Why do we Forget That Product Management is a Tough Career?

BY RIK HIGHAM ON MAY 14, 2018

Growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut – or a dinosaur. I think I got closer to being a dinosaur, I certainly did more practice! As an adult, if I could trade careers overnight I’d quite like to be an actor. The challenge of authentically playing different characters in different situations appeals to me, but I know it’s a career that is much harder than it appears. It was only after director and screenwriter James Gunn sent out this tweet that I realised the same can be said of product management:

A tweet from James Gunn

It’s worth reading his whole thread but essentially his point is that, while people don’t die if you act badly, to act well you need years of training, practice, experience, and honing your skill set.

A child in a dinosaur costume with another child in costume©Jacob Barss-Bailey

Like acting, product management is harder and more subtle than it appears on the outside. Like good actors, good product managers make it seem natural and effortless. Like actors, product managers are seen as the lead role, when in reality there is an entire team pulling together. From the outside we only see the public face of a film or TV show; the actors get all the attention, while the directors, screenwriters, camera operators, editors, musicians, costume, and make-up artists work tirelessly behind the scenes. People often assume that product managers are calling the shots, deciding what to build, and operating unilaterally. It can seem like an attractive, simple role. In reality it’s so much more than deciding what to build. It’s so much more than telling people what to do. It’s so much broader than people expect.

Product Management is Hard

As product managers we could be talking to the legal team about our customers’ personal information one moment, and to engineers about whether we should use Native or React Native to build our app the next. We need to work with the finance team to understand the implications of PCI compliance, we need to help the commercial team to pitch to potential partners, we need to collaborate with the user research team to craft insightful investigations, we need to explore with the design team how our product can solve customer pains, we need to manage the expectations of CXOs, and we need to work with the people team to ensure our recruitment process attracts product managers from diverse backgrounds.

Product managers are not experts in all these areas. Yet we are expected to engage in these conversations as though we are. We are generalists surrounded by specialists. This can be daunting. We need to know enough details to guide the discussion, ask the right questions, and help the group to reach a conclusion. Juggling all these conversations can feel like you’re continuously shifting gear in a tumult of noise. And that’s before you’ve started speaking to customers, analysing product data, understanding your market, defining your product vision and roadmap, or even managing other product managers.

Rather than providing solutions, a large part of product management is spending time in understanding the problem – probing it from different angles, breaking it down to expose the underlying problems and identify the fundamental assumptions. Then you must explore all these areas with your engineers, designers, and growth managers, form hypotheses and test them, and build up potential solutions as a team. People mistakenly get the impression that becoming a product manager is the only way to influence the product, but this just means you’re not including everyone’s strengths and expertise enough during the product discovery stage.

As a product manager, you are part psychologist, scientist, and artist – and the master of none of these.

And yet, for all this, product management is incredibly good fun!

A Foot in the Door

Saying that anyone can become a product manager is just as true as saying anyone can become a doctor, a chef, a lawyer, or a musician. It will come more naturally to some people than others, but everyone needs to work hard to become great at their chosen career. As a relatively young discipline, product management doesn’t have the wide range of degrees, institutes, and training options established for careers like software engineering or design, or even acting. This makes it harder to start in product management. It’s also part of the magic though: people bring their own unique experience to the role, from all walks of life. They’ve built up some product management skills in their original career and have worked hard to fill the gaps while transitioning.

Most product managers I know are frequently approached by colleagues who want to become product managers too. This occurs far more than any other career I’ve worked in. But as James Gunn says, “Every time someone with no experience asks me for a role, I know I’d be stealing the role from someone who has worked YEARS for that job. So, I try, in every situation, to hire the person who is best qualified.” What, then, should you do if someone asks you for a chance at becoming a product manager?

I have a friend whose first response to this question is “why on earth would you want to do that” and who then good-humouredly tells the questioner about the role to see if it scares them off. If a tongue-in-cheek approach isn’t your style (or if it doesn’t match the personality of the person asking) then have a coffee with them and ask why they want to be a product manager. What are their motivations and expectations? Find out how much their current skill set overlaps with core product management ones. If there is a close fit (both in talent and aspirations), an appropriate next step may be to interview them as you would any other prospective product manager. Even if they don’t make the cut, this will highlight the areas they would need to improve on. Perhaps you can assist with this by finding projects linked to their current role that will stretch them to take on product-management style responsibilities. If the candidate is willing to go away and work hard at building specific skills and experience, then they are also demonstrating another key aspect of being a product manager: grit. For some of the best product managers I know, product management is more of a calling than a job.

If you’re an aspiring product manager, I would encourage you to find roles within your company that allow you to demonstrate product management skills. If there aren’t any roles, make your own. Before I became a product manager I created an internal tool that solved an acute pain point for all my colleagues, and I demonstrated product management sensibilities while creating it. I led a team that aimed to improve the way Skyscanner operated in small ways (akin to fixing broken windows); we had no authority and had to work with lots of different stakeholders to get things changed. It may not be sexy but it will move you closer to the mountain. Lawyers don’t start their careers with high-profile murder cases; a doctor’s first gig is not brain surgery. Don’t expect the road to be easy, but it will be a fun ride.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some important stomping and roaring to do in the garden…

t-rex suit

Rik Higham

About RIK HIGHAM

Rik is a Senior Product Manager at Skyscanner. He writes about Product Management on medium.com/@rikhigham and created ExperimentationHub.com to help you become an expert in A/B testing!

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