Leaving my legal career to work in tech was a long (but exciting) journey. I spent about a year as an engineer at J.Crew in New York before transitioning into a product management role at Dollar Shave Club in Los Angeles. As prepared as I felt I was, I’ve learned so much during my first few months as a product manager.
Know when to pick your battles
As a former trial lawyer, it’s no secret I love a healthy debate. As a lawyer, it was my job to stand firm on my position, to take all facts and attempt to align them with my agenda. As a product manager, this is a very bad strategy. While having an opinion is important, refusing to be open to the opinions of others or to take into account the totality of information available to you can result in poor product management.
As a product manager, it’s imperative that you’re malleable in your position and can pivot quickly to meet the changing demands of both your users and your business. Our job as product managers is to gather as much information as possible to make an informed decision, not to stand firm on an idea to the exclusion of conflicting information, data and opinions.
Know when to say no
On the flip side, it’s important for product managers to be able to say no when features aren’t aligned with business strategy, would unjustifiably prevent a product launch, or would expend time and resources that could be dedicated to other features.
Understand the why of everything you do
Whether you’re building a new feature, iterating on a previous idea, conducting A/B tests or tracking KPIs, product managers should have a solid understanding of the why behind their actions. Why should a feature be built? Why should you conduct this test or track this metric? Understanding the why of your actions helps prevent feature creep and preserve time and resources that could be spent on other things.
What’s good for the user must be good for the business
People tend to talk about product managers as being the voice of the user, the people responsible for providing users with the best experience possible. While I agree with this, what’s good for the user must ultimately be aligned with what’s good for the business. It’s easy for a product to become bloated and over-featured if not tempered by business objectives.
To this end, user demand and market competition shouldn’t be the main forces behind feature development to the exclusion of what is appropriate for the business long term. Proper evaluation of a feature should include an assessment of whether it drives acquisition, conversion, retention (or other appropriate KPIs), and ultimately moves the business forward in the intended direction.
Anticipate and plan for delays
Even the most high performing teams will experience impediments during the design and development process. Having an understanding of potential impediments and including time to resolve those impediments in the development process can help ensure your product launch isn’t delayed. Articulating a tight launch date without consideration of potential engineering issues is also a good way to piss off your engineers.
Part of this planning process should include an understanding of what features, if any, can be temporarily sacrificed in the event a product has a hard launch date and is running behind schedule.
Get engineering involved early
Anytime you have Big Design Up Front, you have the potential to experience implementation issues later. It doesn’t make sense for the design team to spend a month designing a feature only to find out from engineering that a particular element can’t be implemented based on the current code or database structure.
Involving engineering in the design process often leads to more practical designs and fewer revisions resulting from implementation issues. It also has the added bonus of clueing engineering in as to what’s coming down the pike, allowing them to think preliminarily on issues affecting implementation.
Understand how others do it, but be an innovator
It’s important to understand what your competition is doing. However, you don’t want to fall into the trap of keeping up with the Joneses. You must find a way to innovate, to make features your own, and to understand why a consumer is going to choose your product over your competitor’s. You want to stay ahead, not keep up.
New features are fun, but enhancements are important too
New features can be an exciting and creative opportunity to move your business forward. However, feature enhancements resulting in more maintainable code or speedier load times are a necessary part of the user experience. It’s easy to forget about these amidst building larger, sexier features.
Test everything that needs testing
Sometimes you just don’t know how users will respond to a particular feature. Conducting appropriate A/B tests is an integral part of a product manager’s job.
Relationships are vital to the success of a product manager. Unlike the hierarchy I experienced as a lawyer, product managers have no direct authority over anyone contributing to their product. Often, essential components of a product are required from someone over whom you have no authority. How do you stay on schedule with so many moving parts? How do you approach someone over whom you have no authority and ask if they’ve completed a particular task? It’s impossible without building solid relationships with your colleagues.
Know everything about your product
As a product manager, you’re the person people will come to with questions about your product. Anticipate their questions. Know how to answer them. Know the status of each puzzle piece that will ultimately comprise your final product. Remember why you chose to do something a certain way, and be able to articulate that later when there are questions. Keep track of ideas for future iterations and A/B tests. Know what your product is supposed to bring to the user experience and how this aligns with your overall business strategy. Know how your product increases your company’s most important KPIs and how to successfully track those metrics.
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