15 Things You Should Know About Product Managers

John Cutler
Jan 27 · 12 min read

Note: Some quick background to this list. At Amplitude (my day job), we help teams build better products. I’ve been super impressed by the product chops of our account executives, sales engineers, and customer success managers. The team has experience helping all sorts of teams be more successful.

That said, we’re growing fast, which means that newly joined people need to get up to speed quickly. Product and product management can be confusing from the outside. So I put together this list of common PM challenges to help build empathy/understanding for PMs.

This post is meant to build empathy for product managers, and to understand their world just a bit better. I’ve focused on the hard stuff, so don’t expect too many feel-good stories. Don’t assume these are universal, but always be on the lookout for ways to connect more deeply with their challenges (and turn those challenges into opportunities for progress). Empathy goes a very long way.

Table of Contents

  1. Their days are frenetic
  2. They can be torn about their role
  3. They are at the center of a tornado
  4. They get thrown into the deep end
  5. They are expected to exude certainty
  6. They have vastly different roles depending on the company
  7. They can’t make most decisions unilaterally
  8. They struggle with the pressure to “ship”
  9. They are the canary in the coalmine
  10. They often have to play project manager and facilitator
  11. They come from many different backgrounds
  12. They are under a lot of pressure from their teams…
  13. They are always juggling “theory” and real world practice
  14. They struggle with impossible expectations
  15. It’s hard. Super hard.

1. Their days are frenetic

This can extend for weeks. You know you have to do the deep work — strategy, context building, unraveling insights — but somehow that all takes a back-seat to a mess of meetings, Google Docs, status reports, and generally getting caught up in the inertia of the organization.

2. They can be torn about their role

3. They are at the center of a tornado

For better (or worse, often) you are somehow perceived as the gatekeeper…the person who must be manipulated to get “anything done”. That entails being the subject/target of social engineering, and in seriously dysfunctional situations people just working around you. Meanwhile you have a team of passionate makers toiling away at things you happened to prioritize. Maker-pressure is fierce. If they think you’re going in the wrong direction they’ll let you know that — either explicitly or implicitly (see #12 for more on this).

4. They get thrown into the deep end

This isn’t just relegated to less-experienced folks. Recently, I spoke with a Director of Product who was handed a huge challenge — “figuring out our platform strategy” — with almost no effort to help them build connections and relationships across the organization. It was sink-or-swim. Three months in they had discovered a huge gap in shared understanding across the org — a gap that needed to close to do his job — but the politics were too fierce to make headway.

5. They are expected to exude certainty

This is most evident during fundraising. To raise money you typically need to show you have some vision for the future. What is that vision? If you have a persuasive story, it’ll help your fundraising efforts. So…senior product folk are asked to hastily frame that story, money is raised on that story, and the next 12–18 months (the time it takes to spend any raise) is spent juggling what existed on the ground prior to the raise, and this new story (a couple pages in a “deck”).

Day-to-day we see PMs pressured to “pitch” to teams, justify a direction, and even slip into a bit of success theater (“the feedback is great!”). It’s super hard. Most PMs know deep down what is going on and feel torn. Some get so caught up in the certainty theater that they start to believe their own Kool-Aid. “I don’t know” is a tough skill to master.

6. They have vastly different roles depending on the company

As you see new generations/waves of PMs come into the workforce, you also have the challenge of the new PMs being highly influenced by more modern interpretations of the role, clashing up against less modern interpretations. So even with a single company you see vastly different definitions — even when everyone seems to agree on what product does.

7. They can’t make most decisions unilaterally

Product development is inherently cross-functional. Product management piggybacks many of its key purchasing decisions off of the decisions in other groups. The cliche is that product managers have influence, not authority. While this isn’t an absolute, it holds true in many settings. Example: Marketing controls the “website”. Marketing can basically do what it wants (and install whatever tools it wants). Try to do that with “the product” with a gang of opinionated and passionate engineers monitoring every change, and you’ll be in for a surprise (this is a good thing, by the way, just hard). Example… a CTO doesn’t ask permission to install a CI/CD tool provided it is in their budget. For “product” to do the same, they’ll need to “take it to the committee”.

8. They struggle with the pressure to “ship”

Even when they know a “better” approach is possible, you’ll find PMs get caught up in the feature factory. There’s an incredible pressure to be certain (see above), so pitches turn into prescriptive plans which turn into confirmation bias and delivering “to plan”. Experimentation and hypothesis driven development is viewed as something that “only happens in the movies” and a “nice to have”. Back in the “real world” you’re expect to “ship stuff”. This gives rise to being conflicted and a bit forlorn. You understand that there’s a next-level in your craft — and you want to get there — but the day-to-day is far from that reality.

9. They are the canary in the coalmine

Any tension/dysfunction among leadership transfers all the way to frontline PMs (to the extent that I can usually predict what is going on at the highest levels based on a quick chat with someone in the product development trenches). When things are going well, product feels it. When things aren’t going well (almost anywhere), product feels it. This can give rise to a number of coping mechanisms ranging from anger/defensiveness (“why can’t they ship anything” or “why does sales keep selling stuff we don’t do”) to a kind of low-level dejectedness and learned helplessness.

10. They often have to play project manager and facilitator

11. They come from many different backgrounds

12. They are under a lot of pressure from their teams…

The point here is that the relationship between product manager and engineer/designer is very, very interesting. There is different “skin in the game”. When the PM says “ok, we’re moving on, the MVP is good enough!” it might mean very different things for the PM and the team. The team that has toiled in the trenches has been asked to cut their good work short. The relationship can be tense and strained, or it can be based on “healthy tension” which — assuming it doesn’t just render mediocrity — can really benefit the product.

13. They are always juggling “theory” and real world practice

14. They struggle with impossible expectations

15. It’s hard. Super hard.

John Cutler

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Multiple hat-wearer. Prod dev nut. I love wrangling complex problems and answering the why with qual/quant data. @johncutlefish on Twitter.