Should you be a product manager?

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***UPDATE 30 August, 2017: Be sure to check out my new video about the same topic.

Product management is an awesome career path, but it also has its challenges. I worked for about eight years at Google across three departments, most recently as a product manager for Search. In that time I’ve often reflected on the career and what makes a good fit. I’ve shared war stories with other product managers, and I’ve interviewed more than 60 PM candidates. In this article I want to explore the many great reasons to consider a career in product management, but also some hard questions to ask yourself before you go for it.

7 Great Things About PM

1. Represent Consumers, not Brands

At most companies, your job as a product manager is to lead the creation of a product that actually provides measurable value to real people. I fell in love with the purity and integrity of that objective. Whether you’re building a task management application, a health information database, or a social photo-sharing app, ultimately you will be judged on whether people buy, use and get benefit from the product. If millions of people use and love your photo-sharing app, you’ve succeeded.

To people who already provide direct value in their work (teachers, doctors, firefighters, etc), this may not feel like much of a revelation. But for the rest of us, we’ve done jobs where it’s hard to feel any connection to helping people.

I spent years working as an advocate — first for a political candidate and then for Google. The advocate role is a part of our social fabric from the legal system to public relations to the political system to marketing. I don’t mean to judge it. But if you’ve felt like you’d rather not be a modern day sophist, a hired gun advocating for a paycheck, working as a product manager is a nice alternative.

 

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Statue of El Cid Campeador, by Anna Hyatt Huntington. In front of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco

2. Change Society or Culture

“We’re making the world a better place with algorithms for consensus protocols…We’re making the world a better place through software-defined datacenters for cloud computing…We’re making the world a better place through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints…”

Don’t get me wrong — there’s definitely a lot of truth to this parody from HBO’s Silicon Valley. There are product leaders among us who exaggerate the broader significance of their mundane technology. Not everyone is actually working on self-driving cars, virtual reality or artificial intelligence. Lots of us work on completely un-sexy projects that only make sense to a small handful of people. If you become a PM, you will likely have have to work on a “boring” product before you get to work on something sexy.

On the other hand, technology is arguably a bigger force for change in the world than politics or religion. Just think of how pervasive video-recording capabilities have changed the debate around “officer involved shootings.” Just think how your own day-to-day life has changed because of cell phones and the Internet. If you do your time as a product manager and you care about impact, you will likely have the opportunity to work on something with broader social implications.

In my career as a PM, I worked on some relatively mundane sounding search features (eg: little author portraits that used to appear next to some search results), but I also had opportunities to be a part of projects with some broader social and political implications (eg: a feature that notified users in China about search disruptions). When you’re a product manager at the right company, you may just land in projects that really matter.

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Fireworks at the Butchart Gardens, Victoria BC, Canada.

3. Creativity and Vision are Encouraged

There are so many jobs out there where you basically have your role to do, and if you have a big idea it’s kind of a nuisance.

When I worked a summer job at an in-Safeway Starbucks, we had a set of rules and expectations from both companies. They couldn’t care less what I thought about how to do the job better. I knew to bite my tongue about the many inefficiencies at my job — no one wanted to hear it.

As a product manager, things are different. Suddenly it’s part of your job to have big ideas and vision. Suddenly there are engineers and designers you work with daily who are capable of creating tangible products and features. Of course, this doesn’t mean you’ll get rewarded for making up fantasies, but there definitely is a place for thoughtful and bold thinking. At a minimum, you get to use your imagination to empathize with users and tell stories about their problems. It’s part of your job to help dream up features to help them.

4. Use all Your Skills

If you’re “well-rounded,” you may have found it frustrating to pick a career path. You’ve seen other people say things like, “I could never do that because I’m just not that creative,” or, “I could never do that because I’d hate all the meetings.” Meanwhile, some of these folks seem to find incredible satisfaction as lawyers, scientists, surgeons, animators… They know their top strengths and achieve success in fields appropriate to those strengths.

But for you, all doors may feel uncomfortably open. You can handle the analytical work. You don’t mind working as part of a team. You’re creative and you like making stuff. You haven’t hit a lot of closed doors… on the contrary, maybe you always feel like you’re not taking advantage of your total skill-set. Maybe you do all these things pretty well, but you aren’t “the best” in any one area.

That’s definitely how I felt before I became a PM. Working in public relations, for example, I knew I wasn’t the most extroverted, bubbly personality, and I knew most of my peers were really better at “pitching” than me. But on the other hand, it felt weird how little I used my quantitative skills. In college I’d graded for the statistics department and in high school I’d been president of the math club (nerd alert)… What happened to that part of me?

Product management makes good use of “well-rounded” people. As a PM you’re challenged on all sides, and it can feel incredibly satisfying to grow into the fullness of your capabilities.

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These turtles have a culture. Everyone knows to make room on the rocks for the new guy.

