I’ve worked in unscripted television for most of my adult life. From docusoaps on Bravo, to nature shows on Discovery, with a few Food Network shows in between, I’ve had the privilege of working in a variety of unscripted genres. I was drawn to product management because it seemed like an exciting field with interesting challenges to apply my systems-oriented thinking. At first, it seemed like the gap between television and product was going to huge, but each week at Product School I learned that my hard earned skills are transferable in interesting ways.
A Product Manager is a product’s ‘Showrunner’
The first thing I learned at Product School is that the product manager (PM) represents the user. What they mean is that the PM’s primary responsibility is to see all aspects of the product life cycle as if they were the ‘first user’. To do this the PM needs to empathize with their user’s desires, recognize their pain points, and understand the value proposition of the product. We also call this “owning the problem”.
The PM’s next most important responsibility is to articulate the user’s problems as clearly as possible. Clearly defining the problem to designers and engineers through user stories is notoriously difficult. Many of the people on your team may not have any knowledge of your users or their problems.
In television, the PM role relates most closely to the Executive Producer. Known in the entertainment industry as, the Showrunner, their primary job is to represent the audience. In the case of showrunning, “owning” a problem would refer to thinking about the challenges of putting together a show through the audience’s needs: do they need to be entertained, do they need to be informed, etc? The Showrunner expresses the audience’s needs to her team through notes.
Designers & Engineers and Story Producers & Editors
At Product School I’ve learned that while the PM own the problem, it’s the designers who own the solution, and engineers who own the implementation. Interestingly, I see another parallel to television post production where we could say that story producers own the solution and editors own the implementation.
We say that designers own the solution because they take the product manager’s descriptions of the user problems and create prototypes or mockups that visually demonstrate how the user will interact with the product. These design assets then serve as a ‘map’ that the engineering team will use to implement and code the product.
In television post production we can say that the story producers own the solution because they take the Showrunner’s notes and shift through the raw footage to find key moments that elicit emotion from the audience. These raw moments are passed along to the Editors who add music and create a cohesive flow to make the final show that you watch on tv.
Product Managers and Showrunners require an array of soft skills to get their job done. When working with teams of people, it is vital to treat all of your interactions as learning opportunities; getting to know how your team likes to work; listening and communicating clearly. In this way, television and product are the same: no matter who you’re working with or what you’re building teams of people require empathy and respect.
Scrum Masters and Post Supervisors
Managing the overall project, i.e, making the actual thing, is where product and television production differ most. In Agile software environments, their is often someone called a Scrum Master who manages the logistics & operations of the development team. The Scrum Master is responsible for tracking which engineer is working on what user story, and often acts as a coach to prevent burnout.
In television, the person responsible for logistics & operations is the Post Supervisor. The ‘post super’ keeps track of what each editor is working on day-to-day. They monitor the editorial team’s morale and work to remove obstacles that may be causing stress. Finally, a Post Supervisor’s most important responsibility is communicating the status of the show to all of the stakeholders; these may include Network Executives, Executive Producers, and the Bond Company representative.
Both of these roles, Scrum Master and Post Supervisor, draw from the discipline of project management. Smart resource allocation is a key component for both people. And terms such as ‘procedural requirements’ and ‘dependencies’ are very much a part of the decision making process. Neither need to use a Gantt chart regularly, but they could visual their work with one if they chose to do so.
Although I’ve oversimplified both processes, this exercise has proven useful because it’s helped ground my Product School learning experience. Many of the soft skills I’ve picked up over the years in television have parallels in product, the most important of which is empathy. Users, viewers, teammates; understanding that someone is trusting you to represent their needs is an honor and should be treated with respect.
When I signed up for Product School I was concerned that my years of experience wouldn’t be transferable. Learning how my past experience can be applied to future opportunities gives me the confidence to develop my own software projects. I look forward to continuing my journey into product management and am happy with the education I received at Product School.