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Product stuff

The key to product management - Apple as a case study

So what is the essence of product management? The basis of this role that garners reactions that run the gamut from "useless overhead" to "key to business success"? It all boils down to this one simple word: focus. There are organizations that can create focus without a product management role. But for the broad majority of technology organizations, a strong and solid product management team is the vehicle to achieve focus.

A popular topic of conversation these days is Apple, since the death of its charismatic cofounder and resurrector-in-chief. Btw, if you haven't read the Steve Jobs biography, it is a great read.

Anyway, lets follow the Apple timeline and correlate that with focus

Beginnings: 1976 - 1980, Level of focus = high (Only Apple 1 and Apple 2). Company performance = great beginnings

When Apple went public, it generated more capital than any IPO since Ford Motor Company in 1956 and instantly created more millionaires (about 300) than any company in history. This was the time when Apple created and then recreated the personal computer industry. First with the Apple II, computers went from beyond a hobbyist market into a viable consumer product. Then with the discovery of graphical interfaces, it was able to envision the future of computers in peoples' homes

The Lisa vs Mac years: 1981 - 1985. Level of focus = reduced. Company performance = mediocre

During these years, Apple was marred by internal politics between the Lisa and Mac teams, that eventually led to Steve Jobs' exit from the company. The Lisa was a failure at launch and the Mac was disappointing, despite an iconic launch

The product explosion years: 1986 - 1997: no. of concurrent products = many. Level of focus = poor. Company performance = poor (on life support)

Apple tried to produce several different versions of the Macintosh, initially keeping the Apple II (yes, that product) alive as well. In addition, it tried to create laptops, digital cameras, cd players, speakers, video consoles, TV appliances, PDAs (Newton, anyone?), online services, build to order manufacturing etc. The result was a product explosion and peanut buttering of Apple's core management and technical talent. This age is distinctly characterised by a lack of memorable products although Apple certainly created enough of them for the law of averages to help

Back to product sanity: 1997 - 2001: no. of concurrent products = few. Level of focus = vastly improved. Company performance = heading back to profitability

Steve Jobs II and his management team were ruthless about focus. They cut down both products within a portfolio and often entire divisions altogether. For the remaining products, there was a renewed emphasis on creativity and design, which resulted in the redesigned macs and then finally the ipod

2001-2007: iPod, the software for it (iTunes) and the place to sell it (Apple retail). Level of focus = high. Company performance = profitable

Its pretty clear what happened to the talent that was unlocked by the focus of the previous few years. This was employed in redefining the music industry as we know it, and also in developing the products that would come in the next generation. The increased focus in the personal computer lines helped that product suite too, resulting in the Mac OS X

Apple's success during this period was evident in its stock price. Between early 2003 and 2006, the price of Apple's stock increased more than tenfold, from around $6 per share (split-adjusted) to over $80. In January 2006, Apple's market cap surpassed that of Dell. Nine years prior, Dell's CEO Michael Dell said that if he ran Apple he would "shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders."

2007-2011: iPhone ( with iOS and the app store), iPod touch (for people who wanted an non phone iPhone), iPad (iOS for the post PC world). Level of focus = high. Company performance = historic

The success of these products is already much written about, and I've got nothing new to add beyond the fact that this sequence made Apple the most valuable company on the planet. On the surface, this might look like product explosion with the Mac line, iPods, iPhones and iPads. If you look underneath the covers though, this is essentially two lines - Macs and iOS. The iPhone carried the DNA from the iPod futher into an operating system and an app store. The iPad then added a form factor for the post PC world. Apple still continues to be ruthless about cutting products and cannibalizing itself.

Why is focus so important? Because it allows the organization to bring its best resources to solve whats most important and ignore those areas that are not

The consumer technology space is a people business. All organizations, even historic conglomerations of talent have a finite number of stellar people. You can either use them in a focused way or dissipate their energies in a wasteful manner. By doing the former, you attract more A players. By doing the latter, you frustrate and cause your top talent to leave. Staying with the Steve Jobs example - here was a man of many strong strengths and shortcomings. But one thing he was "insanely great" at was building teams of A players and keeping them. I'd say this went with one of his other strengths - providing focus. This was a key reason he was able to keep the "Bozo explosion" from happening in his organizations

If product management can bring focus, it frees the rest of the team to color outside the lines. Engineers can focus on solving technical issues in the best way. The UX team can focus on the best user experience possible, by bridging technology to human behavior. The project managers and scrum masters can focus on the schedule. Business development can focus on chasing the right partnerships to surround the product with the right ecosystem and so on. Each of these roles can be as creative they need to be in pushing the boundaries of creativity, knowing that the product manager can reign them in if needed i.e. separate the important from the not-so-important

1. Wikipedia
2. Apple Confidential: The Real Story of Apple Computer, Inc.. No Starch Press
3. Gamet, Jeff. Apple Passes Dell's Market Cap, MacObserver, January 16, 2006. Retrieved on March 2, 2007.)
4. Singh, Jal. Dell: Apple should close shop, CNET News, October 6, 1997. Retrieved on March 2, 2007.)

Note: This post was written for my old product stuff blog. Bringing content to quora