There are many “Product Management 101” articles that emphasize what does it mean to practice product management, yet few even discuss initial days of being in the role of a Product Manager. I’ve been asked many times about — “How I got into Product Management?”, “How did I practice this PM skill?” and “How was my experience in the initial years as a PM?”. My simple short answer would be — Well, honestly, I’d planned for a few things and the rest just occurred.
What excites me more are the queries around — What does the first version of being a product manager look like? Feel like? I vividly remember mine. And so, I decided to contribute my bit by penning this article — Product Manager version 0.1(released)
Some Background …
As a teenager growing up, I loved the arts, music, and philosophy. Fortunately or unfortunately, I ended up graduating as an engineer and landed up my first job as a software programmer. I was not geeky enough to write code that flows like a poem but was useful enough to be hired by MNCs and earn a paycheck. What I really like, and still like, about programming is that it makes you think — unidirectionally and multi-directionally. It allows you to pick a problem, decompose it into its minutest set of premises and assumptions, and arrive at the final solution. This penchant for coding led me to build impactful software products. I had a good run in my career, but something didn’t feel right.
As I spent more time in understanding the complexities of product development, I developed more appreciation for business and user experience. The coder in me developed an alter ego of a businessman and of a UX designer. This didn’t happen overnight. It took me a few years, but in one epiphany it became all-clear that I was itching to become a Product Manager. I remember, that I experienced some unusual euphoria associated with this realization. It gradually dawned on me that being at the crossroads of coding, business, and design was not an identity crisis. It was a trait of a different kind of professional — Product Managers. Since then, below pic always puts a smile on my face
Well, having an interest in product management is one thing, and delivering in a product role is a different ball game altogether. After spending a decade of software development and transitioning into a product role was not easy for me. Shifting internally to a PM role was challenging because your current peers would mostly have a bias in treating you as a software developer. Besides that, most of my employers preferred to have MBA grads as product managers. I decided to play safe — get an MBA and get then into Product management.
The Transition …
Well, I added a lot of valuable business skills during my MBA. Did several case studies, dozens of mock interviews, and hundreds of resume reviews. Finally, I was lucky enough to land my first post-MBA job as a Product Manager. Woohoo! Now, what? I had to walk the talk and this is where the rubber meets the road.
My initial few months were okayish. I was assigned a few non-critical products, a small dev team, and allowed to decide my own pace of work. However, I had developed a bad habit of force-fitting things. I consciously made efforts to use frameworks (picked from PM books) for my daily tasks. I was failing and I couldn’t understand what was I doing wrong.
This is when I had to overcome a huge learning curve; Untold by many and captured in few books. I’d like to share 15 such key lessons and suggest what needs to be done to cement gaps in skills.
Lesson #1 Build Product sense
Build Product sense or acumen is something that can’t be developed by “just” reading books. It’s organic. You will learn it at work. Theoretical frameworks augment your skills and structured approach facilitate your productivity. However, we, as PMs, have to develop situational awareness. This might include anything from understanding team dynamics to org structure, to product context, etc.
How to practice this PM skill? I suggest, engage in conversations with as many PMs as possible. Develop a habit of engaging in healthy debates. Try to see both sides of a coin. It’s ok to be on the minority side as long as you can clearly represent your point of view
Lesson #2: Try Mentorship
Choose a mentor wisely. Learn the tricks of the trade from him/her. This is one of the most judicious uses of your time with a great ROI. A mentor within your organization would be ideal; They’ll make it a lot easier for you to avoid the obvious pitfalls of product management and help you in navigating the organization as well
How to practice PM skills? Be prudent, and don’t be in a rush to have a mentor right away. Listen, Observe, and Identify folks who make you feel comfortable and boost your productivity at work. They would be an ideal mentor for you
Lesson #3: Nourish Relationships
Network and network a lot during the initial months of your PM career. Spend a good chunk of your time in building relationships. Prefer to have more “face time” with your peers and team members. Just like any relationship, there would be a give and take of work, ideas, etc.
How to practice this PM skill? Make sure you spend enough time not just with customers but with your team as well. Be on good terms with the engineering manager. Occasional hiccups are ok. Just go out, make new acquaintances, and be there for them when needed. Have your presence felt and get noticed. If this is unnatural to you, it is fine. You can save your effort here and put it to use on polishing other things
Lesson #4: Learn Influencing
Even as a Junior PM team, learn to exert influence in your group or what I’d call as a sphere of influence. Influencing begins first within your team, then across teams, and all the way to top management. As PMs, we don’t have any official authority over developers or UX, yet we are fully accountable for product success. In my experience, a product manager with a string of product successes and connections exerts higher influence. It also makes it a bit easy to obtain buy-in for trying out new ideas or POCs.
