In this guest post, Issac Vargas, Product Manager at Microsoft Graph Developer Experience team, shares the key lessons he’s learned from his first few months in product.
Last December (2022) I got promoted to the product manager position. This was a dream of mine for quite some time, and thanks to the support of my managers and peers, I finally got the job. These first months have been an incredible learning experience, I’ve made mistakes and got into interesting situations. Here are 7 things I learned in my first 6 months as a product manager at Microsoft:
Your customer defines everything else
Whose problems and needs do you want to explore? The answer to this question defines the world where your product management adventure takes place. A common advice for entrepreneurs and product managers is to find a real-life problem and fix it. Even though it is important to define a clear scope to focus your efforts, if you want to generate the most value for your customer, you need to be open and listen to the ecosystem of problems that your customer has. Most of the time, understanding the problem in its ecosystem helps you build solutions that drive higher value and impact for your customer.
You can start a bakery and sell delicious cakes, and with time you may attract customers who like your cakes for their flavor and presentation. But if you take one step back, and decide, for example, that you want to sell cakes for work teams, you may start diving into their culture and teambuilding needs and realize that your cakes can do more than just look and taste good. You can offer experiences and packages with your cakes that bring teams together and promote healthy work environments, for example, decorating your cakes with prompt questions that the team can discuss to know each other better outside of their roles and titles. You can also decide to sell cakes to coffee shops, and that would take you to explore a different ecosystem of needs that you can cater to with your services. Choose your customers wisely and explore their entire ecosystem of needs.
Yes, your job is to bring clarity
Ask, listen, and investigate.
You can only bring clarity if you have clarity yourself, and you cannot create clarity without asking questions, even if they seem too basic. My grandmother used to say: “Es mejor ponerse colorado una vez que pálido toda la vida”, which means that it is better to feel embarrassed once, than fear for the rest of your life. If there is something you don’t understand, ask the question right away, and ask it publicly, where others can listen to the same answer as you. That’s how you bring clarity. Do not hide your questions and doubts out of fear of looking bad. Your main job is to generate these spaces of clarity and where it’s safe to ask questions.
I am pretty sure most of us have been in the position where we don’t understand a topic that is being discussed but are too afraid to ask for an explanation. In those moments we believe we are the only ones in need of learning, and it is not until we face our fear and embrace embarrassment for one moment that we realize others had the same questions or people had different concepts about the fundamentals of what was being discussed. You felt embarrassed for a moment, but your question led to a conversation that brought clarity and alignment in foundational ideas.
Be the newbie, ask the questions. You can never bring too much clarity.
Pay attention in meetings, even if it is not related to your area. Understanding what is happening in other spaces can help you identify blind spots in yours and gather inspiration to help you solve the challenges you face in your product. Many times, you’ll discover that a challenge you are facing is connected to the work other teams are doing. That’s how you identify opportunities for collaboration and expand the impact of your work.
Don’t be afraid of getting too involved in a question or problem. Following your curiosity and submerging yourself in unexplored territory is a good way to discover opportunities for impact. If a concept is brought up in a meeting and you’d like to understand it better, go find videos on the matter, read articles, and get at least a foundational understanding that helps you ask better questions and participate in the conversation.
You bring clarity to your team by creating clarity in yourself.
Pay attention to the tedious work that nobody wants to do. That’s where the opportunity for impact is! Dedicating time to working on those tedious tasks that everybody procrastinates on will help you understand why the task is so tedious and create ways to make it better for everyone else.
Imagine you are part of a team of editors that review documentation for your product. The review process is complex because your team has high standards of quality for the user experience, and documentation is a vital part of it. The authors usually struggle with completeness and the editors believe that part of the process is particularly annoying. You try it yourself and realize that authors struggle with completeness because they don’t have clarity on the documentation requirements for each feature, and your editors need to compare the technical spec with the public document manually to make sure all and only the features that are being released are in the docs. The issue does not affect the production or the user experience in a significant way to capture attention, but it is affecting the experience of your colleagues enough to be annoying and tedious.
Now, you can ask the editors to create a comprehensive list of the documentation requirements for each feature and automate the process for both parties: authors input the details about the feature, an application generates the documentation stubs, and another script compares the technical spec with the documentation, making sure everything is complete.
