you have a single product manager who’s solely accountable for success or failure. In a content division in the media/publishing industry, generally, that is never going to work, where in the end the content is the life-blood… We recognised that you needed to have a product lead… But you also needed to have an editorial lead, who represented that editorial culture and understood how content gets commissioned, how content gets made – some of the editorial workflows.

How has simplifying the BBC’s products helped to ‘move people in the same direction’? It’s absolutely critical that the whole organisation actually has a shared strategy, so we’ve now got one service, 10 products on four screens, and that’s now shared, regardless of all the different departments or programmes of the BBC – that is the online strategy. To be honest, until we had that, people were always liable to push in different directions according to different departmental objectives. So now we have that clear strategy, it means that all the Product Managers and their teams can literally move in the same direction.

You said at the event that ‘process is like product’, what did you mean by that? I got half way through developing a process at a time when many people at the BBC were complaining about bureaucracy… and felt that any more process could harm the creative process. What I really wanted to do was to introduce something that would help the creative process, was easy to understand, added value, didn’t cost too much – and it occurred to me that’s exactly what a product is. The product is delivering real value, for as little cost as you can manage… So I started treating and selling that process as a product, and we’re also now iterating that process, so in our training we hear what people feel about it, and we tailor it, and we’re allowing the Product Managers to basically take it away as a framework, and iterate it for their own product and for their own area of the BBC. Treating the process as a product was something that came as second nature, but I think it’s been really valuable.