Me: so i’m thinking of writing something about what it’s like to be a product manager
S—: will it be like “oh, and here’s how you write an email…”
S—: “and here’s how you archive…”
Me: LOL. yes, exactly like that.
I’ve been a Product Manager for the better part of a decade, a big chunk of that in various capacities at Google. I now run product at a startup in NYC. People, like my friend and former UX design colleague above (who likes to bust my balls) tend not to have much of an understanding of what it is Product Managers do, or how they do it. Hell, I don’t even know if most PMs themselves would be able to articulate it very well.
So I’ve been reflecting on that and thinking about what it is exactly I’d want to impart to young Product Managers that are just starting out.
The role of a PM is, necessarily, murky. It changes wildly from company to company, and even within a company from team to team, and even on a particular team from day to day. It is perhaps the job where the epithet “wears many hats” is most apt. In many respects it is more dark art than science. More improv than script. More struggling-to-stay-afloat than confidently-surfing-a-wave. Anyway, to all young padawan PMs out there, listen up: to be a kick ass Product Manager on a large and fast-moving software team you cannot be just one thing. You need to be ALL the things.
You’re a CEO
The most basic analogy you hear parroted all the time is “the PM is the CEO of the product”. For the most part, I consider this a gross overstatement in all but the most senior product roles. The majority of PM jobs involve you driving forward some relatively small dimension of the product, with little meaningful control over resourcing, zero actual reporting authority over anyone, nor much, if any, say in the budgeting process—all within the confines of some larger organizational superstructure that you are subject to, rather than master of. Even in a very senior product role at a startup, you find yourself still subordinate to the ultimate will of the founder and/or actual CEO of the company. So as PM you effectively have no “chief executive” powers at all. Rather, you rely only on your wits and influence (more on that later) to get shit done within a largely egalitarian/meritocratic system in which you are not organizationally special. Where the CEO analogy is 100% on point, however, is in terms of responsibility: as PM, much like POTUS (the ultimate CEO), the buck stops with you. It is the combination of your instincts, energy and decisions that are going to dictate product success. If the product fails, it is your fault. You can look to no one but yourself when ascribing blame. However, if the product succeeds in market (by whatever yardstick you’ve set forth), little adulation awaits: you’ve simply done your job well by allowing others to do theirs well. Instead, your satisfaction will be a personal one, knowing that you’ve done your part in birthing something good into the world.
You’re a coach
Most of us have played some form of team sport in college or high school, or have seen Al Pacino’s speech in Any Given Sunday, so can relate to the role that a coach plays on any team. Coaches aren’t out there on the field tossing the ball, but they’re very much “in the mix”. The coach knows which players to put into which situations, understands how people work together, intuits which plays to call in the crucial moments. But perhaps most important is the role a coach plays as motivator. Coaches understand that teams are composed of people and the interpersonal relationships between each member determine to a large extent the effectiveness of the team, what it is capable of producing as a unit. Every coach tries to rally their players, a good coach finds a way to truly inspire, a great coach pushes their team to go further and be better than anyone imagined possible. Both in the good moments and bad, but particularly in the bad, a coach keeps people focused on the goal at hand. Keeps things in perspective. Remains the optimist. Removes distractions. Tells stories and stirs the imagination. Points the way to victory. Just like coaches on the sidelines and in the locker rooms, PMs too must inspire, motivate and convince their team to fight for Every Single Inch. Of course, there are stylistic differences: some coaches (and PMs) are the quietly-showing-the-way type, others are the loud-and-charismatic-orator type. Most are somewhere in between. There is no one right formula, it’s the end goal that counts: the team around you wants to come in every day and build alongside you because they believe in you and the product vision you espouse.
