The Mihir Chronicles

On Product Management

October 30, 2020

[Last Revised: 03/19/2023]

In 2012, I started the journey of building products with a background in finance and accounting. It was a drastic career transition. At that time, I didn't know what product management was. I interacted with many developers and designers without understanding their domain language. It was quite challenging. I would sum myself up as—A man with ideas, but low on execution.

I have worked both on physical and digital products as a startup founder and as an employee. As an employee, I have worked at a tiny startup with 25 people to a mid-size organization with 3000 people to a large size organization with 30,000 people. Each one of these organizations with various sizes presented its own challenges and opportunities. Learning never stopped because of an organization size.

To keep up with various domains, I enrolled in bootcamp schools—business development, coding & product management respectively. This structured and specific learnings helped me grow and communicate appropriately with designers, engineers and stakeholders. Each domain has its own objectives and incentives. Understanding that can help influence balance in decision-making.

The cumulative experience working within design, engineering, startups, business and product development has given me the confidence of doing product management today and round up my philosophy on how the role of product management should be carried out. The core philosophy includes:

  • Managing product is hard when the true essence is lost; the essence of product is value creation
  • Empathize for user problems
  • People don't buy problems, they buy your solutions
  • A great product manager creates value by solving the right problem
  • Focus on results, not output; solve client's problems that work for business goals
  • Focus on why, not the what; client won't come just because your team built a feature
  • Action produces information
  • Leverage data to craft a 5-star customer experience
  • Feature failure is not a disaster, but a learning step to get from v1 to v2
  • Documentation is communication
  • Define products collaboratively, not sequentially
  • Collaboration can only happen when working in isolation is eliminated
  • A decision has both elements of data and opinion; knowing which one is a key to prevent analysis paralysis
  • Making decisions with cross-functional teams and stakeholders, so execution teams can move forward—present the situation, list dependencies & risks, share options available, list pros & cons and finally make a recommendation
  • Maintain decision log
  • Address product risks early—value (user), usability (design), feasibility (engineering) and business
  • Learning never stops because problems never go away; cherishing this mindset helps you deal with day-to-day
  • Being a successful product manager requires the ability to thrive in ambiguity

HP Labs, which was a pioneer a few decades ago, defined their product equation in the 1980s.

Product = Customer x Business x Technology

Peter Thiel, in his book, Zero to One, outlines his belief that the biggest insights in life are “hidden in plain sight”—concealed only by our preconceptions or tendency to accept realities as they are (complacency).

Tell me something that’s true, that almost nobody agrees with you on. — Peter Thiel

The product manager's (PM, I will be using the acronym for the remainder of the article) ultimate quest is to answer the following questions:

  • What is hidden in plain sight?
  • What does a user want? And how do you want your customers to become better at doing their job?

From these questions above, I have realized from this past decade that product management is more of an art than a science. Product management is not formulaic. It requires a PM to come up with great ideas, but also build things that customers want and make their jobs easier. How to balance the two is the task on hand for a PM.

I also believe there are two types of product managers—generalist and technical. Great PMs are generalist who are able to jump many boundaries of engineering, design and business. As engineering and design becomes more specialized, the generalist fills the gap. But surfacing those insights are not enough. Those insights need to solve user problems and need to be delivered to them at the right time. As much as the discipline of product management focuses on strategy, luck also plays a key role. iPhone would've never been successful if it was introduced any sooner or later. Technological advances play an important role on when to introduce the right product and features. For example, Blackberry had the best smartphone when Apple introduced an iPhone. Blackberry today is almost non-existent. This is another example of art versus science.

Product management is also an execution job. Strategy plays a huge role, but strategy without execution serves neither the organization nor the end-user.

Knowledge without action, is like having no knowledge at all. — Ted Nicholas

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. — Michael Porter

User problems don't need to be invented for the sake of doing the job of product management. For every feature or product delivered, there is only one question that can tell if meaningful work is being done, “Are the users making progress with your product?”

How can you ensure your users are making progress? If you are not using data on user engagement, you are relying on your intuition. But I said earlier that the discipline of product management is an art not a science. Correct, but it does not hurt to collect data on what is working and what is not. Just like everything else, balance between data and intuition is required here. Intuition is what leads to opinionated decisions. If you hold strong opinions when making decisions, it is your job to explain why.

