Figuring out product management

What do I even do as a PM?

September 2019 ・ 10 mins ・ #product management

Even though I’ve worked with our product managers (PMs) in the past, exactly what they do was black box to me. I had to figure it all out as I went. That journey’s been a wild ride and I wouldn’t take it back for a second. Luckily I’ve had some great people to rely on. I’m sure I’ll still be figuring out product management (PM) in 5+ years’ time but I’m sharing the start of my PM journey here for posterity’s sake. Parsing this experience has been hugely beneficial to myself and if you’re thinking or doing PM then may it give you an insight into a different perspective.

TLDR

Product management is great. I like it. It’s really broad and PMs do some really cool, different things. But I’m well armed with my experience at Culture Amp so far from my non-PM roles. I’m lucky that just in time learning is effective for the work in doing. Which is conveniently following the product lifecycle by creating a product from scratch. Go to end for my that I’ve found useful so far.

PM is the bomb

After having tried to catch a few different job-trains so far in life, I feel like this PM train is the right one for me. It’s a bullet train. But not like a well-built Shinkansen - more like a normal train with a curved-nose taped onto the front, to support high-speeds. The normal carriages are bouncing up and down on the tracks as the conductor yells how it’s cool because the carriages haven’t broken yet, and they’re working on a faster, smoother engine anyway.

This PM train just makes sense and I find myself so engaged in it all that it’s incredibly refreshing.

Third role at Culture Amp

I’m pretty set on the PM train and think I will be for quite a while. I can’t talk about becoming a product manager without acknowledging the useful skills and experiences I’ve gathered so far.

In the last almost four years at Culture Amp, I’ve been fortunate enough to call myself a Customer Success Coach, People Scientist and now as a Product Manager / People Scientist combo.

Customer Success is a pretty foreign concept in Australia, but it was one of the best training grounds I could ever have hoped for as a young-professional in a startup. At the stage Culture Amp was when I was a coach, I learnt to handle all the balls in the air (and fight all the fires). I on-boarded, trained, supported, advised, and renewed, at times over 200 customers at various stages in the customer lifecycle.

As a People Scientist I acted as a non-consultant advisor to customers, ensuring they had and knew everything they needed to successfully work on improving their culture. This involved training, workshops, a bit of marketing events and some pre-sales. Basically abstracting myself one step away from the main relationship holder as well as one step away from the product. For this role, knowing the market we play in became really important and valuable.

From these I’ve learnt these skills and knowledge I’ve found to 100% be transferrable to PM

  • How to juggle fires with deliberate work
  • What customers want, need, hate and are willing to buy
  • How to write great emails (incl. supporting, advising and establishing contact)
  • How to sell1
  • How to run effective meetings
  • How to influence the happy people and the sad people
  • How to hear people and have tough conversations
  • The importance of managing and optimising for customers’ experience
  • The importance of upskilling customers and making them heroes - using education and talking points
  • How to be effective at Culture Amp (big one)

Coming from psychology

A big part of my professional identify has been around organisational psychology. I was even a registered psychologist for a few years. But to be honest, since I wasn’t directly working as a psychologist the value of being registered just wasn’t there for me.

Studying psychology (full pathway, not just undergrad) puts you in a privileged position where you learn a lot of valuable things that you end up taking for granted. Understanding humans is a valuable skillset. Even appreciating that humans are fallible and understanding natural biases. The Human <> software interaction is also a big part of UX, which is a massive key to good software.

Organisational Psychology reorientates a lot of learnings and principles from individual focused psychology towards the systems of people working together. Getting people to productively work together is one of the most universally applicable skillsets I think I’ve taken from org psych. You must consider the organisational context of customers who use your product, in order to make a good product. Good functional design isn’t enough. You need it to conveniently fit into your customers lives in order for to be impactful.

I think this is what makes me unique as a PM. I’ve worked with our customers directly for multiple years, giving me a thorough awareness of what our customer loves, hates and dreams for. Plus I also understand the psychology of organisations and organisational development. Now that I’m combining my customer experience with product experience I think I’m creating a more wholistic awareness and understanding of our business - and how to improve our product.

The sketch below shows how at different times, a customer may spend more time just in the product or more time interacting with customer-facing people (sales, customer success, people science, account management..). The one aspect I don’t have as much experience with is the top half of the marketing funnel2. Customers' experience over time - sometimes product heavy, sometimes people heavy

Even in PM circles, I’ve been seeing increased focus on psychology related skillsets such as used by the term ‘Behavioural product manager’. It embodies everything that PM is trying to borrow from psychology. Behavioural product management raises the bar of what a PM is expected do know and do. Read: apply a more scientific and research mindset (nothing crazy).

