As an individual contributor in a product team, do you ever feel like you’re missing out on the big picture? Do you feel like every other part of the process is as interesting as the one you’re confined in?
When I was a developer, I certainly did.
That’s why thought becoming a product manager would be awesome. A product manager contributes to all stages of product development, from research to user support, with design, implementation, marketing and sales in between. That sounded like an incredible opportunity to learn a lot about everything that goes into making a successful product.
Not only that, I really believe that some of the skills that you’ll hone as a product manager will be incredibly useful for the rest of your career, such as communication or leadership.
I was lucky that my first job out of college was on iOS development. Especially since I had no clue what I would be doing after graduating. I pictured myself working in a grey open-space office, wearing smart-casual, doing something very uneventful.
I was wrong. I soon learned that there were a lot of cool things to work on in software development and I managed to find an amazing one.
I landed on a really interesting project that lasted about a year. It was a R&D project that got me really hooked. We worked hard, learnt a lot and got the project past the finish line.
But, just as many R&D projects with no users or impetus to make it a real product, it got canned.
After that, I worked on various client projects. More times than not clients just wanted the thing built and didn’t have much context, neither did we get a chance to evolve the product past the first version.
I did not enjoy that. I wanted to know their reasoning behind the design, who their users were, why they wanted to go with those features and not others.
That’s when I realized that I wanted to work on real products, with people using them, and help evolve them over time.
I wanted to become a product engineer.
I joined a little startup called TouristEye where we built an awesome product. We got acquired by Lonely Planet and that’s where I’ve been building products for the last 6 years.
What I really loved about being an engineer there is that not only I got to build the iOS app, but I’d tightly collaborate with design and product on a daily basis.
I would get to do many other things, such as user research, design feedback, analytics analysis, user support, and many more.
I loved contributing in all steps of product development, at all levels. Being a generalist suits me better than being a specialist.
So a next logical step for me was becoming a product manager. I was super fortunate that an opportunity opened up for me and I decided to jump right into it.
It’s now been about six months since then, and I’m still getting the hang of it, but these are, in my opinion, the most useful skills I’m acquiring.
(Feel free to comment or disagree with me)
Data is everywhere. From your screen time on your phone to the variability of your heart rate and anything in between. With digital products especially, it’s so easy to collect that there is a crazy abundance of it.
What’s not so easy is to interpret that data. In a world where data is so ubiquitous, it’s really crucial to have the ability to know what it means and whether to listen to it or not.
It used to be the case that only professionals used digital products so it was ok to give them crappy interfaces to work with. Now basically half the population on earth is on the Internet so we need to make things that can be effectively used.
Even though it’s gotten a lot better, it’s 2020 and most software still looks and behaves in ways that will drive us crazy. Understanding good design will give you a competitive edge.
The two books I recommend Don’t Make Me Think and The Design of Everyday Things
If you work on a digital product, it will be really useful to understand how technology works under the hood. It will help you determine what’s possible, how long it should take and have thoughtful discussions with your team.
Product management is not project management. Still, sooner or later, you’ll be doing some of it. I think this basically comes down to two ideas:
- Break down the work into smaller chunks so that work can be distributed across multiple people.
- Prioritize some chunks over the others to maximize efficiency.
Seems easy enough, just like tennis is just hitting a ball with a racquet over the net. But it’s not. It will, though, be useful for any project that you have in your life. Think of planning your wedding or renovating your house.
Even if there are a lot important hard skills to be learned as a product manager, I think soft skills is where the real deal is. Coming into it from an individual contributor background, you’ll need to get better at rallying people together to accomplish common goals.
For that, there are at least two key skills to be learned.
You’ll need to become a clear communicator, especially in the written form (Hence the impetus for writing more on this blog). Product requirements, user stories, emails, release notes, etc, will all be done in writing. Clear writing means clear thinking, so developing the habit and skill of writing can only be of great benefit for you.
As a product manager you will hardly be the boss of anyone you work with, yet you’ll need to steer them towards achieving your goals. That’s when leadership principles come into place.
My two favorite resources for all things leadership are the powerful Jocko Willink in his podcast and books, and Oren Ellenbogen with my favorite newsletter: Software Lead Weekly It contain countless gems on leadership from a technology perspective that usually translate well to any other areas.
I’ll be writing more about these specific skills as I hopefully get better at them, as well as on other topics as I continue down this path.
If you’re interested, come along.