Healthcare Software Systems

Episode 13

What is Product Management: Johanna Rothman

Show Details

Hello Tech People. Today I’m joined by Johanna Rothman. Johanna is known as the “Pragmatic Manager” and is an expert in everything management. She has written numerous books on the subject, consults and shares her wealth of knowledge at many very high profile events.

In my time with Johanna we discuss what product management is and how it differs from product development, the responsibilities of a product owner, differences between a product owner and product manager as well as the differences between a product roadmap and a project portfolio.

Related Links:

1. Agile and Lean Program Management
2. Discover to Deliver
3. Steve Johnson
4. Practical Product Owner Workshop
6. Managing Product Development Blog
7. Hiring Technical People Blog
8. Create An Adaptable Life Blog

Topics we discuss:

1. What is product management, and how does it differ from product development?
2. What are the responsibilities of a product owner?
3. Differences between a product owner and product manager.
4. What is the difference between a product roadmap and also a project portfolio?

Show Transcript

Carlos:  Thank you for tuning to Tech People, where real-life tech practitioners share their professional experiences. Hello, Tech People. Today we have the great Johanna Rothman on the show. For those who don’t know who Johanna is, she’s an author, consultant, and a very well-known and respected thought leader in the product development realm. Johanna, thank you so much for joining us today. How are you doing?

Johanna:  Thank you so much, and I’m doing great.

Carlos:  That’s awesome to hear. Johanna, for those of the people listening to us who haven’t had the luck of finding your work … I learned of you way before I set out to interview you. Way before we had actually met at a conference, I’d read up on the extensive material you have online about product overall, but for those who haven’t found you, tell me a little bit about yourself, and what is it that you do?

Johanna:  I started off as a software developer. I was a programmer, and I got into project management fairly quickly, and then I got into program management and management. When I started my consulting business, I said, “I’m all about managing product development.” I got into Agile. I had used staged delivery for my projects forever, and that’s where you work feature by feature, but you don’t … It’s not necessarily Agile. I got into the Agile stuff in the early 2000s. First I was pretty suspicious, and then I realized I was actually doing Agile, so I should call it that. That’s where I am now.

Carlos:  When you say you’re doing consulting, aside of, and by the way, I’ve mentioned this to you a little bit ago, you run 3 different blogs, you have a course on product management, and aside of that, you still have time to do consulting?

Johanna:  Oh, yeah. Yeah, because once I had the courses ready, actually running them is fairly easy. This is the third time I’m running the product ownership workshop and the third time I’m running the writing workshop, and next year I’m trying to figure out, how can I have a more regular schedule of running online workshops? I have found that a number of my clients really love online workshops. Now, I think I’m a lot more effective in person, but they don’t want to take the 2 days away from work, and I can understand that, or even a half a day or a day away from work. If I offer workshops for the busy people I know that they can take online, where we spend an hour a week in the workshop and then they do homework, and sometimes with a product such as with a product ownership workshop, we have more time “in class,” but they have a lot more time during the week to get their homework done and to try things and then to ask questions, it’s almost as effective as when I’m there, so I’m probably going to do even more online workshops next year.

What is product management, and how does it differ from product development?

Carlos:  That’s very cool. Before we end here, I want to ask you a little bit about that so you can explain to us how those workshops run and a little bit of context about them so we can spread the word. All right, so we already spoke about this, and you know that our goal today is to help those that are bit confused, who might be working in product already. They might already be a product manager or maybe people that are getting into it. They’re trying to understand what it is that they’re … There’s so many terms from the product management, product development. There’s a product roadmap. There’s the portfolio.

I think our mission is to help anyone, again, who’s got that confusion about the terms, so let’s find some ways to help them. I think the first question that comes to mind is, what is product management, and how does it differ from product development? You see, even I get mixed up.

