How do I become a Product Manager?

Lately I’ve been pinged by roughly 3 people a week on how to transition into PM.  Usually there are two main questions:
  1. What does a typical day look like for a Product Manager?
  2. What do interviewers look for when they hire?

Here’s what I usually say:
  1. There is no typical day for a Product Manager, and that’s why most PMs like their jobs. Your product is your baby and it’s up to you to lead your team to take care of all aspects.   You are the catch-all for any problems that arise. On a most basic level, you are talking to customers around 20% of the time, roadmapping and delivering features with your development and design team 50% of the time and doing catch-all work 30% of the time.  The catch-all can be anything from marketing and strategy discussions, handling contract issues, changing pricing, handling sales and billing issues, handling product quality issues, launching new programs, or figuring out what to do after your product factory burned down last night.  Your problem solving skills, adaptability and resourcefulness are very important in this job.  
  2. Different PMs roles and teams will value a different combination of skills.  I suggest choosing a few job descriptions that you are interested in, and chatting with PMs in those companies to get a sense of that they’re hiring for.  Typically, roles in established products will have e a higher project management and delivery aspect.  Roles in brand new products will have a higher market analysis aspect. In addition to skills, there are 5 qualities that I look for which are uniquely necessary for Product Management success.   

If you are new to Product Management, get an understanding of the role by taking some classes or reading articles online. Here are some classes that are worth checking out:
Many new PM classes have popped up of late. I have not attended any personally but here are some I’ve heard about:

What do managers look for when hiring PMs?

Throughout my PM career I’ve interviewed hundreds of PM candidates. Friends switching to a PM career have asked what managers look for in PMs.  So I thought I’d share my perspective here. Hopefully it helps you assess whether you’re a good fit for PM land and how to prepare for an interview. 

Integrity and open-mindedness are basic human qualities that are must haves for anyone I collaborate with regardless of role. Specifically for PM hiring however, here are the top 5 qualities that I hire for:
  1. Passion.  Strong candidates have an unreasonable amount of passion for solving the problem your product is trying to solve. As a result they’ve been thinking about the problem, a LOT.  They understand the ins and outs of the market, the competition, the solutions, the failed solutions, the customer’s perspective, the various customer personas, the list goes on. Really strong candidates teach me a thing or two about my product. They can break down my product into components, and talk about the strength of each of those components compared to existing and competing solutions. 
  2. Smarts. There is no typical day for a Product Manager.  Creative problem solving, resourcefulness, and ability to connect the dots are instrumental to success. I look for candidates who can think of 5 uses for any item in the room, can tell me what to use as IV fluid on an island, and talk me through their rationale for why drip-irrigation isn’t taking off in perpetually droughty California.  Strong candidates give me great examples of how they navigated tough situations in the past, and give me thoughtful, well structured answers on how to navigate hypothetical situations. I know the interview is going well if we get a great brainstorm going and I don’t want to leave.
  3. Judgement. Product Managers are hired to make decisions. So judgement will play a role every. single. day. Strong candidates can tell me which decisions they made were wrong decisions, and what they learned from it. In an assortment of options, they can walk me through the rationale for choosing one over others. 
  4. Communication. Product Managers spend 80% of their time communicating with somebody, whether with the team, with the customer, or with management. Often it’s written communication, such as specs or roadmaps, with an oral presentation component. Candidates that take 10 minutes to get to the point are red flags. Great candidates know that communication is two-way. They start at the right part of the story by first knowing their audience.  They write well and walk people through the story in a compelling way.   
  5. Empathy. Customers won’t buy products that aren’t right for them. Any product is rarely just right for everyone.  But the one product that is just right for a specific audience will win their undying loyalty. Empathy is about stepping outside one's own world and into that of the customer.  It’s about crouching down to find out that the source of cobwebs on my one year old is under the backyard table. Great candidates crouch down. Great candidates crawl around the crawlspace with a GoPro to capture a different perspective on their house. Great candidates chat up the wait staff or flight attendants to understand why the service was so bad today. No matter the approach, the underlying desire to learn the others perspective is crucial. Interestingly enough, 80% of the PMs at my currently company are introverts. Introverts are good listeners, which contribute positively to both good communication and high empathy. 

You may notice that PM experience is not on the list.  Experience is a means to an end.  Experience cultivates Smarts, good Judgement, good Communication and at times, Empathy.  Depending on the role, industry experience would be necessary. But I find that great PMs come from many walks of life. While some experience in the workplace is necessary, I’ve hired PMs with non PM titles in the past who have been successful in their role. So if you are looking to switch into product and don’t have any direct experience, you might find yourself uniquely suitable as a PM regardless.

