Letter to a Junior Product Manager

March 7, 2018 Therese Stowell

Some advice for those who’ve chosen product management as a career.

Therese Stowell (left) and Emmanouil Kiagias and Giuseppe Capizzi. Photo by Chunyi Lyu.

Dear Junior Product Manager,

Everyone has assumptions about how their lives will turn out, the work they will do, and the people they will become. And I’m no different; — I certainly didn’t assume I would find myself working as a product manager for a technology company — , nevermind one that works with the majority of the Fortune 100 — , back when I was getting my Masters in Fine Art. But change is constant, and sometimes you find yourself in unexpected places, and loving the adventure.

Product Managers lead a team effort to ship great products. It’s not an easy role, and there are plenty of misconceptions out there. I wanted to relate some of the lessons I’ve learned during my time in this profession. So whether you’re new to product management or not, I hope there’s something for you to take away from this post.

You’re not the CEO

There’s a notion that “the PM is the CEO of the product” — I don’t agree. As a product manager you’re the hub amongst spokes, but you’re not the boss. You need to persuade and inspire your team to execute the product vision, and this is a good thing. Over time, as you demonstrate good decision- making you build trust and can inspire your team. I’ve seen that when my team is excited and on board with the vision, their motivation drives them to go faster and overcome hurdles more creatively; and I’ve seen that when I haven’t done a good enough job communicating the ‘why’, that things don’t go so smoothly.

You don’t create the vision alone (it’s a team sport!)

Vision expresses the ambition of a product — how the product will serve customers needs. It isn’t created in solitude, but with input from customers, salespeople, engineers, designers, product support, training staff, the documentation team, stakeholders, and more. Recently, I’ve been involving my engineers in iterating on our vision with great results. I make sure to keep the team up-to-date on input from customers and other stakeholders so they have the context necessary to contribute.

Vision is a living thing

Vision isn’t set in stone — while it’s the slowest element to change within vision, strategy, roadmap, and backlog, it needs to evolve as conditions change and new information is available. Recently I went on-site with a customer and realized that our team needed to solve a broader set of problems. It took us a couple iterations to define a new vision, but we feel we’re now serving our customers and our business better. It’s unusual to make that big of a change, but it is important to regularly question whether your vision is still on target.

Find your PM flavor

Product Manager might be a unifying title, but we come in many different flavors: from enterprise to consumer, consulting to in-house. Try to identify what flavor suits you and move onward from there. Look at what you’re excited by — do you love data and figuring out how to improve customer funnels? Or maybe your favorite work activity is digging into customer needs and behavior, and looking for opportunities for improvement. Me, I’m a Platform Product Manager. I’ve gravitated to platforms ever since my time working as an engineer on Windows. I love big hairy systems, the more technical the better.

Pair, pair, pair

Pairing, a method we espouse here at Pivotal for engineers, can also be a vital tool for PMs. It’s one of the the fastest ways to learn. When a new PM joined Cloud Foundry last year, we paired to help bring her up to speed. There’s so much context to every technology, every product, especially one that’s as malleable as Cloud Foundry. What a PM looks like is so specific to whatever company you work at. For instance at Pivotal, we practice Extreme Programming, not Scrum, for agile delivery, we use Pivotal Tracker for backlog management, and we have daily standups and weekly retrospectives. Each company has its own particular way of doing things, and as a PM, you have to master it as fast as possible while on the job.

No matter where you are in your career, pairing is useful.

Working closely with another PM early on is also how you build relationships and learn to navigate the organization. Nothing is too small — from which Slack channels to join, to questions about why processes are the way they are. It’s important to get a knowledge transfer of everything fundamental to your practice as soon as you can.

No matter where you are in your career, pairing is useful; I recently paired with a PM from our consulting division and learned a really useful way for prioritizing competing customer problems — asking customers to stack rack them, building a heat map across customers, then considering how our roadmap met those problems.