You’re an engineer
Ok not really an engineer per se, but lemme finish. A lot of big software companies like Google insist that their Product Managers have a technical background (CS/Eng degree or equivalent), as do many startups. The reason behind this has less to do with needing to be able to pinch hit and write code when needed—trust me, no one wants someone like me coding—but rather that these companies want PMs who can roll with engineers, speak the same language, grasp the technical concepts (and problems and opportunities) quickly, and by so doing gain the respect and trust of the people actually moving bits around. In this sense, the best PMs are culturally engineers: you have the DNA of a hacker, you get XKCD humor, you have a favorite programming language, your standards of fashion are low, you feel the pain of server outages, you can draw boxes and arrows with the best of them, and you’re just close enough to the metal to know that stuff doesn’t happen by magic alone. Only, rather than architect, write and debug code, you take care of everything else. Which happens to be a good segue, because as PM…
You’re a janitor
You do as much of the dirty work as possible so everyone else doesn’t have to. This is one of the most important things you do because it means the whole team operates more efficiently. Sure, as a PM you’ll spend a lot of really fun and engaging time working with designers creating fancy mocks that solve difficult interaction problems, and yes you’ll get to go really deep into product testing to find interesting bugs in esoteric but important scenarios and you will get to craft product strategy that will touch the lives of millions (maybe even billions) of people and have lasting impact on the company that employs you, but at the end of the day you’ll also have to do a lot of work that no one else wants to do. Like figuring out where to get some big poster printed because PMs don’t have assistants to do this kind of leg work. Like finding a meeting slot that works for 14 different people on the Friday before a long weekend. Like copy editing that blog post for the umpteenth time. Like dealing with Legal (friendly cheap shot!). Like making that presentation flow a little bit better before taking it to some executive. Like triaging the three hundred low priority bugs that remain on the release hotlist. Like following up with everyone on objectives for the quarter. Like making sure the metrics dashboard stays up to date. Like fielding a press interview when no one from the PR team is around. Like making the thousands-upon-thousands of unsexy little decisions that need to get made by someone. Like… fixing the toilet when it breaks. Because if you’re not doing all this cleanup & team hygiene work, then someone else has to and that means they aren’t doing their own important work — and that means your product will suffer. So: jump in with rubber gloves, and bells on, and do what needs to be done.
You’re a hammer
My dad used to have an Estwing framing hammer that he called his “persuader”. As a carpenter, you can bend pretty much any board or nail to your will with a good hammer and a little elbow grease. Somewhat similarly, as a PM, your chief stock in trade is influence. You live and you die based on your ability to convince other people to do what you need them to do for the good of the product. Persuasion is an art form that relies on your ability to communicate a passion for your cause, to cunningly blend data with argument, fact with opinion, logic with emotion. Pragmatically this means being able to write crisply, sometimes forcefully, and means speaking with grace and authority. To influence you need to have gained people’s trust and respect. You need to exude both confidence and humility when called for. You need to be able to turn “no” (everyone’s default answer) into “yes” (to which people need to be given a reason to arrive at). More generally, you need to be the force that makes things happen. You don’t let people equivocate; you make people commit to a clear position and establish course of action. You drive to resolution. You don’t let loose ends stay loose and you prevent things from falling through cracks. You are the propellant that pushes through all opposition and ultimately gets the product shipped. As a mentor once told me “the single most important feature you need to focus on is shipping”. To this end, as PM you are the swinging hammer that builds.
You’re a router
Hundreds (quite literally) of requests are going to come at you every day. Whether it be in the form of bugs/tickets, emails, in-person meetings, phone calls, video conferences—as PM you’re constantly going to be overwhelmed with information and questions, much of which require at minimum your attention, if not intervention of some kind. More often than not, however, you’re not actually the best person to take action. And so a lot of what you do is act as “traffic cop” and route things to the right place. And I say that not to belittle the function—not at all. It’s in fact a critical role to play to keep the execution of the project moving forward apace. The better a job you do at bringing the right information together with the right person to act on it (particularly when that’s not yourself) the faster stuff gets done. You’ll need to know the org cold in order to be good at this, and the more personal relationships you can establish the more effective your routing will be. In this way, you are the grease that ensures the humming of the machine. While there’s little glory in routing information, you’ll find that letting inbound queries rot in your inbox for days (or even hours) is a recipe for frustrated colleagues and a slow-moving product. So being a great router often means being “always-on”—whenever someone or some situation needs your attention, you should be available to respond. Will this sometimes come at the expense of personal life? Yes.
