“What kind of product manager will you be this year?” This was THE QUESTION that smacked me early on in my career. I had just come back from a holiday break and was catching up with my boss. I wanted to give a strong reply, but I needed time to unpack the question.
Two slides, every day. That’s how a former colleague and friend told me that he put together his annual strategic plan. When I asked him why, he said, “If I thought of having to create the entire presentation at once, I felt overwhelmed. But completing a few slides a day — that I could always handle.”
Great product managers ask questions — lots of them. But product managers need to answer questions too. And the more complex the work, the more questions abound. When I was working at another SaaS company in the HR space a few years ago, this became very clear.
What degree do you think most product managers have? I will bet that you did not answer “B.A. in environmental science.” But I do know of at least one product manager who studied just that. After college, his first job was supervising the removal of asbestos (and asking his onsite teams not to smoke while they were doing it).
I did not learn how to be a product manager in school. I learned on the job and from others. My experience is that we all look for opportunities to deepen our understanding of best practices. That is what ambitious product managers do when seeking out one another — looking for wisdom, guidance, and advice.
How many times do people “ping” you at work each day? For product managers, the answer is probably something like: “Oh, I’ve stopped counting.” Feedback comes in from so many different channels — internally and externally — that those pings can start to feel like a series of jabs.
It’s all about the technology, right? Nope. I learned that fast in my first product management role. Product managers need a wide array of skills to be successful. And a lot of those skills involve people. When you factor in that many product managers work within a “responsibility without formal authority” context, having interpersonal skills is essential.
The relationship between a skilled product manager and their technical team is like the tracks to a train. Product managers provide direction and purpose. They guide engineers so they can do what they do best — write code and implement features that customers care about.
Feature creep can be an uncomfortable reality for many product managers. It crept into my work when I was a product manager at a large company, navigating many product teams and several layers of management.
I received some harsh feedback relatively early in my career as a product manager. I had worked at a SaaS company for about a year and was the first product manager on the team. We had finally landed a massive software partner — and I was excited to walk through my plan for the product integration with my CTO.
Building a product that is meaningful and lasting is tough. It’s also a remarkable experience when it happens. Once you get a taste of product success, nothing else will do.
Product managers are a relatively new position at companies big and small. In order to summarize the very high expectations that come with the role, job descriptions often describe someone with “big vision and the ability to make it a reality.” So how do you determine if someone can see big and work small at the same time?