You are solving a real need for your team, creating clarity, and making the process way more scalable. Not to mention that now your customers are always receiving complete information about the new features, without losing human touch.
Taking something tedious and making it frictionless and satisfying is a great way to generate impact for your team and customers.
If you want to perform at your highest, treat yourself accordingly
When we search for productivity advice people usually talk about lists, timers, reminders and time management and prioritization methodologies. However, we take for granted the basic needs of our bodies. In the same way that top athletes take care of their bodies, we should take care of our brains.
The recipe is actually simple: eat nutritious food, sleep well, exercise, and study. By exercising you give your brain oxygen and serotonin; by eating, you provide the energy for it to function properly; by learning new things, you teach your brain to think in different ways, and by sleeping you allow your brain to process the events of your day. No pomodoro timers, batching or list can replace a good night of sleep – or taking a break when you are feeling overwhelmed. The benefits of a hike or a swimming session cannot be replaced by a list of productivity tricks. Doing these things can give your brain the resources to perform at its best.
Taking care of your health is also an investment in your career.
Your data doesn’t tell the story by itself
A map of the battlefield is not a strategy to win the war. You can have access to all the data and the information you need and still lack a strategy. You can provide your customers with a huge box of resources and materials and still see churn and drops in adoption. In point 1 I said that your customer defines everything else, and it also includes the strategy.
In our team, we have received feedback about a particular feature that is difficult to understand for beginners. The first temptation is to think of ideas to reduce its complexity and simplify the feature. But, if we listen carefully to the feedback and the experience of the users, we also realize that it is hard to understand at the beginning, but once they get it, people love it and think that it simplifies their work significantly. That should tell us that maybe the problem is not the feature, but the onboarding experience and learning curve, and looking closer we realize that people struggle to understand it at the beginning because the underlying need that it solves is complex in nature and we are not providing any guidance or tutorial, we just assumed that they understand the concepts and how our product solves it. We didn’t have a story because we didn’t think it was necessary.
We are now focusing on prompts, tutorials, templates, and education materials to create a comprehensive onboarding process for beginners, working on the learning curve instead of redesigning the feature. If we were to make the feature simple, we would affect its impact and value, and still receive complaints about how hard it is to understand at the beginning. Our product now generates more value for the user because it helps them learn and feel confident working with these complex topics.
If you know your customers well, you’ll know why they have the problem in the first place, and how to present the solution in a way that helps them integrate it appropriately.
Intuitive is not a plus
When was the last time you found it difficult to use a social media app? How often do you postpone a task at work because it is complicated and tedious?
The most valuable resource a human has these days is its attention. We have a ton of applications and tools every day competing for our attention, and every day, and these products get better at capturing them. That means, if your solution is not intuitive and clear, users will simply give up and drop it for another option.
In point 2 I mentioned the importance of always being a newbie, and it also works here. If you want to reduce the friction points in your product, you need to feel them. And the more familiar you are with your tool and environment the more distorted your perception of easy becomes.
Getting familiar with your tool is inevitable and desirable as you gain more experience, so the way to maintain a newbie perspective is by exercising a growth mindset and constantly learning new things. Remember point 4? Invest time in learning new things, even if they are not related to your area of work.
You are not alone
Your team and the people you work with are your most powerful resource. When you are diving into a complex question, changes are, somebody has explored your question in the past, or at least a version of it from a different angle.
One of the things that I love the most about my team’s culture is that people are reachable. We are encouraged to reach out, strike up a conversation and ask the questions that we need. This has allowed us to share knowledge, create a common understanding of topics and challenges and bring a ton of clarity and alignment.
You are stronger with your team when you can connect the knowledge of different people to bring clarity. Just like Isaac Newton, make sure you stand on the shoulders of the giants you work with.
I know that the next six months will bring new learnings and knowledge. Every journey is different and the challenges you face every day shape your vision and character as a product manager. My career strategy is to keep being a newbie, keep facing challenges with a growth mindset and the confidence that I have an awesome team by my side, and know that it is my responsibility to keep asking questions that create clarity and alignment on a common north start and vision for our work.
What did you learn in the last 6 months? Let us know in the comments below