I’m Not a Doctor

Paul dropped a great analogy today when he compared product managers to doctors.

I love a good analogy, and this one is gold, at least when applied to sustaining a product.

Plus, it’s funny when you inject a little Hollywood into it.

Not sure which one of us is which

Not sure which one of us is which

When you’re not feeling well, you go to a doctor and explain what hurts. When you use a product, you tell the product manager what doesn’t work for you. If you like the way a product works, you don’t usually call up the PM and to say how awesome it is. Just like you don’t call up your doctor to say you’re feeling fine.

Not never, but not often.

Coincidentally, both medicine and tech have bugs and enhancements.

I’ve discussed cyberchondria, a.k.a. Internet doctoring, and user feedback generally includes a how-to component, especially with design concerns. The more people read up on symptoms and prescription drugs, the more apt they are to diagnose and treat themselves; similarly, the more people use software, the more likely they are to diagnose and fix bugs and enhancements.

It’s in our natures to solve problems ourselves.

Let’s take a break to make it clear that I am not comparing myself to a doctor in education or experience or importance, just extending the analogy.

Back to the analogy. Getting to the basis for requirements is similar to finding underlying conditions that could exist beyond outward symptoms. Users may say they need a specific enhancement, but without knowing what drives the need, it’s tough to make a call on the right way to meet the underlying requirement. Just like treating a persistent cough.

I suppose you could draw a parallel between beta-testing and drug trials too.

Finally, you have to trust your doctor to make good calls on your behalf. That’s the job, right? Same with product management, or at least it should be the same.

One place where the analogy breaks down is that products aren’t always singularly tailored to one user, like diagnoses are to individual patients. Sure, bugs could affect all your users, and enhancements could benefit them all too. But there are lots of cases when a change or fix for you could bork up things for others.

Extending the analogy, I guess developers would be surgeons, i.e. they’re called in to fix what ails the product or to enhance it. I have a mental image of Rich and Anthony in surgical masks typing away, dimly lit by the glow of a monitor. That’s Paul and me up in the observation room, eating Junior Mints.

Or you could cast our little team in your favorite episode of Scrubs or any other of the many shows and movies about medicine. It’s a little funny.

Anyway, Paul’s a smart guy, and this is a solid analogy.

Apologies to any real medical professionals or who were offended by it.

Find the comments.




  1. I think we have ESPN or something.

    I was thinking along these lines just the other day. Actually, I've used the Doctor analogy for a couple of years.

    I don't equate it to product management though, I equate it to code analysis/debugging/whatever you want to call it. Isn't that was medicine is (crudely)? Debugging a human being? The major difference is the whole life and death thing. Also, they have infinitely more variables to take into account.

    I'm sure you could apply it to support people as well. There are almost an infinite number of combinations of applications out there. Which OS? Which OS Version? Which apps are installed? What version of each app?

    Fun thought experiment though.

  2. One more thing…

    When Kate was crashing/coding, the Doctor was asking my wife questions about her history. He wasn't consulting with other Doctors…but my wife. She speaks their language (i'm medically stoopid).

    It was a bit of an out-of-body experience watching them work, trying to find the root cause of Kate's failing body. I can't seem to remember them ever having an “Aha!” moment…Kate just kicked Death in the…

    Point being, I think your analogy holds true to software specifically and problem solving in general.

  3. That is an interesting analogy and works pretty well. Regarding your point about the difference vis-a-vis product vs. diagnosis for the individual, there is real concern that at times doctors don't treat the patient but instead just focus too much on just the disease and symptoms that present, leading to incomplete results. It makes one wonder if this issue couldn't be addressed more effectively in product design as well.

  4. It applies to a lot of technical disciplines. I see the PM as the doctor overseeing the overall health of the product.

  5. Interesting point about problem-solving, since I sometimes say I solve problems with software. It sounds way more important than it is, which is kinda the problem with this analogy in general.

    No way to equate life/death w/software.

    I did fight the urge to use quotation marks around enhancements though 🙂

  6. This gets a bit dicey with design, since software design (interface, specifically) is fraught with opinion and more art than science. Interface paradigms are frequently based on learned behavior and not on best design, e.g. do it the way x product does it.

    Following learned behavior treats a symptom, i.e. making it a known entity, but this also makes it difficult to find out if a new design pattern works better.

  7. Second other thing…

    Anytime I hear the word “doctor” I immediately think of 2 things:
    1. Star Trek: “Dammit Jim, I'm just a Doctor” (or whatever he said)
    2. Spies Like Us:








    I wish I had become a Doctor just to do that all the time…

  8. Well, I think of tikibar;-)

    Lala (Lalaly) : Aye Aye, Doctor Captain!
    Doctor (wistfully): That's a name I've not heard in a long time … a long time … a long time … because it's not my name.

  9. We could even go for the Colonel Doctor.

    I swear to all that is holy in this world, I sat next to a woman last year (a fellow Oracle Developer no-less), who upon cutting her hair, resembled the good Doctor Colonel, or is it Colonel Doctor? To boot, she was Ukrainian/Russian, just like the character. My wife bought her an action figure…she didn't like me much. 😉

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