Planning Your Career in Product – P2

People leaning over a table with design papers

In the previous and first chapter of this series we discussed the various roles & titles in the product management realm. If you missed it – you can read it here.

In this chapter we’ll focus on whether product management is for you or not. Hence, if you are already a product veteran or positive that this is something you’d like to do – then this chapter is probably NOT for you UNLESS you want to read my personal story as for how I transitioned to product management. If that’s not of interest to you – then see you on the next one 🙂 

If you are still reading it probably means you are considering transitioning to product management or you are just checking ‘for a friend’…

Whatever it is, I hope that by the end of this post you will have the answers you were looking for.

So let’s roll.

 

Before Everything Else

My basic assumption is that you have a great motivation to be part of the creative process of designing and releasing products that people would love to use. If you don’t have such a motivation – then don’t bother reading any further. It’s not for you.

Do you have such motivation? Great. Let’s proceed.

 

The Basic Requirement

I already noted before (here) that as I see it – product management is 45% communication, 45% focusing on the value and 10% all the rest.

Focusing on the value will require you to dig for the pains by talking to a lot of customers and users. And hence – practically 90% of your job relates to some sort of communication with other people.

Therefore, the first questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • Do you enjoy working with other people? 
  • Do you have decent interpersonal communication skills?
  • Can you express yourself well in both verbal and written communication?

 

The answers to these questions are crucial because you are going to constantly communicate with internal and external stakeholders throughout your product management career. Therefore, if the answer to any of the questions above is ‘no’ then maybe product management is not for you.

 

I love to communicate with others and I can express myself well. That’s not an issue.

Awesome. You’ve passed the basic requirement.

Now let’s talk for a second about what you want. Why are you curious about product management? Why do you consider transitioning to product management?

Here are some possible reasons that various people have given me over the years when I asked them that:

  1. I’m tired of my current role and I’m not sure what other roles are available for me. Product management looks interesting.
  2. I’d like to have a bigger impact on the business than I have in my current role
  3. The features we’re working on are BS. I can do a much better prioritization job than the current PM
  4. I can no longer be told just what to build. I want to understand why we are told to build that and why it’s important.
  5. The was a vacancy in the PM position and I was asked if I would like to try to fill it

 

Now, let me start by saying that any of the above are legit reasons to experiment with product management, if the opportunity is given to you.

However, some motivations above are ‘weaker’ than the others in the sense that you are more likely to find out eventually that product management is not for you after all.

For example – the fact that the current PM you are working with sucks, doesn’t mean that by getting into their shoes you’ll do a better job or even enjoy it.

My own story

Here, let me tell you my story and how I found myself as a product manager:

By profession, as you may know by now, I’m a software engineer. I spent more than 15 years in R&D writing code, complex algorithms and managing teams of various sizes. At some point I co-founded my startup together with my partner, and while there I was still mainly overseeing the R&D operations (along with some other annoying stuff entrepreneurs need to do, such as raising funds…). Long story short – we did eventually manage to sell the startup, but since it wasn’t a big exit I had to get back to the market and find myself a job.

Naturally, given my background, I was looking for the position of VP R&D. I found some job descriptions that sounded interesting so I went and got interviewed there. 

The interviews weren’t a huge success for one main reason – once the people who interviewed me done introducing their company I immediately started asking questions such as:

“Wait… but why is this your go-to-market strategy? Wouldn’t an alternative strategy such as bla bla bla would yield better results?”

 

“Can you explain to me the rationale of why this is the market you decided to go after? I’m asking because I believe the bla bla bla market is probably better suited for your product and it’s bigger”

 

“How did you test your thesis regarding the product? Did you launch an MVP or tested the water in some other way?”

 

The guys who interviewed me would usually get confused at this stage. Some of them even asked me bluntly:

“You know you’re interviewing for a VP of R&D position, right?”

As if a VP of R&D need not delve into the product & business aspects of the company…

But I got the drift. As a VP R&D everyone will expect me to build what they are telling me to build. Ideally with little or no questions asked.

I was no longer in this state of mind. After one of these interviews I had an enlightening moment:

I suddenly understood that I no longer care much about the ‘how’ (what’s the best way to build something), but instead – I care much more about the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ (what to build and why it needs to be built). I can never no go back to the position when people are simply instructing me what to build, no matter how much I loved and excelled in software engineering.

I never held an official title of a product manager before, but I did decide to try to go to some product interviews and it turned out I did quite well. Nothing like fighting with your life on a product as an entrepreneur to gain some real product management perspective.

