What I Wish I'd Known as a New Product Manager
As a new product manager, you might feel overwhelmed by all of the newfound responsibilities that you have. After all, you’re not just responsible for the fate of your product - you’re responsible for your customers, for your engineering and design teams, and for the business overall.
I’ve been there before. I felt that panic when I took on my first product manager role. The good news is that you’re not alone, and that you can find success as long as you’re armed with the right knowledge and mindsets.
Here’s what I wish I had known early on in my product management career.
Structured problem solving is crucial
The title “product manager” is actually a bit of a misnomer - you’re really more of a problem manager than anything else!
What I mean by that is that just about everything you tackle comes in the form of a problem statement, and you have to be structured with your problem-solving skills.
Every single problem that we ever face as product managers will look like this:
- Who is having a problem?
- What is the pain that they’re facing?
- Is this pain worth solving right now? If not, where does it sit vs. our other priorities?
- If this pain needs to be addressed, what is the best way to resolve the pain?
This structure works across all problems, whether that problem is “there’s a production fire” or “a customer is threatening to cancel the contract” or “I’m getting conflicting directions from my executive team.”
But, while this structured format is universally applicable, actually learning to use it can be quite challenging at times - especially if you’re the kind of person who wants to make other people happy.
As an example, say that one of your close colleagues comes to you in a panic and says “I need you to do XYZ right now because we have ABC problem on our hands.”
You’re less likely to actually think through the problem. You’re much more likely to try to chase down a solution even if it’s not the best solution or the best way for you to spend your time. You’re more likely to give into your colleague’s demand rather than thinking from first principles.
But you don’t want to tackle problems that way, because it means that you’re focusing your attention on things that are urgent but not necessarily important.
Remember that your time is extremely valuable, because your time determines how other people spend their time.
So, we can’t be reactive - we have to be proactive in deciding which problems we’ll tackle, and in structuring the problem correctly. If we solve the wrong problem, or we solve the problem at the wrong level, we’ve lost valuable time for our company.
You’re the decision maker, and that means you don’t take orders
It’s your job to decide which problems to solve, and which problems not to take on. That also means that it’s your job to decide whether the problem has been framed correctly or not.
When other people try to give you orders, you have to remember that product managers don’t take orders.
Because an order is a pre-framed problem with a pre-framed solution, and it’s the product manager’s job to frame the problem and the solution.
If you accept an order, you’ve accepted a potentially poorly-scoped problem with a potentially poorly-scoped solution.
Product managers solicit inputs and perspectives, but at the end of the day they’re the ones on the hook for making the final call on what to do and how to do it.
The weight of such a responsibility can be tough for junior product managers to handle without prior training. Throughout all of our years of experience as students, we were taught to take orders and to obey authority figures. But you’re the decision maker now; other people give you inputs, but you have to decide what to do.
In fact, many times your direct manager may give you suggestions on what you should do next, and sometimes the right thing to do is to discard their advice because you have better context on what the best next step should be. That can feel like a very scary situation, especially if you’re not used to making decisions on your own.
To get ahead of this challenging transition, consider taking on roles outside of work where you’re making more decisions.
This can be as simple as being more decisive within your personal relationships - for example, rather than letting your friends choose which restaurant to go to, you should practice asserting your opinions on where to eat.
You own the problem but you don’t have to personally deliver the solution
Another thing that regularly happens is that you’ll feel like you’re the sole person responsible for solving the pain, because you’ve internalized that you’re the decision maker.
Unfortunately, that’s not true. Just because you’re responsible for identifying a solution doesn’t mean that you’re the person who has to do the work.
As an example, say that one of your customers has an urgent need for usage data about one of your specific features. While you could be the person who invests the time to run the data query, you could always ask someone else to do it - whether that someone else is from account management, data analytics, or even engineering.
You almost always need to focus on higher-leverage items such as prioritization, solutioning, or roadmapping, and that means that tackling executional work like a data pull is unlikely the right way for you to use your time.
It’s true that you own which problems to tackle and which solutions to use. But even more importantly, you also own the decision on who needs to carry out the work, and many times you’re not going to be the best person to do the job.
You have to get used to delegating the work. You might wind up in a situation where you have to ask someone who’s older than you or more experienced than you to take on a responsibility.
And I’ll be honest with you - I still struggle with this now. I want to take on work so that other people can focus on their other responsibilities.
But many times, that’s the wrong mindset, because my other duties are higher-leverage, and therefore I need to delegate my tasks so that I can protect my time.
You’ll feel uncomfortable most of the time
I wish someone had told me early on that I should expect to feel uncomfortable for the vast majority of my career.
That just comes with the territory - product managers have to fill the white space and have to reach upwards to create higher leverage, and that means that we’re always going to be facing new areas of growth and improvement.
Plus, we’re always going to be dealing with ambiguity. Many times, we’ll have multiple options available, and not enough information to know which option is the better one.
It’s our job to make the decision, and it’s our job to decide whether we need more information to make the decision.
Not only do we need to make a call, but we have to make the call about whether we’re able to make the call yet. That can feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially for a new college graduate or for a newly-minted product manager.
On top of that, we have to get used to saying “no”, and it doesn’t always get easier over time.
