The Beginner’s Guide to Product Management

New to product management? A simple model to get started.

The takeaways

(1) All product managers must be expert on the “connection points” between customers and companies (see Figure 1, below).
(2) Product managers should consider themselves the Chief Culture Officer and begin by getting the team to do the most important part of your job: customer empathy.
(3) Great product managers directly contribute to their product through a focus on the old-time values of quality, craftsmanship, and mastery.

The story

When I first started product management at Vivint.SmartHome after leaving management consulting, I was lost.

Though I was fortunate enough to be mentored by great product managers who had previously worked at EA and Nike, I felt like I had entered a nebulous psychological realm where someone with no technical and design skills was accountable to deliver a great product (some may question why a non-engineer/designer was given the chance to be a product manager at all, but I’ll write another post on that later).

Early on, someone shared this simple model of product management with me:

Source: Product Manager HQ

I liked it. Having studied economics, I was used to models. They took complex things and abstracted them so that my limited brain could understand and processes them. I had learned “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” — George Box.

This was a useful framework that helped me get my bearings. “OK, so I’m supposed to be some sort of liaison between UX, engineers, and ‘the business’ I thought.” This was good news because I could logically understand engineering concepts, I had an OK sense of UX & design, and my background in management consulting helped me communicate with executives and understand business goals. But this model soon began to break down as a tool to help me excel at my job. I had concerns:

  • Why are UX, Tech, and “Business” three separate circles? And why do they need a go-between? Shouldn’t everyone on the team work to bring these circles together?
  • What is “the business” anyway? Customers? Executives? Investors?
  • Is the only value I’m adding being a network router?

So I began looking again to find something to help me better understand my role. I took a Pragmatic Marketing course, but their framework was bewilderingly confusing:

Source: Pragmatic Marketing

I also found this model:

This one is quite helpful. “Fill the white space” became my de facto creed for product management for the next several months. But I came to have problems with this also: mainly, that I was becoming a maximum generalist with no area of expertise or direct contribution to the team — and I was constantly context switching and distracted, always failing to achieve deep work.

Since joining SafeBoda, I’ve worked out a new model for product management that I hope will be helpful to new product managers trying to find their way. It doesn’t offer up anything incredibly unique or original, but like all good models, it…

  1. Helps you get your job done by keeping you focused on the essentials
  2. Abstracts complexity to make things easy to understand
  3. It can easily be memorized and does not have more information than needed

Let’s start with the interaction between companies and customers that I call “The Product Value Cycle” (Figure 1, below). In this exchange, both give and take. Companies get information about the customer, money, and some form of word-of-mouth from customers. Customers get a product, support for that product, and branding (e.g., Apple’s brand makes your MacBook pro more valuable to you) & content (e.g., Trello add value through content like this: Trello Inspiration). A cycle in which value is created for both parties in this cycle is essential for any successful product & company.

Your fundamental job as a Product Manager is to make sure this occurs.
Figure 1. The Product Value Cycle.

So how do you do that? While there are many things you can focus on, I’ve come to believe there there are three areas you should:

  1. The connection points between company and customer - You should be a knowledge expert on the line from customer to company. Understand them like you would your best friend. Open up consistent channels of communication so that this line is strong for everyone else on your team too. You should also be the delivery producer for the line from the company to customer. Do whatever you can to make sure your team is consistently delivering product, support, and branding/content. Always be a customer advocate for delivering value.
  2. The culture in which your product is created - Many posts could be written about the specifics of what culture to create. But start with considering yourself the Chief Culture Officer for your team, responsible for intentionally creating and maintaining an awesome org culture. One great place to start is to establish a culture where everyone — from engineers to customer service — spends some of their time doing the most important aspect of your job: understanding the customer and building passion to delight them. Don’t feel defensive about “my job” being to understand the customer. It’s your job to make it everyone’s job.
  3. Directly contributing to 1 or more of the areas of product delivery: design, engineering, marketing, or operations - I’ve found that you earn the respect of your team, increase your effectiveness, and find your job more rewarding when you are a direct contributor in some way. There are many ways to do this, depending on your skill set: take an engineering ticket or two every sprint, design some of the screens for your app/website, create photography assets for your brand, be the copywriter for the team, or write product blog posts. While I think it’s important to contribute directly to the creating side, if you believe you can’t do any of those things, participate directly in operations by taking on a few support tickets, be a client account manager, etc.

These focus areas are highlighted in Figure 2 below. If you’re new to product management, I recommend starting with a strong focus on 1a. You should dedicate 50% of your time for a month+ to 1a. 1b should follow shortly thereafter. You can start on 2 and 3 concurrently when you’re ready and have enough knowledge of and experience with your product, team, and customers (probably between 3–6 months into your role, unless you’re at an early stage startup).

If you have any questions, disagreement, or additions, I’d love to hear them!

Note: I’ll be expanding and refining the ideas found here in later posts and future edits. Your feedback is welcome.