Customers don't have needs, they just want to make progress within the system they belong. — Alan Klement

People don't buy the problem, they buy your solution. Obviously they don't buy it if it's not solving something they care about, but there are many products that are solving what they care about. The real question is, do you solve it better than everybody else so that they buy you? And that's where you need to take time. — Marty Cagan

A good product takes chaos and creates order. — Brian Nogard

Actually using products helps you get better at your job, because you are more aware of the experiences your users are having. It hones your product sense and your ability to understand the user experience, and it allows you to learn in a hands-on way. — Shreyas Doshi

The best PMs aren't the ones who are always looking inward. They look outward. They're the ones who are seeking opportunities outside their own product to get better at what they do. — Shreyas Doshi

I think credit is infinitely divisible, and the atomic unit of success is a team, not an individual. You succeed or fail as a team. As a PM, your job is to ensure that recognition goes to the people working alongside you. — Shreyas Doshi

You are the conductor of the orchestra. You’re guiding the people who are playing the instruments. You don't have to be able to play every instrument well, but you need to make sure everyone is on the same beat. That's the role of the PM. You don't have to play the violin better than all the violinists. You don't have to code better than your engineers. You don't have to design better than the designers. But you have to make sure everybody is working in tandem. — Shreyas Doshi

Experimentation lies at the heart of every company's ability to innovate. — Thomke S

This is my private repository of notes accumulated over time one being a successful product manager.

What is product management?

Before I answer what is product management, let me make it clear, what is not a product management? It is not scrum management and neither project management. Scrum doesn't teach you how to develop just like a product owner course doesn't teach you how to be a product manager.

Product management is an organizational function within a company dealing with new product development, business justification, planning, verification, forecasting, pricing, product launch, and marketing of a product or products at all stages of the product lifecycle. Product lifecycle management is the process of managing the entire lifecycle of a product from inception, through engineering, design, prototyping, manufacturing physical products, scaling software businesses, to service, maintenance and disposal of products or retiring old legacy software.

However, every organization does product management differently depending on several factors. If you are a small startup, PM is perhaps led by a CEO or some other executive or even by product development team. Product management is a more structured discipline in mid-to-large organizations. Google is broadly known for their product management discipline.

Product management is about setting and driving a product vision for potential or existing users. A set of process or processes drives the product vision. Process defines the framework and discipline to accomplish the product vision. Every organization has a different process, but the following should be a starting point when defining a framework.

  • Product Vision: what do you want the world around you to look like in 6 months? 1 year? 2 years? 5 years?
  • Outcome: what do you want to achieve to help realize this product vision?
  • Goals & Metrics: what are the measurable goals along the way? How can you measure them?
  • Strategy: what are you going to do in sequence to hit your goals in near and long-term?
  • Resourcing: what resources do you need to hit these metrics? For example, how many engineers and designers do you need to build a feature or a product?

Product management model

In an organization with product model, product teams exist to solve hard problems for your customers and for your business, in ways your customers love, yet work for your business.

  • Value risk: will the customer buy our solution, or choose to use it?
  • Viability risk: will this solution work for our business? Is it something we can effectively and legally get to market, sell, service, fund, and monetize?
  • Usability risk: can the user easily learn, use and perceive the value of the solution?
  • Feasibility risk: do we know how to build and scale this solution, with the staff, time, technology, and data we have?

In a cross-functional product team, these are the critical competencies and what each is responsible and accountable for:

  • The Product Manager is responsible for the value and viability risks, and overall accountable for the product’s outcomes.
  • The Product Designer is responsible for the usability risk, and overall accountable for the product’s experience – every interaction our users and customers have with our product.
  • The Product Lead Engineer is responsible for the feasibility risk, and overall accountable for the product’s delivery.