5. Early Opportunity to Shape Team Culture

One of my favorite managers of all time once told me his biggest motivation was to create a successful work community. It wasn’t the job role or the company vision, for him it was more about the work culture he could create built on kindness and respect. I owe so very much to this person, and I can say from my heart that his efforts helped transform my life.

Work is about more than the product or service you provide. It’s about the people you work with day in and day out. As we evolve in our careers and have the opportunity to lead others, many of us will have the opportunity to help shape a work culture.

For many, this opportunity will become most apparent as you begin to manage people and teams directly. As a product manager, you may find yourself in that role sooner. As you lead your product initiative, you’ll have the opportunity to help set the tone and norms for a cross-functional community. Over time, the group will have its own implicit and explicit patterns of behavior. And if you’re good at your job, you’ll help set those norms in a way that is efficient, thoughtful and creates a positive work culture.

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Tee off at Golf Island Disc Golf on Pender Island, British Columbia.

6. On the Path to CEO or Founder

What job ladder was Sundar Pichai on before he became CEO of Google? Product management. In tech, product management is probably the most natural stepping stone to being the boss. Misguided product managers describe their jobs as being “the CEO of my product area” (barf). While I think that’s a bit of a stretch, as a product manager you indeed may be the primary decision-maker in limited space.

Even if you don’t care about climbing the corporate ladder, the PM experience is fantastic training to be a company founder. As a PM, you need to have some understanding of all aspects of launching a product and running a cross-functional team.

The exposure you get to all the various job functions helps you understand how different roles contribute. With this experience, the idea of founding a company starts to feel less mysterious.

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Snake crossing the path in Pinnacles National Park, California.

7. Never a Dull Moment

Product management is fast-paced, diverse work. You travel across job functions at incredible speed. Depending on the company, you may even work with multiple product teams in multiple regions. At one time I was PM for five projects and 30+ engineers. I traveled on business to Israel, Japan, Australia, Great Britain and Germany.

As a PM, you’ll be called upon to deal with all kinds of problems that come up, some of which don’t fall into tidy categories. While everyone else has a specific job function, you have to be the catchall for the rest. The best PMs do everything they can to help engineers focus on engineering, and sometimes that means you get to do some pretty interesting and unexpected work.

For example, in 2014 UK Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech about child sexual abuse imagery online. Given my unique background in public relations and government affairs, I was tasked with helping to pull together the product response from the Google Search Team. Ultimately, I went with our SVP of public relations to London to represent Google in meetings with NGOs, Members of Parliament and the Prime Minister himself.

As a product manager, you’ll face unexpected problems, and sometimes the unexpected problems are the most interesting work of all.

7 Hard Questions to Ask Yourself

Product management has so many wonderful things going for it — that’s why I spent years transitioning into the field (more on that in a future blog post). Of course, it certainly has it’s low-points and it’s not for everyone. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you decide to go for it.

1. Do you actually care about products?

I’ve never met a successful PM who wasn’t opinionated about products. I’ve met many successful engineers who didn’t care, but not PMs. PMs tend to read product reviews and point out issues with features, designs and bugs. If you’re the type of person who buys a product without really doing any research, PM probably isn’t for you. If your email address ends with @terribleISPemail.net, PM probably isn’t for you.

If you don’t care about product features, that’s fantastic. I envy you in some ways, but you probably won’t love product management.

You don’t necessarily need to be a gadget-head (though most PMs are), but you should be passionate about your product space. For example, it’s possible you could be passionate about music production tech, but not all tech. That said, PMs do tend to be opinionated about most products, not just their niche.

2. Do you like juggling lots of tasks?

PMs are busy, really busy. While there are definitely times PMs need to hideout and develop an important piece of individual work (a product requirements doc, a vision deck and strategy proposal, a set of metrics, etc), most of the time PMs are running around with smaller tasks, and they rely on other people to do the heavy lifting when it comes to coding, design and even analysis.

Get ready for email — absurd amounts of email. At my peak, I was getting an email every five minutes.

If you’re the type of person who strongly prefers to think slowly, reply to every email, work alone and polish up something to a high degree of perfection, PM probably isn’t for you.

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Light-painting in Tromso, Norway. The hand symbolizes resistance, duh 🙂

3. Do you like making decisions and pushing through resistance?

PMs have to make lots of decisions, big and small. Should the icon be on the left or the right? Should these three engineers be working on the new data pipeline or paying down technical debt? Should we partner with the alpha team or the bravo team on this initiative? You need to like making decisions swiftly with good reasons and you need to be thoughtful about process. You also need to have good follow through…

As a PM doing anything of significance, you will encounter resistance. It’s your job to respond appropriately to that resistance.

For example, maybe a co-worker in Korea tells you the translation of your feature name is locally offensive — you have you to deal with that. Or maybe an executive emails at the last minute and tells you she doesn’t like some aspect of the design everyone already approved — you have to deal with that. As a PM, sometimes you’ll feel like you’re pushing a heavy train up a hill, and people are coming from everywhere putting obstacles on the track.

