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7 Tips to a Successful Product Management Career

đź’ˇAfter 20 years, some advice I wish I had focused on earlier in my journey.

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Not too long after landing a job as a software engineer at Information Builders in 1999, my boss told me we had to talk. He wanted me to switch from a programming role to Product Manager. I was pretty sure my management liked me and my work, so I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t think I was good enough keep at it. I knew nothing of this role.

All the smartest people in this business were coders, but while I was not immune to dreaming about solving programming problems, just like the Tetris Effect, I also did not see myself doing it forever. I’ll give it a shot.

No training. No mentoring. Figure out what the customers need, describe that to the smart people doing the coding, then help us figure out how to sell it.

And so began my Product Management career.

Over 20 years into this journey, it is a great time to reflect on some of the things I have learned in my career. This is over and above learning the fundamental mindset and practices of our profession. Here is a short list that may help those trying to chart their own course right now.

  1. Self Motivate

  2. Nurture the Team

  3. Take Every Opportunity to Learn

  4. Network

  5. Mentoring

  6. Write & Present

  7. Focus on (Improving) the Process

Good luck!

Self Motivate

When I started, there was not a lot that one could find on the web about Product Management but I did find an excellent organization call Product Development and Management Association (pdma.org) that was founded in 1976. They combined a heavy academic approach to the study of how software was developed in their journal with lighter business oriented articles in Visions magazine.

Nobody in my organization pointed me to PDMA. I found it, joined, and learned a ton.

Today, the discipline has matured and there are tons of great resources available that PMs and aspiring PMs can take advantage of to get started and further development their career. Your organization has an interest in your development so far as it helps the business, you are the champion of your own professional development.

Self-Motivation doesn’t stop with your professional development though. It is fundamental to any knowledge worker jobs. As a Product Manager you are continually pulled into what everyone else wants you to do. A little project management, some QA, perhaps some documentation, and don’t forget to spend lots of time helping sales out.

As you master your discipline, you know better than they do what actually matters to constantly move your product forward. It is your job to do market research, get customer meetings on the calendar (non-sales related), ensure there is a clearly articulated product vision and strategy, and so much more.

It is up to you, to not only prioritize what is getting done by the product team but to be ensure you personally focus your time on what is important and not just urgent. The whole of the universe will conspire to pull you into what is urgent if you don’t build the awareness and self-motivation necessary for this.

“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower (possibly quoting Dr J. Roscoe Miller)

Nurture the Team

There is only so much you can do on your own. Understand the people that you work with and help knock down the barriers to their success. Find opportunities to motivate and give broader context to your product team.

Many organizations do not follow best (or better) practices around structuring autonomous product teams and that is just a constraint you need to operate in. Use your expertise to try to move your organization forward in that respect, but in the meantime feed the team.

Get engineers directly engaged in customer research when you can. Share what you learn from the field the rest of the time. Bring your expertise to bare but have the maturity to accept that frequently someone else on the team knows better than you. Build up the team psychological safety to collaborate, debate ideas and approaches, without functional egos getting in the way.

Pet Peeve Side Note: Nothing more has turned my stomach more over the years than seeing Product Managers take credit for successes that were the result of a great team effort. It is always “we” not “I”.

As you move up your career, be sure that you are also taking a larger roll in building up other teams and individuals throughout the organization. Managers are too often hearing negative feedback about people in their organization. Be that person that seeks out senior managers to tell them about the great work you see people on their team doing.

Take Every Opportunity to Learn

Being a lifelong learner is where it is at. It doesn’t matter that you earned an MBA at Wharton. Your learning is never done.

Firsthand learning: Talk to people. Observe people. Think.

Take every opportunity to learn something with every interaction in your business, with customers, how their businesses operate, and with other stakeholders related to your market. However, don’t stop with learning about those things that are directly applicable today.

Learn about how other businesses operate, how other products succeed and fail, different development models, new technology advances, and the softer skills of management.

Secondhand learning: Read. Watch Videos. Listen to Podcasts. Take courses.

I think it is important to recognize that as a single person, you only have so many hours in the day. You can’t possibly learn everything by doing. You are not exposed to all the challenges the world has to offer or possible ways to tackle them. So while we remember lessons best through direct experience, you would be foolish not to leverage the vast experience of others that have difference experiences than you.

The idea is to increase your exposure to different ways of doing things and possibilities. This not only builds your explicit knowledge but also helps to develop your Product Intuition.

Network

One of the best ways to learn beyond what is right in front of you is to develop your professional network. Early in my career, I didn’t do this nearly enough. It is very clear to me now that your professional network has compounding value over the years.

Personally, I have gotten jobs through my network; I have hired through my network; I have made sales and business partnerships through my network; I have found domain expertise in my network; and I have gained market intelligence through my network.

Referrals are 5x more effective than all other sources of hiring.

Jobvite 2017 Recruiting Funnel Benchmark Report Tweet

Just like your social network graph, your real professional network is not just about your direct connections but about the additional connections they unlock for you (and you for them).

So, while everyone understands the importance of networking, I want to emphasize that starting earlier is better. The earlier you start developing it the farther your reach.

