So you want to be a Product Manager

Introduction

Product Management is a relatively new career that is gaining a lot of popularity and many people in both software develop and business roles are eager to get into product management. The reality of product management is that it can be both very fulfilling and will be very challenging.

The Role

To understand what a product manager is I like to first clearly define what a product is. The best definition I’ve found is a product is anything that delivers a repeatable value to some group of people. People will find it valuable because it solves a problem they have or some need or want they have is fulfilled. If it fails to solve a problem, alleviate a need or fulfill a want effectively it is a failure.

Core Responsibility

As a product manager your responsibility is to find ways to deliver value (i.e. create products) that people love in ways that work for the organization you are a part of. You have to find intersections where value is realized both for the organization and the customer. In my experience doing this requires three core skills, that each require a host of other skills to truly be successful.

First, in order to develop a successful product an organization has to uncover something that a group of people want or need or find a problem they need resolved. Product managers play a key part in this process. At new companies they help pioneer what the company will be offering to the market and defining what that market will be. At more established companies the product manager should be the one always looking for new value that could be delivered to the market in areas that make sense for the company.

Amazon, for example, started as an online bookstore because they saw a need people had to get books that might be difficult to find at bookstores. They also saw the web as a way to create a store that would allow them to not have to manage the overhead involved in a typical bookstore. This idea proved to be valuable to the market and Amazon was off. However, as they have grown they have moved into adjacent spaces and are now the place to buy almost everything and have grown into technology company providing cool consumer gadgets and web services for a large percent of technology companies.

Second, a product manager will be the key player in creating the product to deliver value to the customer. However, the harsh reality is that most of the ideas about how to do that will fail. We really don’t know how people will behave or how they will react. Product managers have to be experts at first identifying the core assumptions about the proposed solution and find ways to test them quickly and inexpensively. Then they have to take what they learn and iterate or pivot until they get the results they are looking for. This process is very challenging and too many product managers and companies focus too much on delivering features, and not enough on the outcomes that will benefit the company. Also, another trap many product managers run into is not designing tests or experiments that are small enough. They build in such a way that in order to get feedback from real customers they have to wait months and by so doing lose time they need to iterate and find the optimal solution.

Finally, a product manager has to have a deep understanding of the business, what every department does, and the industry. They have to be able to work close with people from all areas of the business and be able to communicate with them what they are trying to accomplish. They need to be able to gather input from all departments, because the optimal solution is probably not the one the product manager thought up. Also, most companies that have any aspect of them that includes developing products will be inherently very interested in how those development resources are invested. Product managers have to excel at ensuring people across the company understand what is being worked on and why. Product managers that don’t do this well quickly get frustrated at the amount of time they have to spend ‘getting permission’ or reporting what they’ve done.

The good

  • You get to create products that people will actually use. This is probably the single coolest part of the job. You will be able to see people use something you helped create and watching the relief or satisfaction in their eyes as they use your product is amazing.
  • You will get exposure across the entire company and will learn about what every department does and how they all work together. To be successful at product management you have to be just shy of an expert in most of the functions of a the business. You will know how the company works very well and a great product manager can usually see things and opportunities in the company that no one else can.
  • Product management is quickly becoming a high demand skill set. If you get good at your craft as a product manager there will be lots of companies that will want you to come work for them. You can transition to new companies as often as you like and if one doesn’t work out you will more than likely land somewhere else. I must caveat this with I only believe this is true is you are a good product manager, poor product managers don’t take long to sniff out and usually end up doing something else that isn’t really product management.

The less than good

  • Product management is a relatively new role in the world of business. As such there are two major problems you will have to deal with. First, many in the company will not fully understand what you do and often will dictate to you what you should do. Many will think you are just a technical project manager, some won’t understand why you even work there “aren’t developers enough”. Second, there is no regulation on when a company can use the title. At one company a product manager could be very autonomous and in charge of a major product. At another they might be responsible for just optimizing conversion on a single tool. Another might consider the role just a go between the business (e.g. sales, marketing, finance) and development, where your job is to just gather requirements and organize them for developers.
  • Building successful products is really hard, like really hard. It is not as easy as just coming up with new ideas and building them. Most new ideas fail, that is the harsh reality. You have to understand all the business implications. You have to coordinate across lots of departments and deal with the general human disposition to not like change. You have to be ready to work at something and watch it fail and then come back and try again and again.
  • Product managers will always have to grapple with people inside and outside of the company that think the solution is obvious and don’t understand why we aren’t moving faster. Defending your roadmap is something you have to be ready to do. Rarely in my experience does everyone in the company think you are working on the right thing and they believe you are moving too slow.
  • Because of the complexity of product management generally you need to be okay with a non-normal schedule. Some products need to be delivered in a certain timeframe and you have to work a lot to make that happen. Sometimes releases need to happen after business hours, things break in the middle of the night, customers can only talk with you after they get off work or on weekends, you’ve got a full of meetings but also have to get something ready before tomorrow.

Tips on how to get hired

So if this sounds like something you want to do, let me walk you though some of the ways I recommend to get your foot in the door. I’ve ordered these by how effective I think they are.

  1. Try to build a product yourself. Trying to build something that someone is willing to pay for is what product management is and you don’t have to work for a company to do this. Start an online store, create a website and offer something and then work to make that thing more valuable to your audience. Talk to some of your would be customers and try to understand the problems they wrestle with. If this sounds not fun or scary I highly recommend not doing product management, because this is what product management is.
  2. Get involved with your Product department, assuming your company has one. If you work for a company that uses or sells technology I’d first recommend getting to know some of the people in your Product department. Go figure out how the product manager is that is in charge of the software you sell or use. Talk to them about their job, take them to lunch. Ask how you might help them with their job. As explained earlier their job is primarily to figure out the best solutions to the most pressing problems their customers and users face. A good product manager takes ideas and help wherever they can get it. Express your interest in product, but don’t ask them to get you a job right a way. As you do this be humble, nothing bugs a product manager more than the person who says “I did product before” and goes on to explain a role they had that encompasses a fraction of what the product manager does.
  3. Read as much as you can about product. There is a lot of quality content on product you can read for free and some great books you can pick up too (see resources below). If you’ve made some product friends ask them what they think you should read and then circle back and get their opinion on those things.
  4. Join a local product group. Search meetup.com for a product group meeting in your area. You probably will be able to find virtual options as well. This will give you a chance to network with product managers and learn about what it takes to be a successful product manager at the same time.
  5. Apply for some jobs. This is the last one on my list because in my experience getting your first product job is best achieved through networking. However, you likely will get some interviews (if you apply for a lot of jobs) and that experience will help you understand if this is something you want and if so you’ll gain priceless understanding of what companies are looking for in a product manager.

Product management is an exciting career field that I believe will continue to grow and become more valued. I believe that the companies that are product-led and using product managers are going to be the most successful over the next 10 years. This is going to create a business environment where the most successful and therefore most copied businesses will be product-led. Product managers with experience and skill in building successful products will only become more in demand and their craft will become more respected. Good luck, and have fun.

Resources

Articles

Blogs to follow

Books

These books are written for a more general business audience about how they can do product management

These books are written for product managers and provide great ways to become great product managers

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