This year I had the privilege of attending Mind The Product in London.
I wasn’t the typical attendee, however. I volunteered.
As a product manager, if you ever have the opportunity to be a part of a large conference or event, I highly recommend you take it. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes you don’t realize. From the little details like creating and distributing badges to the attendees and how the books are arranged at the book stand, to the coordination of a large group of volunteers spread throughout an entire venue, maintaining a schedule, and monitoring social media coverage — to name a few.
Beyond that there are always things that don’t go as planned and it’s your job to help solve those problems quickly. Sound familiar? Product people shouldn’t be strangers to keeping a cool head and decisively solving problems as they come up. Working a conference is a direct application of your product management skills.
When you get to the point in your career that you have a product large enough or successful enough to warrant such an event, you’ll be glad you had the experience.
If you don’t have the opportunity to volunteer, however, there are still many good reasons to attend a product conference. I’ve been to a few in my career and these are three of my insights that justify the expense:
1. You realize you’re not alone
I love being a Product Manager, and when you’re doing it in the middle of Tulsa, Oklahoma (a city not known for its appreciation of the technology sector), it’s easy to lose perspective on the rest of the industry. You begin to think the problems you’re having are unique to you, your team, or your business.
Product folk of every level have been addressing a different flavor of every one of your problems. Communication (or a lack of it), following the shiny objects, engineers wanting to resolve technical debt, reporting up, down, left, right… The people you meet at a conference are just as much a sounding board for your problems as they are personal therapists. It’s very much a spiritual gathering.
2. You learn you know more than you realize, and less
On the flip side, listening to everyone else go on about their struggles and helping them walk through them reminds you that you are more capable than you think. Given a new set of problems to solve, you realize you know how to think like a product manager.
It’s wonderful sitting through the presentations and proudly proclaiming to yourself, “Exactly!” This happens enough times and you start to get a sense of validation about how you’re proceeding with your work.
It’s all a high.
That lasts until you get back to the job and realize that putting those changes to action is an uphill battle. Everyone is already primed against it knowing you just had your head filled with wild, biased notions. And that they were given to you by people that don’t understand the subtle nuances of your very very specific business. Or people that have been out of touch for so long that all they can speak to are abstract concepts about what it means to be human in the context of work.
That’s when you begin to realize this is the issue behind all organizational change. You can’t simply come back and proclaim, “I’ve got it! I know how we’re going to solve our problems!!” I mean, you can, but be mentally prepared for it.
This is the classic philosophical problem posed by Plato and his Allegory Of The Cave. You and your coworkers are so used to the day-to-day that when one of you goes to a conference or workshop, you see so much that you didn’t before. The problem, however, is that when you try to come back and explain this greater reality to your team, it’s often swept away or treated negatively because they didn’t share the same experience.
Barry O'Reilly summed this up well in his talk: Stop trying to change everyone else around you. Change yourself first. Show up every day and make a small, subtle, positive change to how you conduct yourself as a product leader and be consistent. Eventually, if you’re in a healthy environment and show success, people will want to know what your secret is.
3. It’s a really exciting time to be a product manager
The fact that it’s so difficult to explain the breadth of what it means to be a product manager, or that it’s reportedly the hot new field is a strong sign that it’s an opportunity to be a pioneer. The nature of how the work is being done is changing at the pace of technology. You (and your team, ideally) think strategically and tactically. You constantly learn more about the industry, the technology, and new design patterns to get value to your users faster.
You come together, leading a small group of people to solve real problems for a much, much larger group of people.
It’s intoxicating, to be sure. If that doesn’t sound like your role, it may be time to make a change.
You got this
It may not apply as much in a city like San Francisco, Seattle, or New York where product and technology people are all over the place, but for those of you out there that are wracking your brain against the difficulties of product without a community to lean on, this is why it’s important to attend a conference every so often.
You find inspiration, you gain a new perspective on yourself and your work, and you make some friends.