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Highly skilled dog drives car in Portland.

4. Do you have the breadth of skills?

As I wrote earlier, one of the wonderful things about being a PM is you get to use a broad skill-set. To recap, product managers need to be strong across: creativity, analytical ability, communication skills, project management, strategic thinking and technical ability. If you’re lacking in a couple areas, the job can be next to impossible.

What happens when a PM can’t communicate and doesn’t really know how to be a good project manager? The project goes nowhere because nobody knows what they should work on. What happens when a PM has no technical ability and no analytical ability? He loses all credibility with the engineering team and can’t be a product thought leader.

Be honest with yourself about whether you’re lacking in a couple areas. If so, you’ll want to develop some new skills before you take the plunge.

That said, don’t be too discouraged. It’s a long wishlist of skills and very few people are strong across them all (myself included). Even Google PMs I’ve met with the perfect academic pedigree — Stanford Computer Science + Harvard MBA (or similar) — can be terrible communicators, strangely tactical or shockingly uncreative. Once you’re in the job, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to discover your weak areas and to improve.

In my case, one weak area was “technical ability.” I don’t have a computer science degree, which can be a huge red flag in the industry (more on that in a future blog post). But, with strengths in other areas and a willingness to learn and grow, I made it work. In general, you’ll find there’s usually someone who can help balance you out. If you’re not as technical, your tech lead can help. If you’re not as creative, your designer can help. If you’re weak at project management, maybe there’s a project manager who can help. You won’t be alone — far from it.

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Giant chess board at Yellow Point Lodge on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

5. Do you like working with lots of people?

You don’t need to be extroverted, but you do need to get comfortable with the idea of having conversations with dozens of people every day. Typical PMs speak regularly with engineers, designers, lawyers, PR people, analysts, other PMs, executives, user support people, researchers… My typical days I’d have 5-10 meetings.

You’ll need to present to senior business executives (if you don’t, you’re probably doing it wrong). You’ll probably have to speak to the entire company and to the press. You’ll need to be comfortable meeting with and talking to people, constantly.

That said, I do know successful PMs (and public relations folks) who consider themselves “introverted.” They struggled a bit more, but they made it work. If the idea with doing lots of meetings and presenting to large groups freaks you out, you’ll need to work through some challenges.

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“Danger No Trespassing” sign in SF Navy cleanup zone.

6. Do you like leading through uncertainty?

PMs in most companies are responsible for defining what a team does and why. If those questions are already answered, you’re a junior PM. As you grow in your career, you will be entrusted with more and more uncertainty.

Your job is to sit there in the uncertainly, to do some hard thinking and analysis together with your tech lead and a designer (if possible), and make a plan. That is a big part of your contribution to the team. If you don’t like the idea of being told to “figure it out,” PM probably isn’t for you.

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Wonderful leader takes responsibility for planning our journey 😀

7. Do you really want the responsibility?

Product management is a difficult job and it can be pretty stressful, there’s no way around it. You’ll have a ton of meetings, email, and people to deal with. You’ll sometimes have executives breathing down your neck looking for results. If you don’t help develop a good plan for your team, engineers you work with will feel like quitting. Users and customers will complain on forums. Reporters will ask tough questions about your decisions.

Sometimes the stakes will feel high, and you’ll feel like it’s all on your shoulders.

It’s difficult, and you can’t do it halfway. At Google, they have this famous notion of “20% time” — where you take 20% of your time to work on a project of your choosing. But, one role you can’t really do as “20% time” is product management. We had an explicit policy against it on my team. My manager’s view was unless you’re “owning” a feature area end-to-end, you aren’t really a PM. You might be a project manager or an analyst, but being a PM means you take responsibility for everything that must happen for the product to succeed.

Conclusion

Product management is a challenging and rewarding career path, and I have no regrets about the struggle and sacrifices I made to get into the field. I had great and comfortable career options in public policy and public relations, but product management lured me with the promise of direct impact for users, social and cultural significance, creative expression, and opportunities to develop a broader set of skills.

Along the way I endured the challenges of juggling too many tasks and people, pushing through endless resistance and uncertainty, and feeling intimidated by the sky-high expectations. But, the challenges of being a successful PM are unavoidable — they are the proverbial other side of the coin. Impact for users means working with more people (you can’t do it alone). Social and cultural significance means more resistance (it’s only significant if people care). Creative expression and opportunity to develop broader skills means high expectations.

To sum it up, product management is the best career I’ve found… for me… tied with joblessness. But we’re all different, and I wish you the best of luck finding fulfillment in your life and career.

Do let me know in the comments if you found this at all useful. I’d be honored to have a follow up conversation 🙂

One thought on “Should you be a product manager?

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