What’s so great about being a product manager anyways?
As we know, product managers come into their roles through many paths. Once in that role, what makes them stay? What makes them enjoy being a product manager? It depends on each individual’s situation, and I give my perspective below, though I believe my thoughts are probably shared by others as well.
In my post grad-school days, I worked at my first start-up and wore the many hats that often come with a start-up environment. Being a product manager requires being a “jack-of-all-trades.” But it can be frustrating to know a little about a lot of areas! Thankfully during my pre-PM life, I had a chance to work more in-depth in a few areas.
I learned how to handle the various aspects of working with external partners, from identifying who might be a good fit to drafting term sheets. I created numerous models to help with financial and market size estimations. Since I was working for a business intelligence company at the time, I also learned my way around pivot tables. All of this made me fairly comfortable later on when I needed to do some customer or market analysis or when I needed to draw up a financial model. As a side note: PMs don’t need to be financial experts, but I think it’s important to have at least a basic understanding of financial concepts. An accounting professor in school had assigned “How to Use Financial Statements” for his class, and I use it as a refresher from time to time.
I also spent time in marketing strategy during a period when we were re-branding the company. During that period, I came to appreciate the importance and specificity of pantone colors and fonts (yes, fonts). I once even had to wake up early to handle a “font emergency” – something that my husband still makes fun of me for to this day. I had always been an admirer of marketing materials that caught my eye, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I found them aesthetically pleasing. Reading up on books like, “The Elements of Graphic Design” helped open my eyes. Once I became a PM, I had opportunities ranging from working alongside a marketing team (mainly just needed to proofread their copy) to having no marketing team available (so I had to design the product marketing collateral and conference booth design/materials from scratch and work with the printers to get everything printed (you’d be surprised at how often colors don’t come out the way you want) and shipped out correctly. Never did I think I’d have to obsess so much about pantone colors!
I also spent time with the consulting and training groups, and I learned how to build a curriculum and deliver training and resources/materials. It gave me greater appreciation for all the time and effort that teachers put into their classes!
I mention all the above for two reasons. One is that I think we should embrace all our pre-PM experiences. Many of us have come into our PM role from a completely different track or industry. Rather than feel like those are hurdles to overcome, I think we can use them to our advantage because we never know when we need to fall back on something done while in a previous role. The second reason is because I think these past experiences help us have better insight and appreciation for the bigger picture, which I go into more below.
When I took a two year break from being a product manager and went into operations (full-time), an area that I had enjoyed working on as a PM, I realized I preferred being on the revenue side of the house. I liked working with customers; I liked having the ability to craft and see the bigger picture. So what do I enjoy about being a product manager? I could list out a myriad of reasons, but I’ve condensed them to the below three areas.
Vision becomes reality: seeing it all come together
There is almost nothing more satisfying than that moment we are able to send out the public product launch announcement to signal the release of the version/product. The road to get there took months of development and testing, and the product likely went through many, probably contentious, rounds of design changes.
As product managers, we have the big picture view. It’s up to us to communicate effectively, and persuasively enough, with all the other teams from sales and marketing to finance to fulfillment (and so many more) that we will be dependent on to ensure a successful customer product experience post-launch. Also, the second reason why I mentioned some prior experiences at the beginning of this post was because I have found that being part of those teams gave me better insight into what those groups may need from me. For example, I know how much work goes into creating a training session so I’m more inclined to provide screen shots or talking points earlier so there is more time for review. There is greater appreciation for being able to see the big picture and knowing all that is involved to make it all come together.
I enjoy teaching others about my product. As the PMs, we are the first teacher. We are the ones who have to teach the organization and market about the product and why that product matters to the customers. It’s not just teaching “what” is the product, but also the “why” behind the reason it was developed in the first place. That way, it enables other stakeholders to see why this product matters.
As the voice of the customer, it is our responsibility to also handle external parties as well (beta testers, partners, etc) so that any time the customer touches our product, regardless of which team they are interacting with, the experience is a positive one. And once that release announcement goes out, it’s a signal that it’s time to let the product go and trust that “the machine” (the infrastructure, processes, and people your company has set up to handle sales, onboarding, implementation, support, etc) is working.
Making your customers more productive/happy/efficient
I like making my customers happy. Happiness may be subjective, so the way I look at it is whether I can help produce a product offering that can make my customer more productive and efficient, thereby saving them time.
I’ve had the good fortune to work for companies that produce products that really work and have strong customer bases. There is something so satisfying about going to a conference, user group, name-your-forum, and being able to hear customers give positive, if not glowing, solicited and unsolicited thoughts about the product/ company. I oftentimes feel like “Whew, all that hard work paid off” … but then I remember it didn’t happen by luck, it was the result of months/years of teams planning and working together.
Improving the product
This one certainly has a more painful path, but it’s just as important. Customers will come back because they trust the product, team, and/or company. If something isn’t working right, an evaluation is made to determine how it can be fixed. As PMs, we take responsibility for the product in good and bad times. And in those bad times, we need to determine how to turn around those situations to delight the customer; we are the problem solvers. So while it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of a customer yelling because of a product issue, the key is what can be done to help address the issue.
Sometimes the situation gets more painful before it gets better (for example, when we realize that to address the issue, it would be quite costly development-wise, take the product in a non-strategic direction, and ultimately benefit 1 customer). But at the end, we are strategizing with our multi-stakeholder team about how to make the customer feel whole again, and some tough decisions might need to be made. If it’s done in an ethical, upright way, perhaps the situation can be turned to help make the relationship stronger than before because the client experienced firsthand how we want to do right by them and not leave them in the lurch.
In addition, like the above when improving clients’ efficiency, I think that making these improvements, though some may have originated from product deficiencies, help make the product stronger once they are addressed.
In closing, I find that being a product manager keeps me challenged and always learning. It is not just about knowing the product functionality or target market, but also about so many soft skills like communication that are weaved into everything we do. We have a vision for our product, and we can help bring it to market and make that vision a reality.