Product management isn’t a beginner-friendly career. You’re going to feel overwhelmed, stressed for time, obligated to constantly learn new things quickly, and frequently in a position to redefine your own role. But for those with the right temperament and skills, it can be incredibly rewarding — there’s nothing like the joy of seeing your team come together to ship a great product, under your leadership.
If you’re a beginner, here are a few things you need to know before you start leading your team.
In Product Management, We’re All Beginners
One ongoing challenge all product managers face is defining their own role. Superficially, the product manager role can seem obvious: your job is overseeing the design and delivery of the product. But once you get into the specifics of what the product manager actually does, things get hazy quickly.
Are you the type of product manager who works with the developers in overseeing the process of building the product? Is your job to act as an interface between the chief exec and the other decision makers? Should you focus on working with the marketing team to ensure the product fits the niche as closely as possible, and the release is conducted strategically? Or are you a jack of all trades, simply there to connect stakeholders into a coherent team?
If you’re in a company with a project manager, division of responsibilities can get more complicated. What’s the boundary between project and product management? What happens if your company goes from working with a project head to having everything overseen by the PM, or vice versa? As your company grows and your offerings change, how do the boundaries shift? And how do you connect the different roles to work as efficiently as possible?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to any of these questions. What a product manager does varies not only from company to company and industry to industry, but often from week to week in the same company.
You might start by coordinating the departments and briefing the CEO at a high level in the beginning of a project — then, you might spend two weeks spending half of your hours volunteering your coding skills to help push a deadline. You might be called upon to fill in for missing project heads, then switch to helping coordinate the development and design teams until release.
This probably sounds overwhelming, but in some ways, it’s also good news for beginners. Every product manager is in over their head sometimes. We all spend a lot of time improvising, and doing the best we can with our skills. Even the most seasoned, successful product managers are sometimes thrown into roles where they’re beginners. Don’t worry if you don’t know it all — no one does.
Visualize Your Role
It’s often said that product managers are where tech, UX, and business meet, however rarely are those aspects of the role coequal. Most product managers (and most PM jobs) have at least one strong area, and at least one weak one. You can’t totally ignore UX to focus on business or vice versa, but you can find a role that emphasizes the things you’re good at.
A business-savvy startup founder might be looking for a product manager to head up the design and development team. Being a good programmer with some basic design knowledge, good interpersonal skills, and the willingness to learn might be all the background you need to fill the role.
On the other hand, a startup founder building out their own design might need a business expert, who can help connect the company to funding or get the product to a wider audience.
Think about your job experience. What roles were you comfortable in? What roles did you not like? What kinds of environments did you thrive in? Then, imagine what your perfect role would be.
Some things to consider are:
Does working to coordinate a large team sound exhilarating or exhausting? Do you like the idea of working with a small startup team where you get to wear many hats, or would you be happier in a more narrow, well-defined role? Do you prefer to work with a remote team, or in a more traditional office environment?
Skills and Experience
Consider both the skills you’ve mastered and the areas where you know enough to at least get by:
- Technical skills: If you’re a coder, what development platforms do you know? What languages are you comfortable programing in? Do you have aptitude in areas like machine learning or augmented reality? If you’re from a business background, what training have you had in product management methodologies and tools like agile, waterfall, or scrum?
- Soft skills: Are you good with people? Skilled at translating between technical and business jargon? Adept at inspiring the best in a team? Are you an experimenter with a knack for asking the right questions and creating the right tests? A data whiz, who can distill complex or confusing information into actionable insight?
- Experience: Are there any jobs you’ve done before that overlap with a product manager’s role? What did you learn there, and what does your experience say about your own abilities in that area?
Your Typical Day
Try actually visualizing your work life in your perfect job in your perfect company. Think about what you work on at each phase of the product life cycle. What are your main duties at each stage? What other tasks do you need to do? What is stressful? What parts make the job all worth it?
You’ll never get the exact job you want, but taking the time to define it can help you keep perspective, whether you’re looking for job openings, sitting down for interviews, or working in your first product management job.
Understand Your Core Duties
Although responsibilities can vary greatly, the product management role usually comes with certain core duties.
Connecting to the CEO and Other Stakeholders
CEOs only have so much time. The product manager lets them offload certain day-to-day responsibilities, often to concentrate on securing investment or other executive tasks. The CEO and other managers will depend on you to keep them informed on product matters, and implement their decisions.
Just as importantly, you’ll need to help other stakeholders stay connected to each other. Successful product managers cultivate a collaborative office culture, opening up silos and encouraging information transfer between different roles.
