There has never been more interest in becoming a product manager. There has also never been so many strong and helpful voices that can help these aspiring product managers (at the end of this article I’ll share several of my favorites).
However, there has also never been so much noise and nonsense written about product management.
Imagine being an aspiring product manager, new to the industry, but unfortunately without a capable manager or coach to guide you, and you see literally thousands of articles, podcasts, videos and classes on the topic.
But you have to jump in somewhere, and it’s very likely that soon you are completely confused and frustrated by the conflicting and contradictory messages.
I spend far too much time trying to get people to unlearn what they think they know about product management, so that they can have a chance to learn how strong product managers do their job.
I’m not sure this is a solvable problem as it’s really a consequence of both the good and the bad of the Internet.
However, for those aspiring product managers that manage to find their way to my writing, I do want to try to give these people a reasonable foundation, so that they can get started in (what I consider at least) the right direction.
What follows is a specific set of topics, in an intentional order, linking to a curated set of articles.
How should I think about the product manager job?
The article Behind Every Great Product describes the stories of six product managers that were behind six iconic products, and the hope is that you can start to get a sense of the traits and characteristics of strong product managers.
Where do great products come from?
Great products solve real problems for our users and customers, in ways that our customers love, yet work for our business. They are enabled by new technologies that make these solutions just now possible. Learn the backstory behind several successful and innovative products in Customer Inspired; Technology Enabled.
What really is a product?
This question sounds easy but there are many layers to this. Everything starts by understanding the role of the customer, the technology, and your business. Please read What Is a Product?
What do I need to worry about to ensure a successful product?
There are four big risks in every technology product effort. You need to understand and be concerned with all four, but two of them are the explicit responsibility of the product manager.
I’m confused. None of this is anything like what was described in my Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO) class.
If your engineers are using Agile methods for delivery, then there’s an important administrative role called the product owner, and the product manager needs to cover these responsibilities.
The key is to understand that the product owner responsibilities are just a very small subset of the product manager responsibilities. And now you may be starting to understand why there are so many ineffective product managers.
So what specifically am I responsible for?
As product manager, you’re responsible for ensuring that what gets built is both valuable and viable. And to be clear, this is what makes the job hard. You’ll have no chance unless you do your homework and prepare. You can learn the product manager contribution here.
My manager thinks that it’s not my job to worry about value and viability. He says the stakeholders and the executives decide what we’ll build, and we are there to “serve the business” by designing and building the features they need. What am I missing?
Unfortunately, it sounds like you may have ended up in a company that hasn’t yet transformed to true, empowered product teams, and you’re still working with feature teams or worse, delivery teams.
If your company is using a process like SAFe, and you want to be a true product manager, I’m sorry to say this but you’ll likely have to move to a company that knows the difference and why it matters.
If your company is using feature teams, then it’s worth trying to help the company transform. You should read carefully the differences between these three types of teams.
You may have the product manager title, but if you’re spending most of your day doing project management, it’s very likely you’re on a feature team or delivery team.
However, assuming you are working in a modern tech-powered product company, and you’ve been asked to serve in the role of product manager on a true empowered product team, we can get into the heart of the role.
What is product discovery and why is it important?
If you’re on a feature team and you’re given a roadmap of features to build, then there’s really no need or room for product discovery. There’s a little design, and then it’s all about coding.
However, if you’re on an empowered product team, then rather than being given features to build, you’ve been given problems to solve, and product discovery is how we discover a solution that works – a solution that’s valuable, usable, feasible and viable.
There are many techniques you’ll need to learn to understand how product managers collaborate with designers and engineers to discover a solution worth building, but for now, it’s important to understand that feature teams deliver output, but product teams deliver outcomes. And yes, outcomes are much harder.
What about wireframes, prototyping and user research?
These are all important, but they are the responsibility of your product designer, not you.
There are two reasons for this. First, while learning to use the tools of design is easy, learning to be a good designer is anything but easy. Second, if you spend your time doing the designer role, then who is going to do the product management role? They are both full-time jobs when done with competence.
If it seems to you that there’s significant overlap between the two roles (a very common confusion), then you probably either don’t yet understand what a professional product designer does, or you don’t yet understand what a true product manager does, or both.
How do I get up to speed for this job, or as you say, “do my homework?”
Start by doing a skills and knowledge self-assessment (or better yet, get your manager to help you with this). The idea of this assessment is to quickly identify your weaknesses – if you think you don’t have any, you should probably think again, because people aren’t born with these skills.
Once you know the areas you need to develop, you can create a plan for yourself (or again, better to get your manager to help you).
To set your expectations, it usually takes about three months of real work for a new product manager to get to a basic level of competence. And that’s if you have a strong foundation and an experienced manager coaching you at least weekly.
What’s the most important thing for me to understand if I want my product team to be great?
First, you absolutely need to do your homework as I described above. Your team is depending on you. Beyond that, develop a true understanding and appreciation for the role of design and especially the role of engineering in technology-powered products.
I’m in. How can I learn more?
I am biased of course, but I wrote a book for this purpose, called INSPIRED: How To Create Tech Products Customers Love which is all about how strong product teams solve hard problems. And if your manager doesn’t have the time or experience to coach you, I’d strongly suggest some serious training.
Surely there must be other important voices that I can learn from?
Absolutely there are, and I’ll share some of my favorites below. But I have no desire to serve as some sort of gatekeeper to good content. I want you to be able to determine for yourself whether a given author has something to say that can help you or not.
In my experience, if you can develop a solid foundation of the principles of strong product management, then you’ll usually be able to determine fairly quickly the potential value of a given piece of content.
With those caveats, these are some of my favorite thinkers about product, and I’ve benefited from each of their writings:
There are others as well, including some very smart people I know that are working on publishing their thoughts for the first time, so this list will grow.
I hope this series of articles have helped you make sense of the product management role on an empowered product team, and I encourage you to continue learning and developing.