5 Tips for Product Management at Big Companies

Copyright: Scott Adams

It feels like PM hiring season right now. I know several new grads starting Associate Product Manager (APM) roles. I know senior engineers starting new PM jobs. And since moving from SF to NYC this year, I now know many people in finance looking to make the move to Tech PM. Change is in the air :-)

There’s a lot of advice out there about building products and getting into PMing. Feel free to read that on your own time. Below you can read my tips for PMing in a large tech company and things I wish I knew when I started.

Disclaimer: I’m a current PM at Google. My views are my own, and not that of my employer or anyone else.

1. Networks Matter

If you read nothing else, just read this section.

At a startup, you might be the only PM. There are no cross-Product Area (xPA) dependencies because you don’t have a product, let alone multiple products. At a big company, there are many cases where you need to collaborate with other PMs:

  • You depend on another product, or vice versa
  • You are launching a new market/segment, and others have launched there before
  • You need data about something
  • You need to convince a Director/VP to do something

In general, if you have a problem, there should be another PM who has solved a similar problem. Building a strong PM network will help you learn about the company faster, understand how your work ties into the bigger strategy, and help you influence and guide product decisions.

This is also a great way to learn from others’ experiences. De-risk your decisions as much as you can by relying on past data. Overtime you learn what data is useful and what should be ignored, but step one is to get that data/experience and that’s where your network comes in.

One reason why rotational programs are so great is that you meet people from all over the company, quickly building a network. If you don’t have that, put in extra effort to meet other PMs, tell them what you do, learn about their role, and plant the seeds of a budding network. This will have a higher ROI than anything else you can do.

2. Understand the PM Role In Your Company

PMing at Google is very different from PMing at Amazon or Microsoft or Apple. It might as well be a different job. One reason why PMs sometimes struggle to be effective when moving companies is because they apply their old workflow to a new environment.

Every blogpost will tell you “PM 101: Start with the user”. When you take a PM job, your colleagues are the users. You have to understand how they operate, what they expect from you, and what you can expect from them.

Everyone has different strengths, and it’s important to craft an environment where you can leverage your strengths. But it’s risky to do too much too soon. The best PMs spend the time to understand what is happening and how, and figure out how they can slot in. Only after do they tweak and modify to fit their style.

The First 90 Days is a great book about how to ramp up in a new job.

3. Be Fast AND Slow

When I started working, I was always in a rush. I wanted to move fast and prove that I was competent and a doer. The classic “startup mindset in a big company.” The problem was that many things were out of my control. I could rush to get work done, but then I’d have to wait on other people to review or build or act. And they had other priorities, so we weren’t moving in concert. As my old rowing coach used to say:

It’s not important how fast you are moving. It’s more important that you are working hard enough and strong enough to move well within the boat.

For things like user research, I was flabbergasted that we needed a month to recruit participants, write questions, prototype, and then analyze results. Why couldn’t we just go to Starbucks down the street?!?

The answer, as you probably know, is that research or design or various other things are not just a “checkbox” that you do and move on. It takes time to do it right, unless you’re building a product for people in Starbucks stores :-)

At a Big Company, you have the luxury of more time and the ability to Do Things Right. At the same time, a lot of time can be wasted spinning on things that don’t matter. That’s where you come in. As a PM, you need to move fast and push things forward, but slow down as needed. So the team moves fast as a unit, but activities happen at the appropriate pace.

4. Communicate At Different Levels

A critical skill that any Big Company PM needs is to communicate an appropriate amount of information. If you’re talking to an executive, you need to give a high level view, but be able to deep dive into details as needed. When working cross-functionally with marketing or PR, talk about launch dates and launch plans. With engineering, be concrete about product requirements and have data to support that.

At a smaller company, you have less hierarchy and a less complicated organizational structure. In a big co, you probably have a manager, a director, a VP, and others above you, and various peers (Eng, UX, Legal, Marketing, etc.). Be crisp about who you are meeting, what they need to know, and deliver that message.

This is especially true in person but also over email. Don’t ramble. Get to the point, and be clear. This applies anywhere, but in a big company you’re going to have 10+ people on emails and they do not have time to decipher what you are trying to say.

5. Just Shut Up

If you don’t have more to say, just shut up and listen :-)

Thanks for reading. Would love any thoughts or comments below.