A Southern Greek Seattleite software, technology, music, arts, and culture geek. Currently a Director of Product at Redfin. Former PM at Amazon (Fire products) and Microsoft (Xbox, Office Labs, SharePoint).
People on my team and those I mentor often ask me what the difference is between junior versus senior product managers.
I think it revolves around two things: handling ambiguity, and dealing with scope.
A junior PM works on an individual feature. A senior PM works on a feature area, which involves multiple features. A principal / lead PM works on an entire product comprised of multiple feature areas, or even a suite of products.
A junior PM can be given a clear problem and clear solution and execute it well. It doesn’t mean the work is easy, but it’s clear.
A senior PM can be given a clear problem with an _unclear_ solution. Here, the ambiguity is in figuring out the right solution and why it’s the right solution before executing it well.
A principal / lead PM can be given an unclear problem _and_ an unclear solution. They first need to figure out which problem is the right one to solve before figuring out which is the right solution and why, before executing it well.
When you combine the two, you get a sense of the differences between levels. On the one end we have junior PMs who work on clear problems/solutions on one or more individual features. On the other we have principal / lead PMs who can define product strategies and steer an entire product towards the right outcomes for both customers and the business.
There are surely other ways to define the roles, but I’ve found scope and ambiguity to be the two most consistent ways across companies and industries.
Did you know Winston Churchill was a closet product manager when it came to big product launches He’s quoted as saying:
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Ok, I lied. 😉 While he was a famous leader, he wasn’t a PM as far as I know. But I did use his quote above in a team all-hands last week. Why? To give people some perspective.
You see, the team is working on a big product launch that’s just around the corner. And product launches are hard! They take a lot of energy. Finishing features, fixing bugs, making hard cuts, stabilizing, perf testing, marketing, PR…
And when a launch happens, it can feel exhilarating! 🚀 Finally, the world can use what the team worked so hard on! Tweets, press releases, and news articles galore!
But as Churchill states, that’s just the end of the beginning. After you launch a product you can finally:
Get usage data
Run A/B tests
Get feedback from a much wider audience
Build those fast follows you had to cut for launch
Embark on a longer-term product strategy
A launch is a great milestone for a team and a product, but it’s just the end of the beginning. After launch, the real work begins. 💪
A framework I keep coming back to for prioritizing my time as a product manager is the Eisenhower matrix for prioritizing one’s work.
The framework is simple. There are two dimensions to the work on your plate: urgency and importance. And there are two values for each dimension: urgent and not, important and not.
As tasks are added to your plate, or as you get asked to do things by others, consider where they fall in the matrix.
Then, you can take action based on what cell they are in.
– Important + urgent tasks need to be done now. Go do them! – Important + not urgent tasks need to be done, but not right now. Schedule a time to do them! – Urgent but not important tasks aren’t important to you but are important to someone else. Find the right person who can help, or give out the information that someone can use to address the task on their own. – Finally, don’t do things that are neither important nor urgent.
I’ve seen people spend a lot of time on tasks that aren’t important or aren’t urgent, to the detriment of their products.
It feels good to turn the crank and get stuff done, but make sure you’re focused on the right things first!
I received a small, visual reminder to spread hope, love, and positivity in 2022 from my local coffee shop this morning, in the form of this decoration on my drink.
Does the above sound like just a cheese-ball cliché sentiment? Maybe. But this behavior has an impact.
First, simply the act of giving thanks can make you happier.
When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude…participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores…greater than that from any other intervention…
Next, positive thoughts rewire your brain to see more possibilities in life and can drive skill-building because you become more outgoing and try more things.
Fredrickson refers to this as the “broaden and build” theory because positive emotions broaden your sense of possibilities and open your mind, which in turn allows you to build new skills and resources that can provide value in other areas of your life.
These are some of the reasons I’m committing some of my time in 2022 to give back to the product management community. I will do so by creating and sharing content to help others, especially those early in their careers or trying to get into the discipline.
But regardless of what you do or how you do it, I hope you’re able to spread some positive energy this year. Chances are, it won’t just benefit those around you. It will also benefit you.
And yes, this post is a way for me to spread positivity. I feel better already! 😉
I was asked recently the following question: “What’s a skill that you’re seeing as increasingly important in product management?”
When I started in product 20 years ago, a lot of user data was locked away because of the way software was being used. People spent hours every day working on client tools like Office and Adobe on their desktop computers that still weren’t Internet-connected. Companies had on-premise servers managing emails and document storage that didn’t relay information outside the company. The web was still a small part of people’s lives, and tools like Google Docs and Slack were years away. Getting qualitative user feedback took weeks of identifying users and hosting in-person focus groups or interviews.
Fast forward 20 years, and we now have a wealth of user data. People are spending most of their lives on cloud-connected devices and services for work and play, making it easier to receive large amounts of anonymized user behavior data. But also, the tools have gotten better. For example, there’s FullStory to review user sessions, Heap Analytics to do ad-hoc customer journey analytics, and UserTesting to get qualitative feedback from participants in a matter of hours.
This wealth of data creates a new challenge: synthesis. Product managers can get buried in all of this data, spending hours sifting through it trying to decide what’s important. The problem worsens if there’s conflicting data, such as user surveys or sessions disagreeing with web metrics. This can paralyze decision-making as product managers try to rationalize all of the conflicting data points.
The way through this problem, and the skill that will differentiate good product managers from great ones moving forward, is having a framework that enables one to decide what data is important and synthesize it into a cogent product plan quickly. A framework can quantify user feedback so one can understand what’s being heard most often. It can create a scaling system so a product manager understands what is most severe. It can minimize recency or familiarity biases that steer someone to overweight some data over others. It can guide someone to spend more time analyzing data if the resulting product decision is not easily reversible, or move more quickly if it is.
20 years ago, we wish we had the data we have now. Today, the key is to use a framework to make sense of data quickly and make better product decisions as a result.