There is no product management school (there are courses you can pursue, but those add to your product skills). You evolve into product management — you do not learn it in school. However, there is a plethora of information available on the internet that’ll help you get into product management, most of them focusing on the primary product attributes. We’ll focus today on 3 ancillary things that add to product management that won’t be in the basic degree you might pursue, had there been a product management school.
Before we dwell deeper, you must adopt this paradigm — you are the product. Everything about you — how you present yourself(UI), how you interact with others(CX/UX), and how you improve yourself (backlog of features) is controlled and developed by you. As such, the perception of you — the product — is obtained through constant feedback from others and from self. Adopting this paradigm is a bit tough — you can get carried away. Hence, I’ve added both ‘What is it?’ and ‘What it isn’t?” to the topics mentioned here. They should provide boundaries of exploring the topics in detail.
1. Building & Maintaining a reputation
What is it?
Reputation management is the least spoken of, but in my opinion, one of the most important topic in product management. Remember that Caesar's wife should not only be honest, but should show herself to be honest. There is an element of playing to the gallery that one doesn’t usually focus on — every great product person you know has built and kept up a reputation that has helped them influence. And influence is every product managers greatest weapon — we come with no authority, but all responsibility.
Build your reputation as a great product person — focus on getting at least the following adjectives in people's perception of you: reliable, honest, rational/reasonable, listener and learner. The first three help you overcome ego problems that you may encounter, while the last two make you approachable.
What is it not?
There is a saying “Good product managers talk about themselves; other people talk about Great product managers”. The following don’ts remain undisputed:
- Don’t focus only on building a reputation with the higher management. While your higher ups should have a good view of you, those around and below you should hold an even better view of you.
- Don’t focus only on creating a perception about yourself. Remember that any reputation that you might create without actual deliverables or backing, will only backfire. It is like smoke without fire, someone will eventually dig deep and find out.
- It is difficult to create a custom perception about yourself. It’s even more difficult to maintain it. Keep practicing your art and living up to the reputation you’ve created. Don’t get carried away in adding new feathers in your cap — tend to the ones you already have.
2. Teaching/Helping Others
What is it?
Everyone around you has something to contribute to your growth. If you orient yourself to teach others the skills that you know, you’ll find that their growth fuels your growth. I’ve always held that any knowledge acquired comes with the caveat of it being shared. And shared knowledge only grows your own knowledge. You teaching a developer on prioritization methods or a bit about your work enhances your own knowledge on those subjects (due to perspective acquiring, reading up before you impart knowledge etc), but also adds a dimension of your work into the developers perception of your work. It helps them empathize with your struggles, allowing you to get certain things done with lesser friction.
For example, I make it a point to ask people around me if they need help on anything. I get a breather from my day to day activities, and they get an out from the problem they’re facing. It also helps me build a reputation of being helpful and knowledgeable, while it gives them the ability to look at their problem from a different view.
What it isn’t?
There are many ways this can go wrong — you can end up with a lot of work or with a bad reputation being a know-it-all. Here are a few don’ts you should watch out for:
- Don’t help with the execution, everytime. Teach them how to execute. For example, if you know how to use pivot tables in Excel, don’t do pivots everytime they come to you for help. Teach them how to make pivot tables, even if it means staying back after work for a few mins and teaching them.
Some people tend to take these things for granted — temper expectations without hurting their feelings.
- Don’t force your knowledge on others. Just because you know how to do pivot tables, and you see someone doing the pivots manually, doesn’t mean you’ve to go and tell them that they’re fools. You can choose lead by example or politely, in an one-on-one environment, tell them that there is an easier, time saving way to do it. Egos can get hurt, and those take a long time to heal.
- Admit when you’re wrong or when you don’t know — you don’t have to know everything. Pretending to know is worse than not knowing.
- Don’t be preachy or condescending. Little knowledge makes you proud; a lot of knowledge makes you humble. Use endearing terms while explaining basics of a certain topics. Avoid jargons or clarify them before using. Empathize.
- Don’t get carried away — helping others is good, but not at the cost of your own work. Set aside time to help others and try to stick to it. Being reliable is more important than being helpful.
What is it?
Building industry contacts helps you get a view of the future. There are a lot of things certain people know, that you can tap into to get a boost in your product management career. I personally keep a rolodex of industry experts — from consultants to academia whom I can weigh on to get some help or a perspective. For example, one of my areas of work is payments. Subsequently, I have connections from the banking side to keep me apprised of the local banking development, so that my organization can be informed of the developments when it comes to payment.
Building networks isn’t easy — it requires a lot of hardwork and socializing, which the average product manager isn’t likely to do. You have to build a reputation, hold on to that, go to meetups/parties/events and talk to people. A shortcut for that is to find network enablers — individuals with a vast network (or as I like to call them, socially active folks) and leverage them. They point you in the right direction, at the right people.
Another way to expand your network is to connect people. I enjoy connecting people. Those connected then help me connect with their network (foot in the door method — read Influence : The Art of Persuasion by Dr Robert Cialdini), should there be a need.
What it isn’t?
- Network building isn’t randomly adding people on Linkedin. No one will help you just because you’re connected on Linkedin. There is a need for personalization of conversation and frequent meetups.
- Again, don’t focus only on building a network and sapping from it. You have to give to take back. Always highlight what you can give, before you take and make good on the promise.
- Again, network with aspiring people — college graduates usually get a ‘Reject’ from people on Linkedin. You never know when the aspiring graduate becomes an entrepreneur with whom you could have a business relationship.
- Tend to your networks — don’t leave the network rotting. Sending 5 messages every week to older connections helps maintain relationships and keeps you fresh on their mind. Help comes from various and mysterious ways — keep your options open.
It takes a while to implement the above things, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Slow and steady makes the right progress.
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Turns out, there are a few product management schools (thanks to Travis Allen):
- Carnegie Mellon, MSc-Product Management (link)
- University of California Irvine, Specialized Study in Product Development and Innovation (link)
There are also certifying bodies:
- Pragmatic Marketing — Levels 1–6
- Association of International Product Marketing & Management (AIPMM) — Certified Product Marketing Manager and Certified Product Manager