A step-by-step guide for new product managers
Who hasn’t at some point in their professional career had questions about the most basic of things and no clue where to start? Most definitely not me. I had plenty of questions and very few answers given. So, I had to fight tooth and nail to find my own way to being a product manager without much of a clue what that meant.
But fear not, for I is here to give you some practical advice on what it means to be a good product manager, and how to take the good, the bad and the ugly of this title and turn it into pure product magic.
Allow me to begin by telling you about my own journey to product management. It started long before I even knew what a product manager is and that a unicorn job like this one existed.
It started during my 2nd year of undergraduate studies. I had ended up in computer science without much prior programming knowledge but because I have always been ambitious and tech-y and wanted to be part of the most progressive major available in my school. Long story short — I found myself among many geeky boys who wanted to code away all day long and definitely had no interest in talking to anyone about anything else.
At that point, I quickly realized that while I enjoyed the coding part, I had always wanted something more than that. So, I started daydreaming a whole lot about a job that would allow me to use my STEM knowledge, yet let me be social, creative and to some extend — in charge of things. I was of the firm belief that said position did not exist, and I was going to have to suck it up and just be a software engineer.
Skipping several years into the future, I am on my first grad-level summer internship and...drum rolls…the product manager of my team had just left the team for family reasons, leaving that team 5 weeks out of a nationwide release of the biggest product for the company that year. Somehow, my manager allowed me to try my hand at product management and…the rest is history.
Now onto 10 practical pieces of advice about how to become a good product manager.
- To be a product manager is to be inspired
The product manager of a team and a product is their biggest champion who has a vision, knows it will take a lot of effort to get there, and is ready to slave themselves away to bringing their vision to life. In order to be able to give it your all, you need to believe in your product. That’s a starting prerequisite to even beginning to think of doing product management.
2. Have your feelings under control
Naturally if someone is passionate about something, it means they are more likely to get emotional and even angry if things don’t go the way they want them to go. It is of paramount importance to never take anything that is happening (e.g. slow engineers, indecisive business partners, chaotic manager, stagnant company culture) as a personal attack against your character and letting it show. Everyone loves an effective go-getter but no one appreciates a pushy, irritable prick (speaking out of experience here, take my word for it. You want to be known as the nice go-getter, not the angry one). If the system is giving you a tough time, learn to play it. If someone is being difficult — understand their position and try to do your best work that will provide a balance between your objectives and other people’s objectives.
3. Walk the walk before you talk the talk
As a product manager you may feel like you can tell everyone what to do but before you even begin thinking of doing that, make sure you know what it takes to do what you are asking them to do for you because no one wants to work with an entitled behind. If that means slaving away for a little while doing data analysis, writing code, designing UX or QA-ing products — roll up those sleeves and get started. Especially during your first couple of years of being a PrM you need to know that you will have to be down in the weeds, pulling your weight as much as the next engineer.
4. Be thorough
Learn to document everything — requirements, summaries of discussions, mocks, roadmap ideas, presentation decks…you get my point. Document it all because you and/or your partners will NOT remember everything and having a well-documented point of reference can make the biggest difference in decision making.
Learn to confirm your assumptions before you request from others to work on them. Whether it’s digging deep into any available data, doing customer studies, setting up a lean test or doing comprehensive market landscape research — do it, because you don’t want to be making hasty decisions and wasting company time and resources at the expense of the customer.
5. MVP, MVP, MVP
This one might sound like a contradiction to the previous one but it’s all about balance. Don’t overthink it to the point where you experience “analysis paralysis”. Define your MVP (minimal viable product) as early as possible, find the stakeholders, possible risks (or who can help you define them), cost for development, plan for your ROI (return of investment) and get to doing as soon as possible. Just don’t forget to continue testing and confirming all working hypothesis in a lean fashion along the way.
6. Learn to say no
You will be under a lot of pressure to choose between so many things — from whether you side with your engineering team or your business partners (it always happens because they speak different lingo), to which specific company objective to try and meet first, and whether you follow your instincts or oblige with your manager’s/more senior product managers needs and wants.
While I am not saying to be stubborn and say no to everything, my advice to you is to learn to value your time and your teammates’ time, and request justifications for the work that is sent your way. If you have multiple competing business partners wanting their thing done first — find the measurable impact (may not be monetary) of their requests and use it as your guiding light in prioritizing the work. Same goes for your own ideas — always do your homework in defining the impact, cost and how it fits the company’s bigger picture plans, before you decide what goes where in that queue. And if you feel you are too inexperienced to know how to do that because there are so many moving pieces — do not be shy, go ask for help from someone more senior. If one says “no”, it means they just did what I’m advising you to do — they prioritized this request based on its expected value. But don’t let that discourage you — ask away until you find a good mentor.
7. Expand your network
One of the most important traits of a product manager is their ability to rally up the right people to do the right things at the right time. But how can you do that unless you know the right people?
As a brand new product manager, one of the easiest and most valuable things you can do is to make friends. Introduce yourself to the folks in your department, ask them for advice on who you should watch out for and who you should make friends with. Learn about their work and find how your work interacts with theirs. Of course, don’t be too nosey and don’t take up too much of anyone’s time but try to efficiently present yourself, pick up a few facts about them and leave them with a nice impression of your persona.
Over time, try and help people out whenever they need you, so next time you need a favor, they will be a lot more willing to be there for you and your agenda.
8. Keep up with the trends
Don’t live in a bubble. Keep close track of the latest technology and business development in your space. Know what others are doing and try to keep up or beat them to it. Be up-to-date on the latest software frameworks, machine learning trends, data analytics tools, UX principles and UI technologies. You have to have a vision that serves the customer’s needs in the most effective way possible and for that you need to know what is possible.
On that note, I would like to add — never stop learning. It might mean picking up that one data science class you never took in undergrad, or doing an MBA (guilty!), or attending seminars/conferences/meet-ups…whatever it takes to keep your mind nimble and to escape single lane tunnel vision. Your job is to be good at everything. I know it sounds crazy but being a product manager is a unicorn job. It requires you are the heart of that product and you cannot be an effective leader unless you are a leader for all.
Just don’t be too hard on yourself because none of this comes easily or for free. Give yourself time to get in the rhythm of learning. Trust me, I am constantly looking for new things I can educate myself on and that helps me very much in my ability to keep a diverse network, as well as in problem solving in my job.
9. Always think of the customer
The customer ALWAYS gets the #1 trophy in the product management game. You are here to solve their friction points and if it means taking the less glamorous approach (even though you really wanted that super fancy tech-y solution to show off with), or doing something no one before you has ever done but your customers really need — then you will find a way to do it and will do it well. You are a servant of your customers and you should be proud of that role. Because it means someone believed in you enough to think you can be the solution to their problems. Stay humble!
10. Celebrate success
You are only as good as the entire village of data scientists, designers, developers, marketers, testers, accountants, business owners and many more, who were behind you when releasing a successful product/feature.
Give thanks where it’s due because that’s invaluable to team morale. You never know whose day you might’ve just made and how they will repay you the kindness next time around.
Celebrate your own success too because you were the idea maker, the glue and the invisible force behind this.
This concludes this post on some product management fundamentals. Next time — more details on specific tools you should master to successfully do your day-to-day job.