Taking stock: my 10 years in product management

Introduction

Last month marked my 10 year anniversary of being a product manager. This milestone did two things for me. Firstly, it made me nostalgic :) Secondly, it made me reflect and ponder the things I’ve observed and learned over the past 10 years. From outcome over output to product management certification, I’ll share my reflections with you and would love to hear what you think (irrespective of whether you’ve been in product management for 10 days or 10 years)

Outcome over output

One of the biggest things I’ve learned in the past 10 years is to value outcomes over output. When I started as a product manager at a London based music streaming platform, my focus was predominantly on ‘shipping’ software. I felt that unless I delivered features I wasn’t proving my salt as a product manager.

Since then I’ve learned to start and end with outcomes; looking at both customer and business outcomes. Naturally, a product manager is nowhere without delivery… delivering value that is. Thinking back to the time I worked on a marketplace platform, it was the first time I started thinking properly about what the sellers on the platform were trying to achieve; what were the things they wanted to do more or less of. We developed a dashboard enabling sellers to track their sales and stock, thus freeing up time for them to do what they were really passionate about — creating new products. Understanding both business and customer outcomes has helped me shift from purely delivering output to delivering tangible value through a product.

Pivotal learning moments

Here’s a list of the moments that I feel have been pivotal in my development as a product person thus far:

  • My first ProductTank meetup — Back in 2010 — I was still a project manager — attending my first ProductTank meetup at a random bar in central London. Truly transformative; meeting real life product people and eventually getting involved in the global ProductTank community. I want to give a big shout to all the great product people that I’ve been able to meet through Mind the Product / ProductTank over the years, and specifically Martin, Janna, Simon, Emily, James, Emily, Analisa, Keji, Jase and Chris for all the great times and learnings thus far.
  • Learning from Julie about user interviews — Keen to engage with customers but having no clue how to go about it, I attended an online class about doing user interviews. I’m still very grateful to the class instructor Julie Blitzer for giving us the confidence to talk to customers and ‘try things at home’.
  • Reading about assumptions — I feel I owe a big debt of gratitude to the book “Lean UX” and its authors, Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden. Reading Leading UX and hearing Jeff and Josh talk about ‘assumptions’, ‘hypotheses’ and ‘outcomes’ marked my transition from delivering ‘stuff’ to delivering ‘value’ — for customers and businesses.
  • Amanda’s words of wisdomAmanda Richardson, product management leader and currently CEO at Coderpad, told me “this is how we learn” after I’d just come out of a typical product manager ‘frying pan’ situation, where a new product feature hadn’t landed well with customers because I hadn’t adequately addressed some of their concerns. I was feeling down and out, but Amanda encouraged me to get up, explaining that ‘this is how we learn as product managers’. We try, we learn and iterate + improve as quickly as we can.
  • Hearing Roman talk about goal-oriented roadmaps — It was just a regular meetup session on a rainy Thursday night, but I got my first glimpse of strategic product management when I heard Roman Pichler give a talk. He outlined how to go about identifying goals to achieve through your products and features, and capturing these in a goal-oriented roadmap. Since then I’ve been lucky to have been able to spend more time with Roman and learn from him, understanding more about the important subject of product strategy and goals.
  • Denise helping me with my imposter syndrome — Reading “Banish Your Inner Critic” and talking to Denise Jacobs about it, has helped me think more about my own imposter syndrome and self-doubt. In the book, Denise writes about “faking till you become it”, knowing your cognitive distortions and being open to feedback.

Product is getting a seat at the table

Increasingly, there are more and more ‘product led’ companies. Businesses like Slack and Figma have been successful in shifting from growth driven by sales or marketing to products leading the path to growth. It means that user acquisition, engagement, conversion and retention are all primarily driven by the product itself. This doesn’t mean that companies’ marketing and sales functions had to take a back seat. Instead, business functions like marketing, sales, product management, engineering, design and customer support come together in creating the best customer experience possible.

SaaS companies like Zoom, Atlassian and Dropbox are leading the way in transitioning from heavy B2B sales cycles to letting great products do the talking and solve customer problems. On the B2C side, companies like Pinterest and Warby Parker are good examples of companies accelerating their growth through relentless product and customer focus.

Collaboration. Collaboration. Collaboration.

It might sound obvious, but to me it wasn’t: product = people. This definitely wasn’t obvious to me when I started thinking about becoming a product manager. I thought that managing products meant that your sole focus was on the product … I couldn’t have been any more wrong! Successful products are created by people, teams of people. The majority of my learnings as a product manager so far evolve around ‘soft’ skills, working with people (colleagues and customers) and cultivating a product mindset. Creating successful products is a constant balancing exercise and as product managers we are often at the heart of tensions and tradeoffs. I believe that having a well developed product mindset encompassess four key components which have ‘people’ as a common denominator:

  • Customer — Who is my customer? What is their problem or desire? Why?
  • CuriosityLearning early and often embodies the curious nature of any self respecting product person; always asking ‘why’, testing, questioning and observing.
  • Creative — Getting energy from finding solutions to both existing and new problems or opportunities. Creativity also means embracing constraints and empathising with your (target) audience.
  • Clarity — Great product managers provide clarity. They listen and can take others on a journey to achieve a product vision or embrace a new market opportunity. Similarly, they can create the clarity and conditions required for successful collaboration and trusted relationships.

I don’t believe that a strong product mindset is something that can be certified or taught. We can teach each other about valuable approaches to product management or share useful techniques, but ultimately it is something that we can best develop through trying, learning, and trying again.

Conclusion

10 years in product management. I feel that I’ve learned so much, made tons of mistakes and improved to try again. The product mindset comes with a global community of entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, marketeers and product managers who are all passionate about creating great products and experiences for customers. I can only be incredibly grateful to all those people who excited me about product management and that I’ve met over the years. You all know who you are, thank you!!!