How to become a Product Manager

First of all, you are aiming too low. If you do everything I ask you to do below, I’ll be surprised if you still want to be a product manager.

Secondly, I get asked this question a lot so I’ve decided to come up a course for this over a long term but here is an actionable outline in the interim. If you want to transition to a PM role in your company or otherwise, you need to excel in these skills to get noticed.

  1. Customer empathy or Domain skills
  2. Business skills
  3. Strategic thinking skills
  4. Communication skills
  5. Educational qualifications

It is always better to be great in one of these skills than being mediocre in all of them.

So, how do you build these skills?

Domain skills

Immerse yourself in the world of your customer. Seek time from your manager to spend a day or two with each segment of your users so that you can represent them in meetings in the office. Empathetic customer representation will get you noticed at the office.

Start building your network of users that are open to taking your calls respond to your emails to discuss your product. Get to 10 such users within 30 days. Make sure these 10 folks are not all from the same segment.

What’s the sign of success

You have a healthy network of users and you can list a day in their life as a user of your product. You can list their problems. You can quote their response to, why they like your product. You can draw a flow chart describing their workflow. You can list the folks they work with day to day and their titles. You can list other product that users tried before using your product.

Homework 1: Use powerpoint to document your activities in this area.

Business skills

Start your own business online.
Get an audience of 2000 people interested in your opinion before you build anything.

If not, learn about software businesses by listening to podcasts or reading blogs. Pay attention to numbers being shared on these blogs. For example: In June 2016 ConvertKit had a monthly recurring revenue of USD 100,000 and a margin of 50%.

How are software product sold?
What is the role of marketing? How do they do it?
What is the role of sales? How do they do it?

Learn how to validate ideas in the shortest amount of time.
• Create a kickstarter campaign for your idea
• Build a landing page for your idea and drive customers to it.
• Build a video for your idea
• Learn how to create wireframes to explain your idea
What’s the difference between a B2B business or a B2C software business? Why does the GTM difference drive different behaviors for the product team? How do the normal business metrics differ?

Homework 2: Create a presentation on what you learnt. What surprised you. Present to your friends and let them critique it.

What’s the sign of success

You can quote specific numbers and metrics in meetings. Instead of saying, “A lot of users want this feature” you say, “Between 10-20% of our users in segment “A” will find this feature useful based on conversations I’ve had with users”

  • Try to sell something. Start with smaller commitments:
  • Get people to buy your idea
  • Get people to give them your email address
  • Get people to give you < $5 for something you sell on gumroad or amazon or ebay.

You will get noticed at the office.

Strategic skills

Get reading.

Learn about the business world and how software businesses compete. Its much better to read about small businesses than large businesses. Buy and read HBR case studies in your domain.

Know that all business have to worry about Customer acquisition, engagement and retention. So, what are the most common tools that help business owners in these areas?

Understand normal what numbers for:
1. Click through rates on emails
2. Click through rates on web CTAs
3. Typical retention and conversion numbers of different software businesses
4. Software business models that work and why
a. Freemium
b. SaaS
What pricing strategies have been tried and work in your industry?

Homework 3: Create a presentation on what you’ve learnt. 10 slides only.

What’s the sign of success?

You have a point of view on product strategy and roadmap that you can defend. Since this is the highest value add activity in a business, its hard for a new person to claim mastery here, however, having a point of view on the world and is based on more than opinion helps get you noticed.

Communication skills

Do lack of writing and language skills coming in your way?
Most people are not going to call you out for bad grammar, wrong choice of words, and for rambling on and on unless you are really bad. So, if you are being called out already, you have a lot of word to do.

Few other questions to answer:

  • Do you look forward to communicating your point of view?
  • What would be your preferred communication channel – writing, drawing, speaking?
  • Do you have people around you that are great at writing, speaking? Why is that? What do they do that you don’t? Can they evaluate your skills in writing and speaking?

Most normal Indian folks like to speak fast in English. For a long time, speed of delivery was the only measure of language competence in our country. This has led to bad behavior. Slow down and be careful about the words you choose. Ensure people understand what you are saying before you rattle off another sentence.

Tips on writing

  1. First things first. Write! Write every day. Start a blog, even if its private. Stick to a schedule.
  2. Write everything twice. The first draft is never the final draft
  3. Write in short sentences
  4. Use spellcheck and grammar check
  5. Don’t use words that can be misconstrued misunderstood
  6. Remove every extraneous extra word and sentence
  7. Read other people’s work.

