First, Kill All The Product Managers!

First, Kill All The Product Managers!

There’s a very famous quote that’s used quite often when people are expressing their dislike of lawyers:

“First, kill all the lawyers.”

This, they posit, is something that good old Bill Shakespeare himself advocated for, after all – and what better way to stabilize our society than to dispose of the bottom-feeding trolls and sharks that feast on the noble, honest people of the world.

The trouble is, they’re entirely wrong about the quote, from beginning to end.

The quote comes from Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare, and it’s not only terribly mangled in the translation, but it’s also taken entirely out of context.  First off, the proper quote is “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”  Still doesn’t sound like too bad an idea, though – just presented in iambic pentameter.

But the context is key here (isn’t it always?)…the line is spoken by a character named Dick the Butcher, who speaks it while collaborating with his friend (and fellow revolutionary), Jack Cade.  He speaks this line while Jack Cade is describing a proposed utopia, where “there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.”  It is immediately following this line that Dick references the destruction of lawyers as another step necessary.  But this isn’t to mean that it’s a true utopia – Dick the Butcher and Jack Cade want there to be no lawyers because lawyers might hold them accountable for their actions.  These are not protagonists of the play – they’re violent, evil characters who go on to commit murderous misdeeds to further their own selfish causes.

Okay, but what does that have to do with Product Managers?

Well, let’s be honest — Product Managers can sometimes have a bad reputation in some companies and some cultures.  Developers don’t always like us because they think that we “don’t add any value” and that they could build products just as good (or better) without them.  Stakeholders don’t always like us because they think that we “always say no” to their requests, and that we don’t listen to their needs and desires when we make up our roadmaps — to them, out of whole cloth, birthed from our imaginations.  And customers don’t always like us because we can’t immediately respond to each and every little request, improvement, or product issue that they inform us of.

So, sometimes you’ll hear something akin to “First, kill all the Product Managers.”  But is that really the right path forward?  Can a company and a product function without someone guiding it down a path toward delivering valuable solutions to customer problems?

There’s always a Product Manager, even when there’s nobody who specifically holds that title.

The simple fact is, there’s always a Product Manager, even when there’s nobody who specifically holds that title.  There’s someone deciding what should be done, what problems should be solved, when things should be released — all of the fundamental decisions that Product Managers make on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.  The problem is, they may or may not be making informed decisions on these topics — they may be making the same kind of selfish, self-reinforcing decisions that Dick the Butcher and Jack Cade were making when they were addressing their public audience in Henry VI.

A competent Product Manager brings a vital perspective to the plans of their company — they speak the voice of the customer, and translate that voice when, where, and how it needs to be heard.  Could a developer do this?  Sure, but they’re going to need to directly interact with customers and clients in order to do so, which is going to take them off their primary duties as coders or testers.  Could a CEO do this?  Absolutely, but often their focus winds up being on the day-to-day operations of the company as a whole, or on fund-raising for that next round of investment.  Could anyone else in the company do this?  Yes, they could, and they often do when there’s no formal Product Management presence.

But, would you expect a customer support tech to code your product?  Would you want a developer handling the finances of your company?  Would you want a salesperson performing the smoke test of your latest build?

Absolutely not.

We have separate roles and responsibilities in our companies for a reason – people bring some form of expertise or experience to the job that’s pertinent to the goal that they’re trying to work for.  Developers know how to code, support techs know how to troubleshoot; sales reps know how to chase leads and close deals.  Likewise, Product Managers know how to represent the customer and the market to internal stakeholders, and to drive the product in the right direction.

Product Managers and lawyers actually have a lot in common (I should know, as I’m actually both).  They represent the views, goals, and perspective of people who may or may not be immediately available to the others around them.  They advocate for positions based on whatever data they can find to back their play.  They negotiate and facilitate discussions between people who disagree on the best direction forward.  They translate complicated technical needs and technical language into concepts that normal people can understand and act on — and translate those actions back into more technical language when the audience needs it.

If those proposing that we “first kill all the lawyers” were seeking to sow the seeds of insurrection and anarchy, what could we conclude from those who advocate that there’s “obviously” no need for Product Managers?

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