Just Landed! A guide to brand new product managers
[this article was originally posted in product school blog, reposting here]
I recently published “My Career Transition” 3 part series to answer one of the most popular questions I received: “How to transition into product? Can you share your own experience?”. Naturally, the next (also popular) question is:
“How to prepare myself as a brand new product manager? What was your own experience like?”
And this is what this post is about. The goal is to help those of you who just transitioned into a brand new product role (congratulations) and want to be best prepared.
Let me first tell you about my own story before sharing my advice. It’s my hope that you’d be more convinced when you see how I’ve been through the same challenges you might be also facing.
When I Was New
“Good morning, my name is Johnny Chang, and today is my first day!” so I told the receptionist. It was back when Yahoo still had some of its glory, when I stepped into the lobby at the Sunnyvale headquarter, to begin my first product manager job with lots of excitement and anticipation. Afterall, I went through a long journey of transition to get to this point. I couldn’t wait to experience what was about to unfold.
It was such a fast faced place that I was very quickly thrown into the weeds soon after onboarding. Just days after I joined, I started to learn the first several of 10,000 important lessons I would be learning as a PM over the next few years. Did I anticipate PM being a challenging job? Absolutely. Did the real experience resemble how I imagined what PM’s day to day was like? Not really. Just to highlight some of the immediate challenges I faced:
Hands-on vs hands-off: Coming straight from the engineering background, I was still very technical when I first transitioned. I couldn’t help but get into the technical details that were supposedly owned by engineering. Not only was it not scalable for me, it also came across as not trusting engineering’s technical decision making.
My calendar was not mine: Contrasting when I was an engineer I had a lot of time of my own to manage work at my own pace, as a new PM I found myself with a jam-packed calendar Monday through Friday. I did not know how to cope with the new work style and manage my time. As an introvert, I felt exhausted talking to people non-stop, and stressful for not having my own time to think and strategize.
Know-it-all: I felt like I needed to know just about everything to be able to barely do my job, not to mention doing it well. Because my team and partners looked to me for directions and answers all while having different perspectives and strong opinions of their own making sure I understood. It was a constant fire hose of information flooding at me and I felt I was almost drowning.
And obviously I have not even mentioned just yet all the challenges I would soon also face in later phases of the product life cycle such as in setting and aligning on vision and strategy, gaining trust from leadership and teams, execution with a cross functional team to deliver, how to learn from the market to strategize and iterate, etc. etc. Because I was just getting started.
I almost started to wonder whether product management is right for me, afterall.
How Did I Cope
I wasn’t ready to give up.
Not only because I came a long way to finally get to this point. I was proud of my grit which always led me through challenges. So during the first long weekend after I started, I drove to Carmel-by-the-sea, the nice little town next to the beach with cottages like ones in the fairy tales, found a place of my own looking out the ocean, and started to reflect.
Then I realized…
First, I needed a change. No shit, I wouldn’t need the ocean to help me realize that.
But second and probably more important, I needed a change not only in my skills or approaches, but first and foremost in my mindset. Because the right mindset would overtime lead me into developing the right skills and having the right approaches to problems.
It turned out that it wasn’t just a flash thought while I was vacationing. It became more clear and reinforced when I returned to work the following week and onward. I started realizing that I didn’t have to know it all or do it all in order to accomplish and be successful. I started realizing that meetings are not just overheads. I started realizing that the keys to being successful now would in fact be no different from what got me here in the first place, and I just needed to get them back.
So what did I do exactly (and so should you?)
So here’s a summary of the top key mindset shift I made that got me through the initial challenges. I believe they might help you through the same challenges as well:
People first: Think first and foremost about people, before thinking about the product. A good product manager “manages” people well. You don’t build products by yourself. You build great teams to build great products. You empower each member individually and rally all collectively toward the shared goals. What the team knows and does collectively is what you need to build successful products. So invest time in connecting with people especially when you first get started. A LOT OF TIME.
Meetings are important tools: Embrace necessary meetings. A product manager influences people, drives decisions, and collects lots of information in order to influence people and drive decisions. How can you influence people, drive decisions, and collect information if you don’t talk to people? See meetings not only as “inevitable”, but important tools to help a PM be effective. Look at it this way, you’ll embrace meetings with open arms (but definitely still prioritize well!)
Growth mindset: Skills are learnable and the challenges are to help you grow. If it’s easy as a new PM, you will not grow into a better PM. Instead of resenting tough challenges and avoiding failure, be excited about the growth opportunities that might follow each failure and tough time. You’ve heard me say it in my transition into product. That’s because like I said, it’s the same mindset that helps you improve overtime and get your dream product job in the first place.
And lastly remember, being new is always fun. Everything is new and you can learn from everything. You don’t know what to expect but you explore ahead anyway. The best way to experience this newness is to always carry with you curiosity and passion. Just think about when you were new to the world, new to school, new to a sport, new to learning an instrument, new to owning your new house, etc. It’s no different in being new to product management.
Enjoy the ride before it fades!
Does this post help or resonate? Do you have follow up questions? Want to share your own experience? Leave a comment below or contact me! RESPONSE GUARANTEED