How to Make Fiends and Influence Product:
Influencing product direction without being a product manager
Every Product Management (PM) guide teaches that a PM must influence people and develop relationships without holding authority. None of these guides will tell you how. This is my story.
I started at a small cloud software company as a business analyst (among other responsibilities). In my first weeks, I read emails between developers. I didn’t understand what they were discussing about SQL page size limits, but I wanted to understand the tenuous threads that connects developer discussions to our customers’ needs. I started to learn SQL, and I looked for answers to my questions, from RFCs and Microsoft’s SQL documentation to Stack Overflow discussions.
My goal wasn’t to write SQL queries or design SQL insertions myself (that came later) but to be able to ask relevant questions and understand the answers.
I talked to the technical writing team and contributed to customer-facing documentation of the product. I joined Sales demos, and I listened to what features Sales highlighted and what questions prospects asked.
My first big win came from listening to prospects and customers identifying a barrier to contact entry. The system required several clicks and pop-up windows to enter information, and most users needed documentation with screenshots to learn how to use it. I asked developers about alternate approaches and trade-offs.
I was able to design and build a functional prototype myself. Customers loved the prototype, and I leveraged this to persuade executives to incorporate my design into the product.
The success of this feature was driven by my recognition of a pain point and by relying on my technical strengths to build a functional prototype. Many product challenges lie in prioritization, data analysis, A/B testing, or market research. Many product challenges in turn raise infeasible engineering challenges.
I learned the formal methods and jargon of Product Management by the usual osmotic processes (Product blogs, books, articles, and podcasts). Hearing about Product feels more like adsorption than absorption: the concepts stick to me, congealing like an oil that coats my language and specs, but it doesn’t substantially change who I am and what I do.
The practical mechanisms that drive product development aren’t governed by arcane nomenclature and document frameworks but by instinct and tenacity: spinning a web of connections and feeling the pulse of the product through silken strands.
A visitor’s guide to Product will tell you to hike through forests of prioritization, cliffs of persuasion, and rivers of data, immersing yourself in the metropolis of user research and looking to the skies for moonshot insights.
They’re not wrong: product is all these, but any formal body of knowledge is fruitless without the passion to investigate, analyze, and effect change.
Dammit, Jim, I’m a ______, not a PM!
What’s stopping you from influencing product?
If you’re at an organization that builds a product, you’ve heard suggestions for improving the product — whether from users, prospects, customers, employees, or your own dreams. Take a co-worker out to lunch, and pick their brains! Learn what they do, what their challenges are. Ask about their victories and how they came about. Ask what they’ve learned from failure, and how that’s helped them succeed since then.
Make something. Build a prototype, design a new UI, write up a spec, or turn data into visuals that tell a story. Start small and influence your team members or team leaders, but dream big and seek opportunities to share your work with someone who influences product development.
If your work persuades someone who influences product development, what does that make you? Someone who influences product development!
These are some first steps I took into product development. My experience has been that influencing product is most successful from end to end when you have a vision for where your recommendation fits strategically for the product.
Product Management roles vary widely. You don’t necessarily need to be an expert in every aspect from UX to Haskell. Almost every PM will need to influence people. Maybe my story gives you some ideas. Maybe knot.