Types of PMs

A big realisation when in PM is the variation of the work we do. Even at Culture Amp. I started trying to work out what kinds of behaviours, systems and processes I should be copying to get quickly up to speed. Unfortunately all I found out is that everyone does it differently and with a different focus.

There are PMs that only play in the discovery, research, and validation playgrounds. While others spend most of their time managing the delivery of work with a deep backlog. Throw in the consideration of the product lifecycle and you can see how a PM with a brand new product will have a different week compared to a PM with a more mature or complex product.

PMs also come from very different backgrounds and often end up relying on their unique skills, which shapes the work they do. For example, an ex-designer does more hands-on designs and iterations themselves. Whilst I plan more of my own research and use more of my domain expertise to make faster decisions or prioritise certain approaches.

Just in time learning

PM is a huge field and as above each PM can do a vastly different activities. Because of this, it’s a daunting prospect to try to learn PM. That’s exactly what I thought I had to do when I first joined product as a slashie (PM / People Science)3. I first joined some webinars and did an online course but I experienced the same learning lacklustre I’ve experienced my whole life. 90% of the content just isn’t immediately relevant or applicable to me right now. They would cover the product lifecycle for example, going into techniques to employ at each stage. But let’s be real.

No one is actually working on a product that’s simultaneously at all four stages! So unless you’re preparing for an exam, what’s the point of going deep on all simultaneously?

What’s worked really well for me is to focus on just in time learning. Whatever I need to know next, to make my product and team successful. This means narrowing down on the specific problems and opportunities I’m facing with my product (benchmarking) and team. For me that was discovery, validation and prototyping. I’m fortunate enough to be working on a product that whilst the content and end-result had been available before, it wasn’t really productised. As a product I was starting from scratch.

My focus on ‘learning for now’ was not just effective but also enjoyable! It was so refreshing to learn something then be able to immediately apply it.

Biggest learnings so far

These have had the biggest impact on my mental model of PM and making a product.

Everything starts with a problem. And if you find yourself jumping straight to solutions, then you’ve not properly identified the problem. Anchoring on the problem gives all the benefits. Chief among those would be the ability to assess fit. Comparing solutions is difficult without a way to judge fitness consistently.

Question first thinking. I champion questions to all who listen now. This was probably the first big shift in my thinking when joining product. This is heavily aligned with the other associated mental modal that all product is about, is risk management in the face of relentless decision making and priorities. The only way to keep your head above water is by using questions to help navigate the balance between knowns and unknowns.

Learning above all else. Whatever helps you learn while achieving outcomes will pay dividends higher than other options with less learning. Faced with a decision between two different projects we could pursue, I’ve now learnt how crucial learning is as a prioritisation factor. Especially true in the world of knowns and unknowns we play in. Choices become easier when it’s between feature X that can help retain customers and feature Y that’s a bit more ‘out there’, perhaps smaller in scope, but may help sell more with learnings that shape future decisions.

Don’t over framework yourself. Starting in PM, I was so completely overwhelmed by the amount of frameworks and models. I found this site that is a huge collection of frameworks for PMs and I almost lost it. It took some trial and error, with a lot of discussion with other PMs about their frameworks to realise the importance of the right tool at the right time. Often you’re better of sticking with the tools you know so you get better at applying them.

my head exploded!

Figuring it out a bit more

My journey’s only just begun. And I think there’s a lot of advantages to my position right now in terms of team, product and support systems that will help me in the future.

I hope this has given you a bit of insight into how a newb PM finds their sea legs.


Best resources so far

Because I know there’s a shit ton of info about PM out there - below are some of the more useful resources I’ve saved for specific aspects of PM.

Product discovery

Writing

Solutions

Teams & Teamwork

General PM Resources


  1. I’ve learnt a lot about selling for sure - but by no means do I measure up to dedicated sales folk. As a People Scientist I was often involved in the fun parts of the sale towards closing. I also never had to do admin or follow up 😃
  2. But this may change with a project I’m working on. Where we’ve made a sales tool and rolling it out initially with sales dev reps.
  3. ‘Slashie’ is now an established term at Culture Amp for a PM that is half-PM and half something else.

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