Friday, April 28, 2023

What's Important to a Career Product Manager

My apologies for not posting more often, I realized recently that it's been a few years. It seems like I never have the time to develop my various ideas to a blog article - it's a bit of a Catch 22 - when we're very busy we think of a lot of things that would make great topics of conversation or ideal blog posts, but because we're busy, we never have time to form up those ideas and get them "on paper" so to speak.

I'm currently between jobs so I've had some time to reflect. I thought initially about relating my most recent experiences in role-seeking - however it seems like there's so many of my colleagues also looking that I didn't want to compound any anxiety they may be experiencing. It did get me thinking about Product Management as a career path and, as part of the job search, really thinking about what's important to me at this point in my life. This was a result of some soul searching about what I'm really looking for in a senior product role.

I think that most of us, and for me at least, can segment a Product Management career into three general phases:

  1. Learning Product Management as a Craft
  2. Excelling to Maximize Salary
  3. Relevancy as a goal

Let's break this down a bit so you can understand where I'm coming from.  

1. Learning Product Management as a Craft

I've been doing Product Management in some form as a professional for more than 20 years. When I first committed to this path, the term Product Management for most established companies had a fairly distinct definition - this was to garner information from stakeholders and write things up in a product specification, which would then be turned over to designers and engineers, expanded upon and executed. Everyone was pretty much doing this in a traditional waterfall pattern where the specifications were written for the next initiative concurrent in staggered timelines with the actual execution steps. Eventually I think most software-producing industries took the principles of Lean manufacturing and applied them into agile frameworks such as scrum or kanban, but much of the basic role of a product manager could still be defined as a "needs interpreter" that acts as a translator between the front-of-the-house stakeholders and engineering.

I backed into product management somewhat accidentally - I had taught myself how to code ASP back in the 90's and began producing websites under Web 2.0, mostly as a side-gig (I had been a graphic designer and illustrator which let to actively marketing a comic book concept online for Bob Burden's Mystery Men, coinciding with the movie premier). I had met many people, now friends, through online user groups especially for collectibles (if you can't tell, I'm a proud geek), and it was one contact that developed into a friendship that has lasted to this day. In any case, my friend was working for an online auction site that competed with eBay (which had only been in existence for a couple of years at that point) and he pitched an idea to me - the problem he saw in the field was that companies with goods to sell had a hard time committing to online auctions because of the difficulty in getting product information into the auctions (there's still a somewhat complex form that has to be filled out every time an auction is created). This spawned the idea of Auctionworks, that eventually became the ecommerce provider Marketworks. He asked me to come in as I was pretty much the only person he knew that had web experience AND knew auctions like eBay - that's how I ended up being a co-founder.

Understand that at that point I had no idea what a Product Manager did, or even that it might be the role for me. Rather, as a co-founder I found myself doing any number of tasks just to get the company going (and once started, maintaining/improving). One of those tasks was to look across the interwebs and determine if there ere any other companies trying to do what we wanted to do - there were a couple of websites that provided copy-paste templates that could be used for auctions, but they were very nascent - what interested me more were sites that allowed for the inventory management of goods. We stumbled upon one site in particular that did an interesting job of aggregating live auction data across multiple platforms (so if you had auctions in eBay, Overstock, uBid and Yahoo, you could view our auctions from one consolidated portal) - we met with the IP holder and talked him into being the CTO of our new company and that's how we were able to rebrand his IP and get to market quickly. What followed were adjustments to this idea that grew into the Marketworks platform.

Once the company started to grow it became really successful and we were able to make an important hire of a VP of Product Management that had a lot of experience. He's the one that suggested that I might like being a Product Manager - providing many materials to me and formalizing what I was doing with our development teams - this made the process much better and more consistent and really kicked off my career.

As years have gone by I've done gigs for start-ups, fortune 100 companies and everything in between. I've learned a few things.

  1. You can be relatively successful based on crummy technology if you have a great marketing and sales approach. Of course you may have little or no growth, but for some achieving some baseline that pays the bills is enough. This premise has it's pitfalls but you'd be surprised at how many companies out there are running on some pretty crappy tech and still manages to pay its bills.
  2. The underlying tech has little to do with initial success, as long as it does something that's needed and it gets on the market fairly quickly. I've become very software agnostic - I don't care if it's php, .Net, Python, Java or anything else, as long as it can be built relatively quickly in small iterative steps, can be built with little effort bug free, and is easy to maintain.
  3. People are more important than technology. You can have a few very competent, easy going people and produce a lot if they get along and have the ability to ask questions, listen and contribute towards accomplishing goals. Conversely, if the people involved are self-centered they're usually quite dysfunctional and you accomplish little.
  4. The underlying tech CAN have a lot to do with ongoing success. There are always trade-offs to any approach, both in the software used or developed; and in the hardware/cloud infrastructure. I've seen time and again, companies trying to limp along a business using tired old tech. Often it's much better to transition to a new tech platform rather than try to Band-Aid an existing (if you're fixing your software more than you're developing new software, you're probably experiencing this right now).
  5. Learn as much as you can as fast as you can as a Product Manager - you need to be domain expert, psychoanalyst, evangelist and oracle (no, not the software giant).

In any case, the first third or so of your career will be spent learning the craft. If you're lucky you'll get some training through Pragmatic Marketing or similar early in the process - this will help you a lot early on, but don't discount those courses later - I've found myself reinvigorated when taking additional courses, whether I thought to know the subject material or not.

