If you’re reading this article, congratulations! You’ve pulled together a compelling resume, you've studied your behavioral questions, you’ve practiced your case questions, you aced your phone interviews, and you wowed your hiring manager during your on-site interview. You’re now a Product Manager! It’s a big deal, so be sure to take the time to celebrate your accomplishments.
As a new product manager, it’s critical to ensure success starting on day 1, and to set the foundation for strong future performance. This is the guide that I wish I had when I first became a product manager.
Note that it may look long and daunting - don’t try to do everything at once! Take it one piece at a time, and celebrate your success as you go.
Who to Talk To
Product managers rely heavily on context to make the best decisions. Therefore, your most important job when you first is to identify who to talk to, and what to learn from them.
In order of importance, you should speak to the following people (if they exist) in your organization:
- Outbound product manager
- Direct supervisor
- Head of product
- Engineering lead
- Design lead
- Customer research lead
- Analytics lead
Let's break down what the goals of each conversation should be.
1) Talk to the outbound product manager, if there is one.
If you were hired or promoted into her role, your time is best spent in gathering as much knowledge as you can from her.
Depending on how much time she has available, learn the following from her.
Priorities: What were the major priorities when she was the PM? What are the major priorities now that you are the PM?
Experiences: What did she wish she knew when she was working as a PM? What are the biggest challenges she faced, and how could those be mitigated?
Stakeholders: Who are the most important people in the room? What are their working styles, and how did she establish strong working relationships with each individual stakeholder?
Product: What was the most challenging product or feature that she delivered, and why? What was her favorite product or feature to deliver, and why?
2) Talk to your direct supervisor.
Your goal is to learn about her expectations for you and for the product that you will be managing.
Have conversations around the following topics:
Working Style: How does your supervisor like to work? Formal feedback or informal chats? What cadence should you use for updating her on progress? Does she prefer phone, email, text, or in-person discussions? Is it okay to be contacted after work?
It’s critical to establish a baseline where you and your supervisor will be most comfortable working with one another. Be sure to share your own preferences too!
Expectations and Responsibilities: Under her supervision, what sort of work should you expect to do as a PM?
This is important because PM duties range drastically from to and from product to product.
Some PMs go on sales calls; some perform quality assurance tests; some perform deep analytics on their products; some design the entire UX/UI of their product; some perform customer interviews.
It’s crucial that you are both aligned on what your responsibilities will be.
Milestones and Growth Plan: Establish product milestones together, and determine who will own milestones in the future - will she be setting them, or will you set them independently? What should you expect from her if you miss a milestone?
Also, understand how she is looking to develop your talent. How often are performance reviews, and what is the long-term growth plan that she has for you?
Be sure to let her know how you are looking to grow as a PM too, so that she can incorporate your preferences, strengths, and weaknesses into her recommendations.
Mentorship: Who does she recommend as a mentor? Who does she look up to within the organization?
Ideally, you’ll want to get additional mentorship from someone who does not regularly interact with you on a professional basis - that way, the feedback is more objective.
3) Talk to your Head of Product, if they are not your direct supervisor. You need to understand what the overall product vision is for the company, and how your product fits into her vision.
This conversation can be relatively quick (sometimes it only takes 10 minutes!), but don’t underestimate its value.
Your product lives in an ecosystem of products, and you must understand what role your product will be playing. For example, it’s helpful to know whether some types of customers use multiple products simultaneously, and how you should coordinate efforts with other PMs in your organization.
4) Talk to the engineering lead of your development team. It’s crucial to understand how your engineers work, especially since you’ll be joining an already established team, which comes with its own processes, culture, and mindset. Ask her questions like the ones below.
Working Style: Does your team use agile or waterfall? Story points or kanban? Shirt-size estimations or hourly estimations? When are the different sprint rituals, and what is the goal of each? If features slip, what is the process for re-prioritizing them? How does documentation work, and where does it live?
Team Responsibilities: Are your engineers all-purpose, or do particular ones specialize in particular languages or features? Is your team in charge of development operations (e.g. checking for product uptime, checking for system failures), or is there a different team that will inform you of emergencies?
