When you think of Microsoft Windows, who is the first name that jumps to mind?
For most of us, the answer is Bill Gates.
But behind every great leader is a great team. And it’s here that Steven Sinofsky enters the picture.
Sinofsky is well known in the field of product management and software development as a pivotal figure in the development of household name applications such as Internet Explorer and Windows itself. He was also a key contributor to the creation and marketing of Microsoft’s initial online services, including Outlook.com and SkyDrive (now known as OneDrive).
Steven Sinofsky began his career at Microsoft in 1989, in the role of the software design engineer in development tools. From there, Sinofsky became a prominent member of the product management team, eventually overseeing six mainline releases of the Microsoft Office suite. Sinofsky worked his way up the ranks of Microsoft, eventually becoming President of the Windows Division at Microsoft, from 2009 until his resignation in 2012.
He now serves as a board partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz where he invests in — and advises — tech companies and start-ups.
As is a tradition for brands of its size, Microsoft doesn’t do things by halves. It also doesn’t do things like everybody else — product management included.
At most tech companies, the initialism "PM" stands for product manager. But at Microsoft, it stands for program manager.
In the earliest days of Steven Sinofsky’s career at Microsoft, the tech giant had something of an identity crisis within its product teams.
Simply put, Microsoft was missing a certain connection between the customer experience and the technical practicalities of the product. Finding a way to reconcile these seemingly disparate worlds led directly to the creation of the program manager role at Microsoft, where it remains a mainstay to this day.
So what exactly is a program manager? And how does it differ from the more widely-known product manager role?
Perhaps the best way to understand the difference is by way of scope.
A product manager is usually concerned with the specifics of a feature and its development — that’s bread-and-butter stuff. They should also think about how the feature improves the customer experience, but that’s not a set-in-stone aspect of the job description. It’s generally up to the company in question as to how much focus they’d like PMs to have outside of the product roadmap.
For Microsoft, however, program managers are responsible for a much more holistic view of the development process. Yes, they should be focused on the day-to-day development of their features. But they should also work on product marketing, customer evangelism, the creation of customer delight, how much ROI the feature generates, and more.
Essentially, the program manager role is a strategic position as much as it is a tactical one. And that's what makes it so different compared to the wider industry standard.
As one of the first program managers at Microsoft, Sinofsky benefited from being able to define the role as it evolved.
It was through this evolution that Steven developed his mantra: “Learning by shipping”.
This neat little soundbite encapsulates his entire approach to product management and product leadership. More importantly, it also sheds light on a specific aspect that Steven is very passionate about: the intrinsic link between the PM as a person and the product they help develop.
Here’s a quote from Steven himself on this very topic: "The most interesting thing about being a product manager, and scaling over time, is you. You have to figure out a way to scale yourself."
The driving force behind learning by the shipping is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway. It’s an action-oriented ethos that encourages PMs to try out their ideas in the real world — as opposed to merely thinking about the theory.
The problem with overthinking a feature or idea is twofold.
First, it delays the launch timeline, which can negatively impact the value of a feature in competitive industries. And second, it creates too many opportunities to second-guess a concept which, all too often, leads to it being canned.
Sinofsky’s credo, learning by shipping, short-circuits this process and essentially pushes PMs right off the cliff — whether they feel ready or not. Sink or swim, it’ll be the customers and the market that decides. And that’s usually where the most valuable experiences take place.
If you’re interested in Steven Sinofsky’s unique take on product management and want to learn more, you’re in luck.
Steven owns his own blog — appropriately named Learning By Shipping — and updates it regularly. Topics are wide-ranging but always highly relevant to the field of product management, often including fascinating insights about his time at Microsoft (info you simply won’t find anywhere else).