The Evolution of Product Management Tools
September 29, 2015

The Evolution of Product Management Tools

Ever wondered why product managers have been forced to fight battles with bows and arrows for so long? Think about it. Software engineers have been the recipient of so many new types of tools in the last 10 years — new languages, platforms, and applications. This partly explains how it’s possible for engineers around the world to create 60,000 new apps each month!

Marketing tools got a makeover as well — the last decade has given marketing professionals CRM automation systems, social media monitoring, and advertising platforms.

I witnessed these changes firsthand. I spent my first decade working as an engineer in various technology companies. After leading engineering teams and building multiple products, I wanted to have a more direct role in product planning. That’s because I believe product managers make the most important decisions in tech companies today.

So why have product managers been left in the dust without tools built for us? Is an upgrade from Office 97 to Office 2013 the best we could do?

Luckily not. Product tools have finally undergone their own recent evolution. It took a bit longer — but the end result is better for all of us who work with these tools each day.

To really appreciate how far we have come, I divided the history of software-based tools that I have used into four distinct eras. Each one builds on the previous one, until we get to the present.

Microsoft Office tools The first evolution occurred with the arrival of Microsoft Office tools. The Office era was defined by product management and development teams using tools like Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. With little else to fall back on, the MS suite was used to capture product strategy, define user stories, prioritize work, and maintain a product roadmap.

The problem was (and still is) that Microsoft Office tools were not meant for product management. Their use case is so broad that an incredible amount of customizations, templates, and constant editing is required to adapt them for this type of use.

But product managers are resourceful, so we started wherever we could. My product management peers and I struggled with the Office suite for years. Those last-minute requests for an updated roadmap or a feature list sting in my mind. I shudder to think how much time I wasted on these tasks that could have been spent on tasks that actually mattered.

Some product managers still use these tools today, but many have moved past the era of Microsoft Office to try out other tools when they became available.

Developer tools In the second phase, tools beyond the Office suite began to slowly emerge. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, tools like Atlassian Jira and Microsoft Team Foundation Server began gaining traction. In some ways, these tools were a huge improvement. They offered project management and task capabilities that MS Office never did. And they were a welcome solution for software development teams that practice Agile.

But as with MS Office, engineering tools were not built for product managers. When you think about answering questions like “why” a product exists or “when” to prioritize major enhancements, engineering tools fell far short.

Engineering tools are great at helping teams with the “how” but quickly failed product managers who attempted to use them to communicate their roadmap with stakeholders and prioritize the features that would have the greatest business impact.

On the user side, engineering tools and services were controlled by IT departments. It was an era when software was purchased by IT and usually installed on-premise. Most of these solutions were not cloud-based, keeping data scattered around various departments of the company. Luckily, new developments were on the horizon.

Project management tools In the third era, product managers got a glimmer of hope when horizontal project management tools became more popular. These tools, such as Trello or Asana, are user-friendly and great for doing work day-in and day-out task-based work. The recent solutions are also cloud-based tools, which allows more product information to get out of email so teams can collaborate.

Ultimately, product managers still found themselves wanting software that was more organized around the jobs they need to do. Project management software is great for tactical day-to-day tasks, but is lacking when it comes to key elements in the areas of strategy, product roadmapping, release management, feature prioritization, and idea management.

So product managers took matters into our own hands, and entered the fourth (current) era.

Product management tools Finally, today’s product managers have several new tools that are modern, cloud-based, and well-integrated with the product development ecosystem. These are tools built specifically for product managers and their broader product teams.

Managing our product backlogs and developing solid roadmaps is a more fact-based process now. And since many of these new tools integrate with the broader product ecosystem — such as third-party dev tools like JIRA, Pivotal Tracker, and other solutions like Salesforce — collaboration between cross-functional teams has never been easier.

Cloud-based tools built for product managers are changing our industry. They lead to faster consensus, smarter decisions, and add more value to both customers and the business. That is how great products are built.

The Software Revolution has certainly shifted the paradigm. Product managers are free to do our online research, find tools that solve our specific problems, and give these tools a try.

We are empowered to make our own decisions about the product — and more vocal about what we need. The process of building products today is more transparent because of product management software. Thanks to companies like Aha! that saw the need to help product managers work more efficiently — and acted on it — my peers and I can focus our energy on building great products — not on the templates and reports to help us build great products.

Guest author Shikhar Sarkar specializes in product management and marketing. For last 20 years, he has built many successful products with global impact in the cloud, mobile, and telecommunication space. “Create new possibilities with passion, preparation and perseverance” is his mantra.

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