Sep 18, 2017

5 Takeaways from my first year as a Product Manager

by Vikram Singh

Few weeks ago, I completed my first year as a Product Manager (PM). I have been planning to reflect on my experiences and set goals for second year, but postponed because of my first Product Launch. Now that launch is successful with two customer orders booked, I spent some time to identify 5 takeaways from my first year as a PM.

1. Business – Many PMs aspire to become General Manager (GM) because GM “runs” the business. As cool as it may sound, it is an immensely stressful task.

In addition to product related tasks, you will work on increasing revenue, optimizing cost, evaluating growth/decline by region, customer, product etc . You will determine which new markets to enter and how to do so; in what new technologies to invest; and which new products will create a competitive portfolio. This list goes on and on because running the business brings an “additional” Pandora’s box of responsibilities. While managing the P&L puts you in an authoritative situation, it makes you accountable and puts your reputation at stake every single day.

Having managed P&L, I can confirm that owning P&L responsibility is a great way to start your PM journey. It prepares you for the road ahead by immediately changing your mindset. You will realize how hard it is to make someone “pay” for a product. This realization alone will increase your “customer focus” and force you to create products of the highest quality. Rather than being seduced by sexy, new technology, you will start asking whether your product really needs it. Since you are accountable for ROI, you will invest only if it actually solves a problem and not because it is trendy to do so.

2. Solution – Gone are the days when customers used products in an isolated manner. In today’s age of information and the Internet of Things, products exchange information and it is a PM’s responsibility to ensure that products work seamlessly with each other.

For example, if another PM’s software is ruining your customer’s experience, you cannot shrug it off because it is not “your” responsibility. It is time to step up and do whatever it takes to resolve it.

When I faced a similar situation few months ago, initially I was in the “not my responsibility” mode because I had numerous other tasks to complete on my product. Soon, however, I realized that the other PM did not have the resources to resolve this issue. So what should I do? Keep blaming him and let customers suffer OR do extra work necessary to resolve it and represent the voice of customer.

I presented the business impact to my executives, got buy-in for more resources, wrote a product requirement document, and on-boarded another team to build it.

Bottom Line – If your product talks with any product, it is your responsibility to see that integration is smooth as silk.

3. CEO or Not-CEO? – There are umpteen number of internet articles debating whether or not a PM is a CEO. My take is that PM is a Support Staff. I believe that a PM’s job is to make her product successful. And to achieve that, she should be willing to take up jobs that no one is doing or wherever she sees a gap. These jobs can vary widely and, in my experience, it spanned from presenting to a CEO to writing an ordering guide.

I learned to start taking pride in being the “support staff” who can take up any role instead of focusing on roles based on visibility. By doing so, you will become a go-to-person for your colleagues because, time after time, you have proven you are willing and capable of taking on any challenge.

In my corporate journey, I have had 8 managers including 1 successful entrepreneur. However, one manager stands out in this context. He climbed the corporate ladder at a very young age and he was highly respected by various teams across countries. In fact, I moved to his team because I knew I could learn a lot from him. I was impressed that he could talk to an executive about global product vision and write code the next minute. He said if you want to grow fast, take up the high-visibility tasks but do not give up ground-level work. You cannot build a skyscraper without a strong foundation.

4. Speak – A PM is at the intersection of several teams and one of her critical job is to set “right expectation” with all stakeholders. While “customer is the king”, you cannot accept all of their demands.

For example, one of challenges that PMs face is from sales colleagues who often say “we need to meet the customer deadline otherwise, customer will walk away”.

You should try to pull the work to the best possibility, but do not be unreasonable to your team. Have a frank conversation with sales and if needed even with the customer to explain the situation. If the customer loves your product, they will understand. The return on this activity is multi-fold.

First, the customer will understand that you value product quality, and refuse to deliver a half-baked product in less time. Second, you will earn trust of your team because they will feel protected. And in the future, they will provide you with 100%+ effort because they know you wouldn’t ask for more if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

Last year, I had a multi-billion customer who needed a product in 2 months. However, after studying the engineering effort required, I could see that this aggressive time-line was not possible. I explained the challenge to the customer and we ended up delivering the product in phases spanning 2-5 months.

We did not lose even a single penny because customer understood the amount of work needed. The rapport (bad or good) you build with one team will spread across teams like wild fire. If you care about your people, they will reciprocate. Few months later, I could see and feel the benefits of fostering this environment firsthand when my team worked day and night to deliver another product about 3 weeks earlier than projected.

5. Launch – Just as a student studies and prepares for an examination, a PM starts with a vision, gets buy-in for investment, and works with engineering to get it developed. Next comes the big moment to launch the product and get the reaction from customers. That is why, I consider Product Launch as the most important examination for a PM. One difference is that unlike sample examinations for students where a student can identify how she would have done in last years’ examination, a PM cannot learn from someone else’s product launch. She has to execute the product launch to get the experience, collect the data, find how successful she is in launching the product and learn from it.

Because there are many details involved in launching the product successfully, it is helpful to have someone with launch experience to keep a check on you. I was grateful to have an amazing manager and team members who reminded me of the activities that I need to do before, during and after the launch.

Over the last year as a PM, I was most busy and excited during the product launch. The Product Launch is the time when everything you have been doing over a long time finally comes together to create the impact you envisioned. Executing the product launch is a great learning experience and I am grateful that I got the opportunity to do it in my first year.

I would love to hear opinions and experiences of other PMs and hope that these takeaways offer an insight to prospective PMs.