In a dauntless attempt to answer the near ubiquitous question, "What does a Product Manager do?", I decided to dedicate an entire year to recording and sharing my own journey down the product path.
I have had hundreds of conversations about the PM role, about this particular career path, and about the product development craft itself. There is one topic that still dominates these discussions: what does it actually mean to be a Product Manager? I have collected several, almost stock responses over the years and readily share the one that best matches the other party's relative interest level.
For example, I was once asked by a colleague who had been practicing in the role for a little more than a year, "How do I even know if I'm actually doing product management?" Up to that point, I had never considered that an active PM might question whether they were really doing it right! After a bit more discussion, we agreed that an easy confidence test for an uncertain PM would be to provide affirmative answers to these 3 simple questions:
- Are you regularly shipping your product?
- Are your target users really using your product?
- Are customers paying for your product?
I am not suggesting that we cracked the code here. Anyone who has been in this role will attest that it is not that simple. While we are all ultimately working toward those same goals, our methods can vary widely, even within the software/digital product space. So, where do we go to dig deeper into understanding that complexity?
Over the past few years, I have seen a real surge in the availability of authoritative resources that PMs can now access to help hone their craft. Many of these resources fall into the "How To" category, offering prescriptive approaches to addressing product-specific challenges. I set out to create something different.
What drove this decision
Even after having created software products for more than a decade, I don't believe that I can speak authoritatively on many product-related topics. But in my role as the head Product guy at this B2B software company, I have plenty of material to share with my peers and I can now confidently contribute some insights to what some have called our "often ambiguous discipline of product management".
It has been almost 20 years since I had regularly authored anything formal for an external, professional audience but I was up for a good challenge. I subscribe to the credo of pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, to doing things that intimidate you at first. By committing to publishing 50+ articles in a single year, I was certainly going to do that. Plus, there was a good chance that I would become a gooder writer along the way.
What was most important for me, however, was creating a unique resource for other PMs who are going through the same challenges in their own jobs. I have discovered that people find great comfort in hearing that their peers have and are also struggling with the same problems that they have. Sometimes an honest report from a colleague can renew self-assurance and even inspire us to do better.
The decision: Contribute to the growing body of knowledge by sharing weekly accounts of my on-the-job experiences as the Head of Product for a late stage startup.
As far as I can tell, this is unprecedented in our field. As of this writing, I still haven't found anything comparable although some folks have published a handful of day-in-the-life pieces. Here's a few that stand out:
- A Day in the Life: Product Manager at Microsoft by Melanie Danko, published December 6, 2012 on Bloomberg site
- So, What Do You Actually Do As A Product Manager? by Catherine Shyu, published Feb 5, 2014 on Medium
- A good thread on Quora with several contributors dating back to 2010
I didn't have any year-long examples that I could follow but I was eager to plow forward anyway. I started in early January 2015 with no real audience. I had no Twitter followers, no email list, and no subscribers to this website. I started with a blank (blog) page and my atrophied writing muscles and dove right in. As I saw it at the time, there was very little risk and only upside (said the 3-time entrepreneur:-)
Plan of attack
I titled my new blog PM Decisions with the intention of using each post to document a different product decision I had made. This is the final article in the 52-week exercise but only the fourth that isn't directly tied to an actual decision I made while working at this company. At the outset, I would never have guessed that there would have been sufficient topics for me to produce a full year's worth of non-overlapping content.
I can't take much credit for the frenetic work environment that offered all these article opportunities but I do think the weekly journal format I chose was pivotal to the sustainability of the whole initiative. I wrote each article as if it were my own Captain's Log but I found that the diary approach was equally helpful as a narrative for aspiring and practicing Product Managers.
Highlight a single decision in each article
Toward the end of each week, I would find a particular activity that stood out from rest of the normal PM routine. I would qualify each potential topic by considering its relative importance to other Product Managers (my intended audience) and also how well I could decompose the elements to fit my own article template.
By focusing on one product decision at a time, I was able to go deeper into each particular topic, identifying constituents and stakeholders who were pushing for or were affected by the decision, and providing the specific steps I took in executing the decision.