Johanna:  We have so many things with P’s and M’s and D’s, it’s just kind of crazy. Product management is when you say, “This is the rough lifecycle of the PRODUCT, and we’re going to introduce it, we hope, here, and we want these kinds of releases for these kinds of feature sets, and we’re going to end-of-life it, not all product managers actually end-of-life, but we’re going to end-of-life it at some point when we either have no more customers or we have something else to replace it.” A product manager is externally-facing, so our product manager thinks about who the customers are. They interview customers. They’re interested in the launch issues. They might even get beta people. The product manager manages the product over its lifecycle, so from introduction to end- of-life.

Now, a product owner works with an Agile team, and a product owner is inward-facing. That focus on what happens on the inside, working with a product development team who writes the code and generates the tests to know if the product is able to be released, that’s all a different focus. Product development is what the product development team does. It’s the programmers, the testers, the BAs, the writers, the UI, the UX people, anybody you need to get a product ready for release. In Agile, we have the product owner who says, “We want these features for this release,” and that might be an interim release internally versus an external release, but then the product manager and all of the product owners work together as what I call as part of the product owner value team.

You have the people facing outward, who are the product managers, and the people facing inward, who are the product owners, and maybe the BAs, and they put together that releasing over time, that product lifecycle. The product development team delivers software on a regular basis that works so that the product owner can say, “Yeah, we got enough. We can release this.”

Carlos:  Got it, got it. Now, that product manager is the one who reports to the business, is the one that goes back to the CEO or to whomever is in charge in the business decisions and gives them the … I’m trying to find the person that says, “Okay, we implemented this, and these are the results.” Who’s that person?

Johanna:  Often, that would be either a VP of sales and marketing, or a VP of marketing, or a CMO, or something like that. That’s a chief marketing officer. A product manager works with the senior management to say, “Which products do you want when, and what is the first set of acceptable, releasable features that we could release?” Let’s think about something probably everybody has in their pockets. I have mine in my hand right now. I have an iPhone. You might have some other kind of a phone, an Android phone or something else, but a smartphone has minimal necessary qualities for it to be releasable because it’s a hard good. It has to be able to make a phone call, has to be able to receive phone calls. Has to have the ability for voicemail. It has to be able to text and receive texts.

There are several handful of scenarios that a product has to do. If you made a phone cheap enough and said, “We will have more updates for this phone, but here’s why our phone is so inexpensive and great, and you should buy it now even though it doesn’t have camera support built in or any of this stuff.” I have to admit, I use my phone more as a camera and a texting device than I do as a phone.

You can imagine that you can release a product with a minimal set of features, and that minimal set of features is something that the business, in some way, shape, or form, either the customers talking to the product manager, or the CEO, or the VP, or the operations committee would say to the product manager, “We really need to get something out by June, and that something has to do at least these things because that’s what we think our customers want, and anything else you can get, great.” That’s where the product manager would then talk to potential customers, understand more about what this means, what a minimum marketable set of features is, and then work with the product owners to implement that.

What are the responsibilities of a product owner?

Carlos:  That’s how they differ from outside to inside, so now let’s shift to the product owner, which is, I think, we’re probably seeing that a lot of the people that are going to be listening to this episode work with an engineering team, so more than likely, they’re product owners. What are the responsibilities of a product owner within the product management or development lifecycle?

Johanna:  The product owner is key for understanding the feature sets and making small stories. What I see a lot is the product manager and the product owner are supposed to be the same people, and that means that the product owner does not have enough time for the team, and the product owner cannot break apart the stories into small enough stories. When I talked before about the feature set for a smartphone, and I said, “You have to be able to make a call, receive a call, and have a call go to voicemail,” well, even those stories are fairly large. What is make a phone call? You have to be able to bring up the dial pad on the phone, so that might be the very first story, not even having a call go through to another cell phone on the same network, but even just bringing up the dial pad.

If you cannot bring up the dial pad, how can you make a phone call? Now you might say there’s another way to make a phone call where you have people in your favorites or your most commonly used people, or you have your contacts, and you click on a contact. You use your finger and say, “This is the person I want to call.” Maybe that’s the first story that you have. You see where the first story, that first small piece of value, can differ depending on the kind of person you are, and that’s where the product owner provides tremendous value to the team.