How to practice this PM skill? Influence is mostly an outcome of the way you conduct your product management tasks. Be it product planning, execution, or delivering. The more positive results we bring for the team and the firm, the more influential we become
Lesson #5: Practice Articulation
One of the most important skills of a product manager is how effectively you can communicate or articulate your thoughts and ideas to the audience. You don’t want to have a brilliant idea yet look like a confused soul when describing it to your peers or boss. Articulation becomes especially very important when you need to make a presentation to C-Level executives. For many, poor articulation skills often becomes a deal-breaker.
How to practice this PM skill? Keep things simple and transparent. For every situation, build a context. A context that involves you asking fundamental questions — Why, what, how, when, who, where, etc for a scenario. This will bring in the much-needed clarity and help you in conveying your thoughts succinctly. Try doing demo talks with your friends, peers or seniors and see whether you need to work on your content or on your presentation skills
Lesson #6: Rely on Facts
Get all of your facts 100% correct 100% of the time. There is no exception to it, especially for junior PMs. A misrepresented fact or ill-researched report can severely dent your credibility. Many MNCs approach product management in a very data-centric way. A PM’s job then becomes to collect, synthesize, and present the facts in a comprehensible manner.
How to practice this PM skill? Polish your qualitative and quantitative skills. Speak to your customers and listen to their pain points. Perform competitor research and see how well is your product positioned in the market. Bring in those market insights to your team and tell them why building certain “x” matters and improves the lives your end-user
Lesson #7: Learn to Say NO
a PM has to make several critical decisions on the fly, almost daily, on the fly. A consistent and structured approach to decision making helps a lot. As a PM we are often bombarded by product requests. Requests to build a new feature by a client or a “wow” feature for customer delight or something that is in your product backlog. There also could be a hard request by your superior or from top-management. What do you do in such situations? A simple solution is to provide a justification, politely say no and turn down the request. Of course, this is much easier said than done.
How to practice this PM skill? This is very situational, but most of the time you should be saying “no” than “yes”. Most of the requesters wouldn’t want to hear a no for their ask. So, either they’ll end up providing a strong business rationale or revise their requirements or defer their ask and in the worst-case cancel their request. In any case, this provides you enough breathing space and the ability to stay focussed on critical aspects of the business.
Lesson #8: Focus on Prioritization
This is the bread and butter of a PM’s job. Every day a PM has to make countless decisions and juggle across various responsibilities. For someone new to product management, this can seem quite daunting. This is where Ruthless prioritization comes into the picture. I can safely say that this is one of the most essential skills that’s difficult to master. Prioritizing and truly believing in it does not happen easily. But I can also say that with the time you’ll get better at it and there’s not much to worry
How to practice this PM skill? Identify a list of tasks you have to perform and develop a framework to stack rank them in the order of highest to lowest priority. For e.g. one framework could be to perform a simple cost-benefit analysis of doing each task. You can also adopt other frameworks such as RICE, Kano Model, MOSCOW, etc. With prioritization, make sure of conveying the importance of each task to your team members.
Lesson #9: Get your Motivation
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. This phrase holds so true for product managers. There’s a high probability that in the early stages of your professional career you will face many upsets, for whatever reasons. It is very important to stay motivated and move forward. This is because your entire team’s machinery is pegged on you and your lack of motivation may quickly bring down the entire team’s morale
How to practice this PM skill? Take pauses to refresh yourself as many times as you require. Speak to your peers or boss and express your feelings. Reduce stress and make yourself feel light. Do something different to take your mind off. Maybe, rejuvenate yourself! The whole idea of these activities is to reset your state of mind and resume your daily tasks with vigor
Lesson #10: Belief in Customer centricity
Every PM chants about “Customer centricity” but not everyone tends to follow it. Sometimes we get caught in the trap of projecting our opinions as to the voice of customers. Mostly this happens due to our inherent biases. This is detrimental to product success. Representing a customer and being their champion requires you to have deep customer empathy. Once you’ve understood customer pain points, you need to become #1 obsessive about the “right” problem being addressed and relentless in getting the “right” solution that addresses customer needs.
