Everyone Needs to Know What We Do Here

By Pragmatic Marketing
October 30, 2007

Technology marketing and product management requires domain expertise. People who tell you otherwise probably aren't very effective in working with technical products.

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Want to lose your credibility in an instant? Use the phrase “explain it to me like I was a five-year-old.”

I hear this expression used by marketers and sales people all the time. “Explain it to me like I was a five-year-old.” Ugh. How many pre-school-age children work in your company? Got many five-year-old kids sitting at desks? To say “Explain it to me like I was a five-year-old” is to say “I’m too ignorant to work here.”

The fastest way to lose credibility in a technology company is to say that you don’t understand technology. It’s okay to say that you don’t understand a new idea or a new implementation but to be effective in technology marketing and product management requires domain and technology expertise. People who tell you otherwise probably aren't very effective in working with technical products.

Marketers and product managers need to understand the technology of their business. Guess what? Developers and engineers need to understand the business of their technology.

Domain expertise helps product managers connect with buyers and users to truly understand what they need and not just what they want. Domain knowledge steers marketing communications to effective programs with a clear message for the buyer. Likewise developers and engineers. When a judgment call is necessary--and this is often--a developer who understands the customer profile is more likely to make the correct choice.

Outsourcing continues to be a hot topic in our product management classes. And frankly I’m opposed to outsourcing, not always a popular position. Some people have had good experiences; many have had terrible ones. The problem is that the fundamental idea of outsourcing implies that product development is factory work. And it isn’t. Well, I suppose localization or porting or assembly might indeed be factory work but creating new products that people will buy is a job for people who understand the domain. Gone are the days when we can have 'coders' who program to someone else's design.

I’m convinced that the iPod was created by designers and developers and engineers who love music—not by factory workers pounding out code. Look on the box that came with your iPod. It says, “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.” Apple designed the iPods with artists in California and sent the designs to factories in China for assembly.

Firms sending good, complete designs offshore do achieve good results. Good designs = good results. Jobs not requiring knowledge of the market and products are ideal candidates for outsourcing. There are outsourcing firms in all aspects of technology including development programs and marketing campaigns. And for that matter, product sales can be outsourced too, can't it? If your sales people don’t need to know the product, outsource them too! If any job at any type of company can be done by someone without knowledge of that space, why do it internally?

Our developers, engineers, and product managers—and yes, even some sales people—embody a terrific collective of domain knowledge... or should. We can allow more freedom and creativity in the design and implementation if the team members understand the customer problem.

We can communicate in shorthand when both sides know the domain.

Employees cannot afford to be ignorant of their business. Product managers are learning to be more business-oriented. Marketers and developers need this too. Read your company's annual report. Make sure you understand your company's business strategy and challenges. Be able to participate in a strategy conversation. Otherwise, if you say, 'just tell me exactly what you want,' you're competing with outsourcing firms saying the same thing... at a fraction of your cost. Don't get so caught up in your technology that you lose sight of your business.

Steve Johnson, Pragmatic Marketing

Update: As part of a BlogFest, several product management and marketing bloggers commented on this topic. Their opinions are published below, as well as links to their blogs where the discussion continues.


Commentary

Jeff Lash at How To Be A Good Product Manager

Understand your product’s domain

If you want to be a bad product manager, assume that domain knowledge is all you need to succeed. You know the company, the market, the competition and the customers because you’ve been involved in the industry forever. In fact, you used to be on “the other side” — as a customer, a vendor, or with a competitor. The knowledge that you’ve gathered over your years of service would be impossible for someone to gather quickly, and your domain knowledge is fundamental to your success in product management.

If you want to be a good product manager, make sure to have the right amount of knowledge about the domain in which you are working. Product managers need to understand their market, and to do so requires understanding of the domain. For example, if you are developing software that is sold to police stations to track cases but you have very little knowledge of the law enforcement and the criminal justice system, you will likely fail. How can you understand unmet needs of your customers if you do not even understand their most basic goals and tasks?

Domain knowledge provides product managers with the information to make the decisions that will be best for the customer, user, and market. Without some level of knowledge, product managers are flying blind. As Steve Johnson writes:

Domain expertise helps product managers connect with buyers and users to truly understand what they need and not just what they want. Domain knowledge steers marketing communications to effective programs with a clear message for the buyer. Likewise developers and engineers. When a judgment call is necessary–and this is often–a developer who understands the customer profile is more likely to make the correct choice.

Additionally, especially in a company where the employees are very experienced in the domain, lack of domain knowledge can impact a product manager’s ability to successfully lead. Speaking about technology companies, Steve writes:

The fastest way to lose credibility in a technology company is to say that you don’t understand technology. It’s okay to say that you don’t understand a new idea or a new implementation but to be effective in technology marketing and product management requires domain and technology expertise. People who tell you otherwise probably aren’t very effective in working with technical products.
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