Being a Product Manager is like being a Pirate Captain

Well maybe except the criminal violence part…

Every once in awhile, a colleague comes to me with a declaration that he wants to take a leap and become a Product Manager.

They usually come to me since I went down the same path a couple of years ago (converted myself from being a Developer), and ask — “What’s it like to be a Product Manager?

Well, after being asked this question a couple of times (and after realizing that the answer “It wasn’t rewarding enough” is not as amusing to them as it is to me) i’ve tried to find a good analogy — and came up with a Pirate Captain as a cool way of looking at it.

Sounds weird, I know, but please allow me to try and convince you…

Learn to navigate (in order to find the gold)

Everyone is searching for that gold treasure. If it’s that sweet spot that brings you to a positive ROI, if it’s going above 1.5% of CVR for sale, is it a 2-digits positive Net MRR or even just “simply” selling your startup.

Everyone is looking for “that treasure”, and it’s your responsibility as the ship captain to get us there.

As a PM, you should have the knowledge of what needs to be done in order to navigate the product to a certain point.

Need to “squeeze the lemon” out of your product? Learn the differences between direct and indirect monetization, converting a new user VS an upsell, ups and downs of each and which strategy you should choose based on your situation.

Have a backlog full of ideas? Great! Learn how to anticipate what each one of those user stories will contribute in order to navigate your ship towards that secret monkey island.

One more thing — read the map, Learn to recognize the northern star and listen to the waves.

Please do not rely just on your gut feelings and sail towards the horizon. You’ll get us all killed.

Be transparent with the crew or they will throw you overboard

Although you’re in charge of leading the ship towards its destination, it’s important to state that pirating is not a dictatorial regime, but a limited democracy (swear to god).

You are a Product Manager, not the team’s manager, and as such you probably know that leading those fine lads isn’t about asserting your authority, but rather, demonstrating skill, being daring, winning the prize and swigging down that rum!

One of the very basics for such leadership is simply being transparent.

You know your product and your users, you are familiar with the business goal, you are digging in analytics all day long, you’ve set a strategy, broke it down to tactics, epics, and user stories, and you are marching towards a specific destination. Share that data.

The team is going to be executing this vision, and unless you’re going to share that vision with them, you can expect very limited cooperation.

Respect the people you work with — treating them as just “a cabin boy and a powder monkey” instead of the fearsome pirate crew that they are will cause a rebellion (meaning exaggerated time estimations) and will end up with you walking the plank straight into the deep ocean.

Master diplomacy, but learn to use a sword

In expansion to the previous section — being a Product Manager is not only communicating with the tech team but also serving as an intersection to various parties within your company (bizdev, marketing, other PM’s, etc.).

Since one of your roles is to say “No” to tons of stuff, and turn other people’s “NO’s” into “Yes’s”, I wanted to emphasize once more, just how important is it to build your soft skills.

It’s vital to: -

  • Practice your communication skills
  • Improve relationship building
  • Practice active listening and empathy
  • Learn how to negotiate
  • Learn how to tell a story
  • Learn how to get and provide a feedback.

All are crucial to reaching your goals.

BUT — sometimes along the way (hopefully very, very rarely) pure diplomacy won’t be enough and during those times it’s important to know how to use your sword.

Be assertive (but not aggressive), control your data, know how to protect your agenda and be ready for confrontation. It’s neither fun nor ideal, but when it comes to this you should know how to handle it.

Have a scar and a wooden leg

Well, not literally a wooden leg (although it would be pretty cool), but gain some experience before jumping into that captain role.

Everyone likes to think that they know best and have what it takes to make a good product, but unless you’re a f*ckn prodigy it usually takes some time and experience in order to do so.

No one gets to be a captain without setting some sails, being a gunner, rowing a boat or even scrubbing some decks.

Do you want to manage a product? Learn and try. Try and learn.

Understand code in order to get some extra points from the dev team, know how to use Sketch\Photoshop and understand what looks and feels right for the sake of communicating better with your UX\UI guys, open some bugs and understand the QA frustration, read MRD’s and understand business cases.

In addition — work at one of those domains for at least a couple of years so it’ll become your profession.

Oh yes! And learn how to use some name dropping!

A good captain is always using phrases like “Ahoy, matey”, “Yo Ho Ho” and “Arrrrrr”.

Wanna be one of the gang? Try using a sentence like “disruptive low hanging fruit MVP with an out of the box B2B solution for IOT technology using big data cloud infrastructure for SMB’s and early adopters”.

It doesn’t mean shit, but you’ll get everyone confused and will be able to watch them nodding with great importance. :)

There is a difference between a Cutter and a Galley

A product is a product is a product, right? No mate. It’s not.

Being a captain of a 5-man cutter boat that ferry light stores between larger boats and the shore is a very different thing than being a captain of a galley warship with more than 50 people onboard.

Same with products — there are plenty of types of products within plenty of types of companies. Some of them are standalone products requiring no interaction with other departments and some of them are internal service products that need to sync with multiple other products.

Some dev teams are fearsome pirates that are running wild and just “shipping it” and “moving fast and breaking things”, and some dev teams prefer to have an organized process.

All companies have their own unique vibe (whether it’s 5 post-grads crammed into your pals basement, or a multinational corporation, boasting thousands of employees). Whatever the case may be, each company equates to a totally different product, and you should never expect things to stay exactly the same — that’s part of the challenge!

Nothing specific to advise here — just know that each product and each company has its little twist to the PM role.

Moving from one product to another? Don’t expect things to be the same.

Learn how to drink. Everything is a cause for celebration

Everything is a cause for celebration.

Shipping your Beta, raising a seeding money for your startup, 1,000 daily active users, 1,001 daily active users, capturing the island’s’ governor… Tech guys tend to celebrate every tiny thing, and usually do it with some buzz (and pizza).

Don’t be a kid. Take that grog like a real captain and have some fun with the guys!

“Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!” (Billy Bones)


Special thanks to Shem Magnezi, Emma Schuster and Jackie Schindler.

You guys are living legends.