In Progress — Product Manager an On-boarding Guide

Mikal Lewis
8 min readDec 7, 2018


Note this on boarding guide is written as a guide for on boarding non-Senior Product Managers. Adapt as desired for more senior roles.


The on-boarding process comprises of the first 30 days and the first 100 days. Expectations and development beyond the first 100 days will be covered by weekly 1:1s and your own career and role development feedback and discussions.

Everyone will have their own personal on-boarding plan and lessons.

Through the on-boarding we’ll work closely and directly together so you can see and learn first hand on the role and opportunity.

Note for managers: As a manager it is critically important that you handle onboarding for each employee directly. There is likely no greater decision you will make on behalf of an organization than the hiring and coaching of individuals who will make decisions on behalf of the organization.


The overarching goal of this on boarding process is immersion. Over a four week period of time you’ll get up to speed in the framing, methods and guidelines of a Product Manager. The goals of this on-boarding process is to:

  1. Reset into the new context and goals.
  2. Learn the team relationships and culture.
  3. Develop a global understanding of the industry Product Management bar and context.
  4. Demonstrate an ability to solve and prioritize based on a Product Management mindset.
  5. Allow me to learn your areas of strength and growth to frame the rest of your on-boarding process and journey in a hands-on way.

What is Product Management?

A product manager is the most accountable party for right product right time.

We’ll explore later why right product; right time is so important. But I’ll explain what I mean by the most accountable party because the responsibility is shared.

Most accountable party

Product Management has accountability for defining what we deliver to our customers. However, what is a highly-opinionated question. Take for example a successful product like the fitbit.

The fitbit is defined as a wearable and an app ecosystem to help a person lead a healthy lifestyle. It has a number of important features: (1) a step counter, (2) a heart rate monitor, (3) an app to provide feedback — and so on.

Imagine a complete and perfect product and market assessment that captures this information. This document would be the latent reflection of a multi-billion dollar product. Therefore this is a perfect product definition.

So we go back in time and give this to a development team in 1970. They spend the following three and a half decades developing the prerequisites for these features — inventing and missing the boat on many other multibillion dollar industries (cloud storage, personal computer, phone OS) and likely going bankrupt because of the teams lazer focus on creating the product as defined.

Or alternatively — we can give the product definition of the first successful Fitbit (again this is a proven successful product) to a startup in 2017 and ask them to produce this already proven product.

Hopefully you can see from this exercise that embedded in the what — is the when. And it’s critically important to define a product that is fully aligned with the times and is scoped in a way in which it can meet the market.

Simultaneously if the outcome of the above product spec were a Fitbit function (successful product) in a Pebble (not successful product) form factor. Or if instead of an iPhone app the team first developed a web app. This product would also not be set up for success.

So intrinsic to any question of what is a question of when and a question of how. If you’re looking for a project thats viciously behind schedule or misaligned with the marketplace — the first place to look is at Product Management. As they are the accountable party for the what which frames all cascading questions.

However the Product Management role doesn’t actually produce the value. In our industry, we deliver value to our customers primarily through software (produced by Engineers) User Interface (produced by Designers). So we deliver value through collaboration with a myriad of directly accountable individuals in their discipline.

All of this accrues however to one product. And as shepherds of the what we succeed or fail with product.


You need to be able to engage in problem solving no matter where the solution exists.

You need to know your materials.

What are our primary tools: email, engineering, meetings, and documentation.

We are in a leadership role.

  • Planning: Framing the Landscape
  • Design: Defining the Solution
  • Execution: Delivering on the Value Proposition

Wave 1:

First 4 weeks

  1. Develop a research document
  2. Passive participation — active integration
  3. Meeting with stakeholders
  4. Meeting with future working team
  5. Required reading.
  6. Learning the requirements of Product Management on your team

Develop a research document

We begin our roles with hidden strengths and areas of development. No interview process is entirely fair. It doesn’t provide the organization or the interviewee an opportunity to deeply explore the role of the job. So to aid year one development it is extremely important to capture a sample of one’s work proclivity as early as possible.

This is not to develop a point of view of weakness or a calibration exercise — it’s a learning opportunity. For the organization to learn about the individual and for the individual to learn real world expectations and philosophies while building a subject matter expertise that will aid the broader team.

Passive participation — active integration

During this phase, it’s important to view yourself as a fly on the wall or a passive meeting participant. I’ll explain why this phase exists. We already know you’re good. That is why we brought you on board. The question is who are you going to be? Can you contribute as a part of a high functioning team towards the same Product Management Playbook.

To accomplish this, it’s important that you spend a period (four weeks) learning the emergent intent and philosophy. After which you will have demonstrated an understanding of the what and the why of our approach and have stronger context for new approaches. Similarly, in our role as Product Managers one of the largest threats is an inability to develop and cultivate the context needed to properly prioritize our own and team priorities. This period helps to alleviate this by cultivating the skills and discipline of patience.