Product management can be engineering driven, design driven, business driven or project driven. If none of these focus on users, product management is done incorrectly. Every company has a different philosophy about the product development process and where PMs fit into that process. Below are the three most common types, with pros and cons:

  • PM drives engineering: where PMs gather requirements, write product requirement document, and hand it off to engineering to spec out the technical requirements. Contemporary organizations may do this process in a more agile and collaborative way, but the expectation is that PMs know best about what customers need and engineering is there to serve.
    • Pro: engineering can focus on coding without a lot of distraction; this tends to work well for waterfall development shops with a long lifecycle.
    • Con: engineers lose sight of the big picture and do not develop empathy for customers, which can lead to a poor user experience. Often there are unhealthy tensions when technical debt and “plumbing” work needs to be prioritized over customer requirements.
  • Engineering drives product: technically oriented product companies (cloud, big data, networking) tend to be engineering-driven, where engineers are advancing the science in their domain and PMs validate solutions or create front end access points (UIs, APIs) to tap into this new technology. There can be a collaborative relationship and feedback loop between customers, PMs, and engineering, but typically PMs are serving engineering in these companies.
    • Pro: breakthrough technology can offer customers things they didn’t even know they needed. An engineer thought it would be cool to do, a PM figured out how to monetize it, and it became a billion-dollar game changer for the company.
    • Con: engineers chase the shiny new thing, over-architect the solution, or iterate forever, seeking perfection before getting customer feedback. PM input on priorities is ignored, which sometimes includes the most basic needs of customers.
  • PM-engineering partnership: there is a strong yin-yang between PM and engineering, with joint discovery, decision making, and shared accountability. Engineers join PMs in customer interviews, and PMs are in sprint meetings to help unblock tasks or clarify requirements. But the two roles respect the line where one starts and the other stops. PMs understand what’s being coded but don’t tell engineers how to code, and engineers have empathy for customers’ needs but leave the prioritization to the PMs.
    • Pro: a streamlined prioritization process that values technical debt and plumbing projects; better design processes leading to a more positive user experience; higher-performing teams with improved product velocity, quality, and, typically, happier customers.
    • Con: breakthrough innovation may not get greenlit; time-to-market may seem to lag (though I’d argue that what’s released is far better aligned with customer needs and more likely to successfully scale if iterated over time).

Startup versus large organization: Product management at a startup versus a large organization can be very different. The role of a PM at a startup is far more likely to be responsible to wear “all hats,” whereas at a mature company their role will be more distinctly defined.

  • Startup: beyond discovery, definition, and shipping, PMs may also be responsible for pricing, marketing, support, and potentially even sales. These PMs thrive in a scrappy environment and are comfortable with ambiguity and frequent changes to direction as the company works towards product-market fit and learns to operate at scale.
    • Pro: PMs are likely to be more involved with company strategy, get exposure to senior leadership and the board. Ownership pod is fairly large leading to making a bigger impact. They also have more influence and authority over company resources.
    • Con: There’s typically little to no mentorship, role models, or best practices within the company. You may have to seek it externally. Budgets are typically tight, and PMs may not have the requisite experience to succeed at some of the things they’re tasked to do.
  • Mature organization: The PM may have a narrower scope and have coworkers who handle pricing, go-to-market strategies, and so on. And they are likely to be of a larger team of PMs.
    • Pro: PMs are more likely to have mentoring and role models, as well as development standards and best practices. Close association with an engineering team can create strong relationships over time, which is great for long-term impact and career growth. And if the product has market fit, there is an established customer base and performance baseline to work from, versus guessing until you get it right.
    • Con: PMs have less exposure to company strategy and are just one of many voices of the customer. They can get “lost” in the system and have to deal with more politics and tight budgets. User feedback might not align with revenue goals which can make your job seem more like project management as opposed to product management (users are at the heart of product management).

Product management goals: Practicing the discipline of product management without goals is like traveling in an empty universe. Goals define whether the progress is being made or not. In its purest form, a goal is a way to track whether you’re achieving what you set out to do. When setting goals, start with what you’re trying to achieve as a company, team and product. What’s your ultimate mission? A goal should never be an end in itself—the end is achieving your mission. A good goal has the following attributes:

  • Concrete: it’s clear and unambiguous (something that isn’t subjective).
  • Simple: everyone understands what it is and how it’s measured.
  • Quick feedback loop: the results of your changes can be seen quickly. Think about how long it takes for a user to reach the milestone you’re tracking, and whether you can expect movement in a reasonable time-frame.
  • Business-oriented: it’s easy to see how this goal actually drives the larger business.

