Philippe Araujo

3 Product managers who can be compared to artists

Philippe Araujo on

In the last weeks, I was thinking a lot about our role and what it means to be a product manager? Our role is still unknown and not understood. Depending on the company it can mean different things and different responsibility.

Soul of an artist

Last weekend I found myself in Stockholm with friends and some people I didn’t know well. I explained that I was a product manager and was met with the usual response. If you work in design or product creation, I am sure you’ll know what it is.

“A project manager? - No, a product manager. - Oh, what do you do?”

There is a lot of discussion about our roles and responsibilities as Product Manager. There is also a fine line in a lot of organisations between Product Managers and Product Owners. It has such an impact that every writer, every speaker try to give their value to the discussion with their own experience. There is always missing something though.

Blog posts, conferences, books, there is no shortage of definitions to explain what is product management and what is a product manager. I have the choice:

  • Ben Horowitz’ famous definition: “a good product manager is the CEO of the product”. But what does it mean really? Depending on the vision of the CEO, depending if you are a “wartime or a peacetime CEO” (from his book “The hard things about hard things”) it can change everything on the meaning of this definition. Everyone has a different conception of what a CEO does.
  • A month ago, I read Chaos Monkeys by Antonio García Martínez and I thought that this extract was funny and not so far from the truth “being a product manager is being a shit umbrella which protects the keyboard of the developers from everything that could fall on it”.

And even if all those definitions are valid, I didn’t try again to find a definition. In this blog post, I was making the parallel between the product manager and being a storyteller. I said that:

“Product managers are artists, creating emotion and belief through their creation.”

Being a storyteller though doesn’t define our role. It just defines a part of it, it defines a skill that we have. The best storytellers are the ones who create emotions and belief. And this is where I start my point of thinking around our role and why is it so hard to explain in one definition what Product managers are.

Art and product management

What is the definition of art?

Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artefacts, expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.

Art is created by someone who has a view, a vision of the human nature or nature itself. It’s a vision that is built alone or with believers. This vision, this art can last for years or can be forgotten in just one. Long lasting performance has this uniqueness which makes people around it feel particular emotions. Art is subjective depending on the person looking at it. Art is not understood most of the time. It’s seen by a certain number of people as a non-useful activity and still can have an insane value. Sometimes there is even a cult around it.

If I replace the word “Art” by “Product” in that sentence, you may have a company that jumped in your mind. In my head, it’s Apple or Tesla.

And this is why I used that analogy to explain what a product manager does. I don’t think I am an artist yet or not recognize as such. And I hope I can build a product that will create emotions and help people live. I want to bring something different, be a disrupter too. A product built on a vision that no one else can see.

With the rise of technologies and speed of information, product management is becoming intrinsically at the foundation of everything. Every product can scale quickly and it can touch many people at once. We have the power to create something that can be used by a few experts or can be used by the vast majority.

Product managers are the artist of the 21st century and we should think of adding technology as an art activity. The question though is the lasting perspective of that art. Today, we have painting, songs, and dance that are from another time. Some piece of art is forgotten since a long time also. How many of the current products will survive more than 10 or 20 years?

“Sustaining it through time and making it last is the hardest part of product management.”

We go to the museum and admire paintings or sculpture. We go to the opera and listen to a symphony that was made many centuries ago. Who knows? Maybe in one or two century, people will go to the museum to admire the work, the products that have been built in our time.

Inspiring, impact and misinterpretation

Three people are for me the representation of product management as an art. I think that genuinely those people love humanity and they see something that we can’t. This is maybe why their impact on our society is unmeasurable. Even if they think about humanity and people, they work for themselves also. They believe that they have the truth and nothing can stop them, even if it means going against the law or going against the government. Their behaviour is a mix of selfishness and clairvoyance of our world. We don’t see what they see. We don’t see the need that they can see and put in place.

As said before the art is the person own vision on the world. Their impact is just bigger than anyone else. They are transforming it in ways that we can’t grasp yet for the decades in the future.

They have an impact on society and at the same time, their action can be misinterpreted. Those 3 people still stay for me the 3 disrupters of our time

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is the first one of the list. Apple has brought beauty into people’s hands and home. He re-designed, re-invented and disrupted many markets from the industry of the computer to the music. He built an ecosystem and an experience that is still unique today. It was not easy for him to reach that point. He was fired from his own company, had success with others and still continue to push forward his vision of the world. Until he finally came back and could continue to put in motion what he had in mind for Apple.

Beautiful product design will change people’s life. Whether it’s the first Apple I, the Mac, the MacBook Air or Pro, the iPod, the iPhone or iPad, everyone is today using a device that is built on patterns pushed by Apple. He had his setbacks though such as the Lisa or the Next.

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg is known for Facebook and building THE social network. He brought a change in the way we conceptualize relationships. Facebook is connecting today other than 1.5 billion of people in the world. He expanded the community of people using his products by acquiring WhatsApp and Instagram. His products have a big impact on what it’s happening and what can happen in the world. Last year, we even saw the effect of it on the fake news. On another hand, even with that success, Facebook graveyard is full of failed products such as the poke. We can think of other setbacks such as his project in India.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk is the last one in my list. He disrupted the way we pay online, the electric car industry, the solar energy, the space travel and more. Since a few years, it has been around Elon Musk innovation in the different fields. He started with Tesla, Space X, Solar City and he is continuing around artificial intelligence and other domain. To go even further in his disruption of the world, he proposed the government of Australia to help them with their power grid problem. This project is still in discussion and it seems that he is serious about the challenge.

Those 3 product creators have their setback during their time. They never failed their vision and they continue to push their idea. Their success is proof of their determination.

Now it’s your choice. Are you an artist?

Kind of artist

Such as in product management, we can’t define what an artist is doing just by knowing that he is one. The fact is everyone is different with different skills depending on what he works or who he works for. You are an artist on your own with your own skills and speciality. You can now present yourself as such!

So what kind of artist you are? Who do you admire as the best product managers in the world?

Tell me what you think and join me directly on Twitter at @philnpa

Philippe Araujo London
Phil is one of the co-founder of ReponseIO and works on building the best product ever. Living in London, he enjoys drinking whisky & coffee, discover new places, good food and hit the gym.