2. Excelling to Maximize Salary

At some point in your Product Management career you'll begin to either start realizing some decent roles with elevated pay, or wonder why you haven't and what you should do about it. I think most PdMs (Product Managers) fall into one of two categories - they either are 1.) very impatient about money, which tends to direct them into more managerial roles quickly, often making lateral moves outside of Product (it's difficult to get into senior product roles without the actual experience) OR 2.) they are more patient, preferring to truly sample what can be done with Product, savoring each experience for the fulfillment of producing something new. I tend to fall into that second category (and don't get me wrong, you can sort of do both to a certain extent). For me, I have a desire to become really good tactically as a Product Owner working directly with teams. I then worked with a team of product owners as their senior as a cohesive unit to deliver multiple components within the same product. Finally working more across initiatives that bridge across multiple products and components to deliver specific strategic product outcomes. Each of these are growth steps and helps to make you both competent and confident in your abilities.

I've seen many ups and downs trying to get to the point where I'm "comfortable" in my salary. You've probably heard of the Peter Principle:

The Peter principle is a concept in management developed by Laurence J. Peter, which observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to "a level of respective incompetence": employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.

Another way of describing it is that you'll always get promoted to your highest level of incompetence. Your ability to learn quickly, or your ability to BS everyone around you (which can have consequences), or the amount of time your colleagues allow you to learn your role, will determine whether you succeed when you hit that level. Years ago, I was hired by a printer to be a graphic designer, purely on my portfolio which was made up of traditional illustration (like airbrush on board). I lasted 3 weeks when it was obvious I didn't have the experience to  support my role. For my next job, I used the same portfolio and the short stint I did at my previous job for a similar position at another company. Fortunately, I was provided enough time to learn my role which was fairly technical, and eventually excelled - I was promoted to Art Director (department head in this case) but my boss admitted that when he first hired me, he almost fired me a few weeks in because I didn't have the experience to do the job. I was able to leverage some of my traditional illustration skills to get jobs out and fill in gaps in my technical know-how and that's ultimately what saved me.

So to me there's this tricky balance between being overly competent at your current job, enough to be promoted, but basically an initial failure at your newly promoted role, hopefully with enough support from your associates to learn and become competent. Of course there's a way to excel - that's by going over-and-above in your current role, learning as much as you can so you're more ready for the promotion. In the military that's called training - you do repetitive tasks until they can be accomplished with little thought - it becomes automatic. This, above all other reasons, is why you need to be inquisitive and get involved in things outside the workplace. What was the last product group meeting (like ProductCamp or a MeetUp) you attended locally? Did you explore the goings-on in the local REACTjs, Data Science or Engineering groups? If you did attend, where you there just for the free pizza or did you ask questions, take notes and really explore what was going on? You'll find yourself learning by osmosis, and even better, you'll pick up nuances from those groups that you might never encounter at your own company.

At some point you'll either be stymied because there isn't any level you can be promoted to, or become complacent. When this happens you're ready either to jump ship or to think about the third phase.

3. Relevancy as a Goal

To be clear, this phase will happen to everyone - it's the point in your career where the money (and power if you're more that type) isn't the primary driver. Instead you want to proceed in a direction that has impact. Sometimes this is fairly selfish, for instance, to do something so your name is remembered in infamy or for personal goals besides wealth. For me, it's about doing something both relevant and that significantly improves the lives of others. To bring this back to the start of my post (regarding soul searching and determining what is REALLY important), it's become the driver for my transition into Health Tech. Most of the roles I've had in the past were all about making money/profits - often my role was tied in some way to the P&L through OKRs, bonuses, etc. Because of this my career growth was often bound to improving some entity's bottom line. Of course I've also been learning and doing interesting work so there's a two-way-street in benefit to both me and my employer. And don't get me wrong, I'm not condemning the for-profit practice, I'm just saying that I think there's more out there to be considered.

The ideal situation for me is to do something 1.) interesting so I'm learning, 2.) something that increases the value of a company or entity, and 3.) improves the lives of others. Recently I've both worked in Health Tech AND experienced an injury that involved surgery - really the first major health issue I've ever personally experienced. I knew the healthcare system in the US was bad, but really had no idea how bad. So my current job search is to find a role where I can do everything in the first sentence of this paragraph, applied to Healthcare as a goal. 

In my last role, one of the primary drivers for me ended up being the results of the efficacy data - we supplied therapeutic treatments for chronic pain, and based on the observations of our providers AND the questionnaires completed by patients, we could prove that the therapies not only significantly reduced chronic pain in our patients, but also allowed them to be weaned off of pain medications like opiates - that empirical data, plus the testimonies and interviews of our patients and network of providers, really went a long way to making me feel good about the job I was doing and the services I spent a lot of time developing. There are many problems in healthcare in the US, but at least I wasn't contributing to them. This is relevant and impacts lives.

I'm not suggesting that Health Tech is for everyone, there are many other verticals where you could find something similar, relevancy in improving lives; for instance in building trades to make housing more affordable, in providing services that reduce hunger in children, producing software that produces a reduction in homelessness and poverty, the list goes on. Find something that makes you feel good about the work you're doing, help to build a good functioning team and you'll find great career satisfaction.

Last point, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" is a common saying that originated from a Chinese proverb. The quotation is from Chapter 64 of the Dao De Jing ascribed to Laozi. That's to say that even if you're still in the first or second career phase, it's never too early to start thinking about what you can do to nudge your career towards relevancy. In fact, the earlier you make it a goal, the more informed you'll be in prioritizing it and making it achievable. Here's to hoping everyone can do something relevant and significant that improves people's lives, this is something we can and should do.

-- John Eaton 2023.04.28