A Year After My Product Management Career Transition: 16 Valuable Lessons I’ve Learned.
In October 2019 with the mentorship of a dear friend, I made the decision to become a Product Manager starting with a PM certification course and the knowledge that I would have to start my career afresh and work my way up from the lowest rank on the totem. This is what I’ve done. I transitioned from my usual Executive Assistant role which was great but not very challenging creatively.
In the time since then, I have taken up two remote jobs as a Product Manager concurrently as a way to ramp up my knowledge on Agile Product Management. One of which is in a software consultancy firm and the other in a product-centric fintech. They have each offered very different experiences in terms of the approach to the Product Manager role, deliverables and teams. So, I figured I’d write about my experiences as a way of journaling so I can reflect on my journey in years to come.
Thus, these are the lessons I’ve learned thus far, a year into my journey as a software PM.
1. Product Management is like finger prints, no two roles are the exact same.
Like I said, I currently work at a fintech startup where we have one core software product and our current goals are launching an MVP and onboarding new users to the platform whereas at the software consultancy we ship several products for different clients at very short intervals ranging from fintech to HR and everything in between. The team is twice the size of the startup team but less business-centric and a lot more technical. Burndown rate is faster as well than that of the startup team. These are only a few differences but the point is that although the tools might be similar in some cases, the two roles differ quite a bit.
2. Recognize your super powers and employ them daily.
I believe that everyone brings something unique to the table in a role based on varying backgrounds, personalities, previous work experience, academics and so on. Therefore, we each bring a beautifully unique mishmash of skills to our jobs. It is important to figure out what your super powers are and make sure you tap into them in your day-to-day activities as a Product Manager. I found that because I had previously worked as an EA in tech and Finance industries from public to private sector, I had picked up a few skills that were important in my role as an Executive Assistant — communication, kindness, business savvy and adaptability. I wield these as my super powers on a daily basis and they have helped make my work that much more interesting and less frustrating as a newbie.
3. Product Management courses are just the bedrock, practice is a whole other ball game .
Honestly, it’s like how different the things I was taught in university were in comparison to their application in the real world…worlds apart. The same way school just provides you with the basic knowledge and understanding in the specific field is the same way PM courses only furnish you with industry-speak and basic information on frameworks. What you learn in theory is very different from the actual practical work which involves a different set of muscles that school does not necessarily teach you to work — people skills, teamwork, communication, ability to wear multiple hats and a bit of diplomacy.
4. There are three kinds of Product Managers, which one are you?
There are product managers with technical background either in academics or work experience, PMs with a business background, and the others who come from other fields of study and/or experience and it’s okay. All that matters is that you are open to learning — like a literal sponge, and that you actually get shit done. I recently read a Medium article about a Doctorate degree holder who went from PhD in Math to Product. It really doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is what you do in the present which will determine your future. Well, at least that’s what I hope — that my business/ non-technical background wouldn’t be an eventual handicap at a crucial turning-point in my career as a PM.
5. Your Personality traits are more important than you think.
PM-ing is a very people-centric role as much as it’s about anything else. You have to be the type of person who is unafraid to ask questions to the users, team and even superiors. Timidity is a no-no because people are like sharks and they can smell that shit from miles away. People skills and a commitment to personal growth and development are also individual traits that can make or break you before you can even say Jack Robinson as a new product manager.
6. Be a connector; The Housekeeper or The Estate Manager.
I recently watched this film on Netflix, Rebecca (beautiful film btw), and as I watched it, it struck me that Mrs Sanders (the housekeeper) essentially plays the role of a Product Manager — being that she oversees the staff and items in the mansion and a PM does the same but in a product delivery team. This is really what the gist of the role is; connecting users to the development team, top management to the product and vice versa, team members to one another for a relatively seamless and effective product delivery.
7. Darling, nobody Likes a Micromanager.
People feel more empowered and motivated when they see that you trust them to do the right thing without having to breathe down their necks or consistently pester them in the name of “following up”. They’d appreciate it more if you just told them what you expect as a deliverable, give them a deadline, remind them before the deadline (don’t assume), check to make sure they do not have any blockers, then do a demo to check on what they’ve done…together.