I happen to like product owners that are integrated into the team so that when the team says, “What’s the very first thing you want? Is the very first thing you want the search by person in the contacts and then be able to click on that person, or is the very first thing you want a keyboard or to see the keys on the phone so we can actually make a phone call?” That answer is so critical, and that’s not going to be the same for any product or any team.

Carlos:  It’s interesting because then the product owner works very close with UX, essentially, not just from a visual perspective, but from a how it works perspective, right?

Johanna:  I think so. Maybe if you take a different … Let me use a different example. Almost all of us have security built into our systems these days, right?

Carlos:  Correct.

Johanna:  If you have login with security, that might be an entire feature set. The first story might be an existing user can log in just so we know that we haven’t screwed anything up. Now, that’s not particularly a user interface or a user experience. That’s saying the first piece of value is the ability for someone we know to log in. There, the product owner might not work with a user experience or a user interface person, but it’s all about that first piece of value.

Carlos:  I get it because that’s the thing. They are responsible for getting whatever stories done, even if it’s, let’s say, they’re working with hardware because they could. They don’t necessarily need to be just working with software. They could be building something, let’s say, the hardware of the phone that if there’s no phone yet, they need to figure out how to get that first story done, even if it’s a physical device.

Johanna:  Right, exactly.

Differences between a product owner and product manager.

Carlos:  All right, so how would you describe the interaction on a daily basis of a product owner within an engineering team? He’s working with the product manager also, let’s say, to define stories for a Sprint. How do they do that? What does it look like on a week-to-week basis working with that product manager and then also prioritizing stories and working with the engineering group? If you could, tell us what would be the difference then between a product owner and a project manager? I think that’s kind of interesting.

Johanna:  Okay, so let me talk about the product manager and the product owner interaction first.

Carlos:  Okay, and then, by the way, I just wanted to add something very, very quick. Everybody who’s confused at this point, bear with it. Listen on. We’re going to get to it. The idea is that this is confusing because there’s so many project and product and roles. That’s the reason why we’re having this conversation.

Johanna:  Right, exactly. I will be happy to give you … At the end of this, if you want one-line definitions, I will be happy to provide them for you.

Carlos:  All right.

Johanna:  Yeah, so the product manager is probably not available to talk with the product owner more than once every week or 2. All of the product managers I know, they’re out there talking to customers. They have lunch with people. They’re doing focus groups. They’re not available on a regular basis to have ongoing conversations with the product owner or with the team. That’s because they’re so outwardly-focused. The way I like to do this is the product owner value team, which is all of the product owners for a given product, which might only be 1 if you only have 1 team … If you have a program, you might have 37 if you have 37 teams or some number of them, because teams can share product owners because the product owner is inside, is inwardly-focused.

Every week or so, maybe once every 2 weeks, the product owner and the product manager, or the product owners and the product manager, get together as part of the product owner value team. The product owners say, “We’ve made this much progress on this. Do we want to change the roadmap?” The product roadmap is the big picture of the feature sets that the teams will deliver, and the product roadmap is a wish list. It’s not set in stone because you don’t know what the teams can deliver. The product owner works with a team on an ongoing basis. I like it when the product owner sits with or near the team. If you’re using iteration-based Agile, such as Scrum, you might have a meeting the week before.

Let’s call it a 2-week iteration. The week in between the iteration starting and ending, you might have a meeting to discuss possible features or feature sets or stories and get an idea of what they could be. I think of that meeting as either an exploration or pre-planning for the next iteration. Just before the iteration ends, the team would demo, demonstrate to the product owner. I like the people who have done the work to demonstrate to the product owner, unless they want to see if the product owner says, “I would like to try this to just see what it looks like and feels like.” Hopefully, they have already had small conversations with the product owner about accepting stories as they’re done so nothing is a surprise to the product owner, but this way they can show the product owner everything as a whole.

