A couple of years ago, when I took up the role of Product management at SignEasy, the then Head of Product had many conversations with me. During one of them, he dropped 3 pieces of gold that got etched into my memory. At first, they were just words I figured were worth writing down — but now I live by them and I realize they are literally how I would describe my job to somebody who didn’t know anything about product management.
Be the search engine of the organization: Not a day goes by that I’m not approached by somebody in the 35-member team asking me a super vague but super apt question about the product. Be it a recent feature launch that an engineer is curious about, some usage metric that a designer needs to make key UX decisions, or an overarching trend that the CEO needs to know — you will be bombarded with all sorts of questions constantly, and people expect you to know the answer. You only get that many let-me-get-back-to-yous as a PM. You are expected and should be, on top of all important data, or at the very least you should know where to find what. You need to live, breathe and have data for breakfast. And I don’t just mean numbers — data about your product doesn’t just reside in your analytics tool. It could be qualitative data and instincts that you have just developed about your product from all the information flowing to you — from your Sales team reminding you of a feature that has been requested by a lead again, your Support team bringing out issues that more than one customer has complained about, all the calls you’ve had with your customers (which you should be, all the time), all the surveys you’ve conducted (again, constantly needed), reviews that your customers are leaving on platforms like the App Store, G2Crowd, etc. — the sources are numerous. You need to be the search engine for everybody on the team.
Decision making under uncertainty: Remember all the data I was talking about? Well turns out you can have all the data in the world but time and again you’ll find yourself making crucial decisions based on nothing quantifiable and purely gastrointestinal, namely your gut. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make informed decisions. Over time, you’ll find that with all the data you’ve been absorbing about product usage, user behavior, feature requests, product issues, user personas, and whatnot, you’ll develop an instinct for the product. And while you should be backing up any claims and assumptions with verifiable data and research as much as possible, there will always be some decisions that you’ll have to make under uncertainty comfortably.
Influence without authority: Now that you’re all armed with data and are ready to dive into decisions even under the cloud of uncertainty, there’s the slight problem that product managers don’t really execute anything. You dream, you imagine, you have a vision — but then you make that vision a reality by taking your entire team along with you. You need to be able to sell your vision to the entire team so that they can help you realize it. It’s easier said than done because, traditionally, product managers are fairly independent contributors in organizations and are peers to engineers. You don’t have the authority to tell them what to do, yet that is what you do day in and day out. Building genuine relationships with each team member, winning their trust, and storytelling are some crucial traits that would help you influence your team’s direction even without formal authority over them.