I talk to many people about their desire to become a PM in the tech industry. Enough of them have mentioned that they’ve found my perspective in these conversations to be useful, which is why I feel compelled to write it down.
What’s in a name?
First of all, I think the name must be revised in the context of the tech industry. P can stand for Project, Program, Product – each role being vastly different if done right. The P I’m referring to is Product.
Here’s the fun thing about this role – everyone from a stay-at-home mom to a dog walker to an engineer to a philosopher to a rocket scientist thinks they can do this role. I mean, after all, it’s just sending email, managing projects, telling people what to do, commenting on user experience, right?
Just like you and I speaking English and writing emails doesn’t make either of us an author, general life-planning skill doesn’t make us product managers. Unfortunately there are so many other P’s taking on the guise of product management that it’s difficult to have a clear picture of what a real Product Manager is all about. In talking with many startups, it’s clear to me that this skill is sorely lacking and it’s unknowable for the founders what they’re missing and why it’s needed. In my current role, I’ve had to push hard to create room for PMs for the same reason, been met with resistance and just exhibited through experience how they can contribute to top-line revenue, customer delight and team building.
The essence of a PM
- She’s a perseverent idealist (yep, I just made up that word, but you get my drift). She believes in the power of positive change, the value that one individual can bring to a larger group, and perseveres through detours and struggle.
- She’s obsessed with her customers – not just how they’re experiencing the product but who they are, what their emotional and logistical drivers are, who they aspires to be. Also important, her customer is always ultimately the customer of the company, not internal teams (which are all partners that must align to deliver end customer value). In interviews, I often ask people to design a product with me as their customer. I pick the product based on my read of them and what they’re least likely to use themselves. The best answers start from the candidate asking more about my lifestyle and who I am as a person and incorporate that in all elements of the product (form, function & distribution). The worst answers are either a “requirements gathering” exercise or the candidate designing a product for them and losing sight that they are quite different from me, their customer.
- She’s grounded in the business model – she understands how money is made, where it comes from, how it’s spent and how to create a defensible strategy for the business against competitors, but never fucking the customer over in the process. She can quantify business opportunity, use that to develop what’s really important and invest accordingly (i.e. don’t spend 3 engineers for 6 weeks on something that’ll make you 30k unless it’s part of a larger strategy that she’s not hand-wavey about but truly understand and agree with).
- She’s strategic in her thinking and tactical in her execution – she can envision a radically different world and use that to inspire people around her, but keep everyone focused on a set of well defined next steps.
- She’s qualitative and quantitative – she seeks out data to gain insight, but she knows the power of instinct and trusts it. She knows disruptive ideas require leaps of faith and she’s often right in her hunches.
- She’s outcome driven – and outcome is always defined in terms of benefit for the customer and the business.
- She’s curious about how things work – business models, user models, design patterns, organizational structure, technology – she follows industry trends, experiments with new products, learns new skills so she can relate with her partners and her engineers
- She’s flexible & creative – in her thinking (always evolving), in her ability to define a big picture and dive into the details, in her communication skills, in her ability to influence people and overcome obstacles
- She has courage – she is unafraid to share her perspective, she doesn’t let fear stand in the way of taking risk, she has the courage to receive feedback and evolve.
- She understands the difference between urgent and important and is ruthless in prioritizing what’s important above all else. The hardest part of this is letting go of the thing that’s just below the list. But that’s exactly what she does.
Simple. Here are some tips and tricks to refine your craft as a Product Manager, just in case you’re interested.
Habit creates excellence
I often have this discussion with PMs on my team. It’s easy to overlook the non-day-to-day things that are essential to your development as a PM – always another email you could respond to, always another meeting you could go to. This is why it’s important to create ritual and habit for the activities that make you a great PM. Here are some that I follow religiously:
- I use the product every day – not with the intention to click around and find bugs but actually use it as an integrated part of my life. Working at Zulily, this means friends and family get a lot more random shit they don’t need than before.
- I use competitive products – also not with superficial curiosity but as an active user. Note, I define “competition” very loosely (i.e. doesn’t need to be a like for like comparison)
- At least once a month, I talk to real customers (all the synthesized PowerPoint decks and usability result findings are great but aren’t supposed to be a replacement for high-touch textured understanding of real customers)
- I read customer support issues every week
- I read world news and tech news every day
- I take time each month to tinker with new products across the board (i.e. not related to my core line of business) to help me build and recognize patterns and trends.
- I tinker with adjacent skills – from learning Ruby to creative-writing classes to playing with cloud services – generally one class or activity in progress all the time
- I reverse engineer – whenever I find myself drawn to a product or service, I journal explicitly about what I like about it, why it works for me as a user, I ask why the company that built it decided to build it, what their business model might be, how I would do it if I was in their shoes.
- I talk to people from other companies to learn how they do work. It’s always interesting to compare notes and try things that are working for other people to see if they’ll be effective in my environment. Regardless, I learn from the experience.
None of these habits are rocket science – it’s just a matter of having the discipline to do them regularly. If you have other habits you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you.
This article was wonderful and listed very clearly the points you’d once explained to me many years ago when I came all fresh and naive asking you what a PM really does. I was stunned at your clarity and passion back then just as I am again today! I’m very grateful for that opportunity I had as I believe that really set me on the right track. Miles to go but very grateful I found a path that I enjoy travelling on every day. thank you very much and please do keep sharing your thoughts.
p.s. Just incase you don’t remember – I’m Gnana’s(Microsoft) wife.