The Art of Product Management

You have probably seen this joke floating around if you have been in the tech industry and unfortunately it’s true to some extent. Recently, I had the privilege to talk to many candidates as I was hiring for my team and I realized that a lot of folks who are early in career had questions on the basics of product management and how they can build skills for being a great PM. I hope this article helps people as I share my unique perspective on this topic and yes this is truly an art!

What is Product Management?

Building and shipping great products requires hard work across many disciplines like Product Management, Engineering, Design, Data Science, Customer Support, Technical writers, Marketing, Finance and Legal. While everyone has a key role to play usually PM and Engineering are the ones which work closely on a day to day basis. A good mental model to frame the responsibility across these two disciplines is:

  • Product Management: What and Why
  • Engineering : How and When

PM’s should be primarily focused on figuring out “what” product to build and justifying “why” that is the right thing to build. Engineering discipline will focus on “how” to build the product and “when” will it get delivered. This division of responsibility is not quite black and white and it absolutely does not mean that one discipline cannot be involved in the other. As a PM you will need to adjust your involvement depending on the team / project you are working with. In some cases you might be more involved in the “when” if the team is new to agile product management. If you have a strong technical background you will love to be involved in the “how” portion as well. Don’t shy away from being involved in all these aspects as success for a PM is all about delivering products which customers love. My guidance to new PM’s is to not worry about the overlap but worry about the gaps.

How to become a great Product Manager?

I have worked in the tech industry for 12 years now and have worked in both startups and large corporations in multiple roles like customer service, testing, development and for the last 7 years in a product manager role. Here are my top 3 suggestions on how you can be a successful product manager.

Understand your customer

This is such an obvious thing to do but I am shocked at how many PM’s don’t actually do this on a regular basis. If you have access to directly talk to your users (e.g. internal products) then go talk to them! Visit them in person, shadow them and run your ideas by your users in the early phases. If you are working on a product where this is not quite possible (e.g. websites, mobile apps) then use channels like surveys, telemetry and feedback provided by your customers and respond to them them directly to engage 1:1 with them.

When you spend a few hours or a day in the shoes of your customer you will have a new perspective on what problems you need to solve. Always remember to listen with empathy and prepare to be wrong about your assumptions. Ultimately your tech solution is built for solving a problem and if you notice that your users are not using the product in the way you intended, it’s not their fault it’s yours! Use the time spent here to build conviction on the “why” as described above.

Spend time on design

Good (and bad!) design is there everywhere around us. In fact there is a great book on the design of everyday things which is a good read. As you interact with things, apps, websites that you use use everyday start wearing a product manager hat and ask yourself why did they design it this way? Would you do it differently? This thought process will help you think through different types of problems and overtime you will be able to incorporate the good designs from other areas into the solutions you build. It’s almost like interviewing yourself for a PM position 🙂

There are clever designs everywhere and you can easily apply those concepts in the design of your product / features as well. Here is a sample of what I mean by good designs:

  • WhatsApp signup process – No email required + automated SMS verification
  • iPhone: One button hardware design (compare that to blackberry)
  • PowerPoint designer: Automagically create amazing looking slides (Link)
  • OXO – Great kitchen tools

As you think of solutions to the problems your customers are facing, focus on great design which truly wow’s customers and use this to build conviction on the “what” as described above. By the way, do use great tools like Balsamiq, Sketch, Figma, PowerPoint to articulate and communicate your design to others. If you are fortunate enough to have help from a design team, don’t completely depend on them but create a mock-up of your idea and use their expertise to refine.

Don’t obsess, measure and iterate

Once you have a good plan on what to build, focus your energy on breaking up that plan into meaningful chunks so that you can start getting feedback from your customers as early as possible. The days of using waterfall like methods for application development are gone as the world has moved to the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) methodology. Shipping fast and iterating will help you course correct faster and ultimately help you build the right product. There is a great quote on this from the founder of LinkedIn (Reid Hoffman)

“If you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late.” 
― Reid Hoffman

Once you have the first iteration of the product delivered to your customers your job is to review / reply to the feedback you are getting and quickly making the adjustments to the product based on that. The speed here is important so that you don’t lose the trust of your customers. A key part of this process is also how you setup metrics to help you measure success and that is quite a complex problem and could deserve it’s own blog post. The key point here is don’t obsess and wait forever to build the perfect product but ship early and use feedback / usage to help mold your journey.

As you learn and refine the art of product management I hope you can incorporate some of these ideas as you build great products. Talk to product managers in different companies and learn from them on how they approach problems and remember to constantly keep learning!