The need for domain experts
Conta Azul is a platform that connects Brazilian small businesses to their accountants and everything they need to run their businesses. It connects small business owners to their bank in order to provide centralized finance control of their businesses. It connects them to the government in order to generate invoices and better control the taxes they need to pay. It connects them to fintechs in order to provide financial services like payments and credit. And it also connects them to many types of systems such as CRMs, e-commerce providers, and niche specific ERPs through it APIs. For the accountants, it provides a CRM so they can manage their customers as well as a cloud-based accounting system, so they can work in the same version of the finance and accounting data their customers are managing.
In order to cope with all the complexity of accounting and tax management, Conta Azul has some Product Managers who are expert in taxes and accounting. Some of the product managers there have a business accounting degree and before joining Conta Azul they worked as accountants and made the career change to product manager at some point in their work life.
Complex domains may require dedicated domain experts
Accounting, finance and tax management are very complex domains. Even though we had at Conta Azul some product managers with expertise or even a degree in those domains, we perceived that’s not enough. We needed someone dedicated to helping us cope with this complexity. And when I mention “we”, I’m not talking only about the product managers, or the product development team, who needed someone to talk to about the complexities of these domains so they can implement it into the product. I’m talking about the entire company. Customer support needed a go-to person to talk about complex issues that the customer brought. The marketing team needed someone to help “translate” the technical wording of accounting, finance and tax management to a more understandable language. Salespeople needed to talk to an expert to understand the complexities and be able to fit customers’ needs and problems into the product they are selling.
For this reason, we created what we called the compliance team, with experts in accounting, finance and tax management. In my view, it makes sense to have this team as close as possible to product managers. This team will serve many areas of the company such as customer support, marketing, and sales, but being closer to the product development team will make it easier for the team to build a product not only more compliant to regulations but also easier to understand and to use.
Wikipedia brings a good definition of this role:
"A subject-matter expert (SME) or domain expert is a person who is an authority in a particular area or topic. The term domain expert is frequently used in expert systems software development, and there the term always refers to the domain other than the software domain. A domain expert is a person with special knowledge or skills in a particular area of endeavor (e.g. an accountant is an expert in the domain of accountancy). The development of accounting software requires knowledge in two different domains: accounting and software. Some of the development workers may be experts in one domain and not the other."
At Conta Azul this team reported into one of our Group Product Managers, who was responsible for leading other product managers, so leading people was not an issue for him. Actually, it was an interesting new challenge, to lead other people that were not product managers.
Even though I recommend this team reporting the product development team, it is ok the have it reporting to another area in the organization, as long as it stays as close as possible to the product development team.
What types of product may require domain experts?
Recently I talked to some people from companies that also have the need for domain experts. One offers credit to users and the other one offers insurance, both very regulated markets that require dedicated experts to support the entire company to deal with their markets complexity. Other examples are banking, medicine, aviation, law and so on.
Besides being complex, some markets probably are regulated by the government and may be subject to auditing and changes by the governing entity. This only supports the need for a dedicated person or team to help cope with this complexity and constant change. It may be tempting to join the two roles, product manager and domain expert in one person but I recommend not doing this for two reasons. First, it is not easy to find someone who is both a good product manager and a deep expert in a certain domain. The second reason is that each of these roles has a lot to do in their day-to-day jobs.
If you are in a traditional company who is building their digital product, most certainly you already have domain experts in your company. You just need to bring them closer to the product development process.
On the other side, there are markets that are less complex and minimally or not regulated at all. If your digital product is within these markets, normally the product manager can be also the expert in the domain. Some examples are content publishing, advertisement, marketplaces, CRM, etc. Note that I said that the product manager CAN be the domain expert. However, if you believe that your product and the context where your product is used are complex, even being in a non or minimally regulated market, feel free to add domain experts to your team.
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