8 lessons from my second year as a product manager

Elaine Chao
Jan 8 · 7 min read

“You know I moved into product management, right?” I’m having coffee with a longtime friend, or maybe I’ve just bumped into a colleague I haven’t seen in a couple of years due to divergent career paths. Most people who have worked with me before are genuinely curious about whether or not I still like product management.

Quick answer: yes, I still love it. It engages more of the skills I had been developing through decades of music, performance, writing, and non-profit leadership, and has challenged me in ways I never really imagined. Don’t get me wrong: the learning curve has been steep, but it’s been more due to the personal lessons I’ve been learning along the way.

Upon reflecting on what I learned this past year, I realized that this year has been significantly different than my first year. Part of it is the work that I’ve been doing this past year, which has been much more collaborative and interdependent. But much more had to do with the fact that I continue to learn about myself in the role of product management.

So with that, this year’s lessons:

#1 You’re paid to have an opinion.

As an engineer, I was paid to do stuff. Whether it was writing a test plan, a blog post, or dig into a bug, I was often pushing to accomplish things that moved our team’s product across the finish line.

As a product manager, I’ve found it surprisingly easy to fall into the “do trap” instead of the “think cycle.” My job as a product manager isn’t about accomplishing things, though I certainly do have deliverables and should be detail-oriented when delivering them. But product management is more than that, and often relies on having a rapid, informed opinion about prioritization, feature functionality, and more.

I’ve begun to have an opinion about everything, which is a vast personality swing from where I was as a teenager. And this pattern is also dangerous, as it means I have to intentionally stop and force myself to listen and absorb what is around me before forming this opinion.

#2 You can’t get everything done

Whether due to an inherent personality trait or my Asian immigrant upbringing, I constantly struggle with a sense of not leaving things undone. My impulse is to finish everything immediately, whether it’s the spec or the stories or the research write-up.

But that’s the problem; prioritization generally means that something has to be left undone. And I’m not just prioritizing things at work — I’m also including priorities like sleep, self-care, creativity, and relationships. When I thought about it, I didn’t want to sacrifice myself on the altar of work. Life is much more than work, and I am more than a product manager. So in order to make space for those things, I need to be okay with letting things drop until the next day or next week, or just not doing them at all.

By ensuring that I get the right things done (and ensuring that expectations are set of the things I will and will not deliver), I ensure that the teams that are dependent on me also get the best bang out of their product manager. But I’m not a machine or superhuman, so I have to set limits and keep to them.

#3 Embrace failure

As a recovering perfectionist, this is one lesson I have to grapple with over and over again. It’s one thing to misspell something, and it’s another thing to completely, epically fail. But what I learned— primarily from colleagues — is that merely dealing with failure is insufficient for growth; embracing it enables you to take risks and try things out. If I’m constantly fighting to be perfect, I will play conservatively and not go outside of my comfort zone.

Some risks pay off; some don’t. Many of the risks I take are personal in nature, and have to do with confronting a process I think is wrong, speaking up and sharing my opinion when I think I don’t have the right to have one (cf. lesson 1), or expressing a vision of how I think our team should be working. Sometimes those have blown up in my face, but many times, it’s paid off by a change in process or an adjustment of vision.

Embracing failure has helped me to develop resiliency, and has enabled me to go to work feeling capable of greater things, bigger decisions, and more comfortable with taking risks.

#4 Escalate when necessary

One of the things I learned about working in a highly complex organization is that not all problems are mine. While I do hold responsibility for a large part of my feature set’s success, not all of the problems can be (or should be) solved by me. Learning the line of when to resolve things on my own and when to escalate to my upper management to address was one of the big lessons of the year.

#5 It’s all about the frame

One of the skills I’ve had to use frequently is the frame, which is essentially storytelling. What story am I trying to tell when I present a problem to be resolved? What narrative am I telling about the solution? How am I presenting our team’s role in the solution? These are questions that I actively identify and try to address in whatever document I write or presentation I give. By focusing on developing this important skill, I’ve been able to better work on my skills to influence and inspire those around me. Those who work with me are able to better contextualize their own work and are more highly motivated to push toward the same goal.

#6 Sometimes, it’s not about you

Often, it’s easy to fall into a self-centered trap of thinking that all successes and failures are personal. However, I discovered this year that sometimes, decisions that don’t go my way have nothing to do with me and my performance. Why is this important? This understanding helps me to react to issues that arise with more equanimity. These decisions are not personal; it’s often a result of a process or a motivation that I have no insight into.

#7 Marathon living

Earlier this year, I ran my first 6K almost by accident. The week before, a girlfriend reminded me that she had invited me, and I signed up the Thursday before the event with no goal but to complete it without stopping. As a martial arts athlete who does cardio multiple times a week, I wasn’t worried about being a weekend warrior, but I knew completing the hilly course was going to require a change in my philosophy of how I ran.

The problem was, I grew up as a sprinter, working on speed in short bursts, with periods of recovery right after. Years of soccer and track had left a certain training philosophy that had influenced the way I ran. One of the things I did to survive was slow down my regular pace. The other thing was to think that I was in it for the long haul, and to focus on simply continuing the same pace.

The same thing applies to work: instead of being lulled by the word “sprint,” I had to constantly think about living out a marathon life. This meant enough rest on multiple axes: physical, emotional, and spiritual. This meant putting boundaries on my work hours and practicing radical prioritization so that I could optimize for showing up every day passionate about my work and curious about the world around me.

#8 Hold boundaries for you and your team

One of the most powerful things I learned this year was the importance of pushing back on things that would adversely affect your team. I, as a product manager, serve as one of the gatekeepers for work that affect my team. While I wasn’t completely successful in fighting for my team, I was able to win some battles that lowered the pressure on my team.

I have a certain set of beliefs and values I hold for the relationship my team has with work, and I want to ensure that I fight for them. Whether it’s better pacing of work or ensuring my team isn’t working weekends, I have the responsibility to advocate for personal sanity in the midst of competing pressures.

This job of holding boundaries for my team is just as important as my responsibility to the end user. Ultimately, if I don’t speak up, our team’s culture will grow to accept the status quo as the norm, dysfunctional or not, and that can lead to team burnout or a staffing hemorrhage.

These are just some of the many lessons I’ve learned this past year working as a product manager in a highly complex organization. The longer I’m in the role of product management, the more I realize that the problems I’m solving are not primarily technical; they’re human. And as humanity (including myself) is a glorious mess of complexity and foibles, product management is a fascinating intersection of vision and details, unity and friction, self-exploration and relationship. And I’m looking forward to every bit of this next year.

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Boundary” courtesy Billie Hara Sharp, licensed under Creative Commons Non-Commercial No Derivs 2.0.

Quattordici” courtesy Roberto Taddeo, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0.

Elaine is a product manager at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainecchao. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.

Elaine Chao

Written by

I work for Adobe on Adobe XD. Also a martial arts instructor, musician, writer, volunteerism advocate. Opinions mine.

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