There’s no school for product management — no degrees, diplomas, or certifications. And no line on your resume will get you a job as a PM, which is great but also terrifying, because chances are you’re going to be utterly unprepared.
One year ago, I was hired at FreshBooks as a product manager and tasked with guiding the biggest mobile app redesign in their history. A year earlier, I didn’t even know what a product manager was – and now I had to pull this project off while learning to become one.
How do you prepare for that kind of initiation?! Reading was helpful, but only as much as reading can be. A book about mountain climbing will teach you about gear and knots, but you’ll still have no idea what you’re doing up there. Instead, you have to put yourself in front of that mountain and start climbing.
Here are five of the most important things I learned climbing my first product management mountain.
1. Your team is everything
Without your team, nothing happens. Alone, you may be able to get people excited about a project, but when it’s time to build, you depend on them. Your most important job as a product manager is making sure that your team is working well. This involves standard “job description” stuff – like market research and why you’re doing the work – but also things you won’t find in any job description, like keeping the team well fed. During our first project post-mortem, my team had more nice things to say about my providing snacks than anything else I did.
See yourself as a servant to the team. I had a rule that “I’m never too busy.” My work always came second to theirs, and there was nothing I wouldn’t interrupt for them. The result was a mutual trust and respect. It also improved my communication skills because their questions revealed where my communication was lacking. By the end of the project, I learned how to better explain my ideas in their terms, which helped us go even faster.
Focus on your team and you’ll be on the path to great work.
2. No egos, no heroes
The product is about your users, not you or anyone else on your team. Be hyper-aware when product discussions involve personal opinions, and bring them back to facts based on research, testing, or principles that everyone has already agreed upon.
When I was researching product management I read things like, “You’re the visionary” and “A product manager is the CEO of a product.” CEO, visionary – these are terms loaded with ego and make it sound like a product manager sits high above the team. Being a product manager is about communicating a vision, not being a visionary. One puts focus on product, the other on you.
Be aware of ego, especially your own. The more you focus on product, the better it will serve your users and keep the team dynamic healthy.
3. Build an emergent team
Emergent behavior is behavior that is unintended or unplanned. The Twitter @ reply and #hashtag are perfect examples – it was users and not a product manager that came up with them. I call teams that show this behavior “emergent teams” – they create more than what was intended or planned. You don’t have a monopoly on good ideas, so make room for your team to bring theirs.
For example: One of the developers on our team approached me one day with a feature a user suggested to her through Twitter. It was a great idea, so she added it, and the user was over-the-moon happy! This wouldn’t have happened if I “owned” the product.
To build an emergent team, a product manager needs to do two things: 1) communicate the vision and, 2) empower everyone to achieve it. If you ignore suggestions and just assign work, you’ll be on your own; if you encourage everyone to contribute, you’ll have an army of part-time product managers helping you out!
4. Know your weakness, and find a guide
Not understanding electricity doesn’t mean you can’t be electrocuted. As a product manager, you may not have a deep understanding of the work that a developer or designer does, but that ignorance can be exactly what fries your team.
I come from a design-focused background, so I’m weaker on the technical side. Our scrum master, however, was very technical, so I worked closely with him to make sure I wasn’t making choices that would hurt us later. Looking back, we dodged some bullets, and it’s directly thanks to his guidance.
Your gut may tell you where danger lurks, but a good guide will help you avoid it. Understand where your knowledge is incomplete and find people to be your guides. They may be on your team or elsewhere in the company, and it may take time to develop the relationship, but it’ll be worth it.
Most important of all, care. Care about your team, care about your work, care about your users. Caring will help you push through the difficult times when the project is struggling.
There was a time during our project where we were pressured to cut scope and deliver something less than what we’d planned. It would’ve been easy to give in to the pressure – it meant less work, after all. Instead, we all sat down in a room, took stock of the situation, and each used our areas of expertise (design, development, product, project management) to come up with a way to deliver the product we envisioned in the time frame stakeholders now wanted. We pitched it, the stakeholders agreed, and we made it happen. Not only did it make the finish that much sweeter, it also brought us closer together.
If you can’t find anything to care about and every project is a drag, you may not be in the right place. In that case, get out and find something you care about. Life’s too short.
So I’m one year into this product management adventure and still figuring things out – but it’s easily the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. It’s a great mix of high-level strategy and in-the-trenches work that also requires an appreciation of all areas of the business. There are no dull moments and lots to learn.
If you’re considering the field, do some reading (but not too much), put yourself in front of that mountain, and start climbing.
Bonus: additional reading
Here’s a handful of articles that I found useful during my early research.
Mark Rabo is mobile product manager at Freshbooks, where he leads the team building FreshBooks’ small business accounting app for non-accountants. He found his way to product management only after trying out several occupations, including mechanical engineer, photographer, racing instructor, and even sewer diver.
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