Many organizations don’t always start with a culture of product management. Sometimes there are unclear definitions and undetermined boundaries on who are product managers and what it actually takes to manage products. How can PMs bring the fluidity of product processes to their companies? Metron Aviation Product Leader Marcus Lowther shares what it takes to transition to a product management culture in an established industry.

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On Product Management in the Aviation Industry

Marcus became interested in aviation while in middle school. With a background as a mechanical and aerospace engineer, he saw how slow the process could be to create great products and wanted to help fix it by creating a product management culture within the aviation industry.

“One of the constant challenges with aviation, and maybe a little bit less so when we get into unmanned aircraft, but thinking about transportation in general, anytime you get into a car, there’s a chance that you’re going to have an accident. It’s just part of something that we’ve unfortunately come to accept. But on a per-trip basis, aviation is almost 100 times safer by the number of fatalities per accident than ground transportation.

This is by design. Any crash, whether fatal or not, gets lots of press, people react … It’s scary. You’re in a giant tube 1000s of feet in the air. You don’t want anything to go wrong. So the hardest part about aviation is that you have that background of safety is paramount. To build features on top of that just takes longer, you have to have a little bit more checks in place. So that the air traffic control side can’t be sacrificed for the air traffic management side.

One of the things that seems like such a natural fit for product management is, in the concept definition phase of air traffic management, you spend a lot of time there because there are so many different parties involved that need to come to some sort of agreement before you implement anything. In aviation, there’s a process that people call collaborative decision-making, which is basically getting everyone in the room that’s involved, whether it’s airports, airlines, the government, the vendors, and anyone else that has a stake in the process.

All those large organizations need to come to some agreement. In product management, that could be just a series of user stories, epics, or whatever you’re working toward. In aviation, there’s something called a concept of operations: how are you going to use whatever feature you’re talking about. You spend a lot of time on that process, which is very similar to product management before you even start to build something.”

On Product Management vs. Project Management

Within the aviation industry, there are a lot of projects where companies place bids to do something for the government or another industry. This is different from product builds, where companies develop a concept and work fluidly on it to bring to market. Marcus discusses the difference between the two and how the industry is trying to shift to more product-focused.

“I see the difference as the product manager really sets the vision for where something is going. You may or may not have a project come along that aligns with that, and you have the flexibility or hopefully the autonomy to say, we’re not going to accept this project because it doesn’t fit in. If you do accept a project, hopefully it’s in line with your roadmap or new sets of features that you’re working on. It’s a little bit of products lead a little bit more, while projects maybe more of a response or just the implementation side of something. …

[Product processes is] something that we struggle with day-to-day and we’re in the process of formally transitioning to a product company, which means DevOps and daily releases and just a lot more fluidity in how we release our products. The balance between product and project comes from the input on how those requirements for what you’re building gets set from a product standpoint, influencing that product process however you can early on so then when the project gets awarded, you’re just off marching to what you initially wanted to build.”

On Representation and Diversity In Tech

Marcus and host Neha also discussed diversity in tech, as the industry has been called out more recently for not having wholesome, diverse representation.

“The biggest thing is to make it clear that you’re knowledgeable and you belong. It took me a little while to feel like that was something I could live up to, even though I had been in school forever and had the technical background, but to really just own it and say, like, ‘I’m here, I’m just as qualified, if not more qualified than other people in the room.’ Then just to not be shy about if someone isn’t having their voice heard or side comments about a race or gender topic to chime in and say something for the people who are in the room.”

About the speaker
Marcus Lowther Metron Aviation, Senior Analyst and Product Manager Member
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