If you’ve done 3 stories from secure log in, then the people who do secure log-in would show those 3 stories all together and say, “This is the chunk of secure log in that we really wanted to show you at the end of this iteration.” That’s the whole point of having the demo. The team demonstrates, and while the team is doing their retrospective, either the product owner participates in the retrospective because sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. That’s a different problem which we can discuss later. Then the product owner will get ready for the pre-iteration planning session just after the retrospective. I like to have the demo at 9am in the morning, the retrospective from 10 to 12. Everyone gets from 12 to 1 for lunch, and then at 1, we do iteration planning for the next iteration.

Carlos:  Let’s say if you could just pick one of … I know you can’t just pick one, but which is the most important between these interactions, let’s say the one that you want to have the most consistently? Which one would you pick?

Johanna:  You mean having the product owner see stories as they’re done?

Carlos:  Yeah. I’m trying to figure out which is the most important touch point in the cadence …

Johanna:  Okay, so …

Carlos:  So that we’re building the right thing, so that we’re building the thing that the product manager set out to build with the VPs of the company.

Johanna:  What I think is the most important thing is for the product owner to see stories as they are done because we might make a mistake in defining the stories, right?

Carlos:  Right.

Johanna:  Like that never happens. We will make mistakes in defining the stories, but the key is if you really understand that you can then change and change the conversation for the next story or the next set of stories, now you’ve gotten the feedback and the learning that the product owner needs. Because product owners are humans, and they will think one thing and possibly say another or think one thing and not explain it well enough. For me, the really big thing is how do we get frequent enough feedback, that was hard for me to say, frequent enough feedback so that we can correct any mistakes that we have made and continue on from there?

Carlos:  If you get feedback early enough, you can correct.

Johanna:  Exactly.

Carlos:  Got it. All right, so now, and we’re going to do a sum up pretty quickly here, by the way. Again, everybody listening, bear with us. I think I’d like to eventually, after we’re done here, I want to point the people that are listening to the show to check out some of your blog posts where you clarify or go more in-depth here, because yes, it’s really interesting how you put it into perspective because I am visually seeing the product manager doing role A and product owner doing role B. For some reason, it’s usually thought that they’re doing the same, and they’re both one person. Again, you wouldn’t be able to do both things, mainly because you do have to be very …

You know that whole get out of the office thing? You have to do that, and when you’re dealing with many different projects, or let’s go back to many different products, with many stories, it’s almost impossible to take care of the internal teams and everything that needs to be done within in terms of feedback and user acceptance that I would imagine the product owner has to sign off on, but also doing the going, getting out of the office. It’s kind of hard. Anyways, …

Johanna:  I don’t think it’s possible. I think that if you ask a product owner to also be a product manager, or what is much more likely, the product manager to also play the role of the product owner, you are doomed to failure because you will not get enough feedback inside the team, and the product owner won’t know enough to make small stories to see progress every single day. You’re shortchanging yourself in your use of Agile. You’re not Agile, and I would say don’t even try. Go back to stage delivery. Give a team a feature set of 5, or 6, or 7, or 8 stories, and say, “I’ll come back in a month or 2 and see where you are,” but don’t call it Agile if you’re not going to be Agile and take advantage of the feedback and the learning. Okay, I’m a little geeky about this, for lack of …

What is the difference between a product roadmap and also a project portfolio?

Carlos:  No, but I agree. For some reason, there’s tons of teams calling a product person exactly that. “Oh, yeah. He’s our product guy.” Wow, that can lead to failure, because you have to be getting both cycles of feedback, externally and internal. Let’s go … We have a few other terms to clear up here, so what is the difference between a product roadmap and also a project portfolio? That seems to be a tricky one for some people.

Johanna:  Yeah, for some people, it is. A product roadmap is your wish list for what you would like the product to look like at different points in the future. It’s all about one product and a product manager manages the product roadmap. The project portfolio is all of the projects and programs that you have in-flight or you’re thinking of having in-flight for your organization. Let me give you an example. You might have a product roadmap for the engine product. You have a project that you call your engine, and that product allows all of your other products to work, and so you might have a program with the engine release 3 and some other products also with it in that program. You have a product manager who manages the roadmap for the engine product. Now that product manager might talk with the other people but does not manage the interactions between the other products in your program.