The role of a product manager

There are many flavors of product management, but being a PM is a job of influence to drive positive outcomes for the end user. Let's simplify it even further—positive outcomes for a user. However, it is not as straight-forward as it sounds in theory. To drive positive outcomes for the end user, PMs do many things, but are primarily focused on the following:

  • PMs are responsible to set overall vision, direction, capability, quality and delivery of products. These responsibilities are scattered between associates and mid-senior level positions.
  • PMs are able to build coalitions and get a buy in from functional groups—design, data, business, sales, and other cross-functional segments.
  • There is no room for an ego. If there is a key player missing, it will make the PM look weak. Resourcing is not a primary job but is a key element to executing on delivering a great product. This is where the previous point comes into play. A strong partnership with others can help fill the in the gaps.
  • PMs are constantly learning and picking up on domain knowledge. Best PMs are autodidacts because they are curious about everything. Sales, marketing, negotiation, design, or tech—they are all equally important to learn.
  • PMs should have strong collaboration mindset. PMs are like point guard playing basketball because they make others look great. A good collaboration between business, design and tech make everyone look great.
  • PMs understand the roadmap. It is important even if you don't own it. Features are prioritized based on the roadmap. PMs turn goals into projects with the help of their teams and entrepreneurial spirit. Too much to do is always a battle. That's the perpetual state of being a PM but the goal is to use a hammer on the highest nail.
  • Building with user adoption in mind. Beyond shipping new features on a regular cadence and keeping the peace between engineering and the design team, the best PMs create products with strong user adoption that have exponential revenue growth and perhaps even disrupt an industry.
  • PMs should be capable of writing well. Communication is a key and able to communicate with several stakeholders all at once becomes challenging. One way to overcome that challenge is to document for all types of audience. It is a good idea to document something that can be obvious to your audience. Different things mean to different audience. Writing helps bridge that gap. Documentation culture helps scale up the communication to an entire organization.
  • PMs should be resilient. Being resilient is a key to becoming a successful PM because if you are doing something hard, there will always be failures. Resiliency is hard to find in a resume. Great PMs are people who have overcome adversity in their life. Emotional intelligence goes a long way if there is a product execution or a life failure. From failure, everyone learns.

According to Marty Cagan, it is critical for PMs to have access to 3 things for them to be successful:

  • The first is that that product manager needs unencumbered access to their users and customers.
  • Second, product manager needs unencumbered access to the engineers.
  • And the third is unencumbered access to the stakeholders.

Brian Armstrong has excellent advice on what it takes to be a successful PM:

My goal is to set you up for success as a new product manager. First, you’re going to have to dedicate yourself to the art of product management. It is one of those things, like people management, that seems simple, but can take many years to really master. The only way to learn it is to actually do it. That being said, reading about it and learning from others does help. One suggestion would be to speak with 2–3 product managers (here or at other companies) to get their view. Become a knowledge sponge. Copy others before you try to find your own voice and do something unique (that can come after you’ve achieved mastery). The main parts of the job in my view are: 1) Understand the customer deeply — this means user studies, you have to go talk to the users every week and spend a lot of time with them to hear their pain, get inside their head. 2) Be metrics driven, you should be using time series data to give you insight into what people are doing with the product and see if the changes you are making are improving things. If you haven’t instrumented the app and chosen a metric you want to improve, you are just guessing. 3) The product manager is responsible for prioritizing the product roadmap and communicating it to the team. Not as a top-down dictator, but as a consensus builder amongst all the stakeholders, breaking a tie when necessary. 4) You need to be a communication hub, both when building consensus internally on priorities/roadmap, but also externally communicating changes to customers. Users need to see that the product is continually improving by hearing about it from you. Everyone internally needs to be on the same page when changes roll out. You are the point of contact for all things related to this product. 5) Once you master all of that, you will need to develop product vision (conviction about where things are going in the future, make the hard calls about what to eliminate, etc) and strive to make something truly great. You can think about it not just as eliminating customer pain, but actually creating customer delight. In rare instances, you can wind up creating something that people actually love. (very few products attain this — nobody says they love Tide detergent, but people do say they love their Harley Davidson). On a practical note, you are responsible for the following tasks on the team: running product review, maintaining/updating the product roadmap, and doing sprint planning.