8. Be authentic and genuine.
It’s the only way for people to see that you’re honest and let their guards down and put in their best work. There’s a preconceived notion about Product Managers which I didn’t know until I started work and joined PM Twitter (It’s a thing, there’s a Twitter nook for everyone apparently). In fact, I was told this my first week on the job, “ You know people don’t like PMs right?” I mean, it’s not your job to be liked, you are not a clown (not everyone likes clowns tbh). It’s your job to not be a pain in the ass so that your team can do their best work and it’ll honestly help at least if you aren’t public enemy numero uno. Amiright?
9. The users matter.
Not what the client thinks is a great feature. Not what you think would be a nice-to-have. What the users need is of utmost priority then you can add the vitamins- only based on feedback from users not yourself.
10. Value of Product Management work is difficult to quantify. Forgive those who don’t see it.
If you’re just starting out as a PM, chances are that you’re compensated according to this perceived lack of value. You’re not a developer or a designer, you just “ask about deadlines and follow-up”. Only you would know how difficult it is to make people with different personalities, backgrounds, work ethics, align on a particular goal….continuously. More importantly, don’t listen to that self-sabotaging part of you that says you should go above and beyond to prove your worth. All I can say is, it’ll be a whole flipping sad mess if you choose to go down that rabbit hole of trying to prove yourself. Just be instead of “trying to be”.
In the beautiful, wise words of Jiddu Krishnamurti,
“You can be creative only when there is abandonment- which means, really, when there is no sense of compulsion, no fear of not being, of not gaining, of not arriving. Then there is great austerity, simplicity, and with it there is love. The whole of that is beauty, the state of creativeness”.
Do it for the love of it and not for the accolades.
11. Master The Hacks.
Working at a software consulting company accelerates your learning because it’s a recurrent cycle. If you need to ramp up quickly, that’s a great way to go but you have to be ready to deal with every kind of person under the sun including the occasional nasty, condescending client who never ceases to rub it in your face that they paid for your services, thus, you must be trampled on. It’s a good sport if you’ve had experience working with such people in the past. It doesn’t crush your self esteem as much as it should. Besides, you have to love the job to be able to get over such bad days and very quickly too.
12. Read, Write and Network like your life depends on it.
Not to be overly dramatic but it kinda does. Well, your career does.
One, read- read books, blogposts and tweets of peers who are farther along in their PM careers than you are. Two, make use of Twitter — Network! Network! Network! You learn, meet peers, join PM groups on Slack or someplace else. I got the PM job at the software consultancy firm from a tweet I posted about my wish to just be given the chance to learn more about being a Software Product Manager from a practical perspective. I am fairly certain that it would not have happened if I only follow Medical Professionals or The Kardashians. Three, Write- Write about your experiences as a PM. Write about products you’ve shipped. Ever imagined a product with other features than currently exist? Write about them. Just write!
13. Add on Skills to Keep you Relevant and Dynamic in the crazy world of tech.
You might need to acquire an additional skill or two that make you adapt quickly to the dynamic tech industry and help you connect better with the product thus making you better at your job. Mine are currently UI/UX design and an Oracle certificate in database management which is in-view.
14. People bring who they are to work, it’s your job to understand who they are.
Perception is key, dear friend. Get to know what makes each member of your team tick — what their roles entail, their brands of humor, how they talk, personalities, approach to workplace interactions and so on. For instance, in my first couple months as a PM there were members of my team who I felt shut me out which drove me nuts because I couldn’t carry out my duties efficiently. However, I made the decision to study each member of the team and realized that some hadn’t yet warmed up to me while others were just naturally introverted and the perceived stonewalling was neither intentional nor personal. Be able to read the room and perceive when someone has a wall up. It affects the work so do something about it.
15. The MVP is just the beginning of the drill.
There is a lot more PM-ing that happens post-MVP than Pre-MVP. Buckle up and always stay alert. It’s that straight-forward.
16. The Harsh Truth: Bruh, you ain’t no CEO.
Don’t kid yourself. Seriously. A servant-leader? Yes! An authoritarian leader? Haha! I laugh in Igbo! I dare you to try this and see who listens to you on your team. Let me save you the embarrassment and give you that advice for free. That mentality not only messes up the mind, it messes with the team dynamics and morale thus, inadvertently adversely affecting the product outcome. Stay in your lane. Sit down, be humble in Kendrick Lamar’s famous words.