May 23, 2024

The Myths and Realities of Being a Product Manager

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Product management has become the dream job for many people working in tech.

To increase their chances, many applicants follow the advice circulating on social media from a cadre of “product management influencers.”

In my experience, the advice they offer is often incomplete and inaccurate, and tends to present an over-glamorized picture of the day-to-day reality of the product management role. For example, the influencers depict the PM as CEO of the product, seamlessly leading cross-functional teams, and spending most of their time developing product strategy and vision. This image doesn’t always align with reality — and it glosses over the harsh realities of a role that comes with intense pressure, dealing with uncertainty, managing complex stakeholder relationships without authority, and being deep into trenches with engineering and design teams on the smallest of details.

My Journey into Product Management

I was one of those non-product folks who fell for the influencer hype when transitioning into my current product management role at Amazon in 2021. My career had taken me from software engineering in India and brand management in Africa to analytics consulting at Amazon in the United States. I decided that shifting to a PM role was my chance to make a big impact.

In the end, it was my persistence in networking and highlighting my transferable skills that paid off.

Since moving into a product management role, I’ve found that’s only partially true. PMs have limited authority over any of the design, engineering, customer support, or other crucial teams responsible for successful development and launch of the product or the feature.

Cross-functional engagement — that is, working as the person who bridges multiple teams to make the product a success — is often touted as a PM’s “greatest asset.” Here’s how

Kasey Hobson, director of the product platform at Solifi, puts it: “There is a level of interdependency in successfully launching new products and functionality across teams within your organization. So, establishing strong relationships with these teams is essential for collaboration and ensuring that everyone is working towards the same goals.”

This is apt advice, but it’s often misconstrued as a PM must work hard on being liked and admired by all the stakeholders they work with. Armed with this advice, I initially focused on being well-liked by cross-functional partners, until my manager reminded me that product quality and customer needs should take precedence over intra-company relationships.

But I soon realized that force-fitting frameworks, rather than deeply understanding customer needs and business vision, led to flawed prioritization.

The Reality Check

While influencer advice isn’t all wrong, it often overlooks the realities and nuances of the PM role.

Here’s what influencers often miss:

Frameworks are supplements, not substitutes: There are many prioritization frameworks like Jobs to be Done, RICE scoring, and CIRCLEs that product influencers constantly promote. A PM’s real job is identifying customer needs to solve through research, mastering the problem space, and using frameworks to validate hypotheses and assumptions. No framework can substitute the time spent on customer interviews, surveys, secondary research, and studying internal documents on product and business vision.

Domain knowledge is the most crucial trait of a good PM: Top PMs live and breathe their product domain. They stay on top of industry trends by reading the latest blogs, publications, and constantly learning to maintain a relevant product roadmap.
B2B and B2C skills differ: A lot of advice on social media is offered as generically applicable to all domains. But as a B2B PM who has talked to fellow B2C PMs, I’ve realized the techniques for user research, prioritization, and product testing vary significantly across the two groups.

Deep understanding of technical architecture is crucial to building trust with engineering: Working hand-in-hand with engineering teams requires PMs to have a strong grasp of technical concepts and the ability to discuss trade-offs without shying away from complex issues. (I have a background in engineering, and there are days when I’d be hard-pressed to do my job well without it.) This collaboration fosters trust with the engineering team — your most critical partner.

Understanding design concepts and nuances are critical to work with designers: Understanding basic design principles and wireframing enables PMs to better communicate their vision and facilitate more effective collaboration with designers, especially for complex projects.

Exceptional writing skill is key to get stakeholder alignment: A PM’s core responsibility is selling the product vision across the organization.

Diving deeper into the data and getting your hands dirty is critical to extract actionable insights: In our AI/ML-driven world, data skills are table stakes. PMs must be proficient in SQL to perform exploratory data analysis and make data-driven decisions, particularly in B2C products where customer needs often live in the data.

Cross-functional stakeholder needs must be balanced with product priorities: One key skill heavily promoted on social media is being adept at cross-functional engagement. A good PM must prioritize working backwards from customer needs and then focus on product quality and velocity for career success. This often means saying “no” more than “yes” to feature requests that are misaligned with your product and business goals.

Effective time management prevents burnout: As you grow into the PM role and take on more responsibilities, prioritizing opportunities aligned with product and career goals becomes crucial to preventing burnout and maintaining quality output. Therefore, you’ll need to protect your time to be able to carve time for writing requirements docs and doing customer research – which are the bread and butter of this role.

The Bottom Line

While influencers offer some valuable insights, aspiring PMs must be cautious about taking their advice as gospel. The role demands a multifaceted skill set beyond frameworks and cross-functional affability.

As I learned firsthand, influencer advice can overlook the day-to-day realities, focusing on the glamorous aspects while glossing over the critical thinking and hard work required. By embracing the full scope of product management — from technical depth to influential leadership — early-career professionals can set themselves up for true, impactful success in this dynamic field.

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