Yash on product management — How many hats can you wear?

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  • Yashaswi Prateek, Senior Product Manager, Coviam Technologies
  • Previously worked as a PM at Times Internet Limited and as a Scientist at ISRO
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Product management is one of the most misunderstood and ambiguous roles in the world. Tech leaders think that a product manager is only a spec writer and with major technological advances happening around us, the role of a PM (Product Manager) is becoming even more ambiguous.

“You think this is ambiguous? Try moving up the ladder and experience the clarity. Ambiguity only increases as you grow up the ladder, so get used to it.”

-Someone — Don’t remember exactly who

Yet, it is the most sought out job today in the market.

Depending upon the company’s methodologies and the processes, the definition of the role of a PM changes. The role changes windly from company to company, from team to team and from a particular day to another. There is no single definition of the role, which at times makes it difficult for people to explain it to others and therefore, we often see the same job description rolling out in the market. Don’t agree? — Try explaining the role of a PM to your parents or someone who does not belong to this field.

Product management is a field that has existed since 1931 but only became popular after the digital revolution. Today, everyone is convinced that the way forward is Digital, Automation, AI and Machine Learning. Most people, who are looking to switch their jobs are looking out for such an opportunity to learn about one or more product in each of these fields.

Here is the most common graphical representation of Product Management:

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Over the last couple of years, I have been in the Product Management role and have handled Desktop, Mobile web and Apps in the News/ Media and E-commerce industries. Today, I want to share what I have realized about this role over the years and try to address it.

When I joined as an Associate PM, few of the most striking realizations were the types and the number of hats that a PM has to wear.

Broadly, these ‘hats’ are not disparate roles. These are the different facets of a PM — sometimes you wear them individually and sometimes all at once, depending on the problem you want to solve and the people you face. Your goal defines the hat you wear. At the end of the day, a PM can be accurately summed up by one single thing — ‘Your Product’.

A faithful representation of your success as a PM is based on the products that your team builds and the manner (exciting, timely, user friendly and bug free) in which the products are shipped. It is something from which you cannot hide. It is your legacy. It is quite literally the sum product of all of your efforts, your team’s efforts and every single decision that you make along the way.

I will be writing about a handful of these ‘hats’ that I have experienced and things that you’ll discover, instinctively or accidentally.

UX Hat — The Customer Advocate

This is the most familiar hat of a PM but is also one of the toughest. When you wear this hat you represent the customer while the rest of the teams represent themselves. You as a PM need to take a more holistic and empathetic approach towards understanding the problem that a customer faces and then craft a solution within the limitations of the business, along with planning for the future.

People often don’t understand or underestimate the importance of a PM and the design team working together. However, a PM is required to work with the UI/UX designers to bring your product or feature to the market. A PM describes the problem that the user is having and identifies ‘why’ solving that problem would be good for business. In a similar way, the UX designer solves the problem described by the PM and tries to find a solution based on expert knowledge and the research done on their users and their needs and see if it’s in sync with the business goals.

Apple is a great example where product management and user experience come together to create great products that are loved by users, that further keep business afloat. It is the second most valued company in the world after Amazon.

Now the questions are-

  • How do you create such an engagement in your products?
  • How do you achieve such a mind space in consumers?
  • How do you achieve such a tremendous level of success?

It is your perseverance as a PM to create something unique that your customers will fall in love with. You can do that if you can identify with them in their shoes. Once you are in their shoes you start relating with them, once you start relating with them you begin figuring out their problems. Once you start figuring out their problems, you start advocating for the solution.

Identify with users (Wear their shoes) → Relate to Users→ Figure Out the problems → Advocate for solution (Graphic) → Create UI/ UX → Tech team

When you craft a solution with the UI/UX designers for the identified problem, you are required to convey the paint-points of the user so that the crafted solution is hassle-free. Does this mean the PM should be an expert in creating a great UI? Not necessarily. Even a rough scribble on a paper would work. You should actually take a step back and let the design team take control of minute elements while you focus on the overall experience. Your UI/UX team would have done their customer research and would have a deeper knowledge of which colour, font etc., must be used.

You want to create something that your customer needs, wants and desires, and you also want to create something that is a step ahead of your competitor’s product. Guess what, your competitor is doing exactly the same.

In the end, creating a great UI and UX with the design team is not merely sufficient. For the same UI and UX to be developed and delivered to your customers, you must communicate with your development team and give them feedback, like what’s the best approach to find a solution, how to make the process easy, frictionless and delightful, well within a timeline and resource constraints.

