The Evolution of a Product Manager – Josh McWilliam
Josh McWilliam is a co-founder and Vice President of Product at College Factual. Their mission is to help every student realize their full potential through the best fit education their money can buy. While their focus is on students with the College Factual brand, they also have other brands like Ed.ai (for advisors), Educate.ai (for colleges), and BRIGHT HUB (for teachers).
In Josh’s Product Tank NYC presentation, he explains his evolution as a product manager. His roles over the last 15 years have started with engineering and architecture, and moved on from there to product management, and now he oversees product, but also data science, engineering, and UI/UX teams. His current role is best identified as Chief Operating Officer.
What is a Product Manager?
Josh openly admits that he has struggled at times to truly define the role of product manager. In fact, many people, both outside and inside the product community also struggle with this reality. Knowing that the product manager role is dependent on one’s career background and skills and the industry that one works (among other things), Josh has gone through many different ideas of what product managers should do.
Build More Product
Josh first assumed that his primary responsibilities involved satisfying his stakeholders and releasing lots of features. The problem with that definition, however, was that he had no validation process in place, and his technical focus caused him to ignore things such as marketing. He found himself being angry with stakeholders for failing to validate product ideas, despite doing exactly what he was told. He then realized that while his stakeholders may ask for certain things, his responsibility is to know what will or will not succeed.
Build the Right Product the Right way
Next, Josh began to think about his effectiveness as a product manager more often. He focused on the product-market fit and user testing. At first, things began to work very well. But after a while, he started to realize that product success leads to managing more products, until eventually you start to lose control and become a bottleneck. Deadline pressure leads to making shortcuts, and you find yourself going from being a leader or coach on the team, to being a dictator, which can create friction on a team. Josh learned from his experiences with this that he needed to become scalable.
Josh discovered that once you start to focus on scalability, the other areas start to work themselves out. You need to start investing in things like systems, automation, feedback loops, and metrics dashboards.
How do you Become a Truly Scalable Product Manager?
Josh’s short answer to that question is: “you can’t.” To be truly scalable, you can’t be a product manager; you need to be a product leader. To become a product leader, you need to start letting things go and sharing them with the rest of your team. Josh explains that many product managers become hoarders of things like:
- Vision. A product manager creates and shares their grand vision with the team, whereas a product leader creates a shared vision with the team, and continues to evangelize it.
- Users. Product managers regularly talk to users, whereas product leaders ensure that the entire team is regularly talking to users.
- Learning. Products managers are always learning, whereas product leaders are always teaching.
- Answers. Product managers give the right answers, whereas product leaders ask the right questions.
- Decisions. Product managers make all of the decisions, whereas product leaders delegate all of the decisions.
- Power and Control. Product managers retain power and control, whereas product leaders distribute power and control.
- Efforts. Product managers’ direct efforts of those in their company, whereas product leaders inspire efforts of those in their company and beyond.
In his conclusion, Josh reminds us that being a product leader is a matter of combining effectiveness and scalability. You need to be building the right products, but also building them the right way and thinking large scale and outside the conventional ways of getting things done. Being a leader is also very much about being a member of your team, rather than overseeing your team. Product managers create products, but product leaders create “movements” or experiences.