5 Things You Wish You Knew Before Starting in Product

iron cage on a beach

There are many things that we have told you about. But what did you wish you knew before starting in product?

Every profession has its challenges. Journalists know they will have to available 24/7 for a good part of their careers. Graphic Designers are aware they will have to spend a great deal of their time making tiny modifications requested by insisting clients. Lawyers are well aware they will have to deal with some disturbing personal histories.

What about Product Managers?

This discipline and the tech economy it services are so new that it is often hard to think about common pitfalls. Sure, you can guess some problems linked to the different types of product that you will manage. There are also problems linked to the type of company you work at. In fact, a lot of aspiring product people find that their most unexpected challenge is becoming a PM!

Take a look at the five surprise traps you could encounter if you decide to take the PM route.

The (Tech) Language Barrier

bart simpson talking to an alien

Finally! You got your first PM gig. You are probably an Associate Product Manager, or a Product Management Intern; or maybe someone with a different title but with product responsibilities. Never mind. What matters is that you made it. You overcame all of those obstacles and are facing your desk, with your favorite task management app open and your tasks set on “pending”.

Now, you receive your first request: get familiar with the product. Makes sense, right? So you go over to the engineering department. And then you see it.

Walls and walls of code, black screens and consoles. Very focused people writing in a foreign language. Results coming out from nothing, notifications appearing on the screen which mean nothing to you. Above all, a deep sense of disorientation in what is supposed to be your area of concern. Add concerned engineers speaking about their logjams, and you have the perfect recipe for disaster!

It is not always like this, admittedly. A lot of Product Managers emerge from tech-intensive positions and are very familiar with programming languages. But for those coming from disciplines like Marketing or Project Management, it can be extremely challenging to encounter these things for the first time. True, you do not really need to know as much as the software people to get to the MVP.

However, a good knowledge of coding languages will help you a big deal. Make sure that you spend enough time with engineers and other technical teams. Talk to them, find out how and where they learnt and whether there are any particular online resources they can recommend to bring you up to speed. All of these can help you bridge the tech language barrier.

Those Pesky Stakeholders

homer simpson and mr burns with monkeys

Hey, you had to say it to get the job. “Ability to work in a team” is listed in practically every job ad you can find. Product Management is not an exception. However, with the increase in remote working and flexible startup teams, it is possible that more and more people are able to get by in their professions without really learning how to coordinate with a group of professionals.

This is impossible as a Product Manager. Actually, the “manager” part of your title refers to your ability to lead and cooperate with others within the company. It is, thus, at least 50% of your workload. It can claim even more of your time.

You will for sure get angry when people refer to you as the “CEO of your product”. This is because you are very far from being a CEO. First of all, there is an actual CEO who is over you in the hierarchy. He commands all of the authority and resources within the company. You do not. Any decision she or he does not agree with; it will be turned down (if corporate governance is working well, that is!). Second of all, there could be many products in your company. Or features in your product. And people who are responsible for them (even if they lack your title). So you do not even have the sole claim to power at your level.

Do not take it to the extreme, of course. You have some authority. Just not as much as you wish you did.

This is why there is this huge emphasis on stakeholder management within Product Management. You will have to rely much more on carrots rather than sticks to complete your product vision. You rely a lot on other teams (engineers, marketers, salespeople) who have no need to agree with you. As a result, your best bet is to build your influence slowly. Gain the trust of other teams. Show, don’t tell. Explain your decisions. Back everything up with data. You must build a domestic constituency for your choices. So forget frustration: building rapport with your colleagues next door is not nice; it’s a necessity!

Do We Have to Sell This Thing?

homer simpson presenting his car

You were put into this world to redefine the entire sector. Nothing can stop you from becoming the next Jobs, Gates or Zuckerberg thanks to your product. But suddenly…

Those annoying Marketing people are coming with their research reports and telling you that what you have in mind; nobody actually wants it.

What a blow! Or is it?

Actually, what these friendly colleagues are just reminding you of your job requirements. Yes, you are supposed to be at the vanguard of tech, discovering new spaces and capturing new markets. But we are here to make money! You need customers, you need markets, you need effective communication, you need to understand regulations…

All this is called business acumen. It what separates a reactive from a proactive tech actor. If you simply want to follow what is already established, you are fine without it. Your competition? They can take care of their own problems. Your company’s executive team? Who cares what their priorities are? You are happy to follow the general rhythm of the industry. You build your strategies around what others are doing.

