What I learned from My 7 Years in Product Management

Avinash Bajaj
Jun 6, 2018 · 8 min read
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I currently work as Growth Lead at Pusher, but I have worked in Product Management for 7 years prior to this. I have previously written how I became a PM here.

So, I wanted to take the opportunity to describe my learnings and experiences over these years.

Back in 2011, it was very hard for me to get into Product Management. This was because nobody knew very well what exactly a PM does. The concept was starting to get well established in the Bay Area in USA because of the likes of Google and Amazon, but not so much in the UK or Europe. Mind the Product, today one of the biggest communities for Product Managers in the world, started only in 2010, proving how nascent the PM scene was back then. In other words,

I threw myself into a relatively unknown field at its early stages.

Some would argue that things are not that different today. However, I think there is a more established understanding of what PMs do and don’t. Hell! Now, there are even several $$$ making courses that have grown rapidly over the last few years, such as Product School and General Assembly. I’ve also ran a few workshops on Product Management in universities, and there was almost always a full house.

7 years is a long enough time to learn some key lessons. Here are my most important learnings:

1. Get comfortable with politics!

I am surprised nobody talks about this much. As a PM, you are dealing with so many different personalities and egos. More often than not, you need other people to work well with you. As I had written earlier here:

As a Product Manager, you are not the best engineer, not the best designer, not the best QA, not even the best project manager in the room. Technically speaking, that makes you the most replaceable member of the team!

So, one thing you will need to get good at is diplomacy! Yes, this is a dirty word, but unfortunately, if you want to be good at your job, you need to learn how to play well with almost everyone. If you like to complain and sulk in the corner whenever something doesn’t work for you, this job is not for you!

2. The buck needs to stop at you!

Popularised by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, “the buck stops here” is true in practise when it comes to being a PM without having presidential powers. I am not saying PMs should be altruistic, but if the buck passes, nobody will be in deeper trouble than you. Things tend to come back to you if something escalates quickly without your awareness. If the engineers cut corners, you will be left picking up the pieces; if the marketers send the wrong message, you will be doing damage control; if the sales team sells the wrong product, you will be held responsible for the resultant churn. The best way to be in control of something is to actually be in control — this includes, being involved in more discussions than you would like or need to be in. But, the buck stops at you!

3. PMs are Product Leaders to begin with

As opposed to many other fields, PMs don’t have the luxury to start from the bottom. The bottom does not exist in the world of product management! This is because the key role of a PM is to align stakeholders around a shared purpose. Most of your stakeholders are at senior positions, which means you are dealing with seasoned professionals (and bigger egos) who do not have the patience to deal with someone who doesn’t know what he/she is talking about. You can never be under-prepared before any conversation you could have with anyone. This is no space for someone who is not willing to put himself/herself out there and swim in the deep end. No amount of training can teach you this attitude, this is something you just gotta have before you come in, or be willing to pick it up very soon.

4. Get Sh*t Done!

If nothing else, do this one thing right — get sh*t done! I have seen several PMs who are big talkers, but when it comes to getting things done, they hide behind a lot of BS. In my job as the Head of Product at Flixmedia, my CEO expected one thing from me — to make sure things get done! It did not matter that I had no technical chops to do engineering or no marketing experience in planning launches, but he trusted me to make sure I bring all pieces together to make sure things get done.

5. Start embracing the Imposter Syndrome

I am an introvert. Unless I think I can add value to the conversation, I tend to stay silent. Introversion combined with the job of a PM can have a very tricky effect. On one hand, you are supposed to bring people together for a shared purpose. On the other hand, you are always wondering if you are doing the right thing. Combined with the fact that you are an assumed leader at all levels, you gotta learn how to back yourself up. Go cry in the loo after you’ve had a big debate with the leadership team if you have to, but at the moment of conversation, stand your ground if you are convinced you are doing the right thing.

6. You need to pick up on engineering chops!

If I had a penny every time someone told me that PMs don’t need to understand engineering to work with their team, I could have now been a millionaire. Whoever tells you that you don’t need to pick up on the engineering chops to work in a tech company, has either never worked as PM or is probably not doing the best in that role. I am not saying that you need to be an engineer, but you certainly need to be able to connect the dots, sometimes even bring new dots to the table. I used to be bad at this before I learnt the hard way and started putting in the effort to improve.

7. Trust is paramount

If your colleagues need to keep asking you about your roadmap, you have not done your job. Before anything else, you will need to establish a sense of trust among your colleagues and customers. PMs often need to over-communicate. This means repeating yourself in different circles if required. Documentation and reports are good tools to help you do this. As Jeff Bezos says: “There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking”. I am not saying PMs need to have everything figured out, but start developing a habit of documenting and sharing your thoughts, because it helps you clarify your thinking and also helps develop trust among your colleagues that you’ve got this!

8. Your to-do list / calendar / schedule is a joke!

My wife, who is also a PM, comes up to me one day and says: “I had a whole day scheduled but nothing went to plan. I opened my email first thing in the morning and things were broken everywhere. I was left with dealing with customer complaints, working with the engineers to fix the problem and preparing a detailed report to send to the board documenting the incident. This means everything I had scheduled is left for me to pick it up tomorrow, when I have another million things on my calendar”. This scenario is not uncommon for PMs — most PMs have their calendars full with meetings and catch-ups. This means any ‘thinking’ time or customer development interviews are often done outside work hours or are sometimes missed out unfortunately.

9. Get comfortable with change and uncertainty!

Taking cue from the above point, if you are someone who likes order and discipline in your routine, this job will be extremely challenging! Don’t confuse order with process. Creating a process/system is essential to do your job efficiently and for your function to scale, but as a PM, you should always be ready for uncertainties to crop up (often at the worse possible times!).

10. Be a noob (on purpose!)

As a PM, you are often sitting with very smart engineers/developers. This helps you to raise your game. However, you need to be aware that the users of your product are not around you. Your product is often just one of the things they encounter in a typical day/week/month; they do not have the same context and exposure that you do. So, it is unreasonable of you to expect them to navigate around your ‘simple’ product in the way you desire. Instead, you need to represent them in your development process — that includes, dummifying conversations within your team to ensure that when the final product is built, it adds value to your users without making them feel inadequate to use your product. That includes asking stupid questions of your product’s possible usage.

11. Be aware of your own ego!

Steve Jobs was undoubtedly one of the best Product Managers in the modern world. People like Sundar Pichai, Marissa Mayer, Ken Norton, Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz have raised the profiles of PMs in the tech space. There is no question that PMs have become quite fundamental in shaping the future directions of companies. However, there is a very popular concept in the product management space — that you are the CEO of your product. That is total BS! Nobody is the CEO of anything in a company except the CEO. This is a concept made popular only by PMs to fan their egos. So, it is important to be aware of the measure of tangible impact you are having as a PM as opposed to its perception. Be confident, but with humility.

7 years is a long time! I could go on forever, but these are some of my most important lessons in my journey as a PM.

Having said this, I have decided to take a break from Product Management to pursue my career in Growth, because, I believe Growth is where Product Management was 7 years ago. In other words,

I am going to throw myself again into a relatively unknown field at its early stages.

But this deserves a blog post on its own, so I will leave this off for another time.

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