The Coaching Habit

I read a getAbstract summary of The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier.  This appealed to me since I'm working on my coaching at work as I build out my product management team. The book talks about how to form a habit generally, as well as the habits you need for being an effective coach. I only had one main takeaway, which is to ask the following coaching questions:

  1. “What’s on your mind?”
  2. “And what else?”
  3. “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
  4. “What do you want?”
  5. “How can I help?”
  6. “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”
  7. “What was most useful for you?”

A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment

I took a Coursera class called A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment, which I highly recommend. I was definitely happier while taking the class because professor Raghunathan kept the lessons fun and lighthearted, and also because it inspired me to survey how I live and architect my own happiness.  Here’s a quick summary:

  1. First we need to rebuff the myths on happiness to become fully committed to achieving happiness.  The reasons we devalue happiness are:
    1. We think happiness is fleeting and makes us lazy and selfish.  This is untrue.  Happiness is a sensory experience like love and connection.  As love begets more love, happiness begets more happiness. A happy person is more abundant and can more ably take care of others. 
    2. It is hard to measure happiness and we prefer easier to understand things like money.  We are susceptible to medium maximization, that is, maximizing money, which is measurable medium.  We can overcome this by defining happiness in concrete terms.
  2. To be happy we need to consciously make happiness enhancing decisions.  The nuance is to prioritize but not pursue directly or monitor constantly.  For example, when presented with restaurant choices, choose the one that makes you happier.  However, avoid constantly monitoring your own happiness levels, which can instead add stress.
  3. The Pursuit of superiority is a happiness sin.  There are several reasons we seek superiority: 
    1. To get others' approval
    2. To boost self esteem
    3. To progress towards mastery
    4. To have autonomy
      Pursue flow instead.  You'll get 3 out of the 4 above. Use the following to fight need for superiority:
      1. Self compassion: Suffering and imperfection isn't just you.  it's part of the human condition. Ask yourself: What would I say to a good friend in same situation? Write a letter to yourself as a good friend.
      2. Gratitude
  4. Don't quit your job, bend it until it breaks.  This was advice referenced from Steve Tomlinson. 
  5. Giving can boost happiness, but keep these three rules in mind maximize your happiness while giving: 
    1. Include yourself when in comes to charity and giving.  Contain the cost of giving, don't give selflessly as you must keep yourself well too, but do give with others in mind
    2. Scale your giving.  For example, can you help multiple people at once?
    3. Knowing the effect of your giving makes you happier. So seek to see the results of your giving.  This is referenced from the book Happy money. 
    4. Have fun while giving.
  6. Finally, there is a chapter on maximizer vs satisficer. 

Mind the Product Conference 2016 Summary

I went to Mind the Product conference in SF last month.  My company sponsored a booth to do some brand marketing and PM recruitment.  

The event was hosted at Davies Symphony Hall which is a concert hall with one seating area.  The event sold out weeks ago, and the auditorium was packed at the keynote.  There was only one track, here it is: 

I sat through all the talks, mostly because it was not so easy to get in and out of the auditorium.  We do live in a torrential downpour of TED talks and product advice books these days, so the bar is fairly high for good curation.  It is clear that there is pent up demand for a conference such as this given the audience size, however the hosting organization is still in early days and the program quality shows.  I would like to point out two particular talks that stood out for me though, and a third you might want to get a listen to yourself.

Ken Norton

Ken Norton is a partner at Google Ventures. His opening keynote compared a Product Manager first to an orchestra conductor, then, more aptly to a jazz musician.  He’s an incredibly good storyteller and his jazz analogy played well in the concert hall conference space.  I am a huge fan of Ella Fitzgerald period music.  So he resonated very well with me when he pointed out that Ella’s version of Mack the Knife was actually a happy accident of forgotten lyrics.   Because the band / team was so in tune with each other, they continued to improvise their way to a Grammy winning live recording.  He gave an example of a Miles Davis recording to illustrate that “the only mistakes were the opportunities that were not taken,” referring to an accidental cymbal crash that launched a perfect trumpet solo.  The (product) creation process is messy and uncomfortable, and a team that tunes into each other and let each other solo will come out with a Grammy. 

