The “Inside Dope” on Being a Great Product Manager

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

I have been a product manager in large Silicon Valley tech companies for the last 6 years, and I now lead of team of product managers. As someone who has gone through the grind of failure, bad performance reviews, reading PM books, listening to podcasts, talking to PMs, and thinking about how to be a better PM, I can tell you this much: the common wisdom that’s out there doesn’t actually make you a GREAT product manager.

Maybe my lived experiences will help you get the “inside dope” on being a PM?

1. Think like a Novelist

Imagine that your job is to write a story about your product: what it is, how it works, who it helps, and why it should exist.

What are the gaps in your story? Go after filling those gaps in a way that an investigative journalist or a writer would go about them.

There could be multiple stories, depending on your audience, and your job is to gather enough material to write those stories. This type of mindset can help you talk to the right people, follow clues, and get curious about problems. Pay attention to unspoken/unsaid points of tension: what is your customer not saying that you think is a concern? Writers often think this way: they observe the world around them because their job is to translate that observation into words that people can understand and empathize with.

Since you are creating this story, you need to write down as many details as possible. No one else knows these different “clues” you have discovered. Therefore, you need to take them on the journey, revealing information slowly as you go.

For example: it is not enough for you to say “Build a dashboard”, when you have seen the struggle your customers face when trying to understand, say, what kinds of people shop on their online store! You need to introduce the main characters of your story, i.e., your customers and their customers. What are their names? What defines them? You then need to paint a picture of the status quo: your customers don’t actually know what their customers want. Then you need to introduce the tension: what is the consequence of this? What’s the tragedy here?

Then you introduce your product: another character. The dashboard. Now, what does it look like? How does it behave? What are its shortcomings? How does it help the crew?

Anticipate your reader’s questions (depending on whether your readers are your engineering team, or the executive team), and take your audience through the journey that you went through!

2. Use Data as Just one of the Inputs

The books I have read have always told me that I should base all product decisions on metrics.

Want to know how your customers are feeling? Measure the NPS of your product. Want to know what you should build? Survey your customers. Want to know if your product is making a positive difference? Look at the top line metrics.

Yes, this is absolutely good advice, and a great starting point for product managers. But, just data will not take you far, since many large organizations have little to no data, and measuring everything is time-consuming. Also, data doesn’t always tell you the full story, since we live in an increasingly complex world where our tiny brains can only think through a few parameters at a time. Focusing on just a few metrics can make you miss the full picture, since products usually have far-reaching, and lasting consequences that humans simply can’t predict.

Talk to people. Ask your customers. Rely on your feelings, and rely on experimentation. Rely on “clues”. Your intuition is actually a well-tuned, intelligent tool. Use it.

Develop a good feel for what your customers will like, and what YOU like. Play around with products, and think deeply about what you like about them.

Another useful way to build good products is to think about what you’d gift your customers, based on your understanding of their problems and needs. This is not data. Data is too reductive. This is art.

The data will follow, I promise.

3. Stop. Think Before Building that New Thing!

PMs are often rewarded for shipping new and shiny products.

In large organizations, deprecating or fixing existing products, in my experience, is way harder, and sometimes more valuable to companies in the long run.

Building something new always comes at a price.

It’s like buying anything new — you need to constantly dust it, find the space for it, buy spare parts for it if it breaks, or replace it entirely when it dies. A new feature also occupies mind space for your engineering team. Bringing something new into the world is extremely easy, but it isn’t as easy to push it back into where it came from.

I am wary of hiring product managers who get too excited about building something new. The best PMs think deeply about using/repurposing existing tools/infrastructure to solve a problem. Constraints encourage creativity — anyone can build something new, but, can we partner or collaborate with other teams to expand their products to solve new use cases? Can we partner with other companies instead of building our own versions of the same thing? These are the questions I see successful PMs asking themselves.

4. Look for Ways to Kill your Product

As a thought experiment, I mean.

I believe that it is very rare for a human problem to be successfully solved through a new technology feature or product. Most things in this world don’t need to exist at all, but do because some company managed to convince people that their lives would be terrible without it. Would it, really? Going through this mental exercise will help you get to the crux of your product’s value.

By looking for ways to kill your product, you can get to the root of the human issue. What would happen if your product didn’t exist? Most likely, people’s lives would be just fine, to be honest. Going through this exercise will also help you prioritize the key parts of your product. You probably don’t need that ML algorithm that will automatically suggest restaurants to your customers based on their dietary preferences. If you killed that feature, people’s lives would be just fine.

Remember that any new thing you build requires maintenance. Think carefully before you add new “features”.

Recap:

  1. Think like a novelist
  2. Use data as just one of the inputs
  3. Think really hard before building something new
  4. Look for ways to kill your product

Let me know by commenting below if you want more “inside dope” on product management!

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Ashwini Sriram

Ashwini Sriram

I'm a product manager from Chennai living in San Francisco. I enjoy writing about product management, books, food, and people.