When I work with product managers, I strongly believe that the most valuable product they ship is themselves. In other words, product managers are also products.
In fact, I'd go so far to say that while product managers are also products, they might be the most impactful product that their creates. After all, product managers are the means through which better products are made - therefore, better product managers make for even better products.
In a world where competitive barriers continue to drop, the difference between a good product and a great product can mean life or death for a company. That's why there's such a high premium on great product managers.
Therefore, whenever someone asks me about career advice within product management, I ask them: “How would you make yourself a better product?”
Product managers must always ship products that will solve the pain points of their customers and of their end users.
So, if we think about product managers as products, we need to think about who the customers and end users of the product manager are.
Who Is Your Customer?
The customer of the product manager is the hiring manager. The hiring manager has a product manager role open for one of the following two reasons:
- She wants to do more, but her current team is out of bandwidth
- She needs to bring in expertise to tackle a challenge that her team hasn’t faced before
Knowing your hiring manager’s pain points is incredibly important, because it informs what you should emphasize as you pitch her on how you will provide value.
If she needs to solve problem #1, then you as a product manager need to show how you can create more bandwidth for the product organization.
When solving for bandwidth, you need to show that your style of delivery is similar to the existing team’s style of delivery - because the hiring manager is looking for more bandwidth, to do more of the same.
You get bonus points if you can not only provide more bandwidth yourself, but you can also mentor her team to yield more bandwidth than they had before.
If she needs to solve problem #2, then you as a product manager need to show how you will deliver unique expertise that is currently not represented on the product team.
When solving for expertise, you need points of differentiation - not just versus competing candidates, but versus the existing team itself.
You get bonus points if you can provide not just the missing expertise that she has specifically identified, but also additional areas of expertise that she and her team will need to have later.
In both cases, notice how you need to understand not just your hiring manager’s pain points, but also what the current capabilities of her team are. To succeed, you must conduct customer research - and your customer is the hiring manager!
Who Is Your End User?
The end user of the product manager is the entire hiring organization. This end user can be split into multiple user segments - perhaps they’re split into departments (e.g. sales, marketing, legal), or perhaps they’re split by business line.
You need a clear understanding of the hiring organization’s “user segments”, so to speak, and accurately identify how you as a product will solve for each user segment’s unique pain points.
For example, let’s say that the user segments are defined by department. How will you provide unique value to the marketing department? To the support department? To the sales department? To the executive team?
Furthermore, you need to know who your power users are, and how you’re going to provide unique value to them. Who’s going to interface with you the most, and how will you make their lives better than before?
Remember - products are meant to give their users superpowers. See this popular graphic from UserOnboard.com (profanity warning):
Which superpowers are you going to give your hiring organization?
What is Your Value Proposition?
Now that we know what pains you are solving, we can talking about your value proposition as a product.
Every product manager represents a value proposition, in that they provide some set of benefits at some set of costs.
Through our exercise above, you should now have a clear sense of what relevant benefits you bring to the table. Now, what are the costs that your hiring manager will perceive you to have?
The most obvious cost is compensation and benefits. However, I’d argue that compensation is not the most important cost for the hiring manager.
In fact, there are two regularly-overlooked, high-impact costs that you should account for.
The first overlooked cost is opportunity cost. If the hiring manager selects you to fill that product manager, then she cannot select someone else to fill the role.
How do you alleviate her FOMO (fear of missing out), and ensure that she sees you as the product that delivers the highest ROI?
The second overlooked cost is risk. Whenever a customer selects a product, they’re not just putting their time and money on the line - they’re also putting their reputation at stake.
Given that product managers work with many different stakeholders and that product managers regularly face high-stress situations, how can you show that you’re going to strengthen the hiring manager’s reputation across the organization? How do you make yourself a good bet?
Remember that when customers evaluate competing products, they’re looking at each product’s value proposition. You win by provide more value at less cost versus alternatives.
So, understand the alternatives that your hiring manager has, and show that you will provide more ROI than her best possible alternative.
This framework works for both product managers who are switching organizations or roles, and for product managers who love their current role. You provide some value at some cost - so how do you make the cost worth it for your manager?
What Is Your Personal Roadmap?
One of the most beautiful consequences about treating yourself as a product is that you adopt a growth mindset about your own capabilities.
After all, there are no perfect products, because markets are always changing. Expectations are always being set higher by the product itself or by competing products. Products that were close to perfect in the past are nowhere perfect today - and that’s exciting!
Every product can gain new capabilities through thoughtful design and engineering. The same goes for product managers - every product manager can gain new capabilities!
