New job, new industry: A guide to product managementBy Avinash Srivastava on July 8, 2020
It's now been a year since I joined the Peak product management team, to work on CODI; our Decision Intelligence system that combines the required infrastructure, data processing, AI workflow, and applications in a single SaaS product.
Soon after joining, I realized that one of the biggest challenges for me was learning to work in AI, a totally unfamiliar industry. With over six years of product management experience, starting from scratch in the world of AI was not a smooth journey – especially with me not having a technical educational background.
It’s important to remember that, regardless of industry, at the heart of all product management is being able to get to the bottom of business problems and provide solutions.
Please note, my intention with this blog is not teaching you to learn AI/ML or product management principles; instead, I will cover more about “the approach”. The rest of this blog is broken out into three parts, reflecting my general approach to becoming accustomed to life at a new company. If you’re at a similar juncture in your career, I hope you find it useful!
1. Gain a basic technical understanding and develop this over time
Before going into my approach, let’s explore something; how ‘technical’ should a product manager be?
Many product leaders seem to be debating this question. There is no right answer to this, and it depends on factors such as what the product is and the approach taken by product leadership. All of this differs from company to company. However, in my view, a product manager should be technical enough to…
- Understand the user’s problems and be able to explain them
- Anticipate technical challenges and implementation feasibility to provide practical solutions (not how to implement, but what to achieve)
- Keep track of technological advancement within the domain to look for possible opportunities
- Have a basic knowledge of managing tools, such as the ability to write basic SQL query knowledge (it took me two months to get some control over my queries, and trust me, it helped a lot!)
Basically, product managers should have enough technical knowledge to create effective communication with devs, but definitely don’t need a super-technical background and coding experience. At Peak, gaining a technical understanding of AI/ML solutions was my first priority. Some steps that I’ve found helpful are:
Locate an SME (Subject Matter Expert)
- Talk to people who have a good understanding of the product and knowledge of the technology behind it. Set up a 30-minute catch-up every week.
- The agenda should not only be to understand the technology, but also to validate the understanding you have gained from other sources
- Don’t go into meetings blind; do your homework and prepare beforehand. Try to set up a 360° view and not go deep into the technical nitty-gritty
- Cunningham’s Law states that “the best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer.” In many ways, this is the perfect metaphor for the role of a product manager. Share your queries constructively.
Tip: Always remember, you don’t need to become an expert overnight. Take it slow and steady!
Attend technical meetings
- Listen carefully and make notes. Don’t be afraid to ask questions like ‘why are we doing this?’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘How will this change the user’s life?’
- Try to understand the user’s problem and the organization’s approach while formulating the solution.
- Check the validation of projects with the business overview
- Make notes, pull together as much information as you can, and create artefacts
Tip: Make the technical team your friends. Put some extra efforts into this. Have lunch together, go out to dinners, and, if possible, sit with them in the same part of the office, etc.
Understand the stack
- Begin by learning about “technology stack.” This includes all of the servers, apps, databases, and types of code being used to bring your product to life.
- You can then do some homework to get a better understanding of their pros and cons, capabilities, and limitations. (Do some Google research!)
- Again, this is not so you can step in and make architectural recommendations. It’s about building a common understanding with the team and empathy for any roadblocks they may face in making your vision a reality.
Tip: Do not fall into the trap of becoming a technical expert; you just need to understand the technology, not master it!
Read, read, and read some more
- Read the existing product documentation, user stories, technical documentation, Jira tickets, Slack boards, etc
- Read everything you can get your hands on in the first few days, keep a running list of questions, and then grab a whiteboard and spend time with an engineer to run through them all.
- Subscribe to industry blogs, newsletters and articles. Attend webinars and events; this will help in gaining market knowledge, understanding technologies, and discovering new opportunities.
- Learn to track user issues back to the underlying problem by going through user feedback and bug reports.
Tip: Subscribe to the domain and industry blogs. Read at least one article every day, without fail.
Good product managers can get up to speed very quickly if they approach the education process aggressively. I’ve learned that it generally took three to six months to become familiar with a domain that you haven’t worked on before, to the point where one feels confident charting a product strategy. Some people can probably learn faster, and others might take a little longer.
To summarize, technologies change so fast that product managers must be skilled at quickly learning new technologies and solving problems using them.
2. Figure out how you can add immediate value
B2B product managers are greedy features collectors! They need features to score higher than the competition and present a superior product. Product development and release cycles are a bit longer in the case of B2B SaaS products.
Since the B2B environment involves people, processes, and technology, the product manager needs to be very careful when bringing the changes; and rapid changes are a big no-no from users. With little domain expertise, that becomes more complex. With complex technical structures, it takes longer for product managers to start delivering at the ground level (it took me six months to ship my first product).
Being on the job, a product manager doesn’t have the luxury of being a full-time student. You have to identify areas where you can make an immediate impact and start contributing, while you’re ramping up your skills. The below approaches will help you in gaining quick points while concentrating more on improving yourself in this new environment:
Keep track of usability metrics. Dig deeper into the data
Each function has a superpower; some quality that, when wielded, makes other people jump to work with you. For example; as an engineer, you can tell the team a better way of managing the code versioning on Github, etc. In the same way, a product manager can show command over data expertise. Any time someone asks, “Do we know how many people use the ABC feature?” and you can say, “Yeah, it’s roughly 123.” This helps you build credibility. Things to consider…
- Which frontend and backend events are logged and where are they stored? Block out 15-30 minutes every week to run through this data.