Product Management

Practice listening

Listening is a core PM skill and one that can get overlooked. Why is it important? For me it’s about making sure I’m accurately hearing product input, understanding the issues and options my engineers are describing, and taking in the deluge of information involved in building a product as complex as Cloud Foundry. Listening isn’t just hearing, it’s ensuring that what you think you heard reflects what the communicator intended. Funnily enough I learned to listen carefully in art school, where in critiques every word counted. Here are some tips.

Hone your skills

Product management takes a long, daunting list of other skills as well, including strategic thinking, analytical thinking, communication, organization and time management, public speaking, data analysis, team building, facilitation, prioritizing…phew! Look closely at what you’re good at and what you could improve. To avoid being overwhelmed, and think about what skill would be most helpful in what you’re working on right now. Blog posts can be a really useful place to start learning.

I built my knowledge going from backlog to vision, moving from tactical to strategic. Having a good grasp of good story-writing and prioritization helps when building a roadmap. Then when you’re comfortable working at the roadmap level you can expand out a level further to strategy, then vision.

Study the culture

Culture matters. Before taking a job, make sure the company has a healthy, happy culture. Look at the company website to see what they communicate about their values, read reviews about the company, see what you can find on Twitter and LinkedIn and talk to anyone you might know in the organization.

It took me years to learn that it’s far more important who you work with than what you work on. We spend a large portion of our waking hours at work; kind, fun coworkers make a huge difference to our overall happiness.

Set the tone

Once you’ve joined, understand that PMs can make a big impact on team and company happiness. I learned this while founding a community garden, motivating volunteers — that as the ‘hub’, the energy I bring radiates out. While everyone contributes to team tone, as a PM ‘hub among spokes’ you have a great opportunity to lead by example. I seek out new team members for a game of ping-pong, and organize group outings. I also bake a lot of cakes — for birthdays, shipping products, promotions, or just because. One time when we needed a new naming category for the environments we test on, I lobbied hard for it to be ‘cakes’. I still laugh when I hear “There’s an error on Black Forest Gateau.”

Look for signals in times of uncertainty

As a PM you have to live in limbo and sit with uncertainty. That can be hard. I once had a stakeholder who kept asking for a specific feature that wasn’t on our plan, and I wasn’t convinced we needed it. But instead of ignoring or pushing it aside, I parked the idea in a ‘holding area.’ Then as we continued to work on the product and did more research, I looked for more signals to see if we should pay attention to this feature request. Eventually, I did get those signals and that feature became part of our vision.

This pattern recognition is one of the hardest skills to master. Remember the ‘listening’ skill I mentioned? That’s key. It’s also important to know how to prioritize the huge range of incoming signals. I collect evidence for customer problems in Aha cards, so I can see how strong a signal is. I also weigh evidence depending on who it comes from, certain customers and stakeholders amplify the signal.

It takes a team

It’s important to remember that as a PM you’re not just part of the team, but that you help form and maintain that connective tissue between the team. As I wrote these lessons I’ve learned from my experience of being a product manager, I can’t help but think how lucky I am to work in an organization that preaches a balanced-team approach. Building software requires being able to take abstract concepts and turn them into a reality. It’s this type of uncertainty that’s much easier to face together with people you trust, than it is to face alone.

Please respond with any extra advice you’d give to product managers. I’m personally always eager to try out new ideas and approaches, and I know I wouldn’t be here without the great advice I’ve received along the way.

Change is the only constant, so individuals, institutions, and businesses must be Built to Adapt. At Pivotal, we believe change should be expected, embraced, and incorporated continuously through development and innovation, because good software is never finished.

Letter to a Junior Product Manager was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

About the Author

Therese Stowell

Therese Stowell is Product Manager at Pivotal. She has worked in the software industry for 20+ years as programmer, interface designer, and product manager. She worked on Windows, developing the command line environment, founded a successful social enterprise, and was part of a startup team to win a Nesta Open Data Institute £40,000 prize. She also has an MA in Fine Art.

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