Becoming a real PM: overcoming the pressure of unrealistic standards

Photo by Crason Arias

There’s a certain image in the media of what a Product Manager should look like, how they should behave, and what they should believe in. Similar to the way fashion magazines represent a retouched and unrealistic image of men and women, Medium posts about product management seem to translate a perfect and unattainable image of what our jobs and our products are. And since it’s not Vogue, but a free space where everyone can have a voice, we tend to stop critically evaluating the image of the PM and lose our grip on reality. While it’s helpful to familiarize ourselves with and try to incorporate best practices, they shouldn’t give us misconceptions about the realities of the job and our performances.

Product management is not as glossy as the image, kind of like life in general

Here is a list of some of the urban legends that drive me crazy and how they compare to reality.

Legend #1: Tests always give results.

Reality: Tests give statistically significant results about 1 in 10 times. The data-driven test-based approach cultivated by Netflix and other great companies is amazing and useful, but tests are not the magic bullet.

Legend #2: A single keyword change will skyrocket app search rankings overnight
Reality: Changes in App Store keywords or Google Play descriptions do impact the position of your app, but not immediately. Most of the time you won’t see much difference. The overnight success stories just lead to more survivorship bias.

Legend #3: The users always give actionable feedback, and you always know why a user behaves the way she does.

Reality: About half the time, user feedback doesn’t even make sense. Sometimes they confuse products and companies, sometimes they describe how they use the features that aren’t even there, and sometimes their syntax prevents you from understanding their message. Some feedback is useless and that’s okay. In the real world you can’t always immediately make sense of why the users behave the way they do, why they use your product in certain ways, and why the data seems crazy.

Legend #4: You’ll always have all the data you need, and decisions will therefore be obvious.
Reality: More often than not, when you get together user feedback, business requirements and analyze the data, you end up with conflicting sets of data and few legitimate solutions to a problem you’re no longer sure is even real. Even when the data is adequate, you’re never sure what the best solution is.

Legend #5: The main task of a PM is to generate ideas. Literally, to just sit there and come up with stuff.

Reality: Generating ideas is basically an activity to be done in the shower. The core job (read: the other 99% of the time) involves reacting to problems ranging from “how do we reach these users?” to “sales are declining — why and what do we do?” to “shall we hide this part of the form to decrease the cognitive load?” But having the solution isn’t enough, as the PM also must support the dev/design/marketing/sales/editorial team.

Legend #6: The PM is the CEO of the product, so when she presents a new product or feature to the team, everyone excitedly goes: “OMG that’s genius, let’s get to it right away!”
Reality: When a PM presents her ideas to the team, typically the reactions range from “well, that’s not total bullshit” down to opinions regarding why there’s no problem worth solving in the first place.

Legend #7: A PM always has clear KPIs.

Reality: When you interview for a PM role and ask about the KPIs, few companies will provide exact metrics. Others will say something like “the performance of the product is important,” while the rest will admit they don’t have any at all.

Legend #8: Everything goes according to plan. You just set the roadmap and follow it.

Reality: New technologies bring new opportunities and mess up the roadmap. Products underperform and get killed. New laws are passed. The CEO is fired and the new one has totally different mantras. Life happens: people get sick, make mistakes, and even leave.

Legend #9: Everyone knows the product you work on. So when you tell it to someone new they ecstatically go: “OMG, I love [insert company name]. They are so cool!”
Reality: There’s not just Apple, Google, Facebook and about 30 world’s largest companies + 10 or so local companies that people work for. There are many more. Many of them are B2B. So it’s only natural that when you tell people you work for company X on product Y they would go: “Huh? Never heard of it.”

Legend #10: Your products are magical and amazingly innovative. And boy have you ever seen user retention be this high?

Reality: Not all products are created equally sexy. And most of the time, you aren’t really innovating. From time to time, you need to kill your product or features, because they underperform. But as long a you keep them real helpful to users and business you are doing a great job.

It’s time to embrace reality

So where do we go from here? When we’re out of pixie PM dust and there’s no unicorn in sight, all we’re left with seems to be an uncontrollable chaos that’s not so glamorous after all. The idea is to make sense and build tiny bits of order out of that chaos. To solve real problems for real users and real businesses.

The only way to live your true and authentic PM self is to first embrace reality and attainable expectations. Let go of detrimental perfectionism, embrace impostor syndrome, welcome the uncertainty of everything. Pray to common sense, make fun of bullshitters, ruthlessly cut to the point. Trust your teammates, see business values and priorities clearly, challenge the status quo. Give straight feedback and welcome honest opinions. Do what makes sense, not what is fancy. Kill what’s no longer useful.

The fairy tales are all good and fun and important to read for self-development and stuff, but the real thing is better. Do more of what makes you real. Afterall even Vogue is headed that way.


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