If someone had asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, chances are that you did not say "I want to be a product manager." And most likely, product management was never presented as a real career option, even in high school.
You may not have known about the product management role until you gained some real-world business experience for yourself. Then you discovered your own desire to help build something new, and learned about the career potential in the product management role. But how do you learn product management well enough to succeed in the job?
Product managers should be the happiest people on earth, but neophyte PMs often do not feel that way because of the steep learning curve before them. You can certainly learn the basics of product management through books and seminars — but it is not enough. Many new PMs read up about the role but then struggle to put their knowledge into action. So, what are the best ways for new product managers to gain confidence and become product leaders?
These best practices can kick-start your product management career once you land that first PM job. These suggestions work regardless of the industry or product you are working on:
At the end of the day, you will be measured by the success of your product and how well you can align to the company’s goals and objectives. Understanding how your boss is measured helps you understand what is important to management, as well as the person who is directly mentoring and coaching you. Get aligned whenever possible.
Do not be afraid to engage directly with customers. In most cases, customers who actively use your product will want to tell you what they most enjoy (or loathe) about the product. This feedback 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 will need to speak regularly with your customers.
Sales engineers (SEs) are in constant communication with customers, know the market landscape, and are technical experts in the product. (Often, they are better PMs than the actual product managers themselves.) Find a sales engineer who is willing to let you shadow her. This experience will give you a deep level of insight and appreciation for the inner workings of the product, its strengths, and weaknesses. She will also show you how customers use the product in their day-to-day jobs and lives.
For consumer product companies, this is a no-brainer. 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 the product yourself. There is no better learning experience than through hands-on use. Typically sales engineers have access to demo and staging areas, making it even more important to cozy up to an SE.
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 own insight of the customer and product.
If you are inspired to become a product manager, you must seize every new opportunity to learn, and take on your first role with confidence. Dig in when you first get going by trusting those who build, support, and sell your product. With patience and determination, you will be leading product in no time, and your accomplishments will quickly follow.