Early Career Lessons in Product Management

A product manager shares valuable insight on his first five years on the job

Earlier this spring, I celebrated five years as a product manager. Although there’s no way to learn the art and science of product management except through first-hand experience, there were many people who helped me along the way. They inspired me to help others jumpstart their own product management career path too.

Year 0: Product Management Defined

Early in my career, I didn’t have a clue what product managers were or what they did. In my past life–first as a software engineer and later as a solution architect–I always played in the “solution space.” In other words, I focused on how to design the most simple, scalable and supportable solution to a given problem.

However, interacting with my customers got me curious about the “problem space,” which led to questions about why the given problem was so important, who it was important for and what other possible solutions were considered before deciding on the current one. Venturing into the problem space was unfamiliar to me. It was solely owned by the business side of things, and we were often told that IT professionals had no role to play there.

During a phone call with an old friend, we discussed the role a typical product manager plays in Silicon Valley. That’s when I realized product management was right for me.

During the course of the next few months, I read countless essays on product management career paths by industry leaders including noted author Marty Cagen, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, NoteJoy founder Sachin Rekhi, product professional Rich Mironov and others. I also networked with product managers on LinkedIn. Each article I read, response I received and phone call I made helped me paint a better picture of what product managers were and what they did.

For me, nothing more succinctly summarized the role and importance of a product manager than Mat Balez’ essay: Product Manager, You Are a Janitor, essentially. Simply put, a product manager is not the CEO of a product but is instead a jack of all trades and is ultimately responsible for building and driving successful products into the marketplace, which is something I always wanted to do.

I still had to find a product manager opportunity, but a majority of my applications fell on deaf ears. I couldn’t be a product manager without having been a product manager and no one seemed to want to give me an opportunity.

My stars finally began to align in 2016 when I learned a long-time friend and mentor had just accepted a product executive role at a mature cybersecurity startup in Silicon Valley. I called to congratulate him and to also express my interest to shift towards a career in product management.

It was a stroke of luck that they happened to be seeking a new product manager that deeply understood both software development processes and software developer’s needs. A few months later, I moved to Silicon Valley and began my career as a product manager.

Year ‘0’ Key Learnings:

  • A product manager is a cross-functional leader responsible for 5 D’s:
    1. Discover opportunities by understanding market, customer and user problems
    2. Define what to build, why to build it and who to build it for
    3. Drive cross-functional actions to get it built
    4. Drive adoption by highlighting its user value
    5. Deliver business value and overall success
  • To be successful, a product manager needs to be good at 4 activities: observing, analyzing, imagining and communicating.
  • A product manager is not the “CEO of the product.” It’s true that CEOs and product managers both have huge vantage points, access to a variety of data and plenty of cross-functional context. However, CEOs manage top-down and execute by positional authority, and a product manager must use exceptional people skills and execute through influence, persuasion, data and context. This is why working as a product manager can be good training ground for future CEOs – and also why most post-acquisition startup CEOs often end up in the product organization.
  • There’s no defined product management career path and as a result, most hiring managers want a product manager who already has experience. Of course, that makes it difficult to break into that role. That’s why you need to keep trying harder and perfecting your pitch to convince someone to take a chance on you. Use your network.
  • Consider moving to Silicon Valley. During my career, I’ve found there’s no better place to be a product manager. While many companies are open to remote teams, with the onset of Zoom fatigue many hiring managers prefer a local product manager. If not for its infinite opportunities and networking possibilities, move to simply increase your odds at serendipity.

Year 1: Transitions are Complicated

I was an engineer-turned-architect-turned-product manager. I was wired to solve a problem one customer at a time. In my first few weeks on the job, I found myself wanting to solve every new problem raised by a concerned customer or a sales representative who demanded that “one thing” to help make their sale.

It didn’t take long for me to develop recency bias and focusing illusion that left me wanting to shift the team’s priorities on a constant basis. Often, I found myself deep in thought trying to define and design solutions to these problems. As a result, even though I was technically a product manager, I was still mostly operating like a solution architect.

My team was getting overwhelmed, and they grew increasingly frustrated with me. Fortunately, the engineering leaders intervened and reminded me to stop being reactive to every issue and be intentional instead.

