Managing expectations of Senior Management who do not understand software products and their lifecycle

I joined a new company under the same group company I had been working for 2.5 years in Feb this year. My group or even my company has always been a company with strong engineering roots and have been involved with hardware products since inception.

Software products really kicked off a few years ago and the product that I’m managing with 2 other PMs started 2 years ago.

Honestly, it seems that the management is ill equipped to deal with software products. Focus is strong on short term financial planning and goals such as achieving our ebit targets even at the cost of losing our momentum. We spend hours and hours working on business cases and cost cutting sceneries to please management rather than focus on customer value.

Product wise, I like what I do. Or rather I did like it. Now, I am not so sure. There’s a lot to learn but given my frustration, I’m planning to quit. The head of our department seems quite incapable of making hard decisions and we end up discussing same things again and again. From budget and goals perspective, we are like a startup but we have lost the single most important advantage a start up has and that is speed.

End of rant. Not sure what kind of advice I am looking for but just wanted to blow off some steam.

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This is why measuring OKRs/KPIs is so important. If EBIT(DA) is so important, then it should be a goal around which the product is tracked. You should ask leadership to define company/org goals, and then come to them with specific goals for your team that match these goals. Then, when they push for you to pick up/drop a feature, you can point to a specific OKR that this addresses, and say ‘we need this feature to achieve this goal.’

If they keep moving the target, then you know you don’t want to stick around long term.

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@Naomi, Seems like the company KPI is simply based around ebit numbers. “We have to hit ebitda of 10 million by eon do the year” for example. If there is a concrete plan at high level, it is not being effective communicated down the ladder.

My department consists one other part which manages hardware products. Tbh, I am really less interested to push this at the high level because it’s above my pay grade. Speaking with my manager yields not so great results. He is good at his own tasks but he lacks corporate long term vision.

I know the best option is to leave. It’s just a question of when.

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@AmyWalker, If EBIT is the north start metric, then it’s the north star metric. Work towards that for now, get something on your resume, then bounce when a better opportunity comes up.

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Yup, it’s unfortunate, but if they’re only interested in making money, and not in making products that make money, it’s going to be tough to shift their thinking without a couple coffins and retirement parties, if you catch my drift.

Your best bet is to use this as an opportunity to fatten up that experience column on your resume and find something that fits your needs better elsewhere.

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“The head of our department seems quite incapable of making hard decisions and we end up discussing same things again and again”

IMO this is reason enough to leave and 10x worse than making poor decisions. At least with poor decisions made quickly you can maybe have people learn from the results/mistakes.

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My advice would be to follow the below strategy - which is working (somewhat) for my boss and myself.

  1. OKRs and KPIs are important as others have mentioned. If they push for EBITDA → ask them what are the factors that will drive that EBITDA. Keep drilling down until they hit factors that are affected by your team. If they balk- say that we can’t meet targets without having some levers to pull.
  2. Declare that to hit XYZ factor we will need xxx people and xxx months to develop it - but we can do it in an agile fashion that reduces the risk for you, and enable decision gates.
  3. Dive into what it cost for someone else to build similar products to build up evidence.
  4. This shouldn’t take more than 1-2 months of back and forth (I’m doing it now in fact) - if they keep coming back and asking for more business cases and are trying to cut you down piece by piece then you should leave.

I will never stay in a company that’s stuck like that - albeit I would wait for a few weeks and try and achieve something I can put in my resume in the interim.

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I had a similar situation, instead of hardware it was managed services. My situation didn’t end with a happy ending. I came against a group of senior leadership that just didn’t get it nor wanted to. I did 3 years of beating my skull in until burn out came and hit hard. From that experience my advice is watch for the signs of burn out, get as much experience as possible, and if it doesn’t change find a new place to work.

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@Donovan, And how are things now, if I may ask? Did you manage to find a role that’s better suited for you?

