The Not-So-Few Confessions of a New Product Manager

It’s been roughly a year since I stepped into the Product Management role here in Watson Health. I recall looking up what “product management” meant during the first few weeks and had come across a wealth of literature on how others define product management and what makes a good product manager. While my experience so far falls somewhere in line with the books I’ve laid my hands on, articles I’ve bookmarked, and the discussions held on this very topic, I can’t help but point out some of my personal takes on this discipline. This is a post dedicated for such reflection.

Product Management as a Mindset

Product management as a discipline has been widely discussed through multiple platforms. Heck, you can even take a specialization on software product management on Coursera today. Given that, I won’t dwell too much on the “science” and “art” of product management. Rather, I want to emphasize the state of mind the comes with product management.

The mindset I speak of is one which I find incredibly hard to verbalize. There is an incessant need to question – the “how”, the “why”. You are on a mission to find answers, but prior to embarking of these quests, you must know what you are really asking for. Asking the right questions, and I’ve come to learn, is actually really hard.

The difficulty in this thought process isn’t in coming up with the right questions, but rather, understanding how the questions you ask relates to the hypotheses you want to test. As product managers, we’d often find ourselves overwhelmed with such hypotheses that make up the entirety of your business case. Prioritization becomes an every day battle.

One of my absolute reads on the Internet is Wait But Why by Tim Urban (and co). High five if you already love it. Check it out if you’re new to it – I swear it’ll bring more laughter and bliss into your life, or feel free to “Dislike” this post. Oh, I guess LinkedIn hasn’t implemented this feature yet, or probably never will. (But why?)

It’s worth pointing out that “being curious” and “being a great product manager” are not necessarily synonymous. Based on my experience, great product managers are almost always curious, but being curious does not make great product managers.

The Scientific Method

I was trained as a biomedical engineer and had spent several years in clinical research (drug design and delivery). Consequently, the concept of hypothesis generation and validation through experimentation is deeply ingrained in the way I think.

There is a very specific reason why I decided to use “hypothesis” in the product management context, as opposed to any other words (many of us are familiar with “writing requirements”). The reality of the world we, collectively, live in is that we have access to very limited information. As product managers, we are faced with the need to make key decisions with such limitations. Now, hypothetically, even in a perfect world where we do have access to all information (public and confidential), we will still find ourselves making a tradeoff between information and time. Sure, you can try all you want to get the “proper” amount of information to inform your decision, but by the time you operationalize your decision, you might find that the window of opportunity might’ve just passed by.

When you are hypothesis driven, naturally, you’d want to iterate. There is an absolute cost (that you, your team, your business) pay for throughout this iterative process, so in a world of limited resources, your job as a product manager is to prioritize what hypotheses you test and iterate upon. This is especially important, and the research experience taught me this lesson early on, and at a very high cost.

Imagine this: You’re going to spend 3 yrs of your life working on a cancer research project. You’ve got some idea on what you want to prove out, but naturally, each experiment you run for a hypothesis will cost you X amount of time, Y amount of lab resources, etc. This is especially prominent if you’re in a “wet lab”, where your research depends on the natural growth cycle of cells and other organics. You get the idea. We have finite amount of time; finite amount of resource; finite morale, patience, and conviction (on your team), dot dot dot, dot dot dot. You are part of this “value” maximizing function.

The Ups and Downs of Your Stakeholders

As a product manager, you are the CEO of your product.

You’ve probably heard this analogy being used plenty of times. Sure, it’s a nice stroke on our ego when they put it that way, and sure, there are some similarities between “being a product manager” and “being a CEO”. Depending on the nature of your product management culture, you’ll also note some stark differences between the two roles. That’s not what I’m going to focus on.

As the “CEO of your product”, you have a moral and fiduciary responsibility for your stakeholders – those inside your organization, and those outside. Customers/users aside, you are inherently accountable to both your team and your investors. If you’re a startup guy/gal, this is pretty easy to see through. You’ve got folks who are in the grind along your side day in and day out. You’ve got a vision, and you’re on a mission to carry it out with them. You’ve got some rich investors who’ve dumped cash into your dream. You’ve got to work your butt off to make sure that they get that 30X return that they look for.

Wait, but what if you work for a massive organization like IBM (where I work)? The same stakeholder ecosystem exists for you. You’ve got folks who are in the grind (with a bit more work-life balance) along your side day in and day out. You’ve got a vision (hopefully truly yours), and you’re on a mission (hopefully voluntarily and passionately) to carry it out with them. You’ve got some rich investors (your business / CEO / General Manager) who’ve dumped “cash” into your dream, and you’ve got to work your butt off to make sure that they get the ROI they look for. When you look at it that way, perhaps what you do isn’t at all that different from if you were to run your own startup.

This is the culture of product management where I work. If you find yourself in a culture where you find the line between product management and project management blurred, perhaps it’s time for you to challenge the business on how they should operate.

There’s much more to be said. More to come, depending on the reception (perceived usefulness) of this post.

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