Product Management: Being finite

Before I had a baby I felt infinite.

I could do anything, be anything, code anything. I thought that there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish in a spare weekend. Looking back, I spent most of my time pondering how to build things and very little on what to build. Why choose? Whee! After all, I have all the time in the world!

And then I had a baby and literally everything changed.

Facebook reminded me of a post I made a few years ago, “Up before 10am on a Sunday, AMAZING!”

Yup, current-me would really like to throttle past-me. I haven’t had a free weekend in approximately 15 months, and I won’t for many years. That’s ok, in fact, it’s wonderful. It has changed my perspective in ways that I really love.

I am now efficient. I don’t procrastinate nearly as much. I can’t wait until the cab is on it’s way to pack my suitcase, because the baby may need me. They are full of needs; unpredictable, wonderful, awful needs. And so, I get a lot more done in less time. At npm, I’ve worn so many hats: Engineering Manager, Project Manager, Product Manager, Engineer, sometimes-copywriter, and Design Manager. Most of them simultaneously. Yay, startups! How is that possible?

I decide what to spend time on.

Because I no longer have the illusion of being infinite, I have learned the art of prioritization. Not all tasks are equal. Some can be dropped or postponed, others must be done right now. Some are important to the business, others to developer happiness. Some are high level and others are all about the nitty gritty.

I don’t jump directly into doing a task. First, I ask myself, does it matter? Given the constraints of a 25-person startup, is it something we can spend time on? As a young engineer, I called myself product-agnostic, someone who was happy building a ringtone site for teenagers as long as the tech stack was cool. But that hasn’t been true for many years. Business constraints are another really fun puzzle, just like engineering constraints. I’ve learned to love the way they can help inform engineering decisions.

For example, if increasing enterprise leads is our most important goal this month, what can we do to hit that goal? Is there a lower cost way that we could really knock it out of the park? Is there anything we can compromise on? What is the earliest we can get data to see if we are on the right track and decide about moving forward? I look for high value product and engineering changes that add incremental value over time.

When I was PM-gineering at Pivotal, James Bayer told me “you have to feed the beast!”

Engineering teams are the beast. And they eat product tasks. I needed to line up work faster than they were consuming it. To have everything ready when they need it, including designs, product decisions, assets, endpoints, metrics, and A/B tests. And, perhaps most importantly, a convincing explanation for why engineers should spend their time on this particular task.

I find it hard to explain why something matters if I don’t pick my head up and look around pretty frequently, so I also spent time on big picture items, like surveying users who abandon the product, interviewing folks who chose to go with another product, getting stakeholder input, adding analytics, and pairing with our support team.

“As a product manager you carry trade-offs in your head and adjust constantly to new data.”
~ Sarah Chandler, Product Manager at Asana

Product management is about being keenly aware that we are all finite. Parenthood is the gift that allowed me to really accept that. We are capable of more when we don’t try to be and do everything.

How do you decide what to spend time on?