You might have an admin product that you release at the same time as your engine product. That would have its own roadmap. The project portfolio would have some kind of a release of the ACME program that says, “We want release 3 of the engine and release 2 of admin in one program. Yes, we are going to fund that for some amount of time until we get to this potential release.” Now the product managers should talk to each other, the ones for admin and the ones for engine, because they should agree on what’s going on in the given release, but there is probably a program product owner who would say, or program product manager who would say, “These are the releases we want. This is the release that we want for this particular program. We are not the only program and project in the organization. We also have this project over there and that project over here, and we are going to assess which projects we are going to fund for now.”

The project portfolio is always a decision for now, and that’s all about projects and programs. You might have the operations committee making a decision about which projects they will fund for now in the project portfolio. The product roadmap might change, but it’s not a funding decision. The product roadmap might change because customers say, “I want this thing,” or “I want that thing,” so the details inside the product roadmap might change. The product manager will deal with the details in the roadmap, but the project portfolio is not … The product managers don’t decide what happens in the project portfolio. Senior management should decide. Now sometimes the senior managers say, “We want the PMO to decide about the project portfolio.”

I have mixed feelings about that because unless the PMO is deciding on the strategy for the organization, I don’t think that the PMO always knows enough to decide on the projects in the project portfolio, but that’s a different problem. You can see that the project portfolio explains the strategy and implements a strategy of the organization. We will release these projects at this time for this benefit. The product roadmap talks about the feature sets for a given product. One release in the product roadmap might be a given project in the project portfolio.

Carlos:  Understood, and then that, of course, then breaks down into say Sprints, and you could break down into stories, …

Johanna:  Yes.

Carlos:  … all the way down. See, I think we need a little bit one of those infographs that shows you all the way from the top all the way down. By the way, that might be really useful for this episode. I think we should create one of those, and also so you can use it on your site because it’s interesting to just visually see it at a glance and also see the interaction between the user roles, let’s say, within a story. Who interacts with a story or the story level? Who are the people that interact with it? Who are the people that interact with it at a product roadmap level? Who are the people who interact with the project portfolio level, and so forth? Again, it makes things clear, so …

Johanna:  I …

Carlos:  … I think-

Johanna:  … reserve the right then to ask you to review any kind of artwork I develop.

Carlos:  Absolutely. I’d love to. I’d love to have it and link it to this episode.

Johanna:  Okay.


Carlos:  Awesome. Johanna, thank you so much. I think we’ve discussed the main item at hand, which was defining … By the way, if we made people more confused, just re-listen to the whole thing. I think it’s well-explained. It’s just that we repeat product a lot. Just in a nutshell, there’s the manager who defines what will be built, but then the owner is the one that executes the building of whatever it’s going to be building. That’s a nutshell of it.

Johanna:  Yeah.

Carlos:  Would you …

Johanna:  Yeah.

Carlos:  … agree?

Johanna:  Okay, the product manager defines the lifecycle of the product. The product owner works with the stuff in that roadmap to create stories. A project manager will facilitate the team.

Carlos:  Exactly. I think that is the short answer, but it’s interesting to go in-depth. It’s a very complicated world, just the whole product world overall, so I think having this clarity is going to help a ton. Johanna, I have 3 last questions for you. What advice would you give your younger, less experienced self? At the same time, it could be somebody, when you were getting into the business, somebody in that position?

Johanna:  Have a little more patience with people. One of the reasons I write about people so much is that I’m not a very good people person. I know this sounds funny, but I’m definitely not patient. I think that just because I understand something does not mean that anybody else understands it, so I need to be more patient. I still do need to be more patient with other people understanding me.

Carlos:  You know what, I would say, if you ask me, I would think, and I’ve always thought you’re great with people, the way you communicate and all that. I wouldn’t think that you thought that way of yourself.

Johanna:  That’s because I’m working on it. I keep working on it, and maybe I feel as if I will actually get it in some point.