In this environment, our success is 95% patience — 5% urgency. Which is to say targeted periods of time of urgency coupled by long periods of framing that set the context for the priority and provide the foundation for emphasis and urgency to our partner team.

Life is often compared to a marathon, but I think it is more like being a sprinter; long stretches of hard work punctuated by brief moments in which we are given the opportunity to perform at our best.
— Michael Johnson

Side bar on shared playbook

To the topic of a shared playbook — no Product Manager is an island. To highlight think of the Product Development process as a car factory. Raw materials will go into a car factory and the output of the car factory is very discreet car models. Imagine a Honda Civic car factory as a metaphor for product management.

If a Honda leaves the factory with Ferrari tires, a Tesla media console and an Acura bumper — that product management team has failed. Utterly and completely failed. The responsibility for a product management team is to build a Honda Civic. Any product or feature that does not reflect or contribute towards the cohesive vision of a Honda Civic is a reflection of a product that lacks “strategic integrity.”

Strategic integrity is established by aligning strategy and execution at all levels of the organization. Every firm has two strategies. The first is explicit, defined by official strategy white papers, memos, and presentations to turn executive vision into a series of competitive moves.1 The second is implicit and defined by execution, and arises from the pattern of decisions and actions undertaken by the firm.2 The first notion of strategy is “directed” since it stems from the top-down directions of senior management.The second notion of strategy is “emergent” because it materializes from bottom-up performance and originates from the aggregate behavior of the firm’s middle managers and line employees. …Directed and emergent strategies diverge because strategy and execution are usually disconnected, defined at disparate points in time, placed in separate organizations, and driven by different people.

Sinofsky, Steven; Iansiti, Marco. One Strategy: Organization, Planning, and Decision Making (pp. 1–2). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

In a business setting, the notion of strategic integrity implies achieving coherence across the organization as it translates the potential of a given strategy into actual impact, as strategy and organization evolve to fit a changing business environment. A high level of strategic integrity will achieve the same level of capability, consistency, transparency, and responsiveness as the Porsche.

Sinofsky, Steven; Iansiti, Marco. One Strategy: Organization, Planning, and Decision Making (p. 61). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

There will be ample opportunity to contribute and influence the strategic point of view and shift our perspective from developing Honda Civics to developing Ferraris or Prius. However, in our day to day role decision making and execution it is imperative that we all operate off of the same playbook. That we as a product management team have strategic integrity.

Amazon (and Intel) captures this philosophy under the philosophy of Disagree and commit.

Meeting stakeholders

Your manager and immediate team are just one perspective of succeeding in your new environment. During your first month it’s valuable to learn other context and points of view for succeeding as a Product Manager. Through your onboarding

We read

There are two ways to learn. From direct experience or from experience of others.

The metaphor that in order to become an expert in wine tasting you must develop a nose for everything. So to be able to identify strategies you must know the strategies and the case studies.


Understanding where we are in the industry:

  1. Software is eating the world
  2. Mobile is eating the world

Learning expectations:

  1. Good PM, Bad PM.
  2. Kill over communication.

Strategic Philosophy

  1. New 1/30: Hinkie’s Resignation Letter

Areas of further investigation

  1. Understanding systems design
  2. Understanding sql vs. nosql


How to be a Product Manager

  1. Inspired
  2. The first few chapters of Cracking the Product Management Interview

The Philosophy of Product Management

  1. Debugging the Development Process

Learning retail

  1. Inside the Mind of the Shopper (second edition)

Learning the foundations of Technology

  1. Newly added 1/16/2017 The Non-technical Guide to Web Technologies

Wave Two

Six months.

After wave one you’ll begin being accountable for key areas and the day to day contacts. During this phase we expect you to demonstrate and execute using professional skills of communication and follow up that is expected of all Product Managers.

We also expect you to demonstrate and utilize any skills in foundational areas you’ve brought with you to the role.

Foundations of User Experience


  1. Understanding your Users: A Practical Guide to User Research Methods (Courage, Baxter, Caine)
  2. The Design of Everyday Things (Don Norman)
  3. Subject to Change: Creating Great Products & Services for an Uncertain World: Adaptive Path on Design (Merholtz, Wilkens)

Design skills

  1. Sketching for Understanding
  2. get your Sketching toolkit
  3. White boarding design (101 things in architecture school)
  4. Sketching design (You can draw in 30 days)
  5. Lettering Lettering for Architects and Designers, 2nd Edition


Thinking with Type


Psychology of Design

Inmates are Running the Asylum

Mental Models

Information Architecture


Visual Design



Mikal Lewis

Maker. Scholar. Product Leader. I help product leaders become masterful PMs and servant-leaders at