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4 Things I Learned (The Hard Way) About Being A Product Manager

Samia SuysSamia Suys

It’s complicated

Being a Product Manager is challenging. For one, no one really understands what exactly it is you do. Heck, half of the time you probably don’t even get it yourself. To make matters worse, there is not one magical recipe for being a great Product Manager. Oh no. Like ice cream, Product Managers come in many different colours and flavours.

When I first got thrown into the glorious world of Product Management, I too, had no clue what I was supposed to be doing. But along the way and years I managed to get some grip.

Below are a few insights I picked up by falling down, face-first. They may seem trivial, but I sure wish someone had laid them down on me back when I was a baby PM.


1. Making a complex product is way easier than making a simple product

I’m sure no Product Manager intends to confuse and frustrate users. And yet every few milliseconds someone somewhere is cursing. Perhaps over your product.

The pressure to add nifty new features is never-ending. The customer success and support teams bombard you with requests on a daily basis. The sales team needs that one feature to sign this or that huge deal. The CEO saw something at a conference once and thinks it would be a great addition to your product…Adding all the features everyone (and no one) asks for makes your product become rococo, and then rubble.

You could say it’s a natural process, what with the lifecycle of a product and all. But there’s certainly a few actions you can take as a PM to slow down the rubbling. Here’s my top 3:

  • Question every request and hold it against high standards. Is it a useful change or addition? Could it potentially generate profit? Will it boost customer delight? Or to put it in one simple phrase: does it add value?
  • Don’t be tempted to rush anything into your product. Do your homework and do it every time, no matter how high the pressure is. Always ask the questions no one else dares to ask or answer.
  • Avoid unnecessary complexity. This may seem ridiculously obvious, but it’s actually really tricky. Sometimes people may even deliberately try to complicate things, to come across as smart. Newsflash, guys: you don’t. So please, my fellow PM’s, guide your team(s) to solving problems in a way your five-year-old son or eighty-six-year-old grandma could understand. And if you’re dealing with legacy products: Marie Kondo that s#!t.

2. Fire-fighting is a noble job, but it’s not yours

As a Product Manager you (should) have a broad network in your organisation. Everyone knows you, even if they don’t understand what your responsibilities are. What they do understand is that you’re super motivated and that you’re a problem solver. So it’s very likely you’ll find yourself drowning in a sea of “urgent” e-mails, phone calls or Slack messages more than once.

It’s okay to feel flattered for a bit because people know and acknowledge you. And I’ll admit that sometimes it can be useful to put on your wellies and help your teammates slog in the mud for a while, just to keep in touch with what’s happening out there. However. Don’t be tempted to let a flood of (so-called) urgencies reign your agenda.

You are the lighthouse for your product. If you don’t guide the way, or if you’re not thinking a few steps further ahead of everything and everyone else, no one else will. Your number one priority is to be on top of market evolutions and needs and to provide vision and direction for your product. Sometimes this will mean you lock yourself up to let your creative juices flow. Sometimes you’ll be in your car, on your way to a series of customer visits or an important event. Sometimes it will mean you’re in a long (and likely tedious) meeting with your internal stakeholders, convincing them you know best. And other times you’ll be explaining your troops where you want to go next and why.

Just remember to always guide the way. Believe it or not, it’s one of your most important responsibilities.

4 Things I Learned (The Hard Way) About Being A Product ManagerSo do yourself and your colleagues a favour and take the time to check your agenda once in a while. Take a deep hard look and ask yourself this horrifying question: am I busy working on what matters? Or am I running around like a headless chicken, unintentionally neglecting my core responsibilities? If you are, that’s ok. Just don’t stop reading quite yet. We’re getting there.


3. When all else fails, take a nap

This must be one of my favourite quotes of all time. In this context, I obviously don’t mean you should literally take a nap when things hit the fan. (Or at least not every time.) When everything seems to go south, do what feels most unnatural: hit the pause button.

4 Things I Learned (The Hard Way) About Being A Product ManagerThat’s right. Drop whatever you’re doing and abandon your working station. Go for a walk. Grab a coffee in the coffee shop around the corner. Call your best friend or your mom to ask how their day is going. Or cry a little in the restroom. Whatever you do, switch your work-brain off for at least 30 minutes. Once your heart rate has slowed down, grab your problems by the nuts.