How to practice this PM skill? Know thy customer. See them, talk to them, and listen to them. Their pain points will not be evident right away. Try to dig deep into why so and so “X” is problematic for them. Once this is narrowed down then focus on asking what on earth will #1 make their life easier (probable solution) #2 put a smile on their face (customer delight).
Listen “attentively” and “empathize” with them. Think beyond the obvious pain points. Sometimes, there are latent undiscovered needs, which event customers cannot elucidate properly. Develop perspectives by talking to different user personas such as family members, friends, office colleagues, etc. Last but least — Practice, Practice, and Practice
Lesson #11: Set high Accountability
Being a product manager is not easy. We need to own the success and failure of our product. Sometimes PMs might not have answers for all questions but then it’s our job to get those — directly or indirectly. Enjoy the sunny days but also be ready to weather the rainy days. You need to learn accountability and also ensure accountability within your team.
How to practice this PM skill? Be responsible. Inculcate openness and be ready to address any product-specific queries. Try to know the ins and outs of your existing products and customer needs. This information induces conviction and the drive to make confident decisions. Be fully aware. This will help in minimizing your attribution of failures to external or uncontrollable factors. Finally, learn to accept the outcome of your efforts — success or failure, they are temporary.
Lesson #12: Develop a Growth Mindset
As a Product Manager, there’s so much to learn from your peers and surroundings. Keeping an open mind and an attitude to make things happen, imbibe positivity. This also reflects in your communication and body language at work. Consequently, it makes you look more approachable to discuss new ideas and makes others around you feel comfortable. Many firms build a culture that instills a growth mindset for their employees.
How to practice this PM skill? Be malleable. Acknowledge a challenge and work towards a solution. Leverage your past experiences, but do not be fixated with the successes. Learn daily and Nourish yourself with knowledge and skills. Read books, take online classes, and try to stay abreast of the latest information relevant to your product. More importantly, surround yourself with people who inspire you to stay positive in tough situations
Lesson #13: Create Visibility
A product manager sets the North star for the team goals. While the team is busy at work, other stakeholders — customers, sales/marketing, management, etc. are curious to know what’s brewing! This is where the product manager acts as a bridge to the external world. As a PM you often have to represent your entire team, either in their presence or absence
How to practice this PM skill? As a PM you will be the eyes, ear, nose, and mouth of your team. To provide visibility of your team’s work to the outside world might require you to perform demos, create customer trials, organize roadshows, conduct brown bag sessions, and evangelize within your firm. Also, sometimes even with have a brilliant vision, a validated idea, and a firm execution plan things don’t happen in your favor. In such instances, you have to make enough noise to be heard by the management, and get their attention to things troubling you or your team’s productivity.
Lesson #14: Be Tactical
A PM has to be strategic and tactical in his/her decision making. To many, this skill might be unnatural. That’s ok! The good part is that — it can be practiced. As you spend more time with top-management, C-level execs you will notice that almost all decision making is strategic in nature. The detailing of work is left to mid-management and their subordinates. Therefore, it becomes very critical that you get the pulse of the organization and the vision of your top-management. Everything you and your team do is well aligned with the business priorities and the firm’s vision.
How to practice this PM skill? Think macro. Go beyond the obvious data points and the customer asks. Consider the entire gamut of factors that influence your product planning and execution. Identify parts that can provide you sustained competitive advantage. Make choices that are not myopic and result in a high return on investment. Speak to your boss to shadow him in executive meetings and share your point of view with him or her. Make sure you have an opinion and are well heard.
Lesson #15: Connect the Dots
A Product Manager is considered by many as the CEO of a product. A product manager is also a guiding beacon for the team. As a PM, you have to overview many opportunities, rewards, constraints, challenges, situations. Over time, you need to develop mastery in dealing with many variables and juggling across priorities. For this reason, the ability to connect dots across various such dimensions from past to future helps.
How to practice this PM skill? There are two mechanisms to expedite this skill — Be proactive in taking up more challenges and get more exposure or be reactive and learn this skill patiently over time. The choice is entirely yours.
This brings me to the conclusion of this long article. As you might have observed, none of the above lessons emphasize on hard skills. In fact, most of them might be termed as soft skills. Well, that’s the purpose of sharing them. Each of these lessons was important and crucial to me during my formative years as a Product Manager. Much of it couldn’t be found in books, but rather experienced first hand.
This was my story and I am sure, every product manager has a different background and a different story to share. So what was yours? Please do share in the comments section