After many rounds of discouraging conversations with less experienced and struggling Product Managers both inside and outside my own company, I decided to assemble and share some helpful resources for advancing one's own PM career.
I believe that we are still in the early development stages of the Software Product Manager (SPM) role and also, that there is a general lack of clarity around this particular breed of Product Manager. That would certainly explain the flood of books, articles and similar resources all aimed at helping PMs understand and navigate this career path. But along with those are an even greater number of online conversations that seem to add to the confusion by attempting to explain it.
Here are a few of the top links returned when searching for "What is a Product Manager":
- What, exactly, is a Product Manager?
- Product Manager 101: What Does A Product Manager Actually Do?
- A Product Manager's Job
- Product Managers: Who are these 'mini-CEOs' and what do they do?
For someone who has recently landed their very first Product gig or is just looking to transition into becoming a Product Manager, this visible and honest industry conversation is simply an indicator of how confusing it can be to get started. And while there are some terrific resources being developed, most new PMs don't even know where to begin.
What drove this decision
Closer to home, I knew of three individuals at different stages in their own PM careers who were each struggling with the similar problem.
Arthur was already pursuing a UX calling and was a semester away from earning an advanced degree in that area but had spent enough time around Product people to become intrigued with the role and was now curious about whether he could do both.
Brandon had been tapped by his current company 2 years ago to take on a Product Management role after proving himself as a reliable project manager and was now convinced that he wanted to find his next Product opportunity to continue down this path.
Carl had been a Product Manager for several years but had received no formal training and while he had mastered the more tactical activities of getting customer requirements through Engineering to deliver features to customers, he didn't know where to start to improve beyond that.
I found myself in impromptu mentoring conversations with all three in the span of a single week. I took that as a good sign to revisit my own collection of PM material and pull together suitable resources for at least these three practitioners.
The decision: Create simple orientation assignments for Product Managers who have a genuine appetite for advancing their careers.
The challenge was not finding relevant material but rather curating the collection to zero in on the items that would have the biggest impact. I was looking for artifacts that would be easy to consume, that would provide good direction in the short term, and that might inspire them to explore topics even further on their own.
Plan of attack
These three colleagues were in different stages of their careers but I knew that all of them would benefit from some strong, foundational material. There is a growing body of informational resources for the SPM but I didn't have a place to point them to get started.
The first question I always ask Product Managers who are just getting started is whether they've found and read Marty Cagan's book, Inspired - How to Create Products Customer Love. I have received nothing but rave reviews from every person to whom I've recommended this book.
I consider it required reading -- and re-reading. It is easy to consume and is filled with great advice for PMs at all stages. But perhaps the greatest benefit for an early-stage Product Manager is that Cagan clearly outlines the role itself and distinguishes it from the related but often overlapping functions of Project Manager, Product Marketer and UX Designer.
Your New PM Job
I then turned our attention to what Product Managers should be thinking about in their early days on the job. Some years back, I came across this wonderful article written by Gopal Shenoy called Software product manager’s first 30 days at a new job …. In it, he lays out a great guide for what good PMs do (or should be doing) in their first few weeks. The list is extensive and a little intimidating - perfect for setting a new PM's expectations.
I encouraged Arthur and Brandon to digest Shenoy's 30-day list and create a distilled version for their own use. And if they made it through that, I further suggested that they read his companion article on what to do in the next 45-90 days.
Brandon is actively interviewing but had not yet found some of the great resources that the PM community has contributed for job hunters. I encouraged him to take a look at one particularly interesting app at http://www.thepminterview.com. The author leverages material from Cracking the PM Interview and Decode and Conquer to create an online, interactive exercise where you can practice your answers to sample interview questions.
Formal Training Programs and Peer Groups
I pointed Carl, who was already embedded on a Product team, to look into cursory workshops and/or full, multi-week courses created specifically for Product Managers. There has been an increase in the number of online or self-guided options from companies like Udemy, but I encouraged Carl to look at local options such as General Assembly's 10-week course or the Pragmatic Marketing program. I explained to him that he would enjoy the added benefit of meeting and networking with peers in his own community.
And speaking of networking, I am a big fan of getting plugged into monthly meet-ups and similar informal, after-work forums related to your career choice. Every month, more and more opportunities spring up for Product Managers to meet and share ideas. I told Arthur, Brandon, and Carl to sign up for an upcoming event in our city and even offered to accompany them.
On the Job Training
Fall in love with a product framework
I prefer to give tactical advice when I can. So I followed up on my previous recommendations (read this book, take this class, join this meet-up, etc.) with a single proposal that I would expect each of them to incorporate differently on their own product paths: fall in love with a product framework.
Over the years, the greater Product community has created and shared many formal templates, authoritative checklists, proven models and reusable processes. A few of these attempt to address the entire product lifecycle but I believe that would be exhausting for an up-and-coming PM to consume, much less apply in practice. Instead, I advocate that new Product Managers zero in on a more discrete area, by starting with what interests them the most.
I used this approach when I was first getting my bearings. I was overwhelmed by all the material and product experts I encountered and was struggling to find any method that I could confidently apply. I eventually discovered Marty Cagan's Opportunity Assessment and used this as a foundation for my building my own method.
And I wouldn't discount the searching process itself. You will inevitably stumble onto new ideas just by sifting through the still disperse product knowledge base to find frameworks that interest you.
Volunteer to do a PM's Job
And what do you do with this new framework you've recently embraced?
I was once told that the best way to get into Product Management is to start doing it. This guru urged would-be PMs to hunt down the closest Product team (or whomever is performing that function) and offer to assist. As someone running a Product team, I genuinely like that approach. But I would argue that showing up empty handed is not as attractive as arriving with expertise around some useful tool that the Product team can use to improve discovery, planning, or execution.
Ultimately, it is up to Arthur, Brandon, and Carl to move forward at their own pace. I'd like to think my advice is helping them to navigate but I feel like we're still far away from having any kind of proven curriculum. Despite that, I'm seeing more and more people gravitate to this kind of role - and I'm encouraging it. The Product community is fortunate to have professionals from so many disciplines join our ranks, making us a much stronger collective.