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Product Manager: The Sexiest Job of the 2020s

publishedabout 2 months ago
6 min read

From Tanay Pratap Review (September 2022)

I have never held the position or title of a Product Manager. But I have created multiple products over my career. Microsoft Teams might come to your mind now. NeoG Camp and Roc8, and now Invact are all products, although not the software products we usually think of.

Moreover, I have worked with great Product Managers closely, and have observed their craft. That’s why I think I can share my two cents on what it takes to be a Product Manager.

Before that, we need to understand the thing at the center of this discussion.

What is a Product?

Thanks to the technological advancements in the past few decades, we can’t think beyond software when we are asked to think of a product. But software is not the only product out there.

The cup you are drinking your tea or coffee in while reading this newsletter is a product. Let’s apply the JTBD (Jobs to be done) framework and study the cup.

What jobs does a cup need to do?

A cup needs to hold a liquid.

A cup should have a handle to enable the consumption of hot liquids. That’s what makes it different from a glass.

A cup should also be easy to clean. Cleaning the cup in the following image would be a nightmare.

A cup may look beautiful. This is an aesthetic value addition. It may not be among the top priorities (P0 or P1), but people pay more for better-looking cups.

That’s literally it. We applied one of the most commonly used PM frameworks to a simple, little cup. When you start thinking about the objects around you, whatever they are, from a product lens, you start thinking like a Product Manager.

You don’t need a PM job to become a PM.

You don’t need a programming job to become a programmer.

You become a programmer, and then you get a programming job.

Similarly, you don’t need a PM job to become a PM.

You start thinking like a PM, and then you get the job.

The role of a PM in any organization is to act as the user’s advocate. They think and talk about the user perspective more than anything else.

Think of the delta, the change, you want to bring into a human’s life. Can you get that delta through your product?

Suppose you want to help people appreciate nature and at the same, stay active. You believe that hiking is the answer that brings both changes. Send out a tweet. Collect information about the interested people through a Google form. Create a Whatsapp group for communications. Use Excel or Sheets for a leaderboard. If you do all this and can conduct successful hikes, you have become a Product Manager.

Software, framework, or a job does not make you a Product Manager. You make yourself a Product Manager.

Ways to start your PM career

I will be honest and not sugarcoat my words. It is difficult to crack a PM role if you don’t have a top-tier MBA. In fact, not every aspiring PM from even the top colleges can get a PM role. But you can employ your street credits and wiggle your way to a PM role. Let me explain how, although I feel you know the answer.

Yes, by building proof-of-work.

  1. Post product-related tweets, threads, blogs, etc., and establish your research skills.
  2. Take an existing product and apply a framework. Use the JTBD framework on RazorPay. Explain Zerodha with the RICE scoring model. Apply the MoSCoW method to Google Pay. You get the idea.
  3. When a new feature on a product is released, analyze it. Why was it introduced? What is the core audience it serves? How can one expect it to be received by the market?
  4. When a startup gets funding, study its product. What is their TAM (Total Addressable Market)? What are the challenges they may face in the future?
  5. On top of all these proofs of work, build a real product. The hiking group is an example.

These projects are good enough to get you into a Founder’s Office role. If you diligently do all of this, it may even be sufficient to land you an APM (Associate Product Manager) role.

Trust me, Proof of Work is a sure-shot way to succeed in any field. There are so many founder friends who have excellent visibility on social media platforms but still struggle to find the right talent. If I send a tweet today that I need PMs for my company, I will get hundreds of applications. Once I add the caveat of 5 PoWs, more than 95% of them will vanish. That’s the sad reality. So take your chance, build and showcase your product thinking.

Vikrama Dhiman, Head of Product at GoJek, a leading Southeast Asian on-demand, multi-service tech platform, thinks along the same lines.

PMs fill the gaps that exist in strategy and/or execution. A key attribute that helps some PMs do that more effectively across wide-ranging scenarios is high agency. High agency is usually evaluated indirectly at the interview stage. Cracking a good college or shining recommendations is one way. A blog with key insights captured over several months, a good portfolio with key case studies, or an engaging side project (or even a startup) are some other ways. Wishes don’t give you wings, action does.

A person with high agency is someone who doesn’t wait for the stars to line up in their favor. They take things into their hands and find the way. Projects and Proof-of-Work are evidence of high agency that can help you land a PM role at any good company.

What are the specific skills I need to become a PM?

You have already started asking the right questions as a good PM does. Here are some skills that every PM should have.

  • Qualitative User Research: You should know what questions you need to ask your users and be able to listen with empathy.
  • Quantitative Research: You should know where you need to look for which data. Then you will have to back your hypothesis with the right data and understand biases.
Read The Mom Test. I haven't read the book personally but have heard great reviews from people I respect.
  • Writing: Churning documents should not take you weeks. You should be able to write fast and efficiently.
  • Understanding of Marketing and Human Psychology: A Product Manager is the user’s advocate. They need to understand what motivates users and how they make their decisions. That is how one builds great products.
Read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann.
  • Strategy and Frameworks: I don’t want to start naming all the frameworks that exist. But you should learn how to scale down a product to its MVP to understand P0 and P1 features.
Read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
  • Project Management: Very few companies exist that differentiate between product and project management. So PMs also take care of the Project Management aspects of a product.
TLDR; a PM is responsible for the ideation to the delivery of a product.

Take it from a Product Manager

Suhas Motwani, a great friend and the co-founder of The Product Folks, a volunteer-driven community of PMs and enthusiasts, was kind enough to share his thoughts. Adding to what we have already covered in this issue, Suhas suggests keeping the following points in mind.

  • Product Management Skillset ≠ Product Management Interview Skillset One gives you a foot in the door, the other teaches you how to excel at your job. Cultivate both.
  • Randomly hitting apply on LinkedIn won’t help, shortlist and network smartly. While making a list of companies that you want to work at, go to Linkedin and see the backgrounds of current PMs working there. This will help you fill the gap matrix.
  • When meeting a potential employer, remember to prepare 3 things in advance.
    • Know about what the company does well.
    • Research or find out during the conversation what are they missing.
    • How do you think you could fill the gap?

Suhas also had the opportunity to pick the brains of Shreyas Doshi, ex-Stripe, Twitter, Google, Yahoo, and a global leader on the subject. Here’s what he remembers from the conversation.

  • Do the role before you get the job. In line with what this newsletter stated earlier, you don’t need the PM title to do the PM job. Make your own opportunity to showcase product thinking.
  • Your current company is the best place to start. It’s always easier to start exploring the Product role by switching teams in your current company. Leaving a job and giving interviews with no product experience can turn out to be a nightmare.
  • Side projects! Build your own product. Work with engineers you know. Deliver.

Wrapping it up

Do you notice how the same methods have come up again and again through these different leaders? The world is shifting towards skill-based hiring and if you can do the job well, you are in with a chance.

I strongly believe that Product Management is a great, high-earning career path for non-tech business professionals. All you need to excel in this field is initiative and a product mindset.

Writing this newsletter issue was a fresh change for me. I hope reading it felt the same to you. Please let me know whether you liked this issue by replying to this email or tweeting and tagging me @tanaypratap. Subscribe to get the issues delivered straight to your inbox.