Tips on speaking

  1. Record yourself presenting on a topic for 5 minutes and play it back.
  2. Watch ted talks and youtube videos on presentation.
  3. Learn Graphic Design
    1. This deserves a long post. Let me know if you want it.
    2. Start with Canva.com or Spark.adobe.com for free

Homework 4: Go back and fix the design for each of the presentations you made in the past three homework assignments.

What’s the sign of success?

How often are you misunderstood? Are you able to influence the outcome of a meeting? Do you feel good about what you write?How consistent were you on your blog. Did you publish at least 80% of the dates you said you would?

Educational qualifications

This is a big blocker in India. I’ve always said that educational qualifications are the new caste system in India. It’s a bit harsh to say this but in a country with a large workforce, people are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. Educational qualifications are a good, quantifiable, defensible in a large company.

So, get an education that matters. If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree from a Tier 1 college, get a Masters from a tier 1 college. If you can’t get a master’s from a tier 1 college, get a part time masters, if you can’t get a master’s degree even then, then get a degree in the US. Its easier to get in US universities and it can really broaden your horizons.

If you can’t solve for education, get a mentor that believes in you and move groups, companies with her so that you can get the opportunities you want.

Sign of success

In career conversations, people do not quote your educational qualifications as a blocking issue. Or, doors that were closed yesterday are open today.

If you do all the above then chances are that you would get more interested in starting your business than becoming a product manager. That is a good thing. If you still want to be a product manager, then know this. It’s a lot of communication and selling your vision internally and monitoring metrics.

Working on new product ideas

Most product managers dream of working on a 1.0 project. They are unencumbered, new and yours. I am working on two 1.0 projects and the going has been slow and frustrating. If you do a good job as a product manager, you should constantly question your assumption before you put any resources

I was sharing my frustration with an influencer over a long walk in Hamburg when an interesting thing happened. I told him how I was confused about the path forward. I told him that I was getting conflicting messages from different stakeholders and customers. I told him that I wish I can really see these projects through and that I was worried.

People are normally happy commiserating. He did not. He heard me and then at the end of my rant, he reminded me what a luxury it is to be able to think big about your industry without any personal risk. He reminded me that I should enjoy the process of product discovery and not link it to an outcome. He reminded me that there is joy in doing what I was doing regardless of whether it was successful or not.

This was so refreshing and so needed. I had forgotten what it meant to be in the present.

Thank you Christian Glanzmann

–Anubhav

People I’m grateful for

There are so many folks at Adobe who’ve contributed to my growth.

Naresh Gupta – who started the company but asked me to move back to India before he would even interview me for a job at Adobe. I did not get selected after the interviews, which is another story. In 2003, lots of non resident Indian’s were shopping for offers and wasting his time. Naresh also encouraged me to invest in property, which turned out really well for me.

Lekhraj Sharma – He’s been my manager for about 10 of my 13 years at Adobe and was the only reason I got selected at Adobe after I could not get selected as a software developer. Lekhraj has had the biggest impact on my career and l have a lot to thank him for. His kindness, his sense of fairness and commitment to the work is uncompromising. He also supported me leaving his org to move to Product Management.

Barry Hills – Its 2005 and I’m trying to figure out how to really make program management work at Adobe India. Barry led program management at Adobe for the creative products. He is perhaps the most encouraging and positive manager I’ve met. He told amazing stories over expensive bottles of wine about the counting crows and Julia Roberts. I still remember them 12 years later. Strange.

Erica Schisler: The one person who really believed in making Adobe India work from the get go. I actively sought her mentorship and she was generous. She put with accents, cows mooing, stomach infections and bad connections over Indian landlines to make the Adobe Media Encoder and the Premiere and AE extension teams work at Adobe India. She also took interest in developing people. She brought enormous energy and follow through to everything she did. Cut through the bullshit and politics and just got shit done. Taught me everything I know about program management and working with people.

Raman Nagpal: Was my first manager at Adobe. Helped me understand how to navigate Adobe and integrate and add value. Very astute observer of people and their motivations. Taught me how to read people. Encouraged me to invest in property in Gurgaon. Both these things worked out really well for me.

Ashish Agarwal: My sounding board on everything we were doing to build a program management organisation at Adobe in 2003-05. He worked with challenging people at Adobe and was able to keep his head straight through everything. He was very clear about his goals and he taught me how to look out for yourself and how to manage things when the going gets tough.