To help with the transition, I enrolled in a few product management courses – including some at Pragmatic Institute – in hopes of learning and understanding the hard skills. I learned the importance of getting out of the office to talk to customers as often as possible. I learned tools to conduct customer interviews and organize their learnings. I learned how to prioritize what features to build. I also learned pricing, positioning and launching products and features.

In a few short months, I was focusing on adding key features to solve core problems. I began to analyze data to inform decisions. In one of those deep dive analysis, I found an opportunity to improve the product utilization and increase revenue significantly by revamping the pricing model and simplifying how it was sold. The product relaunch was a success and it not only helped confirm the product/market fit and gain the product’s escape velocity, but it also instilled confidence in me as a product manager.

Year ‘1’ Key Learnings:

  • Product managers should stay in the problem space (what, who, why) and curb the temptation to venture into the solution space (how). Define the problem well and trust your design and engineering team to design the solution well.
  • Solution architects solve a problem for a single customer at a time. But product managers need to solve aggregated customer problems at scale.
  • Beware of cognitive biases such as recency bias and focusing illusion when prioritizing the problems to solve. Use product prioritization techniques to decide which problems to solve and what features would fetch the biggest bang for the buck.
  • Nothing important happens in the office (NIHITO). Get out and talk to many customers as often as possible.
  • Being able to sell the product easily is as important as building an easy product. Product managers need to focus on both. Just as you experiment with various features to see what sticks, you need to experiment with various positioning and pricing models to see what sticks.
  • Find champions that believe in you and your product. Both among your customers and your sales team. Nothing gets people on board more than customer accolades and sales success.

Year 2:  Product Failures are Inevitable so Learn From Them

Learning how to make incremental improvements to an existing product by using a “One to Many” (1-to-n) intensive growth model was relatively easy, but I also needed to learn how to create something radically new from scratch and take it to the first step using a “Zero to One” (0-to-1) extensive growth model.

While talking to our customers, I discovered a unique problem specific to a new user persona that required a completely different solution. Of course, building it required a completely different mindset to navigate through many unknowns. Given the many constraints we were facing, I needed to define a simple product that worked end-to-end using a minimum viable product (MVP)  stage — and I needed to get people, both internally and externally, excited about it. Fortunately, we had top-down buy-in for the solution and we were able to put together an amazing team pretty quickly.

The team operated like a start-up that had just raised its seed funding. There were twice-a-day stand-ups, day-to-day action plans and bi-weekly demo days that our CEO also attended to ensure we were laser-focused and working at full speed.

Any problems or new constraints had to be solved within hours, not days. We all challenged one another and stepped out of our own zones to solve each other’s challenges. I had never seen such an amazing example of teamwork. No wonder we were able to build and ship an amazing product, from scratch, in only 100 days.

Our beta users loved it. Now we needed to sell it, too. We had our share of challenges. Not only had our marketing team never marketed to this new persona before, but our sales team hadn’t sold to that persona either.

Uncertain of the best path forward, we chose to turn our attention on existing buyers instead.  While our launch was a success and created a lot of market buzz, it fizzled soon thereafter. We tried to iterate a couple of different times, but we just couldn’t attain the velocity needed for the product to be successful. I learned the hard way that growing a product through intensive growth (0-to-1) is much more difficult than growing it using extensive growth (1-to-n).

Year ‘2’ Key Learnings:

  • It is extremely difficult to sell to a buyer who is not the user of your product. Expect a much longer cycle so you can create fan users who can influence the buyers. Avoid it if you desire fast outcomes. At the end of the day, shortcuts usually result in short-circuits.
  • Beware of cognitive biases when building and marketing a new product. Just because some people like the product doesn’t automatically mean others will feel the same way. It also doesn’t automatically mean the product will sell.
  • Most new products fail and only some succeed. Accept this truism but keep trying anyway. Learn from every failure and try differently next time.

Year 3: Strategy is The Secret Ingredient for Success

I learned about product failures the hard way, and those failures often led to self-doubt and imposter syndrome. We focused on building and launching the new product, and in the process, we neglected work on our existing product. Luckily, I had an amazing support system with my manager and my team.

We decided to pause the new product and instead refocus on the existing one to put it back into orbit. As the product began growing, so did the feature requests from our customers and members of the sales team. Unfortunately, I didn’t have infinite resources to build the product to its fullest. Instead, leadership advised me to “be strategic.” But, as I learned, real strategy is challenging.

