Congratulations on your new role as product manager!
As a product manager, you will have a big role in executing the vision of the company and of delivering the true value to your users. It’s an exciting space to operate in, but it is also very unlike any other field. You will be the glue keeping the projects together when business, design and engineers are pulling in different directions.
In order to succeed, I have gathered some of the best advice I have come across:
1. You’re the CEO
In the words of Ben Horowitz, as a product manager, you’re the CEO of your product. You are end to end responbile for the success or failure of your product and you need to treat it with this in mind. There are no excuses for not having a winning product. Ultimately, you are in charge and responsible!
2. Know how to say no
If adding all requested features was the right path to an excellent product, then there would be way more excellent products out there. It’s not. It’s all about selecting what features not to display.
Your key task: To say no!
3. You will be hated
As the CEO of your product, you will make a lot of decisions. Some of them will be popular with some of your stakeholders, but upset others. You can’t be a people pleaser and you need to accept that some people will inevitably be unhappy with some of your choices. Remember: Every choice you make about priorities is also a choice about what to deprioritize and someone has requested those deprioritized tickets for a reason.
4. Your most important skill is structure
As a product manager, you are juggling a lot of teams at the same time: Engineers, designers, and business among other. If you aren’t structured from you step out of bed until you go to sleep, you are setting yourself up for failure.
Make sure you keep track of all outstanding tasks and take advantage of some of the many tools available for product teams.
5. Your second most important skill is communication
The biggest challenge in managing your processes end to end is that you need to manage all your stakeholders. As mentioned above, some people may hate you (or your decisions), but no matter how thick skinned you are, you will benefit from being on as good terms as possible with your stakeholders. The only way to do this effectively is by making sure they are up to speed on your priorities and deliverables.
Most people can handle if projects get delayed for a good reason, but it is much easier to handle if you are informed ahead of time rather than after the expected delivery. Be proactive in your communications rather than reactive!
As former PM at LinkedIn, Google, Netflix, etc., Zal Bilimoria puts it:
“Flat out, great product managers have excellent communication skills. They’re constantly in contact with their team, peers, executives, and all other stakeholders. Whenever prompted, they can clearly and concisely supply their team’s elevator pitch outlining the vision for their product, what they’re currently working on, why it will be impactful, and how they’ll measure success.”
6. Be comfortable with numbers
Nothing is worse than wasting time. You will probably never feel like you have enough time for all the tickets you are managing, so make sure not to waste time.
One of the most common reasons for wasting time is inaccurate analyses. People tend to jump to conclusions that fit their perception of the world. It is your job as a PM to ensure that you don’t base your decisions on yours or other people’s gut feel, but on facts and data.
In god we trust, everyone else must bring data.
If you aren’t comfortable with numbers and statistics, you may find this incredibly hard, so do yourself a favour and skill up if needed!
7. To understand your numbers you need to understand behaviour
Numbers per se, do not tell you much. They can help you choose between one of two test scenarios, but that’s where the insights end.
A secondary aim of every single test you run must always be to get a better understanding of the user. Numbers won’t help you understand numbers, but they may give you a hint. Getting to a true understanding requires that you understand the psychology and behaviour of your users.
Numbers tell you what people do. Understanding psychology and behaviour will help you understand why they act like they do.
8. It will be hectic
Your role is one of the most exciting, but also one of the most chaotic at times. Be prepared for the times when you will need to juggle a hundred balls in the air at once. You will be push your own limits for how many projects you can handle at once, so don’t expect to be able to do everything at once – at least not from the start.
9. Get your nightly sleep when you can
Your product can break at any time and it may require that you need to stay long in the office. Do yourself a favour and get a full night of sleep whenever this is possible – you never know when you will need to stay up half the night.
10. Know you are set up for failure
No matter how well you do, you will never please everyone. You will make mistakes along the way which can make you doubt yourself. Before you jump off a cliff, remember that you won’t be able to please everyone.
11. Maker’s vs. Manager’s schedule
Understand that your schedule works differently from that of an engineer. Read this essay by Paul Graham.
12. Build for scale
Build a product that will scale. Unless you have an extremely good reason, don’t focus on the short-term fixes. Choose the solutions that will be the right ones today and 6 months from now (you won’t know what will happen more than 6 months into the future anyway).
13. Have a clear vision and align expectations
Have a clear vision for where you want to take your product and make sure that you align that with your key stakeholders.
Remember that not all your stakeholder will agree on everything, but you need to make sure that your key stakeholders buy into your vision. The key stakeholders are normally your boss and – if your product is critical to the business – maybe even the CEO.
14. Know when to ask for help
As a new product manager, you will have to learn a million things. Make sure you don’t just try to wing it if you are trying out something new. Rather ask one time too many than one too few.
You will never be the domain expert on all the topics included in being a product manager, so your success depends on other people. Make sure to surround yourself with experts who can help you!
15. Design for your grandparents
Remember the target audience for your product. No matter what industry you are in, you will quickly be so deeply into your product that what may seem illogical to your target audience looks like the most obvious thing to you.
David Lieb uses the below chart as an illustration in his excellent article on cognitive overhead and simplifying your product.
Focus on getting a few things completely right, rather than many things 80% there. You will only see the real impact, when the last few percentages are complete.
(This doesn’t mean you should chase perfection to the extreme – you will never get there either).
17. Know your platform
Spend some time understanding the platform and architecture – harness the power to its fullest.
Sit with the CTO or lead engineer and ensure you state clearly that you perhaps don’t understand certain parts. Too many Product guys and girls try to give of the air of technical acumen – engineers prefer honesty. Don’t be afraid to ask any of the business “dumb questions”, it truly is the best way to learn.
Get down and dirty with data – What is available? What systems are in place? Read everything you can get your hands on, and if it doesn’t exist then write it! By documenting the gaps, you make your organisation stronger and a better on-boarding experience for new starters.
18. Interview key stakeholders
Spend a few days interviewing key stakeholders across the business – get the full picture of where the business is and where it wants to be. Consider scheduling 1-to-1’s in your first week with everyone in your team, walking 1-to-1’s are great and informal – and time saving!
19. Spend time with your users
Spend time with your customers – buy them a cup of coffee, do some guerrilla testing in the streets. You’d be surprised how many PMs don’t understand the importance of this or even perhaps overlook a major question, who are your customers? Ask one question “What can I do to make your life easier?”
20. Resist the temptation!
Don’t jump in feet first and change the entire product on your first day. Gain more domain knowledge and credibility, mature your thoughts by asking questions and listening – then make a balanced and informed decision.
21. Don’t wait for objectives, set them!
Don’t wait for OKRs or SMART objectives to be spoon fed – write some!
What should you start doing? Stop doing? Continue doing? Be proactive in this area, what do you want to achieve in your first quarter? You can always run them by your stakeholders once you’ve got a first draft ready.
22. Understand the business
Understand your market and revenue model – you’d be surprised how this can get lost in the excitement of building things.
23. Use your product – and your competitors’ too
When taking over a product, try out the full experience with your own product and that of the competition or related products. You will immediately understand the issues and be empowered to make a better product.
24. Do whatever it takes
The best tip I can provide: do whatever it takes!
QAing, technical writing, public speaking, designing, coding – Just do it!
25. Have a great time!
You’ve just landed one of the most exciting jobs in the internet space – enjoy it!
What other tips would you recommend to new Product Managers?