Just like how you regularly update your understanding of your product’s user through qualitative and quantitative user research, you should be doing the same to yourself as a PM. How do you regularly capture feedback about your organization’s needs?
Then, based on the findings of your user research, what is your roadmap? What are the key gaps that you need to close? How will you develop against those gaps? How do you test to see whether the feature you’re thinking about building is actually going to be what the market needs?
For example, I see too many aspiring product managers fixated on gaining technical skills, without ever checking with their end user - the organization - to see whether that’s really the best use of their time.
That's not to say that technical skills aren't valuable or helpful. What I'm arguing is that technical skills aren't always the most pressing need from your organization, and that you might find higher ROI investing in other skills instead.
You would never ship a product with a low-impact feature - so why obtain skills that your hiring manager doesn’t find impactful?
After all, time is a limited resource that PMs always deal with.
Given your limited time, how are you going to make the most impact in iterating on your capabilities?
Impact is defined by how much better you make your customer’s life - so what does your customer need from you, and how are you going to deliver it?
You are not static. You are a product. You will evolve, and so will your market. How do you harness that change for good?
How Do You Find Product / Market Fit?
All good products fit their markets.
In finding product / market fit, you not only need to understand your users, you also need to bring them to you and convince them to buy you.
Therefore, think of your cover letter as your product press release, your resume as your product demo, and your portfolio as your case studies. Use them wisely to generate market demand and validate your product / market fit.
Through your cover letter, how do you attract the attention of potential buyers and users? What pains do they need to be solved, and how are you uniquely positioned to solve them?
Press releases are narratives, so your cover letter should be a narrative too. What’s the story that you’re going to tell about yourself, and why is that story compelling for your customer?
As for your resume, how do you rigorously document the value that you provided, and how do you show growth?
When organizations look for product managers, they’re looking for two kinds of value - immediate value and future value.
In your resume, every single bullet must show quantified value, which demonstrates immediate value. If you write down a responsibility or accomplishment that couldn’t be measured, you’ll have a tough time proving to the hiring manager that you provided tangible value.
Furthermore, you need to show a progression through each project to give the hiring manager a sense of your growth rate and your future potential.
When people buy your product, they’re not just buying what it can do today - they’re also buying its future roadmap. Be sure to address your growth!
When you write release notes, you should only write about iterations that provide relevant value to the user. Since the resume is the release notes of the product manager, don’t add items to your resume that aren’t relevant to the customer!
For example, if you’re applying to be a mobile app product manager in the ecommerce space, your world history classes will likely not be relevant. On the flip side, if you’re applying to be a mobile app product manager in the education space, your world history classes might make all the difference.
Release notes are context-dependent and audience-dependent. Therefore, your resume should also be context-dependent and audience-dependent.
Portfolios, like customer case studies, are optional but highly valuable. They represent measurable, tangible successes.
However, remember that whenever you read a case study, you assume that it is the most favorable case study possible.
Therefore, ensure that your portfolio truly represents your best possible work. If you cannot present a compelling product portfolio (due to confidentiality or other circumstances), it may sometimes be better not to have a portfolio at all.
In other words: just because you have side projects available doesn’t mean that you should showcase them in your portfolio.
First impressions matter - and if your side projects aren’t as good as the products you manage day-to-day, then you’re shooting yourself in the foot!
Finally, the key thing to remember about product / market fit is that some products will never fit some markets. That’s just how products work.
For example, Snapchat isn’t going to win over grandparents - at least not with its current set of capabilities and values.
Similarly, there are just some organizations that will never fit with what you are able to provide, through no fault of your own. That’s just the reality of product / market fit.
If you get turned down by any particular organization, that’s not necessarily an indicator that you aren’t providing value. Keep iterating, and find the market that you do fit!
As a product manager, your goal isn’t to get a job or to retain a job.
It’s much nobler than that.
Because product managers are also products, your mission is to find product / market fit, by ensuring that you know what market pain points you’re solving, and by shipping iterations to yourself that will provide value in solving those pains.
This applies both to product managers who want to switch to new organizations and to product managers who want to provide more value to their current organizations.
As a product manager, you are the most important product that you manage. You as a product will create more products - therefore, you are the most impactful tool in your arsenal.
When aspiring product managers treat themselves as products, they can create compelling narratives on how they managed themselves as a product.
When seasoned product managers treat themselves as products, they can identify key strategic gaps and provide exponential impact over time, whether within existing organizations or at new organizations.
So here’s my question to you: what’s next on your product roadmap?