A Tip (if you wish to take it): Expertise, exposure and customer data will help you devise features more naturally. It will further let your peers help you with solutions.

Technical Hat — The Skeptic

I did not have much experience in technology before my first role as a PM so I might be a bit biased here. Try telling this to the tech team and watch them have fun because you won’t understand most of the technicalities. However, there’s nothing to worry about. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to code — you only have to remember that a code is written based on a logic. If you are a logical person, you will get used to the technology and will start challenging the tech team eventually to up their game.

Here’s a situation.

Imagine, your tech team comes to you and proposes to build something fun that is not necessarily in the best interests of your customer. More often than not you let this go away but before doing that, you must first ask yourself, “Is it worth putting in the time, money and effort and taking the risk of unnecessary code in the system for something that is not even intended towards the customer?” How do you respectfully say NO and at the same time, not hinder the morale of your tech team? It is a tough challenge that you, as a PM, face.

In such a situation, you must remember that it is necessary to stop the tech team before they get too deep into the project and ensure that they do the right work for the right reason.

Being a PM, it is your responsibility to come up with the features for your product, which will grow the product as well as the business. You must understand the implications of each of these features, the potential technological and long-term maintenance costs, and the skill set that your team possesses.

A Tip (if you wish to take it): Involve the development and QA teams in the feature discussion. This will enable the dev team to be aware of the dependencies and the QA team will be able to write the user-stories accordingly. It will help reduce a considerable amount of effort.

Strategy Hat — The Chess Player

“How do I predict the next 5 steps to influence the outcome that will help achieve the customer and business goals?”, if that’s the question hovering your mind, it’s time to wear your Strategy Hat.

Wearing this hat will help you take a holistic view on the business to understand customer needs, market conditions, stakeholder expectations, competition strategy and then device a plan for your product to grow.

But how exactly do you understand the market and user conditions?

It’s simple — Befriend the data!

Once you start making sense from the available data, you-

  • Start understanding the pain points of customers and use it while working on the design
  • Keep a check on the latest trends in the industry
  • Keep an eye on what the competition is doing
  • Realise the customer’s emotion towards your product

While you largely rely on a balanced qualitative & quantitative data and gut feeling but as a PM, you must be careful during the time you interpret the data. Misinterpretation may change the direction of the roadmap and instead of solving a problem, you might just end up creating a new one.

While you overlook the needs, wants and desires of the customers, you must also look into the needs of the stakeholders. Multiple stakeholders may come with requests, how do you prioritise? Here’s how-

  1. Force them to justify their requests
  2. Ask them to back their request with data

Ensure that you are absolutely convinced about the request before you commit.

Typically, the Strategy hat may be the most ambiguous hat. You remain confused whether you have the written support of the stakeholders or not. You expect a written/formal procedure or be outright told that the strategy is supposed to be set by you. The reality is that it never happens. You need to develop the skill to influence, manage and direct the stakeholders (upper management, peers and dev teams) in the desired direction.

But here’s a breather for you — you don’t have to set a strategy independently, it’s not a 1 man show — it’s a team effort. Even CEOs of companies are beholden to shareholders, partners, and even the interests of employees. Your role is to influence the overall strategy towards the intended direction and to provide a clear roadmap for the team to execute.

A PM must maintain a track record of feature launches and releases. Without this, one becomes less and less effective at wearing the other hats. This does not mean having a record of launching big fancy products. It is more about showing a series of successes and having a mix of product features, tech debt, dev-op improvements, etc.

Moreover, execution is important. It impacts the strategy and direction of the company. You may get the right idea through data or find it on the internet or seek influence from someone else’s strategy — but the execution solely depends on you and your market environment, customers, size and capabilities of the company. The way you devise your plan will create all the difference.

A Tip (if you wish to take it): When you enter a discussion or debate with other stakeholders, it is ok to surrender in 9 out of 10 battles if you can conquer the 1 battle that has the greatest value. You can win this by clearly stating the needs and wants of the customer.

A PM must act like a mini-CEO or the CEO of the product. I am not sure how much I believe in this statement but one thing is for sure — the PM must be a leader. As a PM, you cannot wait for someone to give you formal ownership of your product, you need to drive the product, with the customers being your central focus.

If I were to summarize the role of a PM in a sentence, I’d say — “A Product Manager is a product leader, who handles teams at a macro as well as a micro-level to achieve better customer satisfaction and drive the business value.

In your experience, which hats have you been wearing or not wearing as a PM? Please share your story if you wear a hat that is different from the ones mentioned in the blog and a few tips on how someone can excel wearing that hat.

Originally published at .

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