Let’s see the 5-year roadmap

“Mark, the customer needs to see our five-year roadmap.  When can you do the briefing?”

Whether I’m managing a multi-billion-dollar product line, a pre-revenue startup product, or something in-between, customers expect me to have a vision for our intertwined future.  Customers evaluate vendors on their innovation and technical leadership.  Engineering and others within my company also expect and deserve a clear view of where we are going.

It’s easy for the product manager to remain fixated on the next year.  What product releases are planned?  What use cases will drive sales this year?  Five-year visions are great, but we need to pay the bills now.

Poor excuses.  A product without vision fails to energize.  Engineers want to innovate.  Customers want their product investment leading toward a better IT future.  Press and analysts become indifferent to mature technology.  A “meh” product attitude makes everyone nervous by risking competitive disruption, employee turnover, and tepid growth.

Defining product vision is a core product management responsibility, though not done in isolation.  I work with my CTO and other constituents including customers, engineering, and sales.  The CTO, in particular, checks my blind spots through awareness of emerging technologies that may disrupt my market or expand my product into new adjacencies.

Product manager vision

I start by asking myself what story I want to tell to in five years – the impact I want to look back and say we delivered to a specific group of people.  I don’t want to talk about saving 10% on operating costs.  Or making my product more scalable.  Sure, these are reasonable product release goals, but they don’t speak to a basic meaning of why we’re building products.

Instead, I want to achieve fundamental change in how individuals succeed in their professional lives.  For example: before, Sarah was stuck in a tedious job trying to keep up with an ever increasing load of IT problems.  Now, she is the architect for IT systems that proactively dispense tailored services for her user community.

Simon Sinek does a great job articulating what energizes us: “People don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it.”  I remember Simon’s thesis when setting the five-year roadmap: my product needs a why.  More specifically, I want to offer a fundamental personal benefit that was previously unattainable or impractical.

A skeptic may say that my goal is ridiculous – my chosen industry is information technology, not improving medical care or education around the world.  IT professionals typically work in clean, air-conditioned offices and go home (most) nights to a comfortable home. Yet they have aspirations and burdens like everyone else.  Try to schedule lunch with a friend who works in IT.  There’s an even chance he’ll reschedule at the last minute because an emergency came up.  Or your other friend won’t be able to take a long vacation because that’s when a critical change window is scheduled and no one is sure how long the system upgrade will take.

Product managers for IT products can benefit users when we make their jobs easier and more rewarding by helping meet their professional goals.  Software Defined Networking came about, in part, to address the insane complexity of deploying and managing data center networks.  Hypervisors made deploying new services far easier by converting physical boxes to virtualized software servers.  Linux containers now promise to simplify software packaging and deployment for developers who want to finish their projects.

Guide users to their success

Every IT product faces disruption by those seeking to improve its users’ experience, often in the context of new operating models.  The five-year roadmap is a means to show my users how to navigate the changing IT landscape around them.  A few quick scenarios:

Changing consumption models

IT is moving to a self-service consumption model, with huge impact for IT professionals and products alike.  If you believe the future success of IT professionals is as facilitators rather than gatekeepers, consider how your product will enable users to successfully manage that transition.

Greater operational scale

Virtual machines increased application density by an order of magnitude.  IT products built for the pre-hypervisor world were largely replaced by virtualization-optimized successors.  The industry is now on the cusp of another dramatic density increase courtesy of Linux containers.  How will your users be affected by these changes?  Surely there are opportunities to make IT professionals successful in the long-term adoption of containers.

New technologies bring organizational change

The revolution in large-scale data analysis not only improves business decisions; it alters relationships and roles within IT.  Data is democratized and the insights they bring are accessible to a broader community than ever before.  Users and products organized around limited access to information are destined to change.  Better to lead that change along with your users.

The five-year roadmap doesn’t require you to invent a whole new industry. These examples illustrate the opportunity to address foreseeable changes from the user’s perspective.  Channeling Simon Sinek – ask yourself why you come to work every day.  That reason should be inextricably linked to your five-year roadmap.  Knowing how I’m making a positive difference in people’s professional lives forms my answer.