You’re a super user
There should be no bigger power user of your product on the planet than you. It is only by using your own product obsessively (eating your own dog food, as we say) that you will develop and nurture accurate instincts for the ways in which the product can and should be better. Constant product testing in the wild, in various real-world conditions, is the best possible (if not only) way to see how, where and why your product breaks—and bring those bugs back to the team. A PM who is constantly reporting bugs is a PM who gains credibility with the engineering team as someone who is passionate, detail-oriented and cares about quality. Also, in using the product out there in the World, you get to see how others react to the product and better understand the social context in which people will use and interact with the stuff you’re building. And while you certainly want to collect and listen to feedback from your actual users, not one of your users has the forward vision & strategy for the product that you have. So you alone are unique in seeing everything that has come, everything that is and everything that will ever be for your product. It’s all on you. So there is simply no substitute for hardcore and constant product testing, and if you’re a PM who is not obsessed about this, you simply do not care enough about the success of your product.
You’re an inventor
As Product Manager you’ll find yourself needing to solve problems every day. No textbook exists for learning how to do this. Sure you will lean on everything you’ve learned in school, and yes you will draw on all of your previous experiences to help guide you to solutions, but ultimately every situation is at least subtly different or new, and so more often than not you’re left without clear precedent, usually lacking all of the data you need, and you will simply need to dream up the right solution given the cards you’re dealt. So great PMs are usually creative types, who can generate and churn through many ideas all at once, to think on their feet and arrive at solutions to difficult and multi-faceted problems. Every day you will find yourself needing to invent. Fortunately, you will rarely lack in ideas from those around you; in fact your team will be a source of far more creative thought that you alone can produce. This is one of the beauties of working on teams with a lot of really smart, creative people. Assuming people on your team feel a stake in the product (which is your job to ensure) a stream of new ideas, solutions, feature requests and creative energy is going to flow towards you. Much of it you’ll need to politely discard (as the person who has thought most about the product you are uniquely positioned to triage all such ideas) but you earn your stripes as a great PM by being able to mine your team’s inventiveness to identify the diamonds in the rough and insert them into the product plan to make them real.
You’re a ghost
An oft-overlooked dimension of PMing is knowing when to disappear. Too frequently I have seen Product Managers try to “add value” at every turn, inserting themselves into every meeting and every discussion thread, piping up because silence might be seen as a lack of caring or lack of insight. Often this comes from a good place; folks are just trying to help. But more PMs should subscribe to the Hippocratic precept of first doing no harm, because it is in fact possible to over-PM and stifle those around you. Particularly true of working with engineers, who in my experience like to maximize their coding make-time and minimize everything else. A good way to approach this is to let people and problems come to you; if the ship is running smoothly there’s no need to spin the wheel just because it’s in your hands. So whenever possible, try to get out of people’s way and instead make yourself just available enough that as soon as you’re needed you can materialize into existence and be helpful.
You’re the product
At the end of the day, I could have saved myself a lot of words and simply said that as Product Manager you can, in fact, be accurately summed up by one singular thing: your product. The product your team builds and ships is the most faithful representation of your success as a PM. It is the thing from which you cannot hide. It is your legacy. It is quite literally the sum product of all of your effort, every single decision made along the way.
Your success in making your product great hinges on your ability to be, at every moment in time, the most valuable thing your team needs you to be at that very moment. And that will be the handful of things I list above (or some variant of them) and five hundred more things you’ll need to discover, largely by accident and instinct, on your own, in the trenches.
Enjoy the ride.
Mat Balez is a Product Management executive, living in NYC.