I did my best to sanitize each story to avoid exposing sensitive details while still providing sufficient background information about my decision.
Create an article template for consistent storytelling
One of the best moves I made was landing on a common format for each article. I spent about 4 hours writing and publishing each article, always spread out over multiple days, but I would never have succeeded if not for this article template. It was much easier for me to flow the text, quotes, and images through each of the predefined sections in the template and in the end, I'm still convinced it is a good arrangement for documenting key decisions.
Thoroughly cover each decision
I used the following sections in the template to help me organize my thoughts:
- The article title offered a one-line summary of the actual product decision, making it easy for readers to scan over what would eventually become a large collection of content.
- The opening statement was specifically worded in the format "because of this...I decided to..." to provide context around the decision so that in article listings, the reader would have more information about whether the article would be relevant or not. I also included this statement in the article digest that was used for RSS feeds, email newsletters, and for creating smaller collections on the website.
- I followed the opening statement with a few paragraphs that tied that week's particular decision to a broader product management topic
- The next section in the template titled, What drove this decision is where I explained my motivation. This was often my favorite part to write because I was used the space to vent somewhat and occasionally, even climb up on my soapbox. I wanted to explain the reasons behind each of my decisions and justify those reasons both to the reader and also to myself. Sometimes, I approached this section as if I were prompting the reader, "would you have done things differently if you had been in my shoes?"
- After formally declaring and explaining the decision itself, I stepped through the actions I took in making the decision. I never meant to prescribe a repeatable solution and I didn't mean to suggest that my approach was the right one. I simply offered my plan of attack at the time, thinking it would be useful to the reader to see one person's approach.
The final section was called the impact, as in, the impact of my decision. Looking back over the collection of articles, I would admit that I mostly failed here. Others have also confirmed that the articles would typically start strong but would ultimately fizzle out toward the end.
Part of me would like to attribute that to the notion that you can't really measure the impact of a decision so close to making it. That it was too soon to appreciate or even understand the effect well enough to discuss it in the same week. I could just as easily blame it on running out of steam each week (did I mention this was an exhausting exercise?) Perhaps there is still an opportunity to go back to some of the articles and provide an updated postmortem.
Experiment with format, layout, and outreach
I could say that it's just my nature as a PM to tinker, to hypothesize and validate assumptions. And it is true that throughout the year, I tried some different things with my writing to see if I could improve my results. But in the end, I put most of the effort into just organizing my thoughts and capturing the words.
I mentioned that, up to this point, I had not been an active writer and even less of an online, social idea promoter. The latter made it even more challenging as I struggled with finding and attracting an audience. With some help from nearby experts, I eventually got the knack of publishing via Twitter (@theproductpath) and Linkedin but never went beyond that. Believe me when I say that I am happy with those results. Some early visibility on social channels is welcome of course but I had always set my sights on producing a collection with a longer shelf life.
I quickly learned from readers that I was good at producing tl;dr material
The lengthy article format was another strain. I quickly learned from readers that I was good at producing tl;dr material and that my weak attempts to call out specific points with quotes or bold text weren't really helping. I tried including more images and charts to break up the text but ultimately I was asking a lot from the reader.
I have recently given some thought to creating true digests for some or all of the articles and re-publishing the content in a way that would be more consumable for other Product Managers.
All in all, this has been a tremendous year. Even if my year-in-the-life series is not a first of its kind for product people, it was certainly an achievement for me. I improved as a writer, if only slightly, and now I have a unique body of work that makes for one heck of a conversation starter. In fact, I have made quite a few new product friends just from the word of mouth buzz around my efforts.
One of the unexpected, but positive outcomes of an exercise like this is that it became much easier to interview PM candidates at my company. I found that I could simply tell them, "if you want to know what its like to work here, just read this!"
So as I close out this particular series, I want to thank everyone who encouraged me. Even though I didn't quite acquire the fan base that I might have once dreamed of, I did get the support I needed. I will continue to write on product-related topics here on theProductPath and have already found the next intimidating activity to tackle.