A Product Manager’s Musings

A Product Manager is a strange occupation in Silicon Valley.

You’re the mini CEO. But not really.

You’re the jack of all trades but master of none.

You’re the one with all the power and yet none at the very same time.

You’re the one with all the responsibility and yet have none at the very same time.

And truthfully, all of these are true, and none of them are true.

Seriously, being a product manager sometimes feels like you’re in some awful Zen koan riddle that you think you found the answer to, but really never do. Ever.

So I’ve been a SaaS product manager on the Enterprise side now for five years. And I thought it was a good time to reflect on what I’ve learnt (some stuff), what I didn’t (a lot of stuff) and where I screwed up (many times). It’s interesting that when I first started, I often saw ads for product management that said “must have five years experience”, “must have ten years experience”.

And at the five year mark, I think I finally understand why.

Don’t worry if Engineering hates you. Everyone hates you. Get used to it.

I can’t imagine a relationship more setup from the start to be naturally antagonistic. You have to tell Engineering what to do, but have no authority, and apparently have to convince them via some reality distortion field (well, Steve Jobs had it and wasn’t he the best PM ever? And hey, wasn’t he _such_ a nice guy?).

Engineering automatically see you as the enemy.

Why? Because you make them do work. And sometimes it’s not always on the stuff they would prefer to be working on.

If you have an Engineering background they see you as meddlesome and annoying.

If you don’t, they see you as useless and incompetent.

If you give them too much work, they outright refuse to do it: “That’s 1 user point over our velocity for this sprint, sorry you have to cut something.” What?!?

If you don’t give them enough, then you didn’t have enough “vision” to motivate the team.

Which is when other PMs start poaching your resources, always fun.

And it’s not just Engineering. Everyone’s going to blame you for everything, most of it out of your direct control.

“Where’s my feature request I asked for three years ago?”

“Why is the release late? YOU committed this date, didn’t you?”

“Why am I finding this bug after your release? Do you not even QA?”

“The customer wants to speak to the product manager, they aren’t happy with the product”

Everybody is going to hate you at one point or another. Customers, Engineers, Services. Other PMs. Everyone.

But that’s okay, because if you’re good, sometimes, just sometimes, you ship good product. And it makes those people that hate you, well some of them, like you a little bit more.

Never inherit another product manager’s product

Because with it, you get all their design mistakes, all the things they deferred till later because it was too hard, all the issues that they never got around to fixing from the previous PM before them. Congratulations! These are your issues now.

I sometimes feel PMs must have some of the highest attrition rates in the industry. How can you not feel demotivated when being handed a lump of coal and told to turn it into a diamond?

It’s very rare you ever get a chance to build something from the ground up that’s yours. I myself only ever got that chance twice, in the last five years, and only once did it actually see light of day to get used by customers.

If you get the chance to build something new, take it. Because you will never feel a rush like something you got to build yourself and see it become successful.

Attend scrum calls and sit with your engineers

I don’t know why some product managers feel it’s okay not to attend scrum.

How else would you know what your guys are working on? How else would you know what might be blocking them and delaying your release? How else would your team start to trust you and maybe not even hate you when they see you’re trying your best, just as they are.

Embedding yourself with the engineers is key. A 5 minute conversation is worth a 20 page email. I don’t see how some companies think slide decks are an adequate replacement for conversations.

You’re the everything

In the early days, you are the Sales Engineer, the CSM, the Support guy and anythingelsethatneedsdoing. In fact, probably the only two roles I never had were pure Engineering and pure Sales.

And honestly, in those days, you’re just trying to get to the next customer, not trying to sit in some ivory tower and dream up product strategy.

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. Big company, lots of people to do everything where you _do_ have the luxury to sit around and dream up product strategy.

But the problem is you’re no longer on the front line. You’re no longer on every sales call pushing product. And you can lose touch.

Never lose touch. A good PM welcomes every customer interaction he can get (yes, even the abusive ones). Because that’s the only way to know what’s going on. Who are you losing deals to? What do customers think of your product? Where do they need help? Are they even using it?

One of the most surprising things I found were the customers who paid, but then never used the product. Of course they churned, but they sure wasted a lot of money doing so.

So, I don’t know that I’ve become any better a product manager over the past five years, but I sure know now a whole lot of things that would have made me a better PM than when I started.

And if I was to answer my Zen koan now, I’d say:

ship product and make happy customers.

That’s all you have to do. Everything else falls into place after that.