5) Talk to the design lead. Understand what the existing design processes are.
Do you have a dedicated designer, or do you send requests to a shared team? How are design requests prioritized? Where do design assets live - in tickets, or in a tool such as Sketch or Photoshop?
Because design is a critical component of products, it's crucial to understand how design works within your organization.
6) Talk to the customer research lead, if there is one.
Get a sense of where the customer research lives, how customer research is conducted, how to request customer research, and how customer research is consumed.
Remember that as a product manager, you must advocate for your customer. Know how your organization conducts customer research!
7) Talk to the analytics lead. Learn the process for submitting analytics requests, if there is one. Do you have a dedicated analyst, or do you send requests to a shared team?
If the analytics team is not meant to support product development teams, you’ll need to have her train you on how to pull the data yourself.
8) Finally, and most importantly, speak with your stakeholders.
As a product manager, you exist to serve the needs of your customers and the needs of your stakeholders.
Still, when speaking to them, you need to be absolutely clear that you want to understand where they’re coming from, but that you will not take any requests outside of the formal sprint prioritization cycle.
In other words, don’t promise to deliver them a particular feature if you have not yet discussed that feature in-depth with your development team and appropriately scoped out the work.
Your goal in this conversation is not to win brownie points or to please the stakeholder.
Instead, your goal is to understand their perspective and internalize it, without giving up your own priorities as a PM.
How to Ramp Up
As a PM, you’re in control of your own schedule. Sometimes, it can be daunting to have all that autonomy - especially if you join a team that does not yet have a formalized ramp up plan for you to rely on.
Don’t fret! Here’s a best-practices set of guidelines for when you should achieve particular objectives. It covers the first 90 days; past that, you will have enough context to independently decide what to do for the rest of your tenure as a Product Manager.
Week 1 (Days 1-7)
Talk to the people that I mentioned previously in “Who to Talk To” above. joining sprint rituals, and observe how the team works.
Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions after each ritual! It’s better to be educated now rather than later. You only get to be inexperienced once, so get all of the “dumb” questions out of the way.
Week 2 (Days 8-14)
Review any relevant existing documents (e.g. technical specifications, customer interview notes, presentations to the executive team, past roadmaps) at a high level - no need to read them all in-depth.
Your goal is to where all of the critical information is, and figure out how to access them when you need them, as well as get a sense of how your broader organization operates.
Start creating onboarding documents for your own understanding (and for those who may come after you). I’ve found customer flows, organizational charts, high-level product object models, and sales funnels to be particularly helpful.
Week 3 (Days 15-21)
Play with your product. Understand what the current sprint priorities are, and clearly grasp the existing set of tickets being tackled in the sprint.
Your goal is to become “operationally ready”, and to be able to defend your team’s priorities if asked by a stakeholder.
Week 4 (Days 22-30)
Dive into your backlog. Ask questions about why and how tickets were prioritized. Work with your engineering lead to loading up the next sprint.
Deeply explore your product - look at it from the fresh eyes of a newcomer, and take this opportunity to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your product.
You only get to be new once! Later down the road, you will likely become so accustomed to your product that you may lose sight of its weaknesses or blind spots.
Month 2 (Days 31-60)
Jointly work with your supervisor to determine the product priorities over the next month. Lead your team's stand-ups and ticket prioritization. Schedule 1:1 meetings with stakeholders to check in on their priorities and on your progress.
Your goal is to demonstrate that you have the chops needed to manage the product at an executional and tactical level.
Month 3 (Days 61-90)
Propose product priorities to your supervisor. Jointly work with your supervisor to determine the roadmap for the next quarter (3 months ahead). Volunteer to take the lead role in creating executive-facing or customer-facing presentations.
Your goal is to show that you can execute both tactically and strategically. That is, you want to demonstrate that you can think in time scales of days and months, and eventually grow into a role where you can think in time scales of quarters and years.
And congrats - you’ve finished your first quarter as a Product Manager!
You’ve impressed everyone around you, and you’ve showed that you’ve got what it takes. Keep up the great work!
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