Product Marty Cagan

eBay’s Secret Weapon

Look at any successful company and you’ll find a set of people that stand out and are the ones that really make the difference. It may be the difference between a great product or a terrible one. Or the difference between getting the business partnership the company needs to reach its customers or getting lost in obscurity. Or the difference between getting the product out when it needs to be or stuck in perpetual delays.

eBay is by anyone’s definition a very successful company, and it has some extremely strong people in each of these areas and more. But the company recently suffered a blow with the retirement of the person that behind the scenes was probably more than anyone responsible for the astounding amount of quality software they’ve produced each and every week for the past 5 years, Lynn Reedy.

eBay has a very unusual product development process, but three key characteristics of this process are that it is extremely productive, extremely demanding, and it is a process predicated on an extremely strong project management competency. Over her time at eBay, Lynn rose to run the majority of the product development organization, and while she has many talents, at her core she is a project manager, and in fact the very best project management mind I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. Before I joined eBay I thought I was pretty good at project management, but she showed me where the bar really was.

In many companies (not including eBay, but including companies like Yahoo and Microsoft), the product manager is also responsible for some or all of project management. In my view, the jobs of product management and project management are different enough that in all but small teams I typically recommend separate people for the separate roles. But in every case I believe that developing strong project management skills is a big advantage for product managers – at the least your product will get to market faster, and it could make the difference between getting your product shipped at all.

I think most people equate project management with MS Project, coordinating status meetings, and documenting the product development processes. But these people miss the real point of project management. These are the seven skills that I think characterize great project managers like Lynn:

Sense of Urgency – Just by walking into the room Lynn would instantly convey a sense of urgency. Pre-meeting banter was maybe 60 seconds, and then it was down to business. Partly this was due to her unique diet of sugar and caffeine, but in fact a sense of urgency is at the heart of the eBay culture and was best personified by Lynn.

Framers – There are so many reasons for aimless, unconstructive meetings, but one of the biggest culprits is that it’s not always clear to the participants exactly what the purpose of the meeting is, what problem is to be solved, and what the specific issues or obstacles are. Great project managers understand how to clearly and concisely identify and frame problems.

Clear Thinking – The typical business issue typically includes multiple underlying causes with a healthy dose of politics, personal agendas and personalities thrown in. The project manager needs to isolate the separate issues, and untangle the emotion and baggage from the issue to expose the underlying problem and get everyone focused on the solution.

Data Driven
– Great project managers understand the key role that data plays in informing them about precisely where they are and where they need to be. They are constantly looking to improve the process and the result, and they know this begins with measurement. It is all too easy to just shoot from the hip, especially in time-sensitive situations, so it’s essential for the project manager to insist on the data.

Decisiveness – In most organizational models, the members of the product team don’t actually report to the project manager, yet he or she must drive decisions. This is where the project manager must communicate the sense of urgency, clearly frame the problem, have rational and transparent reasoning, and make decisions based on the data. The project manager also needs to know when it is appropriate to collect the data and recommendation from the team, and escalate the issue to senior management.

Judgment – Much of the above hinges on good judgment – knowing when to push, when to escalate, when to get more information, and when to take someone aside and have a little private chat. This trait is harder to teach, but experience can help.

Attitude – Finally, there are always hundreds of very valid reasons why your product shouldn’t ship – not feasible, not enough resources, not enough time, not enough money, etc. The job of the project manager is to get over each and every one of these obstacles. At its core, great project managers are great problem solvers. The great project manager doesn’t make excuses, she makes it happen. She is tireless and unstoppable.

I truly believe that eBay would not be the success it is today without Lynn and the project management discipline she brought to the company and the culture. As she catches up on 5 years of little sleep, hopefully the company has developed leaders that can maintain the pace she has set. But all project mangers, product managers, and engineering managers can learn a lot from her example.