And you will get destroyed in the next quarter.

Not really. But if you want to lead, you need to know. Familiarize yourself with key business publications. Attend events and conferences. Connect with other Product Managers and people from other disciplines. Read the top books everybody is reading. Expose yourself to learning new skills: from UX Design to Programming.

The more you know about business, the better you will plan your processes. If you have been stuck in back-office functions in the past, try to reach out to customers and prospective markets. The point is to get some real world in your day-to-day digital activities, so your product closely reflects what the public wants and extracts your team’s potential to the fullest.

Stage Fright

springfield people celebrating the monorail proposal

At school, you always disliked Drama classes. Let’s face it: you were not born to portray a character in front of an audience. You always forgot your lines and your enunciation would leave everyone else thinking you were talking in a different language. So you took comfort in your job as an adult, because now the only performances you had to lead were job interviews every few years.

There is definitely “drama” in Product though. And we are not referring to those last-minute hassles to put everything together for launch. It has already been established that Product Managers must establish their own legitimacy as leaders. But how do they do this?

Communication! Of course. It is all about communication. Yes, data research is fundamental to back every single decision. But if you are not able to promote this data through the right channels and via the appropriate outlets; it becomes useless. For instance, you will not take the same approach to convince the Marketing team of the appropriateness of your particular approach when you are dealing with Engineering. Marketers will not understand your proposals if your language is too technical, for instance.

So practice. Get over your fright by attending events, building your connections and asking questions. Next step: taking the stage! At this point, you have for sure accumulated a fair share of knowledge about the trade. You can challenge yourself by designing a talk about your experiences.

Do not forget your online presence. Today, there is no such thing as a “virtual” world. Both on-site and online are mixed. Take care of the image you project: it does not just help you when you are job-seeking. Particularly in large companies, becoming an authoritative voice on a topic can help you improve your image with your coworkers and managers. Try opening a blog, a Twitter profile or collaborating with a Medium publication.

Your nightmares about having to portray the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland will be over before you know!

Something for Someone

ralph wiggum receiving lisa's valentine's card

Who are you making this for? Your boss? Surely not.

Some of the first innovations in tech were filling “logical” gaps in the market. Of course it made sense to have a search engine (Google). Of course it made sense to have a personal journal (WordPress). Of course it made sense to have a social platform (MySpace). Obviously, it was clear that all of human knowledge would be uploaded to the Internet (Wikipedia).

Then things get complicated. Who could have known we would have an interface over the real world where digital monsters would wait to be captured (Pokemon Go)? Who would have thought you could have a platform where you would find love or discard people with the swipe of a finger (Tinder)? The fact is, these less “reasonable” proposals have found huge success. And they are based on one important principle: user knowledge!

Psychology is a fundamental discipline that often gets forgotten in the machine business. Some product leaders like Nir Eyal have studied the fundamentals behind our attachment to certain apps. In fact, any Product Manager worth its salt should understand who they are building their product for. Many times, even thinking about “functions” on the surface is not enough: smart users will all the time test your product and apply it to solve problems you did not even think they could be solved in the first place.

Whether you employ perspectives like Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD), methodologies like focus groups or more traditional business research, the fact is that you must know about your current users and how to prospectively expand your base; at all times. You are meant to represent that “empty chair” that is often forgotten in internal stakeholder meetings.

If you want to avoid trouble, make sure that you establish good channels of communication between your team and your customers. This goes beyond feedback: why they pick, what they pick, how they navigate, what do they employ in combination, why do they leave… There are endless questions connected to your users that will help you maintain and increase your growth exponentially.

You might even benefit from facing your customers directly at a conference but beware: angry users are not very good conversationalists!

lenny from the simpsons at the awards show

…More Problems on the Horizon

We have listed a few unexpected traps you can find in Product Management. That said, technological change will for sure activate new threats. What about the possibilities of physical design, brought by the rising Internet of Things (IoT)? Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another area where you could be unprepared. Are you ready to deal with the ethics of designing autonomous software? These issues will become important as more areas of our lives become attached to online platforms.

Were you surprised by anything in particular during your first few years in product?

Let us know!

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