Amit Kumar Singh: My second sounding board at Adobe on program management. Unfortunately he worked with some of the worst people at the company, who got personal, seemed difficult and unnecessarily demanding. He worked through this mess and left Adobe on a high. He taught me how there can be a great life out of Adobe. He also taught me the value of being an honest, dependable ally.

Pankaj Mathur: Taught me about people. He demonstrated how differently motivated people are. He taught me how easy it is to misunderstand people and how lack of vocabulary to express your true intent can hurt you. He also taught me how not be afraid of asking hard questions, uncomfortable questions.

Rajesh Budhiraja: A fantastic leader. No one at Adobe is more dedicated to the success of Illustrator and more passionate about making a difference and building world class products out of India. He’s been doing that for the last 15 years. He also understands “ownership” better than most people. He knows how to drive engineering organisations and get shit done. As my partner in engineering, he’s always pushed me to be a better product manager and a better people manager.

Anurag Wahi: A leader with polished and considered opinion. Anurag taught me what to say and when to say it is much more important than just talking because you have the floor.

Rahul Vishwaroop: I’ve worked with Rahul for a long time. I’ve not seen a better people manager. He genuinely looks after his team and encourages the team members to grow and find their calling. He knows how to set goals, monitor them and get things done. He taught me how to manage bad performers. He taught me how to read people and have the conversations that needed to be had.

Shamit Kumar Mehta: Stoic and Calm. Shamit taught me how to keep calm and work through the madness to get things done. He also impressed me by the way he sought mentorship and friendship in the company. He is the only person who moved from a program manager at Adobe to an engineering manager to a Sr. EM. Fantastic accomplishment. I haven’t met anyone who has a low opinion of him. He knew how little his product managers knew, he knew the politics but it never let him stop contributing beyond what was expected of him.

Neeraj Nandkeolyar: Taught me about Art. Taught me about life. Taught me about passion. Taught me everything I know about Illustrator, InDesign, Print and introduced me to many interesting people and experiences.

Yogesh Sharma: Taught me how to communicate clearly and use design to your advantage. He taught me empathy.

Michael Ninness: Taught me how to value my own self and my needs. He taught me how to tell stories and how to have many difficult conversations everyday without blowing a fuse. He taught me the value of a great presentation. He probably made more of a different to my quality of life than any manager I’ve had at Adobe. He’s also asked me better questions than any manager I’ve had.

Paul Gubbay – Storytelling, Alignment and strategy. Paul’s amazing at all these things. Lots I can learn from him. I don’t think I learnt as much as I could have from him, which is mostly my fault.

Vineet Batra – Engineer par excellence. He taught me how single handedly a strong engineer or two can completely change the game for your product. He also taught me how no nonsense execution works. He reminds me of principal researchers and scientists like Mark Davis and Ken Gundry at Dolby Labs. They knew their stuff just like Vineet and stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Bert Bischoff, Joe Bibbo and folks at Nemesys: My first part time job in Austin was at Nemesys music technologies. Bert gave me the chance to work for Nemesys. I would not have been able to pay my tuition at University of Texas at Austin without Bert. Bert, Joe Bibbo and the Van Buskirks taught me what it meant to work in a start up. It learnt a lot at Nemesys and I’m forever grateful to them.

There are so many others that I’ve failed to mention. My team members that I’d managed out of Adobe and folks that left my team taught me a lot and in a short amount of time. Its better they remain unnamed.

–Anubhav

Shadowed Qualities – Good Tape, Great Story

I listen to the startup podcast from Gimlet media fairly regularly. Last week’s episode was groundbreaking in a lot of ways.

What a fantastic episode. It’s raw, personal and honest storytelling. Its great tape edited to produce an even greater story. It was so poignant, it made me cry. Alex Bloomberg’s personal journey felt so relatable since I went through a 360 survey not too long ago.

While I did not get as deep with the analysis of my own survey results, it was clear that I had work to do. I could not carry on the way I was. I needed to develop my time and team management skills. This is not something I enjoy. I’m much better at managing my own work than the work of my team. I’m still trying to get better at this skill that I really did not care for, much to the detriment of my team. I’m also getting better at stepping back and really holding more people in the team accountable for outcomes.

Finally, I also remembered how I had written off Alex Bloomberg’s effort in my post 2 years ago. I’m happy he did not listen to me. I’m happy I did not bet any money on a negative outcome for hearstartup, which is now Gimlet media and it doing over $10Million in revenue and employing 40+ people in Brooklyn. I still dont think they have a big exit ahead of them but they are onto something.

