The day I actually became a product manager

Transitioning from engineering to product management is hard. I did it eight years ago and my first job was a disaster. It’s important to do it right.

We’d just closed our Series A round. We were twenty people and I’d been an engineer for two years before I became the first product manager in the company.

I got the job for a couple of reasons. First, I always had strong opinions on the product and experience and often argued with the CEO (who was the product guy) on product decisions. Second, I always wanted to try out product management and so when he announced his plan to formalize product and hire a product manager I said I’d like to do it. He trusted me and thought I had good product instincts so he let me have it.

The first few months were great. We had a good roadmap and were growing fast. He was doing biz dev and I was driving product. But then things started slowing down, our user growth stalled. That’s when our problems began.

He was back on product and started driving it in a different direction. He overruled my decisions. He made a lot of phone calls to users and those discussions influenced him more than the data. He wanted to move fast and cut corners. That made me nervous, but it was his baby so I played along.

The next few months were really bad for me, I didn’t get why we were doing what we were doing. I wasn’t happy with the way we were hacking the code to make it work differently. I felt like I had no say in anything.

Remarkably, the new experience started resonating and growth started to come back. Turns out he had this vision as a plan B since day one. His bet paid off. Not only that, had we continued in the original course, we could have ran out of money and failed. I stayed through it for over a year and quit.

Since then I’ve had many product roles and I’ve grown a lot, but I’ll never forget this experience and this CEO. Not because I had a bad experience, but because he was a real product guy and I was not. He indirectly taught me what product management is really about.

To really become a product manager, you have to first stop being an engineer. You have to unlearn everything and start from scratch.

Product strategy is a lot harder than most people think, especially for growing products that haven’t captured their market and reached a safe place yet. (And that is always questionable). Even the most illogical decisions can turn out to be game changers.

If you just transitioned to product management, here are some do’s and don’ts for you based on my experience.

1. Stop thinking about code and start thinking about users

This is the first and biggest mindset change you must work on. As an engineer, you’re wired to think about implementation, capability, experience. You have to switch one eighty degrees to the other side: users. Forget about the how. Focus on the what and why. What are we helping users accomplish? Why are they coming to our product and not going else where? Why are they staying? How are they hearing about us? These are the questions you should worry about. Spend less time with engineers and more time with users. Ignore your existing knowledge and assumptions. Think that you just joined the company as a new employee and start fresh.

Ignore the how and obsess on the what and why

2. Get a solid grip on the market, competition, and trends

As engineers we’re naturally data driven. That’s dangerous. Data is not always right. Intuitions often don’t agree with data. You need to really get down to the bottom of things and understand the entire flow from user acquisition to engagement to value to retention to referral. Until you understand why users are coming and staying with your product and not something else, you can’t say you’re confident about your strategy and roadmap. (Honestly, you can never say that). In the technology industry things can change very quickly. You should rethink your assumptions and start over every time you see something new. Be prepared to change your roadmap often. This is not a methodical process.

Product strategy is a lot like chess. Every move matters, things can change a lot quickly

3. Understand problems deeply

One of the easiest ways to take a wrong turn is not asking why enough. I find Toyota’s 5 Whys framework very effective. It’s a iterative technique we can use to dig deep into a problem until we fully understand it. And it’s simple. Start with a why and answer it with grounded facts. Recursively drill down and ask why five times until you get to the root of the problem. Many times that will uncover a truth that can be more important to pursue than what appears on the surface. Elon Musk uses a similar first principles framework that’s also helpful. It starts with establishing ground truth about a problem and starting there.

Don’t attempt to solve a problem until you fully understand it. Differentiate symptoms and problems

4. Create strong filters for making product decisions

Product management is not idea generation, it’s about idea selection and execution. I’m sure you’ve disagreed with your product manager on features. Don’t let that happen with your engineers. Have a clear process and filters for making product decisions taking into account your vision, values, strategy and priorities. Use those filters against all ideas and teach people how to do it themselves so they have a clear idea why we’re doing X and not Y. Revisit your assumptions often and keep the team posted all the time. Most importantly, make sure they’re on board with the risks you’re taking. Be honest and transparent.

Use strong filters and eliminate seemingly good ideas. Don’t shoot down any idea — the best ideas often sound bad

5. Think experiences, not features

This is the most important lesson I’ve learnt. When we think features, we’re starting on the wrong foot: we’re extending capabilities. Features almost always add product creep. When we think experiences, we’re starting from the user side: solving problems and adding delight. If you focus on experiences, you’ll often end up removing features and simplifying things. Medium has been around for five years now and it’s still the same: light weight, elegant, easy to publish, easy to read. If you’ve been around long enough you may have noticed that they removed some features to simplify things. User happiness and growth are complicated things.

Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, But Not Simpler — Albert Einstein

6. Invest in design

As an engineer you’ve probably had a narrow view of design. Design is often misunderstood. When people think about design they imagine the UI. The UI is important no doubt, but design is much more than that. It’s the overall experience. Take the time to learn more about design. Think about how it matters to your product. Good design is not just about making something beautiful, or even simple. It’s also not just about doing what users want or expect. Sometimes you need them to do something differently and take them to a better future. Design is a fascinating field that is larger than pixels. Take the time to read books, blogs, and practice design thinking. Build design culture within the team.

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. — Steve Jobs

7. Listen carefully

This is important in many ways. Having good user conversations is an art in itself. People often don’t say what they mean and don’t mean what they say. You have to read between the lines and work harder to get the real scoop. A/B test your interviews often. Don’t just take their feedback — combine it with data and your own intuition. You always need to have a strong view on where the world is headed. Sometimes users don’t like something when they see it or hear about it, but once they get used to it they can’t go back. Nobody can surely say something is good or bad until they see it and experience it. And sometimes it takes random things like peer pressure to convince people to do something. People are complicated. Don’t rely on logic. Keep experimenting and learning.

People often don’t say what they mean and don’t mean what they say

8. Build trust with the team

One of the most important things you should focus on in the first few weeks and months as a product manager is building trust with the team. Trust is your life blood. A lot of product strategy is experimentation. You’re always envisioning a new world, rallying your team to build it, and rallying your users to get there. You never have concrete data to convince people. You’ll have to use your best intuition and information to develop a vision, believe in it, and make people believe in you. And sometimes things don’t work as expected. Trust is the only way to get through those ups and downs. Invest time and effort in building trust. Develop clear and concise visions with convincing arguments and address concerns. Do whatever it takes to help the team and earn their respect.

Trust is your life blood

9. Spend a lot of time on marketing

I used to think marketing is all about selling, and if the product is growing by itself we don’t need it. Wrong. Marketing is the most challenging thing one can work on, and it’ll teach you things you will never forget in life. Marketing is much more technical than you think. The most important thing is to test every thing. A/B test each and every idea. You never know how users will react to your ideas. Often they will do what you least expected. As a new product manager, you should invest significant amount of time understanding their strategy, messaging, channels, and test results. Today I view marketing as product. It’s not an add-on. It’s integral to everything we do. Once you become a product manager, this will be your biggest epiphany. Marketing is serious stuff.

Product is marketing and vice versa

10. Cheer the team and celebrate wins

One of the things we don’t do often as engineers is cheer leading. As a product manager that’s important. You always want to make sure that the team is engaged, motivated, and inspired. And sometimes things can go wrong. What you thought might work spectacularly might fail solidly. So every small win is an opportunity to cheer the team and keep their spirits up. Invest time into this. You’ll be glad you did.

Celebrate your successes. Find some humor in your failures. — Sam Walton

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