 

So – to summarize my story – if I go back to the reasons above – I think reason #4 was the main motivation for me, but I know today that also #2 is one of my biggest drivers as well. I want to be in a position where I can have the greatest impact on the company (if I can’t be the CEO, that is :-)).

 

Hence, if impact is what you are after and the various business dynamics that drive the company forward intrigue you – then product management may be indeed what you are after.

 

Ok, but how does a ‘day in the life of a product manager’ look like?

Most likely you’ll start your product manager career as a junior product manager. As such, your boss will probably assign you with a few aspects of the product that you will own.

You might own several features or you might even own several complete modules – depending on the size of the product and what your boss believes you can handle as a junior. Whatever it is – you’ll have some ownership over parts of the product.

Within this ownership – the majority of your day-2-day reality, at first, would be:

  1. Taking features from ideation to production – including the discovery process, writing the spec, hand it over to implementation and releasing to production
  2. Handling priorities and conflicts. For example – a production issue was discovered. Should the engineering team drop everything and resolve it or can it wait?
  3. Attending various meetings, including dailys, sprint planning and any other meeting which relates to the agile development methodology which you decided to adopt

 

It may not sound like a lot, but it is. For example – the discovery process mentioned above, by itself, can consume a great majority of your time, because it encompasses so much, including meeting customers, doing market research, considering various approaches to solving the pains and reiterating once your conclusions are being challenged (by your boss or the team).

 

If you find yourself having a lot of free time on your hands as a junior product manager then your boss is probably being too easy on you and you should ask him/her for more ownership. Most likely, though, the first days as a product manager can be quite overwhelming. You will learn to hone your time management skills.

As you become more experienced you’ll probably look to be more involved in the bigger picture and not just in what’s in front of you. If you became a product manager for the right reasons – then once you feel comfortable with the ‘hands-on’ aspects of your work, you would probably want to be more involved with the planning processes. Starting with the quarterly planning and progressing to the roadmap planning.

You will start progressing on the spheres of responsibilities, and this is where the big impact hides.

 

What qualities will help me in my journey?

We already discussed the ability to communicate with others and to express yourself as the key quality you must possess.

There are other qualities which are important.

For example – as a product manager you often need to make other people execute on your decisions, even though they don’t report to you. This is called leadership. Yes, any product manager is a leader to some extent. The more you are able to motivate people to do as you ask without pulling your rank (e.g. – you should never say – ‘I am the product manager and therefore you must do as I say’) the higher your leadership score is.

 

Focus is another quality that will greatly help you in your journey. You shouldn’t be easily distracted by everything other people will throw at you. And believe me – all of the internal stakeholders you are working with will fight for your attention. It may make you feel important at first – but eventually you’ll understand that everyone is just trying to promote their interests through you. And it’s ok. They are just trying to do their job. You must always stay focused on the things that actually move the needle and use your communication skills to explain why everything else is not prioritized.

 

Be thorough. God is in the details. Before you start working on a spec – make sure you do your research properly. Don’t fall in love with your assumptions and don’t be lazy. Go to your customers and/or users and validate them. Make sure you understand the ‘why’ and you have enough signals to justify the work on the feature.

 

Many mention analytical thinking as an important quality for product managers. In the world of big data and where data driven decisions matter – your ability to learn the story the numbers are telling you is definitely important. However, I often think that this quality is a bit overrated as the data by itself can’t always tell the full story, so you must not forget that eventually you are serving people – so spending time with your customers and users is even more important.

 

Last – any product manager is also a project manager to some extent. Your ability to coordinate a group of people will greatly help you execute on the features you own. This is certainly a quality you want to possess and master.

I can mention here many other qualities, but if you possess most of the qualities from the list above – then you are probably going to be a very good product manager.

 

Downsides of being a product manager

I guess that for any profession there are downsides. And I guess many product managers can mention different aspects of their job as ‘downsides’. 

For me, though, there is only one main downside for being a product manager and that’s you can no longer escape the internal politics of the business. You have joined the grown-ups game, and sadly that involves office politics and ego wars.

If that bothers you a lot – consider a smaller company because there you’ll experience much less politics than bigger companies.

 

To summarize

If you are looking to make a bigger impact in any company you work for, if you find yourself attracted to the dynamics of the business and if you communicate well with others – then product management may indeed be what you are looking for. Some qualities such as leadership, focus, analytical thinking and project management skills will definitely help you in your journey.

 

That wraps up the post for today.

If you found this post/series useful – let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

 

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

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