Picking winners is hard.

–Anubhav

Difficult conversations

Crucial conversations are crucial because the stakes are high.

I’ve had to have a 3 difficult conversations in the last two weeks around the ownership of a project within the company. In all these cases, I felt uncomfortable having these one on one conversations but I had to. I’m glad I did because it forced early disclosure of everyone’s agendas including mine.

I was very honest and clear on what I wanted and what I was ok with. I wish I could say that all these conversations were pre planned and well orchestrated on my part. The only thing I can say was that I was clear on my goals. What I wanted out of the conversation was pretty clear to me. This allowed me to listen to arguments from the other side and empathise without giving up my goals.

I wish I could say that all these issues are now sorted. I know they are not. These issues are so important that they will need more conversations in the future to reinforce the decision we’ve come to. Such is the nature of these conversations. No ones tells you that its never over. Passionate people bring up past arguments whenever they see a window of opportunity.

–Anubhav

 

Getting out of a slump 

If you are working on something important in a large company, chances are a lot more people at going to be involved in this project than you imagined and you have to find a way to engage and align them. I thought I knew this but I did not realise how crazy things can get. I think I almost got depressed working on this new, important project as I figured out how many conversations I needed to have and how many presentations I needed to make to get alignment. Here is a quick summary of how I felt during the last one month working on the project. 

Thursday July 4th: Down and Out

It’s so easy to get yourself down. I am having a hard week because it’s been difficult to figure out product strategy questions while figuring out the politics around it. Stakeholders are asking good questions but I’m just seeing them as roadblocks. I’m also spending every waking moment thinking about clever retorts and smart one liners to put them in their place. Obviously this is not healthy. And, for the first time in my life, I had trouble sleeping two nights in a row. 
So.. I brought out the big guns. I relied on the advice from Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss and my dad and decided to: 
  • Write 
  • Listen to music 
  • Change my body language to feel how I want to feel 
  • Journal (gratitude, morning journal) : Could not get myself to do this. 
  • Exercise to get the good chemicals flooding in (swam or cross fit every day) 
  • Decided to treat it as my problem to convince the roadblocks and make them allies. 
  • Met an old friend from high school. Had a good chat, good Zin, unhealthy food 🙂 
  • I also decided to blog about my predicament. This was very helpful. 
I have three paths forward now: Engage my team to answer the objections Ask the roadblocks how they would pitch the idea Let my management chain know that I will need help It’s amazing once you do stuff… Depression disappears and opportunities appear. You think about things you normally won’t. You smile. You change your mindset. The nature of the problem changes. Your head reconfigures. Hope this helps you get out of your head and “save your soul” https://youtu.be/0wBDDAZkNtk https://youtu.be/0wBDDAZkNtk 

July 18th: Working through it. In Action. 

Was a really difficult week but rewarding at the end as I was able to resolve conflicts, raise issues as and get stuff sorted out within the company so that we can get good results in the long term. I did not win every argument. I did not get exactly what I wanted. But it really allowed me to hear other people’s points of view. And, a promising future. 

Update August 16th: A fantastic week

Things have gone well since I decided to stay in action and bring all stakeholders along. It prevented internal sabotage. I did have to have difficult conversations in person with some stakeholders but it was all important and necessary. Had I seen these folks as roadblocks and tried to steamroll my way through, it would not have worked. 
Onwards and upwards. 
–Anubhav 

Restraint is overrated

Restraint is over valued I was reading a travel mag on a flight to MSP and read something provocative. “Balance in life is overrated”. Passionate people pursue their passions singlemindedly, produce extra ordinary results and then burn out and need to recharge. Maybe that’s how innovation happens. Concentrated periods of singular focus and compete immersion in an area. 

–Anubhav

Improving an existing product

Much more has been written on validating product ideas and new product launches than on improving an existing product. A product is only new once. Most Product managers spend bulk of their time on existing products than on new products. A lot of these products are inherited from other PMs who’ve left the company or moved on to other things in the same company. So, how do you improve an existing product?

Obviously, you have to start by defining what “improve” means. New product managers generally think about adding features to an existing product because it’s an easier problem to solve than trying to figure out where the actual problem is in their product. This problem is compounded by the fact that many PMs do not own their end to end customer journeys. This is especially true in large companies where corporate marketing wants to tell the company’s story and not responsible for input metrics like customer acquisition directly. Product marketing runs it’s own ship and generally has to toe the company line on what to communicate. Sometimes your product is a part of a suite of products and only the top few things across the entire suite of products get the company’s attention.

