How to Succeed as the Neophyte Product Manager
August 22, 2014

How to Succeed as the Neophyte Product Manager

by Keith Brown

Becoming a productive product manager takes time, practice, and perseverance. It’s an apprentice-based profession and you still can not study to become one at school. It’s not like becoming a doctor, accountant or lawyer. So all product managers are raw when then start and must learn on the job. If you’re a new product manager and feeling overwhelmed, do not get discouraged. Dig in.

Leading your product and company to greatness is a perfectly balanced creative and analytical feat-of-strength. It’s the best job in the world when you know how to do it.

I’ve known new product managers (PMs) with a background in business development, engineering, marketing, IT, sales and customer support. That’s because I have talked with over a thousand product managers about Aha! and have found a simple truth. Regardless of where a product manager comes from, the knowledge and skills he must quickly learn are the same.

Many product people start out as associate product managers. Because it is a learn-on-the-job skill, junior product managers are often paired with more experienced ones. Watching a savvy product manager in action can definitely help—but it is not enough.

Too many new product managers suffer in silence. They watch others do the job and then struggle to put watching into action. So, what are the best ways for new product managers to gain confidence and become product leaders?

Here are the best practices to kick-start your product management career no matter where you are coming from. And these suggestions work regardless of the industry or product you are working on.

Know your boss’ goals At the end of the day, as a product manager, you’ll be measured by not only the success of your product but how well you’re able to align to the company’s goals and objectives. Understanding how your boss is measured helps guide you to understand what is important to management and the person who is directly responsible for mentoring and coaching you. Get aligned whenever possible.

Talk to five customers Do not be afraid to engage directly with customers. In most cases, customers who are actively using your product will want to tell you what they most enjoy (or loath) which gives you insight and power to make decisions and trade-offs as you set your product roadmap. To really understand your product’s value, you need to speak with the people who use it the most—your customers.

Friend a sales engineer Sales engineers (SEs) are in constant communication with customers, know the market landscape, and are are technical experts in the product. (Don’t tell anyone, but often times they are better PMs than the actual product managers themselves.) A sales engineer who is willing to let you shadow her will give you a deep level of insight and appreciation for the interworkings of the product, it’s strengths and weaknesses. She will also show you how customers use the product in their day-to-day jobs and lives.

Use the product For consumer product companies, this is a no-brainer and you should be using the product on a daily basis. If you work in a high-tech company developing business-to-business applications, ask your engineers to give you access to a demo or staging environment where you can tinker with it yourself. There is no better learning experience than through hands-on use. Typically sales engineers have access to demo and staging areas, so this makes it even more important to cozy up to an SE.

Sit on at least 10 customer support calls The customer support team is constantly fielding questions and issues from customers. They are the ones handling the tough questions that flood in with urgency. Listen to the feedback and questions that customers bring to the team. Understand how the customer support team engages with customers and use that knowledge to further your insight of the customer and product.

Product managers should be the happiest people on earth, but neophyte PMs often don’t feel that way. Fear not, with a little patience and determination you’ll be the leader of your product in no time.

Technology companies are driven by the products they sell and the product manager is the product czar who drives them. If you dig in when you first get going and trust in the product and the people who sell and support it, your accomplishments will quickly follow.

Are you new to product management and quickly trying to get up to speed?

Keith Brown

Keith Brown

Keith was a vice president of marketing at Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software.

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