Carlos:  Let me tell you, you’re great so far with people.

Johanna:  Thanks.

Carlos:  What’s a book you’d recommend or some material? After this, we’ll go over a little bit of your books and your workshop. If you could recommend somebody to go on Amazon and buy a book on these subjects, what would that be?

Johanna:  I think that the closest book is my “Agile and Lean Program Management” book, where I talk about a product roadmap and then, of course, my project portfolio book. I was thinking about … I’m actually in the middle of writing a book about what the product owner role is and how that is different from the product manager. Steve Johnson has written a bunch of stuff about product management and how to do it in an Agile way. Ellen Gottesdiener’s book, “Discover to Deliver,” is quite good about thinking about how you continue to do discovery in the product owner role. I think that the reason we’re having this conversation is I see still a lot of confusion, so that’s what my book is going to be about.

Carlos:  There’s just a book on pinpointing this very subject we’re discussing.

Johanna:  Yes.

Carlos:  Okay, and when is that book coming out? No pressure.

Johanna:  I’m hoping to actually have a version sometime in the fall of 2016. I was having somebody help me with it, and she has been stuck, so I have not made any progress on it. I’m really hoping that she will tell me that she is available now, and I can actually get things going. I am pretty sure fall of 2016, which you’ll notice I’m not saying September, October, or November because I don’t know when it’s going to be.

Carlos:  November 30th.

Carlos:  We’ll hold you to this, and of course, makes the actual links in the show notes whenever it’s out there. I’m really curious, though, about your workshops. You said you have 2 workshops. What are they, again?

Johanna:  … Practical Product Owner workshop is about delivering what your customers need, and that starts in late August. I have another version of that workshop starting in late August. That is all about what you can do as a product manager or a product owner. If you are called one, are you doing the work of both? Are you trying to do the work of one? What kind of work are you doing, and how can you get the best work out of you so that your team can succeed? It’s focused on product ownership, but it’s also explaining to people, if you don’t have a product manager, you need to do this to be successful. I’ve also-

Carlos:  You said that the next one is in July-

Johanna:  In August. August 23rd.

Carlos:  August 23rd. Perfect.

Johanna:  I will give you the link so people can actually take a look at it. I’m also doing a writing workshop starting the following day, but that one is full, so that’s Writing Non-Fiction, so you can learn how to sell yourself and your ideas.

Carlos:  Is it fully booked?

Johanna:  It’s fully booked right now. Yes, I know. I never got out of the super early bird. I was quite surprised by that. I’m thinking of running another one in November, but I will certainly have a more regular schedule of online workshops starting next year.

Carlos:  Because at first I didn’t know that you were doing this writing, this non-fiction one, but I’d love to be part of that, …

Johanna:  I would love to have you.

Carlos:  … to join that. If you make a room for me, a spot for me, I’ll join. I’d love to. It sounds very exciting.

Johanna:  Yeah, I am full. I cannot make room for anybody, …

Carlos:  Wow.

Johanna:  … but I have a waiting list, and I have notification for the next workshop. I think that that will work. We can talk about whether or not you would like to be on that list.

Carlos:  All right, well I’d love to. I think everybody should check this out. I was telling you at the beginning that you run 3 blogs and that I didn’t know how you did it. I get it. Here’s a workshop for … That answers that question. Johanna, once again, this has been amazing. By the way, we’re going to have links to all these workshops on the site. Also, how can people find you? Is it at, right?

Johanna:  Yep, Everything is there: my blogs, my way to contact me, my e-mail., you can also go there from If you go to, everything is there.

Carlos:  All right, so Johanna, once again I want to thank you so much for your time and helping us get some clarity in all this in the product realm. I want to call it … I want to find the word that encases everything that is product. I don’t know why I think it sounds good: the product realm.

Johanna:  I like the product realm. Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

Carlos:  It was my pleasure, and I am really excited about your coming workshops, and I hope to see you soon.

Johanna:  I hope so, too.

Carlos:  All right. Thank you so much.