Abby Covert

Abby Covert is an IA consultant, helping her clients untangle information architecture messes.  My team is facing just such a challenge with DAC right now. So I found her talk compelling.  My most memorable analogy from her was the pizza example. Imagine you’re drawing a diagram to show aliens how to make pizza.  Something like this will probably leave them scratching their heads:

She suggested a diagram that shows both the process and the results. Like this:

Her other main tips were: 
  1. Language matters
    1. How many duplicative nouns and verbs are you dealing with?  Your goal is not to decide on one, but to actively decide how many are appropriate. Make a glossary.
  2. There is no right way.
    1. Classifying eggplant and tomatoes as fruit in an online grocery delivery service reduced sales on those items. Instead classify them as vegetables. Often word choice is not a matter of taxonomy, but rhetoric.
  3. Draw a picture

Des Traynor

Des Traynor is the co-founder of Intercom. His talk was on survival, and the idea that your product is already out of date, right now, as we speak. He was full of good tips, observations of general technology trends and comedic timing. I recommend watching to get the full effect, whenever the conference organizers post the talks. Here are some highlight points:
  • Your product is not a set of screens.  It is not a single destination but part of a system. Where and how your users interact with your system will always change. Plan for it.
  • Every time you see a new upstart, the urge is to laugh at it. The GPS industry did and and Google maps had the last laugh (for now). It can happen to you. The main question you need to ask when you see an upstart: Does [new technology] make it cheaper, faster or easier for our customers to make progress in their lives?  If you see it coming from far enough, hustle and pivot.
  • Three main trends he sees are:
    • Integrations
      • Software tools are now part of a wider network of capability.  If you’re not connected, you’ll be rejected.
      • Spot on!  My work on Atlassian Marketplace rides this trend by enabling a network of tools for Atlassian customers 
    • Artificial Intelligence
      • Computers can learn in seconds what we can learn in a lifetime.  Companies with data that can be used to train computers will have the edge in the upcoming race. 
    • Messaging 
      • You product needs to part of the conversation.  Selling pizza? You need to suggest it when two friends are on Facebook messenger chatting about dinner plans.  It’s called conversational commerce.

So how was the conference?  From talking to other attendees, it seems about 20% of the talks were worth it, which is probably near or just below average. Conferences like this are for networking, and networking opportunities is an area for improvement.  There were no meet-and-greet areas, birds-of-a-feather lunches, or walls of sticky notes to bond over.  And you know how Product Managers love sticky notes.  The conference promoted a tinder-for-networking app, which did not yield a single match for me, since only about 30 people logged in.  There is much to improve upon next year. They’ve clearly struck gold in terms of market demand, and I imagine it can only get better from here.


Happier at Home

I read Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin a long time ago and just got around to publishing my notes on it. As I re-read my notes, I get the feeling that this book is jam packed of little tips similar to ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.” So here’s the download:

  1. On emotions: Under-react to a problem.
  2. On connection: "Enter into the interest of others.” -Tolstoy
  3. On self control: “Limits set you free.”  You drain your self control with every decision your make. Preserve your self control reserve by setting limits to automate your decisions.  The nuance is that limit-setting will be different for moderators vs abstainers. I am a moderator and my husband is an abstainer.  I can eat 2 chips out of a bag and close it for another sitting, but he will lick the bag before he stops. So my limit would be 2 chips per day, and his limit would be no chips except of 1 bag on Sunday. 
  4. On Possessions: People have different tolerance for an optimal number of possessions.  Ownership can bring joy too and stuff can also be an experience.  I live on the low-count end of the spectrum and my husband lives on the high-count end.
  5. On Purging:  Allow yourself to keep a few symbolic items per category to make purging easier.  When my parents sold the house I grew up in, I took pictures of my possessions there before purging 100% of it.  Knowing I can still see the pictures helped me let go of these objects I no longer needed. 
  6. On Happiness: Beware of happiness leaches.  Hang out with Tiggers not Eeyores. 
  7. On Positivity: Make the positive argument.  When you are about to complain about spouse or children such as thinking "He's so messy,”  Try to argue the opposite.  For example, thinking “He’s so clean,” and look for evidence of it. 
  8. On Exercise:  Get a dog.  All you have to do is put on your running shoes and close the front door.

Are you a Maximizer or Satisficer?

I was listening to a Coursera course on  A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment  in which I was asked to take a Maximization test to determine whether I’m a Maximizer or Satisficer.  Maximizer tends to optimize the choices they make, where as satisficers is happy with the good enough option.  I’m a maximizer.  No surprise there since I Yelp every restaurant I visit and love comparison shopping on Amazon.  With choices come the tyranny of choice. How should Maximizers like me handle it?  

  1. Choose when to choose. We can decide to restrict our options when the decision is not crucial. For example, make a rule to visit no more than two stores when shopping for clothing.
  2. Learn to accept “good enough.” Settle for a choice that meets your core requirements rather than searching for the elusive “best.” Then stop thinking about it. Don’t worry about what you’re missing.
  3. Consciously limit how much you ponder the seemingly attractive features of options you reject. Teach yourself to focus on the positive parts of the selection you make.
  4. Control expectations. “Don’t expect too much, and you won’t be disappointed” is a cliché. But that advice is sensible if you want to be more satisfied with life.