Product Management in Open Source?

What Did The Open Source Product Manager Say To the Traditional Product Manager?

This particular post deals with the benefits and challenges of product management.  Where it’s been and where it’s going as it relates to open source.  First, I know what you’re thinking … product management in open source? That can’t be, and in some cases its true (See the summary of Pidgin’s resizable textbox).  In other cases there is too much “traditional” product management and not enough community driven product management.  So what is the happy medium and how should open source projects approach product management?   In this post I’m going to look at how community driven PM differs from traditional PM within a commercial open source project.


Let’s start by looking at a definition of product management.  Product management is discovering, documenting, and prioritizing user stories with the objective of maximizing some combination of users, sales revenue, and profit.  Notice I said ‘a’ definition of product management and not ‘the’definition.  The definition provided is a composite of several definitions of product management, but includes users as an equal to revenue and profit which is important whenever you’re discussing open source.  This differs from the  traditional definition of product management which historically has been manufacturer-driven and focused on sales and profit.   Traditional product management has focused on uncovering and solving the needs of a limited set of key stakeholders (ie. large customers, partners, etc).  This process is slow, error prone, and less efficient than community driven product management which relies on constant feedback (more on this later).  In the traditional model of product management PMs often select the key users to talk with, ask very specific questions dealing with perceived pain points, and interpret these results into a product roadmap.   And while this roadmap has user input, it is often viewed through the lens of a product manager and may not represent the key issues in and around a product.

This is in contrast to community driven product management which is user-centric and focused on constant feedback from within the open source community.   In this model product management recognizes that by empowering users, not just key stakeholders, an environment is created where innovation can flourish and out-pace traditional manufacturer-driven product development by removing communication barriers between product management and users.  The key success factor in community driven product management is actively engaging with the community and finding the users of your software who are driving innovation.  This innovation can take different forms: functional additions, idea generation, even new use cases.  These users will not only help define a better product roadmap but will also aid in the evangelism of your product, especially since their contributions are viewed as valuable.  The goal of product management is to solve real user problems under real scenarios.  By opening up your product management processes and engaging in an open information exchange with users you are more likely to get feedback on roadmap choices, product challenges, and innovative ideas.  This gives the community driven product manager much better information related to what the community actually needs and wants, which in turn leads to a better, more desirable product.

The benefits don’t stop at product management either.  By involving users in the planning process you create a more knowledgeable user base that drives demand and creates a shorter sales cycle.  Marketing derives great benefit from a passionate user base through uninitiated peer recommendation and marketplace momentum.  Support costs are lowered after momentum builds in your community and users begin to participate and take ownership in your product.  And last, but not least, Engineering benefits from better testing, community input, and bug fixes.  All of these benefits are derived from community users in a well functioning open source project.

So back to my original question …. What did the Open Source Product Manager Say to the Traditional Product Manager? …  “Watch and learn:)”.

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