How do you network? Here are some examples how I have built mine:

  • Intentionally develop deeper connections to people you work with regularly

  • Intentionally develop deeper relationships with the individuals at your partners and customers

  • Participate in local and virtual networking organizations

  • Join online communities and engage 1:1 with members

  • Create your own forums of experts, e.g. Mastermind groups

I work in the NYC metro area and over the last few years got much more involved in some of the product management related networking groups. There is massive value to be unlocked in those and yet relatively few people participate. Get out and network.

Networking is work. Make no mistake.

Mentoring

Early on in a Product Management career can be somewhat lonely in most organizations. PMs are often in small number compared to all the other roles they interact with so it can feel like you are discovering a lot of things on your own and trying to navigate your role on a team.

Finding great mentors for yourself can be a career supercharger. Their outside perspective can help you through the bumps of a new career while speeding up your acquisition of tools and strategies for tackling challenges and unlocking opportunities.

As you develop your career, even after just a few years, you have something that you can give back. Mentoring informally within your organization is a great way to start that.

Mentoring others outside your organization is even better. While you can discover potential mentees through your networking efforts, there are a ton of online services and organizations that are now facilitating connecting mentors and mentees.

In a sense, this is a deeper form of networking. There are some expectations that, you as the mentor, are bringing something to the table that the less experienced mentee can learn from. However, in my experience, I have learned a ton both from my mentees and from the process.

Mentoring forces us to tackle challenges that we don’t actively think about. Mentees seem to always bring up something that we do without much thought which challenges us to articulate the how’s and the why’s around us. Frequently, this leans toward navigating the softer skills and challenges of organizational management, human interactions, personal development, and so forth.

As for the hard skills, mentoring tends to be less about best practices and more about practical application of those practices in the real-world. As mentors may be dealing with challenges you have not in a few years, it creates an opportunity for you to increase your empathy for different perspectives in your day-to-day work.

So while we can think that mentoring is a good way to give back to the world of less experience professionals, it is a great way to improve ourselves too.

Write & Present

I have found that nothing forces me to deeply contemplate my thinking on a subject as writing and presenting it to others. This newsletter that I started earlier in 2020 is a by-product of my goal to think through ideas and concepts much more thoroughly.

When you start typing away you discover holes and inconsistencies in your thinking. Even if tied to something you have been practicing for decades, writing will help you get to a deeper understanding of your subject.

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.

Publishing your work in a newsletter, a blog, or Medium is a work of continuous learning. Even if nobody ever reads it. Giving a talk in your office, at a local meetup, on stage at a conference, or subjecting yourself to a podcast interview will further challenge you mentally.

With luck, however, you will get feedback that will further improve your critical thinking.

Beyond the massive benefit to your critical thinking, the practice will lead to better writing and presenting skills.

Finally, no discussion of writing in this context can be complete without a nod to Paul Graham. So while you should read his essays, you should also consider his specific advice on writing: Writing, Briefly.

Focus on (Improving) the Process

The Agile Manifesto famously lays out their values including “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. I am on board with such relative weight on the values here but that is not to say that processes don’t matter.

In fact, process should not be a bad word. In any organization that has been built on the hero culture knows that good process is required for healthy interactions and scaling.

The Phoenix Project highlights how a lack of discipline on process, and over-reliance on a hero, can have disastrous consequences to a business. This is despite good intent and all well-meaning individuals in the mix.

Instead, as a leader in an organization you must always been mindful of the objectives of the organization and thinking if there is a better way to achieve that objective. There are those small activities that support a specific job or practice and there is the big picture processes to think about.

  • How do we recruit customers for research efforts?

  • How do we decide what to work on next?

  • How does our team cope with new remote working demands?

  • How do we share what we learn with the organization?

  • How do we develop a product strategy?

  • How do we ensure we have skills needed for tomorrows challenges on our team?

Individuals and organizations need to continuously challenge themselves to rethink how things are done. Your context is always changing. You are learning new things. With luck, you have new employees and resources as you grow that can be leveraged in better ways.

As Andy Grove highlighted in High Output Management with his story of the breakfast factory. What you did get get here is not going to make you successful under new conditions and challenges. You must continuously adapt your management focus and processes.

Finally, it is important to recognize that building software is an inherently risky business. To get you through the inevitable ups-and-downs of this endeavor, I argue that by focusing on the process you will best equip yourself to cope with the challenges. You will learn that falling short on goals and missing the mark from time to time are critical feedback into your learning engine and progress.

If we can learn to base our self worth on the quality of the effort we are putting in and not today’s results.. we will always have the strength to power through those days when we feel like quitting.

Conclusion

This list is not all inclusive. I am specifically not addressing the practices I find most important but am aiming more toward those very general activities that I have learned can make a successful career in Product Management.

As a recap for you, my advice is to:

  1. Self Motivate

  2. Nurture the Team

  3. Take Every Opportunity to Learn

  4. Network

  5. Find a Mentor and be a Mentor

  6. Write & Present

  7. Focus on (Improving) the Process

If you are reading this when it is first published, do not be surprised to come back in a year to find it has changed. After all, that is what learning is all about.

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