Product management is an extremely lucrative career path these days. Especially for the curious souls who want to be a part of building something extraordinary from scratch. The thrill of developing something that could change the world, the innumerable learning opportunities and the sheer joy of making something big lures a lot of people into product management.
In this role, you are immensely challenged- one has to be equally good in strategy, research, leadership, have a great eye for detail, be able to see the long road and be able to communicate well.
You’re also rewarded for solving all these challenges. All of your struggles come to a fruition when you see users using your product and going “Wow! That was quick and easy. It took me just a few seconds to get in” or “This app works seamlessly.”
If you are someone who is looking to transition into product management, this blog is for you. I want to share my journey in the hope that it will help you be aware of the common mistakes new product managers make.
For me, product management felt like a natural progression. 20 year ago, it was so unsettling to even think that I would no longer code. I was apprehensive of what new challenges the role would bring and if I would be able to handle them well. I had never imagined the title of a Product Manager attached to my name.
I started my career with programming as a .NET developer. I made the usual transitions- from Software Engineer to Sr. Software Engineer, Lead Developer and eventually as a Technical Lead. Back in my time (yes, I’m old), when VB.Net ‘s beta version was launched, it changed the world of programming. So much has changed since then. From what and how we code, the tools we use, the products we build, things are drastically different from what they used to be.
This has also changed the way we think about a product. Earlier, the intent behind launching a product was just to solve a problem. Now, it’s solving a problem, delighting the users, getting more engagement, creating value, driving profits– the list is endless!
From being an individual contributor to leading the product teams, I’ve had my share of ups and downs. Like a Phoenix, I have emerged stronger, smarter and acquired new knowledge from every product management experience.
Building MVPs and failing early has taught me that to succeed in the long run, one must build incrementally. Strategizing on what to build now or what to delay has helped me in honing my decision-making skills. Looking at the roadmap, grooming it based on market research, analyzing competitors’ model of growth, understanding the scope of product by interacting with the stakeholder, getting married to user problems, are some of the exciting challenges that have made my product management career rewarding.
The intent of writing this blog is to share my top 5 learning as a product manager. If you’re new to this journey, I hope you can keep them in mind and use my learnings as guidance.
Curiosity kills “no” cat
In product management, it’s the lack of curiosity that would kill the cat. Curiosity is the life blood of building the right products. It helps you understand the problem you are trying to solve, the why, what and who of it. So, ask lots of questions. Go deep and go wide. Explore the unknown unknowns.
And then seek answers to those questions.
Be curious to know how your end users will discover the product, why they would use it, which other products in the market could be your competitors, and what features would differentiate your product from the existing ones. Always look at the big picture.
Remember, you do not want to build a product no one wants ; so knowing and understanding is the key. Ask, understand, repeat – till you know it all (well most of it, atleast!)
Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize
There will be a time in your product management journey when your feature backlog would seem endless. You would look at it and feel a deep sinking feeling, as if your ship might drown anytime with the weight of work that’s pending.
Stop. Breathe. Relax.
It’s okay to have these feelings. The important thing to know is that a product is good not by the count of its features, but by the problem it solves and the experience it provides. So, don’t aim to build everything right now.
Prioritize. Don’t put everything in one release. Start by creating a product roadmap with the right features. This will immensely help you in seeing features that solve the real problem and differentiating them from good-to-have. The good-to-have ones can wait. Focus on solving the problem first. And be fast. With new ideas entering the market, one can’t take the risk of delaying release till the entire product is ready.
Prioritizing also helps in solving the other aspects of product management. If you’re struggling with time, resources, or budget, prioritizing features will be a non-negotiable part of your product strategy. Start with an MVP; get to the users early, ask them to provide feedback and then build from there.
Communicate (or, over communicate)
How I wish someone told me this when I was starting out as a product manager.
I can’t stress on the power of communication enough. Never assume that everyone knows (or would know) what you know because it’s common sense. As a product manager, the buck stops with you.
So, talk, write, document, share, repeat as much as you can. Take notes, send back meeting minutes in writing so that everyone is on the same page and there’s no room for any kind of misunderstanding.
I’ve had my share of disgruntled clients and unhappy engineers when I had thought everyone understood everything but the outcome was way off from the consensus. There have been times when in my head, I assumed that everyone was clear of the requirements, scope changes and feedback. Whereas, in reality, everything was a mess.
Lesson learnt. I now write and share every single thing. It takes time and sometimes I feel it’s too much work but it has definitely helped me in streamlining decisions and feedback. And it has definitely helped me in gaining an upper hand when it comes to reminding others what (and when) we decided to change the scope of work.
Do your research
Google is a happening place. These days, there’s nothing that you can’t find on the internet. Use it to your benefit.
Spend time looking up the product if it exists already. Study the competition, look for trends, look for similarities, look for the differences. If the product is an entirely new innovation – look for the need, the pain points that lead to it. The last thing you would want to do is end up building something that already exists with no USP or something with very high competition.
Value data more than your intuition
I used to believe in this mantra “Always trust your gut. It knows when your head hasn’t figured it out.”
Well, it might work in life. But not in product development. This philosophy did save a few heartaches in my personal life, but it was a disaster in my PM role. Your gut can be wrong. Oh boy! mine was wrong so many times. And it still continues to be in so many situations. I learned it the hard way. So even if you feel something should be done a certain way because ten similar products do it like that, or because your experience says this is the best way, please leave your judgement at home and work with data.
Whether you are just entering the field or are an industry expert, there will always be challenges. There is no perfect product, and no perfect product manager. And 10 years will swoosh by, so try to pause and reflect along the way and keep on learning.