What advice would you give to a product manager in the very first year of their job?
Short answer: Relax, find a project you can own, commit to learning, and be patient.
I’ll answer this question with three audiences in mind: a new product manager, the boss of a new product manager, and anyone in a new job.
Product Management is an Ambiguous Role
So much of product management is on the job training. The role is hard to define, given differences in:
consumer v. enterprise companies,
company stage (early startup v. scaling company v. large company), and
product type (HW v. SW, education/entertainment/productivity/etc.)
The job is never the same from one company to another. Even more, the tools and technology evolve quickly, requiring that the role change, too. So there’s a lot of nuances you need to learn about any new product role.
Give yourself a couple of months to figure out the basics (who’s who, the real focus of your job, how people work together, etc.), what you need to do to help your boss, and then look for a small project to manage on your own.
Having your own project is the fastest way to learn the technical, management, creative, business, marketing, and consumer science skills required to succeed. You can learn a lot on large projects, but having your own project accelerates learning. It’s like the difference between being the driver and passenger in a car— you learn much less about navigation if you’re the passenger.
The C.A.M.P. Model
The things that drive your job satisfaction are:
Community. Your relationship with your boss, peers, and engineering/design/data/marketing partners. Nurture these relationships.
Autonomy. Your ability to chart a path with a minimum of hand-holding. That’s why it’s important to find one small, independent project.
Mastery. Your ability both to learn and to develop new skills, and
Purpose. The extent to which you feel the work you and your company do is important.
The fastest way to learn is to ask LOTs of questions of your design, marketing, engineering, customer support, and data science partners. Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions, especially at the start. At night, read about topics that fascinate you or help you to answer your questions. And when you have one-on-ones with your boss, ask what he or she thinks you are doing well and what you can do better.
Imposter Syndrome Is Natural
Everyone has imposter syndrome, so don’t freak out. There’s a benefit to the feeling: it keeps you from becoming overconfident and inspires you to learn and improve. Unlike school, jobs have little structure—you won’t get the constant feedback that frequent tests and grades provide. So you need to adapt.
Above all, be patient. Companies hire first-year product managers for their potential — not what they can actually deliver in the first 3-6 months. I joke with new PMs that it will take them a month to find the bathroom. Pace yourself.
Grit: Intellectual curiosity>>Learning>>Determination
In the long-term, the goal is to develop grit. Intellectual curiosity fuels learning, inspires you to leap over inevitable hurdles, and develops the determination that all employers value.
After a year, you will look back to your first days on the job and laugh. You’ll see another newbie start at the company and will remember the anxiety you heaped on yourself when you began this exciting, incredibly amorphous, hard-to-define role.
It will take a year to figure out whether this is the right role for you. And if you are lukewarm about the job— if there’s not enough overlap between what you love to do and what you are good at— there will be lots of other opportunities in the long-term. Relax and enjoy the journey.
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