Core responsibilities of a product manager

PMs are always learning, but they should keep up with core competencies. The following core competencies are the baseline for any PM, and the best PMs hone in on these skills over the years. The following core competencies are reflected in shipping the great products.

  • Conduct customer interviews and user testing
  • Run team wide including design and engineering sprints
  • Road map planning
  • Feature prioritization
  • The art of resource allocation
  • The art of managing conflicts
  • Perform market assessments and conducting competitive analysis
  • Assess market trends to explore innovative features
  • Translate business-to-technical requirements, and vice versa
  • Pricing and revenue modeling
  • Community (internal or/and external) engagement
  • Gauge prospects and beta users to adopt a new feature or a product
  • Act as a liaison with cross-functional business units
  • Document stories, epics, technical requirements, user workflows
  • Support training and conduct demos for cross-functional teams
  • Define and track adoption metrics
  • Collect and prioritize user feedback

Core competencies of a product manager

  • Story-tellers: the best PMs are able to weave tales that incorporate market needs, strategy, and tactics into a story that their stakeholders can get their heads around and hopefully adopt the story themselves. It can be challenging when you see something clearly, but you can’t get others around you to see it. You work through other people's eyes, so it takes a lot of convincing. You have to be a great communicator and storyteller. You have to read your audience. You have to try harder to understand others and find an angle to explain that makes sense to them. People you work with are smart, they just need a great story to be convinced.
  • Learning by doing: to master the art of product management requires several years of practice and doing. Natural talents won't be enough. Ultimately, the best thing you can do to prepare for a career in product management is to build. Manage and “own” a project from inception through execution and operation. Create KPIs to measure your impact.
  • 3 Ps: analyze the 3 Ps—people, process and product, to assess on the quality of people, the best process to deliver the product, and excellence and relevance of a product. Keep in mind to not implement process for the sake of process. Relevance is a key to establish the right process.
  • Hard decisions: be willing to stand up for what you believe in, especially when you are representing your users. Confidence of a PM comes from having a strong work ethic and conviction. Conviction can be built using both intuition and data. Hard decisions make great products. Success is not guaranteed, but confidence eliminates fear of failure.
  • Questions: are a PM's best tool. The best way to understand what’s going on or how to get better is to pose probing questions to all stakeholders, and above all, to yourself. Stopping for a tune-up if you’re already further along the road is critical to leveling up as a leader. Questions help you travel on the right road. If you aren't on the right path it doesn't matter how fast you are traveling. Asking the right questions will help you choose the right road.
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ): the best PMs have the ability to empathize with customers during surveys and interviews. A PM with a high EQ has strong relationships within their organization and a keen sense of how to navigate both internal and external hurdles to ship a great product. People don’t talk enough about EQ. PMs get huge value from being highly empathetic with the team, not just with users. There are plenty of smart people, but not enough people with the right balance of emotional intelligence.
  • Social capital: economic and social benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups. Components of social capital include reciprocity, trust and values. If these are shared between individuals within a network then the community will function as an organic whole. This is important for the next up, relationship management.
  • Relationship management: probably one of the most important characteristics of a great PM is relationship management skills. By forming authentic and trustworthy connections with both internal and external stakeholders, the best PMs inspire people and help them reach their full potential. Relationship management is also vital in successful negotiation, resolving conflicts, and working with others toward a shared goal, which is especially challenging when a PM is tasked with balancing the needs of customers, resource-constrained engineering teams, and the company’s revenue goals. Authentic and trusting relationships within an organization can lead to more support when additional funding is needed for a product or when an engineer must be swayed to include a quick bug fix in the next sprint. Outside an organization, these skills could encourage existing customers to beta test a new feature for early feedback or to convince a target customer to try the MVP of a product still in stealth mode.
  • Social awareness: PMs must understand customer's emotions and concerns about their product as much as they understand the concerns of the sales team on how to sell that product, or the support team on how to support it, or the engineering team on how to build it. PMs need deep understanding of how the organization operates and must build social capital to influence the success of their product, from obtaining budget and staffing to securing a top engineer to work on their product. Finally, social awareness ensures the best PMs service their customers with a product that addresses their jobs to be done, which is ultimately what drives product-market fit.
  • Confirmation bias: PMs must be self-aware of their own confirmation biases to avoid projecting their own preferences onto users of their products. PMs should stay objective in despite of features they love which addresses their own pain points. The lack of self-awareness in any sort of biases could derail more important priorities or damage the PM’s relationship with engineers, who may lose confidence in their PM when a feature isn’t adopted by users.
  • Self-management: being a PM can be incredibly stressful. The CEO wants one thing, the engineering team another, and customers have their own opinions about feature priorities. Managing tight deadlines, revenue targets, market demands, prioritization conflicts, and resource constraints all at once is not for the faint of heart. If a PM cannot maintain their emotions and keep it cool under pressure, they can quickly lose the confidence of all their constituents. The best PMs know how to push hard on the right priorities, with urgency but without conveying a sense of panic or stress. A PM should know when to take a breath and step away to regroup.