If you inherited a product and are the lead PM on it, here are some of the questions you must ask:

What business objectives are we trying to meet?

  • Increase revenue Greater customer retention
  • Better free to paid conversion
  • Increased profits
  • Increased adoption

Which of these problems does the business want to solve in the product? For example, you can solve the retention problem by calling users that are churning, sending retention based offers outside of the product or really improve the product so that more uses come back.

Similarly, you can get free users to convert through offers or by experimenting with the trial duration or by offering free tutorials that don’t require any changes to the product at all. Or, you could build better user onboarding into the product so that new users perform tasks A, B, C, which you’ve defined as critical to the product. Ask these questions before you start working on the product.

Once the business decides the “what” only then should you move on to “how”. Generally, it is very difficult to quantify the value of a new feature. Not every product has the luxury to run an A/B test for every feature they want to put in the product. Especially when you have already paid the cost of the building the feature. So, it’s important to build as little as possible. Most teams underestimate the cost of maintaining a feature and updating it when platform changes require it. The true cost of a feature should include: Validation Onboarding, Discoverability, Analytics and  Maintenance.

Since feature estimates always go up, so do all the other costs of building a product. 

Read “Four steps to an epiphany” from Steve Blank. It helps you figure out what kind of market you are in and how you should plan your sustaining innovation work.

Sign up to get motr product management tips directly in your inbox.

–Anubhav

Transitioning to a group product manager

It’s been more than a year and here are the things I wish I had known or had been told as I made this transition:

  1. It’s a completely different role
  2. Focus on getting things done more than doing things
  3. Be clear on what you are driving and what your team is driving
  4. Communicate! I thought I was good at it but managing a team requires more written communication, more documentation that I thought
  5. Read “Good group product manager, Dead Group Product Manager” 
  6. Accountability – be explicit. Folks don’t just do the right thing. 

Is this obvious? Probably to many but honestly it was not to me and I’ve managed a team before. 

One of the difficult things for me is to make good habits stick. With the amount of travel I do, it’s been hard to hold the team accountable for their tasks. I have started to use Trello to track tasks assigned to the team. I love that you can email directly to a Trello board. This allows me to bcc task emails to the Trello board. A little bit of housekeeping later, I can remember to follow up on these tasks in 1 on 1s. Travel makes it harder to follow up on tasks. This is why a Group product manager role is very different from other management roles. 

Also, you spend a lot of time prepping decks for internal pitches and driving alignment between various other groups in the company and championing your causes. Your wins and losses are public and drive team morale more than you think. 

–Anubhav

Settling in as a new product manager

There are many pitfalls that new Product managers should avoid. Here is my list:

  1. Trying to lead too early
  2. Trying to dictate schedule
  3. Not partnering with existing managers
  4. Not focusing on eliminating the trust deficit

Leading early

Its tempting to join a team and start making calls on the feature backlog and UX design of existing features.

Instead: Focus on establishing common understanding of goals for the team.

Dictating schedule

New PMs want to ensure feature deliveries by a given time. Its important to remember that if you can only get two out of these three items in software development – Feature set, sovaldi Quality & Schedule.

Instead: Focus on understanding team dynamics. Which teams deliver on time and on spec. Which don’t. Is the team that doesn’t deliver on time sufficiently excited about what they are working on?

Not partnering with managers

Existing managers need to buy in to your vision of the product before you are going to get any traction from their teams. If you disregard managers, ampoule you run the risk of running to tacit pushback from their teams. Get the managers excited about your vision and see how quickly you are able to get the team to deliver on it.

Instead: Have regular 1 on 1s with the managers (Dev, QE, XD) and listen to the words they use. Words will help you guage their level of buy in. Its critical to know where they are not bought in so that you can improve the story and pitch. If they are not bought it, their team surely isn’t.

Eliminating the trust deficit

PMs come in and try to pitch new ideas right off the bat. They don’t realize that even if the ideas are great, no one’s going to let them pursue it because senior managers don’t trust them enough.

Instead: Put your head down and deliver high quality releases based on existing priorities. Establish success criteria for each release, feature and report against them. Show that you are driving change based on data and not on your best guess on the future. Eliminate the deficit, build a reputation that you learn fast, experiment, use data, focus on design and UX before you pitch new things to execs.

–Anubhav