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@Amy, Yeah I did, I jumped around twice but landed at a place that believes in its business and is willing to listen and learn. I admit the first job after was really good but I still harbored some burn out and it could have worked out but I jumped one more time. Now it’s been smooth sailing, in a good grove, and having fun again.

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Samesies with the burn out - one person can only shift the tides so much, I didn’t realize you can’t pull an entire company with you and it lead to rather extreme burn out. Watch out as letting things go is hard but burn out takes far longer to recover from and can even have physiological side effects

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@JesusRojas, This, absolutely this. It took quite a long time to over come the side effects.

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EBIT(DA) isn’t really a target. It’s a natural result of other targets for growth and costs.

Start with simple principles:

  • Where is this new revenue coming from? What % of new customers vs. upsells to existing customers?
  • Are you planning on still marketing to the same industry/vertical or adding on new ones?
  • What share of the existing market do you have? How big could it possibly be? If too small where will you pivot to?
  • What customer feature requests, if productized, would (a) work as a SaaS feature for the majority of your customers, and (b) actually result in more sales or upsells, not just “happiness”.
  • What alternatives do your customers have?
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Sure, but judging on the behavior of his management, it is not on him to decide.

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You’re right, it’s a conversation needed to be had.

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Do you have a PMO or similar department?

If so, try making friends with them and getting them involved in the larger projects - specifically around schedules. It should be easier to educate a Project Manager on the reality of the software development life cycle; then let them temper expectations and play bad guy.

You can also let them muck around with management’s flavor of the week requests while you focus on adding value & getting things shipped.

Sounds like your company has deeper problems though in that you’re not really allowed to be a Product Manager.

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2 options as I see it:

  1. Talk to leadership at the original group. Your wording makes it sound as if the current co is part of that group…
  2. Gtfo Trying to influence the current crop of idiots won’t work. Btdt…
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Maybe not what you would like to hear, but money is the fuel of business, if you run out of it everything stops up. Management possibly have stakeholders with specific expectations on financial target.

You could try to link customer value to company targets - more satisfied customers, more money. If the company has a strategy defined (OKRs or other format), then you could link developmental initiatives to those strategic goals.

But if you lost trust in management’s ability to run the company or don’t believe in the strategy defined, then you might find this linking work difficult and might need to look for a new role if you have the possibility.

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I had a similar situation when I worked at a SaaS company, where the business performance was directly tied to the product performance. We built features to increase MRR but the trend was short term. It was race to add new features that would please 1% of the total population.

After the new leadership joined, we started moving towards product led metrics over business metrics (biz metrics were still important but driven mostly by sales/marketing/success teams).

We, first, focused on retention. We looked at highly retained users - aka core users - who were paying MoM with high engagement. We then interviewed a subset of these users to understand the key levers that made them sticky. The levers became our (product team) core metrics that influenced the MRR. Also, GTM teams focused on getting new users who are similar to the core users.

Second, we focused on users who stayed for a short period of time (paid 2-3 months subscription). We interviewed a subset of them to understand their decision factors that led to the churn (e.g. perceived value deteriorated over time, price to high compared to alternatives etc). We set a goal to showcase value of the platform to the price conscious users, so they can justify the monthly subscription price. These are you messy middle segment.

We kept segmenting users until we found the segment of uninterested users who signed up and left within minutes. These are the users we do NOT want to target at this time.

Once you have identified the core metrics, determine their impact on your business metrics. For e.g. if you’re a SaaS, then high engagement will lead to retention, which will lead to low churn and predictable MRR. If your business is ads, then high engagement will lead to more impressions/clicks and retention will lead to more $ value from an existing user. If your business is e-commerce, repeat purchase will be your key lever for top line business metric of sales. (For growth, I expect you will have metrics from top of the funnel).

This is how most FAANG companies operate. They set a top level OKRs, then each pillar sets their own OKRs that map to the top level OKRs. Then each team maps the product level metrics to the pillar OKRs, identifies the problems with the highest impact on the product metrics and set goals to achieve them.