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Product Manager Nightmares and Horror Stories


Happy Halloween

They may not have a catchy theme song like the Ghost Busters, but Product Managers are no strangers to scary situations.

To celebrate the spookiest of holidays, Brian Lawley and Pamela Schure share a lighthearted recount of some memorable Product Manager nightmares and horror stories from their decades of experience.

The Horrible Non-working Product

I accepted a job working on an incredibly innovative new product and was very excited. What the executives and engineers claimed it could do was truly a breakthrough. The only problem was that five weeks into the job I realized that the product simply didn’t work. Guess who got to tell the Emperor he had no clothes?

Shoot the Messenger!

We were trying to be the first to get the next generation product to market. I’d already reduced the time frame for our launches so that there was little room for error. And what had been a cushy schedule through to launch for Operations and Engineering was now under the microscope. We had our monthly meeting to go over schedules with Operations and Engineering.

The meeting was held in a large room with the PM presenting at the front to a darkened room. I prepared my material the night before and overnight was told that the schedule for the key chip we relied on had slipped by two months. The next day I had to present a schedule that was wrong on each slide. I had an operations person in the audience who kept calling me incompetent and unable to keep to a schedule. Yup, all my fault!

The Team that Wouldn’t Let Me in the Room

Talk about a nightmare. One engineering team that I worked with had such a bad experience with the previous Product Manager that they insisted that I wasn’t able to attend the weekly engineering status meetings. I was told “you’re part of marketing, you can’t be in the engineering meetings.” I told them that if I wasn’t part of the team and involved in the meetings then we wouldn’t ship the product.

Pricing Armageddon

At every product launch, I would prepare materials in my region with competitive analysis of our price points vs the competition. And each time as we approached launch, Operations would tell me that the cost was 10% higher than I expected. It took a lot of digging to find out that my region had a 10% duty charge that other regions didn’t have. And Operations had no idea that this would impact launches across 13 countries. It took months, but they finally started giving me better costs months before launch so we didn’t look foolish to our channel partners.

No One Could Hear Me Screaming

One of the products I worked on had a horrible bug that locked up the user’s computer for 90 seconds, making them think they had completely crashed and had to reboot. The engineers refused to hear me when I told them this was a problem – their logic was that the user rarely performed this series of tasks so they should be “fine” waiting 90 seconds. Of course, after holding a focus group and having customers complain loudly in their own words I showed the footage to the engineers and said nothing else about it. It was “miraculously” fixed over the weekend.

Night of the Living Bugs

Two memorable ones:

On a software product I managed, there had been a jump in commonly used capacity. The software hadn’t prepared for this change. The bug happened if the user stored more than X GBs worth of data. The data would become corrupted and lose ALL the customer’s data. We serviced a media-heavy audience, so this could mean years of work wiped out in one backup. I met a customer at a user group who had experienced this bug. I rattled off the explanation – glad to be able to give him an answer – until I noticed the look on his face. Only later did he explain how much data he’d lost and that if I hadn’t been a woman, he probably would have hit me. Bugs have real life consequences!

On another occasion, I kept hearing about a hardware defect. My boss kept telling me that customers were complaining about nothing. One day, I was working a trade show and this ‘unimportant’ defect affected me three times. Each time, it was a trivial movement on my part that took a lot of time to correct afterwards. I came back to the office and raised the alarm. This was why the new replacement product was only selling 1/10th the rate of the old one. I left the company before it was resolved.

Market Share Murder

I was hired once to take over a product that had been a leader in its market for many years. A competitor had come in and taken quite a bit of share from us, so my job was to make sure we gained the share back. The punch line was that the competitor had taken 90% market share, and the company had no commitment to really trying to revive the product. I quit within a year.

The Bathroom of Horrors

I once saw a Director at Apple do a presentation to all of the top press and analysts in the world about the company’s future direction. He impressed them with his demos and the answer to their questions and did a great job. Unfortunately for him he left his lapel mic on his collar and it was still on, so when he went in the bathroom to take care of business the entire auditorium heard him, including the flushing sound.

Competitive Nightmare

I joined a company as a PM and my first task was to launch a product. I hadn’t spec’d the product. I just had to launch it and make sure that there wasn’t a lot of inventory left over in the transition. In one of my first presentations to the sales people, one experienced person asked me how I could differentiate this product to that of the competition. And the answer was: we couldn’t. We were exactly like the competition – only 40% higher in price. After the name brand was taken away, we were the emperor with no clothes. I lasted 6 months – and moved on.

Want to Avoid Product Manager Nightmares?

Learn how to become a more effective Product Manager or Product Marketer and limit the horrors.

Take our Optimal Product Management and Product Marketing Training Course to make your work a less scary place.

October 31, 2017