- Learn how to query data and create simple reports. Discuss with teams if there are any discrepancies observed.
Tips: Talk to the management team, understand their vision and the way they look at the market and product. Create your KPIs list to track based on that understanding.
Lean into your experiences and strengths
- In my early days, I was afraid to make my points due to a lack of complete understanding of the product and the overall system. I tried to avoid drawing attention by being a silent spectator in product grooming and other meetings.
- However, I soon realized how silly it was, as I possess unique experience (which is why I was hired for the role!) in defining processes, managing product logs, requirement gathering etc. Start building momentum by accumulating small wins.
Tip: Do not try to reinvent the wheel and use the organization’s current prioritization and decision-making framework to implement your processes.
Help the team
After joining, I realized that at Peak, we were not fully agile and only used the agile principle in bits and pieces. Even my colleagues in the product team were not trained on running scrum sprints. Being CSPO-certified (a certified scrum product owner), I saw an opportunity here and started conducting weekly basic scrum training sessions. This has helped me in multiple ways:
- I got closer to the team, understanding them, their ways of working and their decision-making framework better.
- Creating a reputation within the team while contributing to the development of the company’s resources.
Tip: Respect others’ time and priorities. Discuss with management and the team in advance.
Run efficient meetings
During my initial days at Peak, I attended a meeting about defining a data model for one of our solutions. It wasn’t the most thrilling meeting I’ve ever attended; however, I soon realized that these meetings are one of the best opportunities to showcase your management skills, as well as gaining knowledge about the system. With your limited knowledge, you might not be able to contribute much, but you can still play your part by:
- Ensuring the purpose of the meeting is clear to everyone invited.
- Making sure all necessary decision-makers are present.
- Setting the right level of context at the beginning of the meeting.
- Taking clear action items and assigning owners at the end of the meeting.
- Ensuring that meeting notes are properly documented and shared promptly.
Tips: Err on the side of caution in terms of over-communicating and over – documenting. Know when to use which communication channel and when not.
3. Keep yourself motivated and focus on the target
This is one of the most critical challenges of working with B2B SaaS products. Release cycles are not frequent and you normally ship a feature in three to four months, while making it stable and increasing adoption takes a further three months.
When you are new to the system and see people around you delivering and contributing to the company’s growth, many times experienced product managers get frustrated and start questioning their approach and progress.
One of my biggest pains with B2B SaaS products is the time it took from the moment we decided to build something, to the time it becomes available for our customers to use.
We did research and developed things pretty quickly, but there were dependencies between products that slowed down the releases. There were long sales cycles that took months, and the implementation for each business took months as well.
Overall it took a long time to ship my first product. Staying motivated is easier said than done, especially when your product doesn’t get a very positive response during the initial launch. Below are a few approaches to keep yourself motivated
B2B product management is a marathon, not a sprint. Sure, the analogy makes sense — great things take years to build. But, I soon discovered it was naive to take this on its literal meaning. In the last year, I realized the statement has far more significance than just the time horizon. Running a marathon is not about time but all about planning. There will always be ups and downs but staying focused is critical.
Tip: Keep concentrating on all you have achieved rather than what is still left to be achieved
Give credit to teammates
Learn to appreciate genuinely and give credit to the team. I have learned this from one of my colleagues, who is exceptional at doing this. Appreciation and giving credit can build stronger relationships and help you get better results in your work.
Sometimes we can value characteristics that aren’t necessarily productive, but helpful (such as having a positive, cheerful demeanour, and staying calm in stressful situations).
Tips: It doesn’t have to be big and flashy. Try working it in naturally, as part of a project update that you were going to give anyway.
One-to-one is the best way to connect on pressing issues, develop a strong relationship, and validate whether you are on the correct path to achieve your goals – at work, and also otherwise. 1:1s can help you in achieving:
- A trusting relationship with your organization
- Staying informed and aligned and how you are contributing
- Providing mutual feedback to help each other grow
- Addressing topics prone to getting lost in the shuffle (e.g. career development)
Tips: Always document the key takeaways and track your progress. Use 1:1 time wisely!
Celebrate small wins
- The power of progress is fundamental to human nature, but few managers understand it or know how to leverage progress to boost motivation.
- Even ordinary, incremental progress can increase people’s engagement in their work and their happiness during the working day. Learn to appreciate small achievements and celebrate with the team more often.
- When a colleague does something nice for you or achieves something, don’t let the moment pass by unacknowledged. Reward them on achieving small goals, buy some ice cream or treats to enjoy with the team!
Tips: Be timely in expressing your appreciation, and you’ll make a more favourable impression – and your gratitude will seem more authentic.
I hope this product management blog helps you if you’re currently settling into a new role in product management at a new business. If you’ve gone through any such transition, I would love to hear about your experience.
Feel free to share this blog with someone else who may find it useful – that would totally make my day!
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