Dog Whistles

There are some subvocal phrases that get your product management hackles up. How to identify them, and recognize them for what they are and what they imply

Dog Whistles
Photo by Joe Caione on Unsplash

Dog whistles. Sub sonic (or conversations you shouldn’t hear) sounds that make the hairs on the back of your neck raise. Every profession has some, and product management or product marketing are clearly no different.

There are some things you hear that instantly get your hackles up. They come from all groups. They all mean that trouble of one form or another is inbound. Sit back, relax, and see if you agree with these:

I’m refactoring the {insert feature name} code: Refactoring, groan. This means that some developer is rewriting an existing piece of software that presumably works. While there are often really good reasons to refactor some code, improving efficiency, greater scalability, less processing overhead being some of the more common good reasons, if someone is refactoring something just to do it, it means trouble.

If something needs to be refactored, add it to the backlog, and plan for it in the scrum. If it isn’t worth that extra homework, don’t do it.

If I just had the purple haze thingamajig, I would have made my forecast: Yep, this is sales blaming the product for their failure to achieve forecast or quota. Often this is a sideswipe at the product team coupled with a “those idiots never listen to me” thrown in for good measure. Of course, every time I have gone against my better judgement (usually at the point of a gun) and added this mythical killer feature, this same salesperson still fails to deliver orders, with yet another excuse. This is why while I listen to sales bleating about requirements, I usually prioritize it about where I would rank the janitor’s requests.

Development isn’t working hard enough. How come they can’t be as productive as at a startup?: This is almost never uttered where an engineer or an engineering manager can hear. Probably because they go apeshit, insanely off the edge. Management, marketing and sales all have a rose-tinted view of how things were at the beginning, you know, in the way back time. Yes, a lot was done, because you were defining a market, a product and reacting instantly to feedback. But then you mature. You go public, or are bought by a public company. You institute standards including doing documentation, help, customer training. You start testing before you release. But most importantly, you become a business. No longer does every developer, every receptionist, every graphical artist have equity in the company. More than the startup camaraderie where everybody works insane hours, it is the potential to get the big payout. Once that is gone, it becomes a job.

And don’t give me any bullshit about how sales is working hard. When you can call them most any day of any week, and catch them in their home office, any high-and-mighty claim to working ‘round the clock goes out the window.

We just need to better leverage our social media marketing and our sales will go through the roof: I hear this a lot, even from good marketing people, not to mention the entire sales team. The internet with Twitter, Facebook, and an app for a smartphone are all it takes to have a product gravy train. We just need to get more Twitter leads (yes, I actually heard this from a VP of sales) and the orders will roll in.

Yes, social media is important, and a necessary component of customer awareness. But it isn’t manna from Heaven. You still have a funnel, you still have leads, prospects, opportunities and (hopefully) closed won orders. But the dream that the interwebz will mean sales can only work 1/2 day a week and make bank is still that, a pipe dream.

Product management does too much tactical items: Mostly from sidebar conversations, often at the senior leader or executive level. Hell, it is a common complaint even within the product management community, how to balance tactical firefighting and strategic efforts. However, one thing not acknowledged is that a lot, if not most of the tactical tasks on product management’s plate drive revenue. Creating cheatsheets so that sales orders the right things (reducing delays in shipping). Accurate forecasting for production (so we can fulfill orders at quarter close). Specials for far too many orders. Micromanaging the product lifecycle (which sounds strategic, but really is more like babysitting), removing barriers to progress in development (breaking out their credit card if we need to quickly buy a license to a robust mail stack). All in a day’s work.

Trust me, we are aware that we do too much fire fighting. But fire your product manager, and you will quickly learn the value of that fire fighting. If your product manager can’t get the needed strategic work done, then get a better product manager. But to just intimate that the tactical items aren’t valuable to the organization just pisses the product manager off. Then she will quit, and you will suddenly have marketing VP’s doing this stuff. And trust me, you don’t want that.

The product is delayed again, can’t product management get anything done?: Trust me, this bugs product management to no end as well. However, regardless of how well the requirements are written up front, there is inevitable scope creep. Perhaps an important customer bends the ear of an executive. Or sales presents a unified front to the CEO to add this one, itty bitty feature, because you know our competitor is beating us up over it. Or frigging Microsoft goes end of life on a core OS component you need. Suddenly the scope increases. Unplanned efforts are tacked on. Someone with no knowledge of software or hardware development will spitball a transition to 64bit clean code as “it shouldn’t add more than a week or two max to the project”.

This is where product management earns its money. We need to push back (as often as possible) and negotiate the impact when possible. Communication, rationalization, and constant feedback on the program help here.

But it really hurts to be seen as the cause of the delays.


I could go on for days. Product management, being at the fulcrum of so much of the organization, naturally is implicated in lots of dissatisfaction. Still, it cuts deeply when you hear some of these backhanded insults lobbed under the radar.

After more than 20 years in the trenches, you learn to navigate, to fight back, and to tactfully respond. Much of these impressions come from groups that truly don’t understand product management or product marketing. While we do wear big red S’s on our chests, there are limits.