So You Wanna Be A Product Manager?

By Karthik Sridharan W’07/ENG’07 Founder and CEO of Kinnek

The Product Manager (PM) moniker is one of the most misunderstood in the technology world.  It sounds glamorous—everyone wants to manage a product. However, there’s a lot of misinformation about what it means to be an effective PM, the skills needed to be an effective PM and the pre-requisite knowledge for product management. While there are no clear-cut answers and the exact definition of the Product Manager role varies widely from company to company, there are certain things I’d always recommend for aspiring PMs to keep in mind:

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  1. Not every Product Manager is a “boss.”

One major misconception about being a Product Manager is that it’s always a senior-level role with a team-management component. While a lot of PMs certainly do act in a managerial capacity the “management” part of the title is really a reference to managing a product process, information flow between stakeholders, or data surrounding a product. There are junior-level PM roles as well and many larger companies have organizational hierarchies including several different tiers of PM.  Product management is as much its own discipline as engineering, design, or sales. Think of it like this: being an engineer doesn’t imply seniority—it simply refers to someone’s profession. In the same way being a PM doesn’t imply seniority, it refers to what you do.

  1. Product Managers must be able to see big picture.

This cannot be overstated. A PM’s job is to make sure the entire product moves forward. That means coordinating engineers, designers working with customer-facing teams like sales/support/account management, and internal teams like finance and operations.  While you must be able to understand and appreciate what happens “in the weeds,” it’s critical to maintain a broader sense for the medium- and long-term product roadmap. Knowing what’s coming next is an expected skill and function of PMs at all times. The role of a PM is to understand the implications of a potential new feature, or redesign, or engineering decision. A good PM has the ability to mentally “helicopter” above the hodge-podge of daily short-term decisions and make sure that the product is moving in the right direction.

  1. It’s all about dealing with scarcity.

One of the biggest (and toughest) responsibilities of a PM is to prioritize actions by the team.

Especially at an early-stage startup, time and staff are extremely scarce resources.  So while it’s all too easy to say “we have to do everything on our list asap,” this is in fact the death-knell of many startups.  A good PM understands that not everything can be done now. What separates an effective Product Manager from someone who’s just blindly going through a project checklist is the ability to evaluate the marginal costs and benefits of potential actions and how those actions could impact others on the team and the business itself.  Sometimes customer demands dictate appropriate prioritization, often engineering schedules influence it, and sometimes the urgency to hit product milestones drives the optimal decision. If we build feature X would that hurt our ability to build Y later on? If engineer 1 works on Bug B will that mean engineer 2 is twiddling her thumbs for a day waiting for feedback on or support for what she’s working on?  Is rebuilding Feature Z to reduce technical debt more optimal in the long-run than simply ignoring it and moving on to build the next cool product addition? These are all things a PM needs to think about on a daily basis.

  1. You have to know your product like the back of your hand.

A good PM knows their product. They talk to customers and learn what they like and dislike about the product. They talk to potential customers and learn about their perception of the product and why this audience hasn’t signed up yet. PMs also work with their engineers daily to understand the technical state of the product. They pour through the user behavioral data and metrics to gather quantitative evidence about how the product is used. They think about the qualitative aspects of the product such as look and feel, too. In short; PMs live and breathe their product. I’ve found the best PMs rarely respond with “I don’t know” or “Not sure” when posed with any question related to their product. They know what’s working, what needs to change and how to get there.

  1. If you can’t work with engineers, good luck!

One of my pet peeves is Product Managers who claim to simply be “idea people;” they think PMing is just about “cool feature ideas” then leaving it to the engineers to figure out what to build, how to build it, and when.  This drives me crazy!  A true PM needs to work extremely closely with the engineers. Even though being an engineer or being able to code is not a pre-requisite for being a PM, it is necessary (in my opinion) to be able to understand software engineering enough to build an effective development roadmap. PMs should be able to differentiate between an ‘easy’ and ‘difficult’ development project, understand concepts like ‘technical debt’ and be able to understand how different sub-areas of engineering teams interact (backend, front-end, dev ops, etc.).

  1. Success is an ever-changing goal-post.

Many startups meet their maker not because their teams don’t work hard but because they don’t work hard on the right things. They burn the midnight oil for months at a time, only to look back and think, “What did we even accomplish?  We were so busy but it doesn’t seem to have made a difference.”  This scenario stems from a lack of focus on the key success drivers of the product. Being a PM isn’t about building features, it’s about making sure your product succeeds. Part of your role as PM is to think about what it means for your product to be considered successful. Is it hitting a certain revenue target? Is it maintaining some level of user engagement? Is it achieving a certain conversion rate? As the PM, you should be constantly thinking about this. You need to understand different ways of evaluating your product’s efficacy, and keep re-evaluating how you think about that. This will help you immensely in prioritizing development tasks.

  1. You’ve gotta be an excellent spokesperson for your product.

While this is an oft-overlooked part of being a PM, you should be able to communicate your vision for the product effectively to all stakeholders. Your entire business: engineers, sales, design, operations and support staff should all understand where the product is headed and should be invested in the product vision.  You should inspire confidence and excitement in your team and your customers. You must be the #1 advocate for your product.

If you’d like to chat more about Kinnek, please feel free to reach out to me at karthik@kinnek.com.  We’re also hiring, so check out www.kinnek.com/jointeam if you’d like to help build our marketplace.

Karthik headshot smBio:  Karthik Sridharan is co-founder and CEO of Kinnek, an online marketplace that provides small businesses with a better way to find suppliers and make purchases.  He is a graduate of the M&T Program (Wharton ’07, SEAS ’07), and lives in New York City.

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