On Products
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On Products

PM Stories: What PMs Do and How I Became One

I’m Julia, and I’m a product manager in tech. Demand for the role has grown, and yet it’s still fuzzily-defined and constantly evolving. So, I seek to understand, learn, and document PM best practices and thinking.

Photo by Noémi Macavei-Katócz on Unsplash

First, a quick note on this channel:

I’ve been pretty dormant the last few years, so I’m here to say that I’m hitting unpause. I believe that professional knowledge should be free, so the work on this platform will never be behind a paywall. Product management is my full-time career.

I write for the aspiring product managers and the existing ones. I write for anyone who thinks about how to build digital things. I write for myself: to codify what I’ve observed, to push myself to extract learnings from my work as they come, and to be challenged by others who disagree so I can consider as many perspectives as I can find. I write for others: to those trying to decide if this is the career for them, to those trying to break in, and to those trying to get better.

My only promise to you is that I write what I believe in that moment. That time element is important, because success in the tech industry is about how quickly you can adapt to changing customer expectations and markets. So, by its nature, I believe (at least, for now) that the best practices of product management will, too, be constantly adapting.

Product managers exist to change the company.

Fundamentally, the job of a product manager is to identify which problems the company should be solving and enable teams to get on a path to solve them. These are always — directly or not — problems of user needs: enabling people to do something new or making an existing tool easier to use. Successful products address these needs in sustainable ways: with a functional business model so the company can continue to operate, using technologies that scale to the size of demand, targeting the audience that has the problem, and in a way that is significantly more effective than existing solutions, so it’s worth the cost to switch.

This is how product managers differ from project and programme managers (technical or not). Great leadership defines the why; product managers define the what; project managers (if the team has them) focus on the how, the execution. All these elements are critical to building great products, but each requires different skills.

Product-driven organisations work this way because it enables constant change. By defining the organisation around a strong why, rather than around what it does, leaders make it easy to let go of solutions that no longer fit needs and pick up new directions. Classic example is Apple, which exists to make well-designed digital tools; this means they can recognise when it’s time to introduce the iPhone, retire the iPod, or dive into the autonomous car. Unfortunately, many organisations still define themselves by what they do. PMs in these orgs are constantly redefining them (or else the org becomes irrelevant and fails). This painful work requires constant identity crises.

Being a successful PM doesn’t just require adapting to the times, but also to your context, to the kind of company and culture you’re in. I’ll explore as many of the different contexts here as I can, by leveraging the experiences of colleagues willing to share their stories.

My own PM story

My career path, like many, is built on recognising and taking advantage of good luck. I try not to underestimate how much chance shaped me, but that’s also why I write: perhaps I can create some luck for you.

I studied social psychology in college; I like thinking about how people think. I took a computer science class because everyone was talking about how in-demand it will soon be, and then I got hooked on the ability to turn thoughts in my head into tools on my screen. Eventually, I took a class in human-computer interaction, which was as close to product thinking as formal education got at that time, and I realised that there was a whole profession for the thing I was already doing constantly in my head.

I joined the industry early enough that the requirements to become a product manager were fuzzy — most companies didn’t really know yet what good looked like, so they were willing to take chances if you sounded confident enough. This is still mostly true among startups, where many value hustle over experience. I didn’t major in CS, which was generally required at the time to be a PM (complete with coding interviews!), but managed to get an internship at Microsoft that converted into my first job. The best advice I’ve gotten so far: you get hired based on how relevant your background is, but you create value based on how you’re different from everyone else, so leverage that instead of hiding it.

I quickly realised that PMs sat in the middle of all other roles and therefore could have significant impact on them. Identifying a strong unmet need is just the start of a successful product: it also has to find its audience and communicate clearly what problem it solves and how; it has to be intuitive for that audience; it has to be built well and quickly enough that it’s still relevant; and it has to be sustainable enough for the company to keep operating. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so the more you know about how each station operates, the better you can spot opportunities to optimise the final meal. This realisation led me to trade the world of PM for a while; I worked as a strategy consultant to F500 CEOs and as a marketing manager for Amazon, as those functions had been black boxes to me. I still reap the benefits of skills gained from these roles almost daily.

I returned to PM with a new passion for modernising businesses (a topic you’ll see me write about) at Workplace by Facebook, where I explored how communication tech could shape company culture. For the past year, I’ve shifted to tackling support for two billion people at WhatsApp.

It’s getting harder to become a product manager. Rocket ships and unicorns are fewer while supply of willing candidates is greater. In part, this is the natural cycle of every new industry; opportunities will continue to expand and contract. The focus has shifted from tech iterating on itself to tech bringing other industries into these modern ways of working, like agriculture and healthcare and construction. A combination of expertise (product thinking + an area of domain knowledge) is now the best way to differentiate yourself, so if you’re really struggling here, consider picking a domain first and side-step into product.

The good news is that the ubiquity of platforms and unprecedented access to online learning means more people than ever can learn and practice the skills to build useful products. Education alone is ineffective; great product management requires knowing how to turn ambiguity into clarity, when to pivot vs. double down, which signal is the golden nugget rather than noise, how to prioritise and scope with a million competing considerations — basically, how to navigate the challenges of the real world and come out the other side with something that’s useful, relevant, and clear. You can start developing those skills even through side projects. So go build something.

The journey ahead

If I’m posting regularly, it means I’m reflecting regularly, so I’ll do my best here. If you disagree with something, please respond to the story; I’m all about strong opinions, loosely held. If you’re keen to understand something, please comment with a question. Most of the posts will meander less than this one, but I also ascribe to, Done is better than perfect.

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