After taking additional courses, I learned to define and communicate a clear product strategy. We shifted our strategy, positioning and go-to-market (GTM) plans from products to platform. As a result, it helped us connect the dots and tell a better story. I learned the art of positioning, GTM, and public and analyst relations while we executed the new platform strategy.

Year ‘3’ Key Learnings:

  • Learn to deal with imposter syndrome. Stop trying to measure your competence based on what and how much you know or can do. Don’t fear being exposed for not knowing enough. Get comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” but also follow it up with, “let me find out.” Refrain from apologizing for simply asking a question.
  • Be strategic. Learning strategy not only requires good vision, analysis and structure but also a lot of patience. Focus on differentiating your product from the competition. Build a unique product and play in the market segment where it will be most valued. Avoid expanding your peripheral strategy too much. Strategy requires saying no way more often than yes.
  • Product positioning and GTM are extremely important. To quote Zig Ziglar, “Every sale has five basic obstacles: no need, no money, no hurry, no desire, no trust.” Good positioning and GTM help you overcome these obstacles.

Year 4: Executing Takes Perseverance

I thought learning about strategy was the hard part but learning to execute it felt even harder. I had to learn to focus on my soft skills and become good at persuasion, negotiation, decision-making and executive communication in order to win support.

As my four-year anniversary of working as a product manager approached, I began taking additional classes to improve my soft skills. I learned to be politically savvy. I also had the opportunity to mentor other product managers on my team. I realized I was learning exponentially while teaching others.

On a friend’s recommendation, I also joined the Silicon Valley Product Management Association (SVPMA) in order to meet and learn from other product management leaders. It was there that I met my own mentors. I realized I had to explore new opportunities outside.

I began preparing and applying to my shortlisted companies. Interviewing made me vulnerable to my gaps, but it also helped me improve myself even further. As I prepared for my interviews, I also began creating my own frameworks and mental models. I used my interviews to validate my frameworks, network and learn from the people who were interviewing me.

This was a pivotal year for us as a company because we were acquired by a much larger company. We ended the year with a superlative growth rate for the company and record renewals for my product line.

Year ‘4’ Key Learnings:

  • Creating an excellent strategy is one thing, but communicating it effectively and aligning everyone for execution requires a lot of time, effort and patience.
  • Product managers should also polish their soft skills. Persuasion, negotiation, decision-making, executive communication and political savviness are essential to be successful as one grows into product management leadership.
  • Mentoring others is a great way to sharpen your own skills. It forces you to resynthesize, replay and refine what you already know in a way your protege can understand effectively. Mentoring also builds deep relationships and a support system to count on.
  • If you live in Silicon Valley, I urge you to Join SVPMA or attend a local product meetup around you where you will meet and learn from other leaders. This is when Bismarck’s “learning from the experience of others” becomes real.
  • Keep interviewing often, even if you aren’t actively looking for new opportunities. Interviews make you vulnerable and help you identify your gaps. Use them to improve yourself. Interviews also help you network with people who were unreachable before. There’s always something new to learn.

Year 5: Learning is The Way Forward

I transitioned into a new position just before my five-year anniversary as a product manager – just about the time the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill. With the lockdowns, I focused on making 2020 a year of infinite learning. I spent hours listening to podcasts, reading books and blogs, watching online product videos and interacting with interesting product people on Twitter.

I was also able to pursue my executive business certification at Berkeley Haas, where I met some amazing fellow students who helped teach me as much as the class itself. I learned new domains, faced new challenges and continued to meet new people and learn from their experiences.

In many ways, I feel like my product management career path during the course of the last five years has helped me rise toward the top of my game. Our company ended the year on a positive note – despite the pandemic – and I celebrated my five-year milestone with a decision to pay it forward by helping others in many of the same ways others had helped me.

Year ‘5’ Key Learnings:

  • Be an infinite learner. Learn from everyone and everything. The more you learn, the more there is to learn. But the more you know, the more successful you can be as a product manager. After all, a product manager is a “jack of all trades.”
  • Pay it forward. Help others around you. Share your learnings with the community. It is a profoundly gratifying feeling.

 

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Fatima

Fatima

Sandeep Potdar is a lead product manager at Tenable. Follow him on Twitter @sandeeppotdar, or connect with him on LinkedIn at: linkedin.com/in/sandeeppotdar

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