Don’t dive right back into the operational chaos you ran away from. Inspire yourself. Scroll through a few articles right here on Medium. Head over to the guys at Intercom or Atlassian (or any other product blog you find inspirational) for some product peptalk. Or read a few pages in the life-altering book that’s been sitting on your desk for months. Broaden your perspective. Then reflect that fresh perspective onto your current problems and try to pinpoint what’s causing the turmoil.

Is customer support flooded with calls and tickets? Don’t immediately assume your customer support team is understaffed. Or help them close tickets and take calls. Your job is first and foremost to figure out why your customers are so desperately trying to reach you. Are you building the right things? If not, you might want to consider blocking some (or even a lot of) time to freshen up your market and customer insights. If you’re absolutely sure you’re building the right things…are you sure you’re building them right? Have a good long chat with your engineering team. Perhaps they’re having trouble delivering quality because they don’t understand what they’re trying to build. What about your testing process? Are you sure you’re not sending poorly tested releases into the world? Etc…

Is sales riding you to add a ton of new features because they’re not closing enough deals anymore? Don’t bend over backwards to cram a load of novelties into your product. Rather, consider whether or not the sales team is well informed and trained on what’s already in the product? Or perhaps your product’s proposition has shifted, but the market the sales team is tapping into hasn’t? Or maybe you’re being the victim of some bad word-of-mouth marketing? In which case: are you building the right things? Etc…

Go find your why’s and fix them.

The daily struggle is real. Chaos is right around the corner. It creeps up on you like belly fat during cold winter months. Don’t let it get the better of you. Book a meeting with yourself every week and use that me-time for your figurative nap. Assess what’s going on on all fronts of your product and define what you can, nay, should, do to help prevent trouble and headache. I promise you this will turn out to be the single most important and useful meeting you have every week.


4. Honesty trumps being liked

When I’m not on the job I’m very much a people pleaser. I’m an introvert and at times socially awkward because of it, but I’m a nice person (mostly). And I enjoy being perceived as one too. In my early days as a Product Manager, I made the mistake of taking this aspect of my personality to work.

In my first week I asked one of the engineers if we could solve an issue in a way that seemed perfect to me. He told me he could do anything I asked for. Being a total rookie in the software business at the time, I eagerly brought this info into my first customer encounters. I soon realised he forgot the most important part of that sentence: “but it will cost you”. Needless to say, a few of those early visits came back to bite me over the following months and even years.

Of course anything is possible. Given limitless time and resources. In my experience though, both are always as tight as those mile-high super skinny jeans in your closet. Therefore, your life as a Product Manager consists of making impossible trade-offs and choices until hell freezes over. And then rationalising these to your colleagues, clients and stakeholders.

Gasp!

How was my soft-hearted, people-pleasing personality ever going to cope with breaking bad news to people all the time? It took some time (and a few beers) to come to terms with it, but it’s all for the best. Here’s why:

Scarcity, believe it or not, works in your favour. It helps to keep you sharp and focus on your long-term vision. If you would have all the time, money and people in the world, we’d soon be back to paragraph one: a rubbish product that does everything and nothing all at once. Check. And mate. Your product has now failed big time.

4 Things I Learned (The Hard Way) About Being A Product Manager

When people come to you with a suggestion, they’re very often wrong (sorry folks). They don’t know what’s best for the product or the market. They often don’t even know what’s best for them themselves (once again sorry peeps). It’s your job to understand what your target audience reallyneeds, and to make sure a solution for their problem ends up in your product.

Even if you’re the most meticulous planner in the world, a roadmap is under constant pressure. Anything can and will be turned upside down. When you make a promise you probably won’t be able to keep it. That’s nasty. Being straightforward takes guts, but it sure beats not being trusted or respected by your most valuable connections. So find a way to deliver difficult messages that works for you.

Hot tip: always provide context when you’re saying “no” to something, and explain what you’ll be working on instead. Transparency is gold!

And remember: all of this is in the best interest of your clients, your stakeholders and your product. So you’re actually pleasing everyone after all. 😉


This blog post was originally written by Samia over at Medium. You can check out the post here and Samia’s profile here.

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