The New Product Manager’s Survival Guide
January 19, 2018

The New Product Manager’s Survival Guide

by Melissa Hopkins

I was in the throes of first-week jitters. It was early in my career and I was starting out as a product manager. Did I even belong in the new job? I was confident I had the work ethic, the ambition, the team spirit… but I did not yet have the tactical know-how. Each new day brought new stress.

I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to relax and enjoy the opportunity to learn.

If you are starting a new product management job, I will tell you the same thing. Relax and get ready to absorb new information. (A lot of it.) New jobs come with huge learning curves. This is especially true right now — as the role of product manager has become more important than ever.

But I have some good news for you: You are not alone. Our Customer Success team at Aha! put together a “survival guide” for new product managers.

This advice is rooted in our past experience, but it is also based on what we think is important right now. We know what this focus should be because we speak with thousands of product managers every month. We hear the challenges you are facing. And through these conversations, we can see how the field is changing.

Plus, we are all experienced former product managers — so who could be better to help?

Here is our advice for surviving (and thriving!) in your new job:

Build your core team “Join or create a cross-functional core team and meet on a weekly basis. This core team will be fundamental for Go-to-Market releases and product updates. After all, what happens when a customer has a question about new features or when something breaks or goes wrong? The rest of the organization needs to know how to support it, and this begins with your core team. Sharing the product plans helps win trust — which is essential for working together and delivering a Complete Product Experience for your customer.” — Matt Case

Get close with development “While all stakeholders are important, I would encourage you to really focus on your partnership with development. Trust me — no one wins when product management and engineering have a poor relationship. Especially not your customers. So, be open and honest in your interactions with the development team. Even when you need to tell them ‘no,’ explain your decision and the tradeoffs the business has to make.” — Amy Woodham

Talk to customers regularly “You need to really understand how your customer experiences the product. Not just the technology but every other component too — like your support team. So dig deep within your customer base to learn more about how and why they use your product. What do they want to accomplish with it? Where is it failing them? Meet with your supporters and your detractors to understand all points of views. And do not just focus on the largest and loudest groups.” — Scott Goldblatt

Share the major themes (again and again) “Anytime you are presenting anything, clearly outline and communicate your key points. Sure, you are proud of the work being done and you are going to want to show off every small detail — but avoid this temptation. Outline your major themes and hit them over and over again. Use the same language on your roadmaps. As you approach a big launch, it will feel like you have repeated yourself an annoying number of times. But stay clear and consistent. The next time you hit your key points might be the time that others really start to hear them.” — Austin Merritt

Measure everything “One of my favorite quotes is from W. Edwards Deming: ‘Without data you are just another person with an opinion.’ Be really clear on the metrics and KPIs for your product. What is being measured? Are those numbers accurate and still appropriate? It is important to understand how your product is performing right now so you can measure the tangible benefits of change from future enhancements.” — Justin Woods

Block off time to think “The best advice I received when I was a product manager was to block off time each week to just think. It is too easy to get stuck in the daily weeds of prioritizing the backlog, refining the roadmap, and meeting with customers. You need to spend dedicated time each week reading the latest news and announcements in the market. That will then help you determine if priorities for functionality in the product should shift — or even the product strategy as a whole.” — Deirdre Clarke

Learn to let go “Sometimes you need to simply let go. You can do your best each day to push for what you think is right for the product based on your strategy. But if the CEO or the executive team decides they want to go in a different direction, accept that — while also asking questions. Understand why that decision was made. Let go of any emotional attachment you have (to the feature, direction, option, etc.) and embrace the new direction.” — Jessica Groff

Remember that you were hired for a reason —have confidence and courage to show the team why.

Now it is up to you to dig in and really learn the product management discipline. This takes lots of time and practice. So, I encourage you to stay dedicated to it — even when you have to fight through your own first-week jitters.

What is the most important survival advice you would add?

Melissa Hopkins

Melissa Hopkins

Melissa loves using technology to help people solve their problems. She is the vice president of customer success at Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software. Melissa has more than 20 years of business and software experience. Previously, she managed teams at Citrix across consulting, education, supply chain operations, and IT.

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