I joined a product development firm as an intern straight out of school in the year 2016 and spent over four years working with the organisation before joining a startup in the mobility space earlier this year. My experience has afforded me the privilege to build B2B products and solutions that serve consumers directly in edtech, adtech and the mobility space.
What makes a great product manager? What are the key ingredients required for success in my role? How do I measure growth in my career? These are some of the questions I often ask myself. I took some time to reflect on key lessons learnt over the last five years. I share four of these lessons which I believe are essential for a product manager’s success at any phase of their career.
Lesson 1: A scientist’s outlook
“Observe & question, research, create your hypothesis, test & experiment, analyse, share results and get feedback.”
This is the scientific method. Methods are structured approaches we utilise in order to predict an outcome. It is the model we use in explaining how things work. Over the past five years of working as a product manager, I learnt that like scientists, it is essential that I look beyond the face value of things and dig deeper, it is essential that I take thoughts & opinions handed over to me through a validation process. For example, when I join a new team, I take my stakeholders through a series of questions to help me understand the problem the team is focused on. I learn from existing data collected and do some research. I create my own opinions, validate my thoughts and existing assumptions through a series of tests conducted with existing and potential users. I put together the feedback, learn, build, improve and iterate. Thinking like a scientist implies that I don’t conform when I join a team instead I take observations passed on to me through a structured approach that helps me better solve problems and respond to the customer and business needs.
Lesson 2: A child’s curiosity
Why does it rain? Why is the sky blue? How was I made? Why are there people laying on the street?...
These are some of the questions kids ask adults. If you spend some time with children or watch kiddies’ shows such as `Kids say the darndest things`, you will marvel at the curiosity embodied in the questions children ask. Curiosity drives learning and I realise that like children, thriving as a product manager demands that I remain inquisitive. Like one without a veiled mind, being interested in how things work, how patterns are created, how humans consume technology, why certain decisions are made, how the future can be achieved in the present and lots more are things I should seek to understand better. The quest for knowledge, the quest to learn from different industries and draw inferences are things I must remain interested in to soar. In crafting your product strategy and roadmap for example, I have found that my ability to question every decision provides me with a deeper level of understanding which impacts how I communicate my product roadmap to my stakeholders. Curiosity motivates me to seek the right piece of data in shipping data-informed products and features.
Lesson 3: A tinkerer’ attitude
I didn't find programming interesting during my undergraduate studies. The lack of interest in software development influenced my decision to pursue a career in product management. It was my perfect way of working in the tech space without coding. I avoided experimenting with technologies, I avoided being hands on and focused solely on delivery in the first few years of my career. I gradually realised that I was limited in providing advisory at certain levels. I couldn’t innovate or make decisions beyond what I was familiar with.
Product managers do not necessarily need a technical background to excel, however an understanding of technologies, an understanding of the working principles of tools developed from a place of practical learning helps me in making better decisions. In 2020, I took an online course to better understand how databases work. This experience helped me better connect with the software engineers on my team. I was able to spot lapses and provide technical advisory to the db team. A good technical knowledge has helped me better collaborate with my team in building solutions that delight consumers. Like tinkerers, practice affords us the opportunity to do, make mistakes, learn and improve.
Lesson 4: An artist’s view
In the first few years of my career, I focused solely on just getting things done. I spent little time thinking about the future of my products. I didn’t care so much about understanding how people responded to the features my teams shipped. I cared less about the need to constantly improve my products such that consumers can connect more with them. I grew, learnt from experience, colleagues, PM thought leaders and began to experiment with how details as minute as where a button is placed affects my users.
The value of art is how it makes us feel. What do products like Tiktok, Airbnb, Instagram, Spotify have in common with a great art piece? Artists connect to their audience by taking them on a journey with their works. Their creations reflect wide imagination, their works demonstrate a unique understanding of humans and how they interact with the world. They help us view the world with a different view than we are used to. In the same manner as a product manager. I realise that being present and paying attention to the seemingly little details impacts how I think. Some call this critical thinking. I call it the artistic view. This has made me a better problem solver.
I hope you find these lessons useful in the pursuit of your product management career.