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Product Manager POV: Piecing Solutions Together Is All that You Do

By Chris Butler
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This post was written by Chris Butler, Senior Product Strategist and The Product Guy’s “Best Product Person” of 2016

Anyone that believes they are building something from scratch hasn’t heard of the $1,500 sandwich that took six months to make. It is a myth that you can build everything yourself. The only question is how much of what you use from others feels comfortable for you.

Product managers already do this when building software with languages, frameworks, modules, and more. The question shouldn’t be ‘if’ you integrate third party solutions, but ‘how.’

>> Join the Webinar with Chris Butler: Why Embedded Analytics Is Adopted 3x Standalone Solutions <<

Build vs. Buy

Back in June of 2016, I co-authored a post with an engineer from Philosophie on build vs. buy. In it, I said, “I have personally found that what makes a particular project special is the glue that pulls known parts together, rather than rebuilding basics. Don’t be afraid to stand on the shoulders of giants. We already do when we choose an OS or a programming language.”

That glue is what is special about your product. Finding out what that glue should be is paramount to great products.

The jump to the next meaningful change is what you are looking to do with as little work as possible. There are enough new, tough problems out there to solve. You shouldn’t need to solve the already solved tough problems.

Back in my day…

It wasn’t long ago that hosting like AWS was something you needed to buy. You got some servers and put them in your office somewhere that wouldn’t get too warm. Even the hosting services that started being available in the 1990s were often one-offs and remote management was clunky.

The biggest driver against Not Invented Here™ was the breakout of the open source community. Before then, the computer hardware that was sold was intimately tied to the software that it ran. Multiplatform was not easy or common.

Today, open source is not only providing modules, but entire frameworks. Large companies have realized that they can gain value by open sourcing. This is even more important when you talk about machine learning since “more data beats better algorithms.”

Pioneers Need Town Planners

If you think about how technology evolves over time, you need to also consider that something that was once brand new and valuable eventually becomes a commodity. This is directly related to concepts of the technology adoption life cycle and the diffusion of innovations.

Simon Wardley considers this with his Pioneer, Settler, and Town Planner model. If technologies are impactful, they eventually become common and they need to be researched, developed, and maintained differently.

Today, most teams are pioneers that are charging towards some new technological solution. Rapid prototyping and fast customer feedback cycles are enabled by depending on utilities like hosting and even electrical power.

Common Snags with Third Parties

There are a few pitfalls that I see product managers fall into when making decisions on how to integrate a third-party solution:

  • Solution oriented rather than problem oriented — don’t get caught up trying to find a particular way to solve a problem since it will reduce your options in who you work with.
  • Dependency hell — this is where great conversations with engineering really matter. Once you have identified the key problem you are solving, engineering should provide options with tradeoffs.
  • Not validating the need of the functionality — if you haven’t validated the need with people using your solution in some way, you are just taking on wasted extra work.
  • Most important: assuming that nothing can change after a decision is made — if you integrate something and it doesn’t work out, remove it. Don’t allow yourself to be locked into something that doesn’t meet you and your customer’s needs.

Build AND Buy

In the end, we are building on top of the shoulders of giants. We are just trying to eke out an impactful and meaningful change on top of everything that came before us.

A jump too far and it won’t be accepted—but no change is death. The key is to constantly be looking for teams that are doing something better than you can, and do something better than anyone else in combination with a third party.

This is part of a series of writing on analytics including a foreword I wrote for the Logi’s 2017 State of Embedded Analytics Report. It has a lot of great information on the trajectory of the analytics industry and the implementation by organizations. I’ll also be doing a webinar on the topic on April 19th.

Philosophie is a software design and development consultancy located in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. We unlock innovation by eliminating the strategy-execution gap. Let’s get to work and make something that matters.


Originally published April 17, 2017; updated on August 10th, 2017

About the Author

Chris Butler is a senior product strategist and was named The Product Guy’s “Best Product Person” of 2016. Chris has over 15 years of experience leading product strategy and development for companies including Microsoft, Waze, and KAYAK.