The product manager is responsible for the major waypoints in the product cycle. These include:
- The product vision: The product vision is a brief summation of the goals of the project. It defines what the product is, the target customer, key benefits, differentiation from competitors, and what needs to happen for the product to be successful.
- The product roadmap: The roadmap is just what it sounds like: a detailed description of how to get from the beginning of the product to release. It divides the project into phases and tasks, and assigns those tasks to various teams and individuals.
The roadmap needs to include essential tasks, like building a prototype, recruiting partners, provisioning resources, and user testing. It also needs to include quality gates to ensure steps are accomplished correctly, and regular meetings to check in and revise the process as necessary.
- Decision stages: These days, it’s rare for every last detail of a high tech product to be planned out at the beginning. As you’re going through the product, you’ll be experimenting, getting feedback, meeting with stakeholders, and learning — and that means revising your plans quite a bit. You’ll need well-defined decision stages that enable you to work new insights into the product plan, while still ensuring your team ships on time.
- Shipping: This is what all the work has been for, and you don’t want to screw it up. You need to ensure there’s a high-quality, thoroughly tested product ready, and that all the pieces are in place to get it to the audience on time.
A Lot of Research and Testing
As a product manager, you’ll be dealing with a lot of stakeholders with strong opinions, creative ideas and gut instincts about what will work. It’s your responsibility to put a check on those ideas, and make sure you’re actually building the right product or adding the right feature for your audience. That includes:
- Market research: You’ll need to investigate what the competitors are producing, identify holes in the market, and work with your team to find a way to fill those holes. You’ll also want to get up close with some end users — people in your target demographic, end users of competing products and your own users (if you already have a product on the market).
- Early testing: It’s never too early in the product cycle to start testing. At early stages, tests can help you understand your user needs better, identify which product designs have the most appeal and eliminate flawed ideas before they eat up too much time.
Later in the project, testing can help you root out stubborn bugs you weren’t able to catch early on, tweak the look and feel of the product to make it more appealing to users, and ensure good user accessibility.
- Connecting the company to customers: Staying connected to your audience shouldn’t be hard — after all, your company literally exists to serve their needs. But most companies struggle with this at one point or another.
It’s easy for companies to become insular over time. Your team members each develop their own instincts about what audiences want, not noticing that tastes are changing, or that the niche your product was built for is no longer viable.
Executives let their success go to their heads, and fail to adequately vet their new ideas. Or ambitious competitors make a big impact, rendering your previous approach obsolete.
As the product manager, it’s your job to stay connected with your customer base. That can take a lot of forms, from setting up better customer support, to accepting feedback online, to one-on-one meetings with customers to learn about their preferences and how they use your product.
Invest in a Strategic Tech Stack
Not all product managers are involved in decisions about internal tech, but they should be. The technology you use is crucial to the success of your mission. Particularly for product management beginners, a poorly thought out or scattershot tech stack can make your job much harder, and limit your ability to succeed.
One of the most common problems is lack of unification. For example, your employees have access to literally dozens of ways to share messages. When team members are left to their own devices, communications can end up spread out over email, text messages, document comments, Slack channels, and various other messaging apps. That makes it very difficult to keep track of feedback or chart progress day-by-day, and very easy for people to miss important communications.
Similarly, different departments often use different task management tools according to their preferences and experience. This makes it harder to track projects, and can create a lot of extra work for everyone on your team. In many cases, the inconvenience more than outweighs any marginal benefits gained from specialized tools.
One way to think about product managers is that they’re the people who remove obstacles and prevent mistakes and misunderstandings. For a product to succeed, every stakeholder needs to understand their role, from high-level goals, to collaborative activities, to the nitty-gritty of daily tasks. Small miscommunications, tasks put off and then forgotten about, and shifting priorities and market demands can all derail a company in unexpected ways. At every stage of the product life cycle, a successful product manager needs to provide focus and clarity.
That involves some obvious major tasks. As a PM, it’s your job to set a product vision, and build a product map, for example. But it also means going the extra mile to check in on people and make sure they’re all on the same page. That might include:
- Spending some time floating from team to team, to make sure no team is drifting from the vision.
- Scheduling an extra meeting with the CEO to make sure they understand changes to the product roadmap.
- Setting up an extra round of testing to verify that your final design is really what the customers want.
And sometimes, it means pushing back against an unnecessary feature or unrealistic goal instead of just saying what a stakeholder wants to hear. Because more often than not, letting it go now leads to bigger problems down the line.
For more product management tips, check out:
- Getting the Product Management Process Right
- The 5 Biggest Mistakes Mobile App Product Managers Make
- 6 Tools, Tips and Tricks for Product Managers
Got some great advice for beginner PMs? Let us know by tweeting us @Protoio!