Early Career Lessons Learned – Product Management
With my birthday approaching and a recent promotion on my resume, I’ve decided it’s time to share my early career learning’s with the world.
Work your ass off and do whatever needs to be done to learn as much as you possibly can. Surround yourself with smart people and work on things that can potentially reach millions of people.
10 LESSONS LEARNED
- You need a mentor, and you need to surround yourself with smart people who are willing to help you grow. I was fortunate enough to have the same mentor, well, two mentors from the time I began working until very recently. They have made a tremendous impact on my life, professionally and personally. I genuinely believe they’ve made me a better person. They are/were both the greatest teachers I’ve ever. You need to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.
- You may not always like what you’re doing, but you’re always learning, so deal with it. As a product manager, you will spend a lot of time doing a lot of tasks that you dislike. You won’t always like the projects you’re working on, and you won’t like finding and helping fix a recurring bug or process. You may not like focusing on marketing plans or operational tasks, but you need to do them. Product management is interesting and exciting because, in most organizations, your role is relatively undefined/broad. In ours, you’re an athlete and are willing to play any position at any time if it’s what the coach calls for. You won’t like everything you do, but you deal with it because you’re passionate about your product and making it the best it can be. Everything you do, whether you like it or not, is a learning experience that you’ll be grateful for later.
- Your job boils down to making decisions and exercising good judgment. I’m not aware of a product management school, major, or certification that will make you a good product manager. It boils down to experiences and judgment. If you have a good judgment (you either do or don’t) and can learn from your mistakes, then all you need is to add many more experiences over time. Accept mistakes and failures; learn from them. You’ll get better with time.
- Your career is a top priority. You don’t have kids yet, and you aren’t married. I have a long time/serious girlfriend, but that’s not the same as being married with kids. Put the time in. Even if you don’t feel like you’re compensated fairly financially for going above and beyond, you will learn twice as many [valuable] lessons than you would have by just working 9-5. It should pay off eventually. You’ll inevitably need to help troubleshoot an unexpected production issue at 3 am on a Saturday. There is no such thing as 9-5. Your career is your life, so throw the concept of hours away. Do what you need to learn all you can while you don’t have too many other priorities. I believe your loved ones and career should be where you focus >80% of your time.
- Welcome change, but don’t bank on it panning out as soon as you expect. Sometimes important people leave unexpectedly, or a new hire comes on board. Maybe your lead QA resource has a baby weeks earlier than expected to create a huge bottleneck. Things happen. From my experience, you’ll feel negative changes immediately and will need to make a lot of sacrifices and adjustments to counter them. From my experience, good changes such as new employees joining or positive org modifications take a long time to make a positive impact. It takes a long time to get people up to speed, no matter how great or experienced they are. Have patience and do your best to transfer your knowledge.
- Speak up when you need to speak up. You’re smart, and you know when things are going awry. Maybe your team is getting completely bombarded, and you can picture things exploding one month down the line. Perhaps somebody isn’t doing their job, and it’s creating a huge bottleneck. Maybe you’re unhappy and think you’re unfairly compensated. No matter what it is, if you can prevent something wrong from happening or if you have a small fire inside that doesn’t go away for a while, speak up. I pride myself on being the drama-free, low maintenance employee that managers pray for, but this has come to bite me in the ass a few times. I’ve learned to speak up when needed, and it’s the only solution.
- It is impossible to stick to a roadmap. This one pains me to say, and I know many experienced product managers and visionaries will write me off, but try to hear me out… This isn’t impossible at a lot of companies, but it is for many others. I won’t even say it’s impossible at our company, but from my personal experiences and the team I’m on, it is. However, this is not such a bad thing. I love that our team still behaves like a startup, even though we are a mature company. Our team is just one group within it, and we’re undoubtedly one of the most nimble of all. I love that we can quickly crank out code and implement a fix or feature within a short amount of time. With this being said, our abilities and capabilities are sometimes abused, and we often get sidetracked, thus diverting from our “roadmap.”
- Have empathy for other groups in the organization. Develop relationships with other groups (marketing, customer service, all IT groups, sales, etc.). You’ll work with each of them at one time or another on projects, but it’s valuable going further than that to understand what each of them does every day. What are their problems, and what are their goals? The world doesn’t revolve around you or what you’re working on. The entire organization is essential, and every employee matters.
- If you want to know if you’re eligible for a raise as an intern, then ask your boss; don’t go straight to HR. This doesn’t make your boss look great... I’ll never forget this one.
- You’re only good if you’re a customer/user. The best way to learn about a product is to use it, and use it a lot. This is not going to help you think like most of your customers since most will only use the product a few times, or only once, but it will help you learn how your product works. Nearly four months of my career was spent conducting UAT, supporting QA, and managing releases. It sucked sometimes, but it was extremely valuable. It kills me when I hear that he/she (an employee) does not have an account and has never used our product. I want to scream and tell their manager to get their shit together. Product managers don’t only work for a company; we work for our customers. I think of myself as our product evangelist and our user evangelist.