11 Things I learned from My 11 Years in Product Management

Sam Kawtharani
Aug 28 · 5 min read
Source: Unsplash

I honestly still don’t know how I ended up getting into Product Management. All I remember is starting my career as a deployment engineer and then a few months later I was doing PM work when nobody knew very well what exactly a PM does. Luckily, for all of you young padawans, we now have a better understanding of what PMs do and don’t.

Fast forward 11 years, I have launched several products in the market from startup to IPO, including my own tech companies. 11 years is a long time to learn some key lessons and admit f*ck ups. So today, I share my 2 cents:

1. It’s all about politics!

Everyone talks about how cool a PM’s job is but nobody talks about the dark side. As a Product Manager, you are dealing with a lot of different personalities, egos, and sometimes some strange characters. Ultimately you need all these folks to work well with you, so you have to put on your best diplomacy suit, show up to work and work these people every day.

Between engineers, designers, and QA, a Product Manager is at the bottom of that food chain. In other words, you are the most replaceable member of the team! So gotta love some good old diplomacy. If this is not something you can handle, then you know what they say, if you can’t handle the heat, get the hell out of the kitchen.

2. Everyone gets the credit when things are going well, but when sh*t hits the fan, you’re dancing on your own!

As a PM you have to be on top of things all the time without micromanaging people (it’s a thin line folks). When things go south, and they will, nobody will be in deeper trouble than you. If engineers do a half-ass job, if marketing and sales send the wrong message or sell the wrong solution, guess who’s going to be cleaning sh*t all weekend. Stay in control of all aspects of your product (which can get overwhelming sometimes). But at the end of the day, the buck stops with you!

3. PMs are mini CEOs

As a PM you are responsible for why and know-hows to drive strategic decisions for your product the same way a CEO does for their company, but you won’t have any authority. You have to influence, support and add value to the team without anyone actually reporting to you. While CEOs sell the team the grand vision, as a PM you will constantly inspire your team to bring these ideas to the finishing line.

ex-PM CEOs are the best visionary executives e.g. Steve Jobs

4. Don’t be a “waiter” or you will be a waiter 😜

I’ve heard this expression (don’t be a waiter ) from a colleague lately and I love it. This one is straight forward, you have one job, and that is, get sh*t done! Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk!

5. Have you heard of the Imposter Syndrome?

Let me be clear here. I am not asking you to commit fraud or scam people. Being a PM might conflict with your personality. You might be the most introvert person in the room with low self-esteem, but when you have your PM hat on, you’re the most extroverted person in the room bringing people together for a shared purpose. Learn how to back yourself up.

There’s a way to make this work, and that way is hard. As Taleb says, ‘Become anti-fragile, or die.’

6. PMs don’t need to speak engineering

If I had a dime for every time someone told me that Product Managers are business-oriented and shouldn’t understand the engineering cycle or lingo to work with their team… I am not saying you need to be Vitalik Buterin, but you need to have a basic understanding to make sense of the requirements, estimates, and your overall roadmap. I know few PMs who come from an engineering background (including myself), so if you’re not one, put an effort to improve your skills.

7. If the roadmap is not clear, then you’ve failed already

What’s in the next sprint? When is the next release date? What’s the overall budget? If you’re getting a lot of these questions, chances are, you didn’t do your job properly. Remember, a PM is a mini CEO. It’s your job to create a trusted environment with your team and customers. Over-communicate as much as you can. Put it in presentations, docs, wikis, heck put it on sticky notes around the office, but make it a habit to share your thoughts with everyone.

8. A to-do list never works!

If I tell you about the number of times I tried to manage my to-do list to be productive! I’ve done trello, I’ve switched my walls into a whiteboard with colour-coded tasks and swim lanes, tried sticky notes and email reminders. It never worked! Something always f*cks up the plan, like an email at the top of your inbox about changing the scope last minute! As PMs our calendars are full with meetings, customer requests, follow-ups and so on. I’ve learned to accept it and I carved a portion of my early morning (7:30–9) to get some of my to-do items cleared.

9. Constant change and uncertainty are your best friends 😀

I have a minor case of OCD, so this one resonates a lot with me. I am a person who likes order and discipline in my routine (except when I am backpacking for some reason), but as a PM you have to get used and be ready for uncertainties while maintaining a certain system in place.

Usually, all project uncertainties popup at 5 PM on a Friday! Have fun.

10. Be dumb on purpose!

As a PM, you are the voice of the customer. While you might know your product in and out, your customers don’t have the same context and exposure you do. So when you’re sitting with your engineering team, ask dumb questions to ensure that the final product built is dummy-proof.

11. Keep your ego in check!

Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, heck Netscape back in the days, were all created by undoubtedly the best Product Managers of the 21st century. While we have shaped the future direction of companies, it’s easy to let that whole mini CEO thing get into our head. Be smart, confident, stay humble, and keep your ego in check!

These have been the most important lessons in my career as a PM and just in general. If you think there are other lessons to learn, drop your comments below. I would love to read them and learn more.

Sam Kawtharani

Written by

FinTech & Blockchain Leader | Helping Companies Create Innovative Digital Products at Intersect | Startup Advisor | Co-Founder & Former CEO Corl

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