Sometimes we’ll have to push back against our own executive team, sometimes we’ll have to push back against engineers and designers, sometimes we’ll have to push back against customer-facing teams, and sometimes we’ll have to say no to our own customers and prospects.
Early on in my career, I had hoped that I would eventually feel a sense of comfort and mastery with the role of being a product manager. But, that sense of comfort never comes - or at least, you should never settle for that sense of comfort.
To be the most effective product manager you can be, you have to keep pushing yourself into uncomfortable new territory, because discomfort is how we grow as human beings.
No matter what, your industry will shift on a nearly daily basis, and the skill sets that you need to make a positive impact will keep shifting too.
That means that we’re regularly going to find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, and that means that we need to get used to feeling uncomfortable.
You’re not meant to be perfect
There’s no such thing as a perfect product, and there’s no such thing as a perfect product manager.
Unlike other roles such as project management or finance, there’s no finish line for product managers.
There aren’t clear grades in product management. You could always do better, whether that’s larger shifts in metrics, more customers, deeper impact, happier teammates, smoother processes, cleaner strategies, more inspiring vision statements.
It’s never “good enough” because you’re looking to maximize, so there’s no threshold for success.
Another challenging fact is that while you’re directly responsible for the success of your product, your product’s success does not rest on you alone.
A product could wind up being wildly successful just due to market trends, and it could wind up being a total flop just due to market trends too.
Think about it this way - you might be asked to take on an initiative that only has a 5% chance of succeeding. You might be such an amazing talent that you increase the odds of success to 15% - but it still fails anyways. The failure of the product isn’t your fault as long as you meaningfully increased the chances of success.
While that’s terrifying, that’s also inspiring. There’s infinite space to grow and we should never expect perfection; perfection means stagnation.
We’re always growing, evolving, and learning alongside our products and our businesses, and that’s an inspiring thing to keep in mind.
We’re constantly failing and missing the mark, because failure is what enables us to learn, and learning enables us to deliver valuable products to our customers and our businesses.
In any case, you can try to be as good as you can; if I had known about product manager certifications, I would have opted for them. However, you can check out these PM certifications to help you get started.
You’re not alone
It can sometimes feel hard to remember that you’re not alone as a product manager. It’s lonely being the responsible decision maker, and you might be swamped with so much work that you rarely feel like you can reach out to other product managers to learn from them.
But we have to make the time to do so.
Given how much the product management industry has expanded in the last few years, we collectively have so much more knowledge than what any single person knows.
We can always be learning more, across industries, geographies, companies, and teams. There are always resources available - we just have to remember to go tap into those resources.
Don’t forget to reach out to your colleagues and to your friends outside of work. Join virtual communities like Product Manager HQ, and go to events to meet others like you. It’ll help - trust me.
You need to regularly find new role models
It’s impossible for there to be a single perfect mentor for you across the entirety of your product management journey. Our paths shift too often for that to be the case.
As an example, within the span of 4 years, I’ve taken on various roles in product: new verticals, technical integrations, web user experiences, and mobile app user experiences, just to name a few.
It’s unlikely that there’s a single person out there who did the exact set of work that I did.
But, it’s nearly guaranteed that there are multiple people out there who have mastered some of the new problems that I’m about to face, and I will benefit greatly by finding these people to help me in the next leg of my journey.
Even if my experiences will deviate from their experiences later on, I can still get a lot of value by learning about how they’re tackling the problems I’m facing right now.
I’ve found that I need to find new mentors on a regular basis. That’s not because I have bad mentors - every single one of my mentors is amazing, and I still look up to each one of them.
Rather, the reason why I need to regularly find new mentors is that each PM has her own individual growth path.
That means that no matter what, you’re going to need to learn something different from what your current set of mentors knows, and that means you’ll need to find a new mentor when you’re in a situation that your current mentors can’t help with.
Get comfortable with looking for new mentors on a regular basis. This skill set will help you through the tough times.
What got you here won’t get you there
Product managers are always on steep learning curves. We can’t just rely on what we’ve learned before.
As an example - to get into product management, you had to hustle and do everything yourself. For example, associate product managers might handle note taking, QA testing, customer interviews, data pulls, and more.
But, if you want to get promoted to director or higher, you have to delegate your work to the right people, with the right timelines, with the right urgency, with the right tools.
And it’s not straightforward to break into management level positions within product management, because what you’re doing day-to-day at your current level doesn’t translate directly into what you’d do at the next level.
So again, you need to find mentors and champions, both within your organization and outside your organization, to give you opportunities for you to stretch upwards and tackle problems that are currently outside of your designated scope.
Many aspiring product managers are excited about being product managers, and that’s great! But we need to keep in mind that once you become a product manager, your challenges have only just begun - it’s only going to get harder from here.
That means that we can’t go at it alone. We have to reach out to peers and mentors to help us learn and grow, and we can’t pretend like we’re going to be perfect.
Product management requires heavy doses of both humility and ambition. We have to be hungry to do everything, but we have to be humble enough to know that we need help. That’s a hard balance to strike, but we can do it.
Want to learn more about the life and responsibilities of a product manager? Chat with other product managers around the world in our PMHQ Community!