What should a PM do on Day 1?

What should a new PM do in the first month? Joining a new product team is like starting a new position on a basketball team; eager to play, but don't know the chemistry or tactics to perform. Training and practice is necessary before a PM can score. A structured program can provide training, but many organizations don't even understand what product management is, let alone what to train the new PMs on. More often than not PMs are left to sink or swim. Here is a framework I created during the first month of being a PM at Morningstar.

  • Company's mission

    • What is the underlying business?
    • What is the objective of the business?
    • How does the business help customers?
    • Where does the company fall short on meeting customer's expectations?
  • Learn the product

    • What is the product?
    • Why are we building?
    • Who are we building for?
    • How are we going to build it?
    • Are there any OKRs for each milestone?
  • Meet the team & stakeholders

    • How is the team structured?
    • What role does each member play?
    • Where does the team excel?
    • Where does the team fall short?
    • Is the team aligned on product mission and strategy?
    • What does the team expect of you?
  • Review documentation & artifacts

    • Review product vision & strategy artifacts.
    • Review the product roadmap.
    • Review the product's technical requirements.
    • Review JIRA board and backlog.
    • Review the product's performance data.
  • Execute

    • Provide and update Acceptance Criteria with appropriate context and information including design and data points.
    • Help team unblock during sprint rituals by providing product & business context.
    • Write documents that are missing.
  • Test

    • Experiment & test hypothesis to find user engagement and value. Running physical experiments is relatively expensive, so companies have had to be parsimonious with the number of experiments.
    • Controlled experiments, also called randomized experiments and A/B tests, have had a profound influence in many fields.
    • The electric light bulb required more than 1,000 complex experiments. In modern times, with the magic of software, experimentation is much cheaper, and the ability to test innovative ideas unprecedented.
  • Measure

    • Measure results from your experiments such as A/B tests.
    • Track down your team decisions on a decision log and assess which ones succeeded.
    • Measure team velocity for each sprint by tracking down start and close tickets.
    • Evaluate qualitative feedback from users via usability testing or incoming feedback.
    • Measure user growth. It is natural for a set number of users to leave. But on a longer scale, you will find product-market fit from users that stay around longer as time passes.

Product management topics

  • Go to market (GTM): It is an organizational plan to deliver unique value proposition to customers and achieve competitive advantage. Below are the components of GTM. Start with debugging upstream or downstream of product cycle to optimize for GTM:

    • What exactly are you building? It starts with vision. But if the vision is wrong everyone is going home. It starts with product management.
    • How do you position it? How do you tell the story in a short-time frame without using product jargon? Great product use less words to spread the message. It starts with product marketing.
    • How do you do demand generation? How do you do sales? If the product does not sell, there is a gap in product market fit.
    • How do you do customer retention? If the customers are churning, there is value deceleration.
  • Product market fit (PMF): It is another way to say you are in search for demand curve or another way to say you have produced value. Product market fit allows a company to sell product at scale. When people want to pull it out of your hands that is a product market fit. Company building should happen when you have a product market fit.

    • Use cohort analysis to measure product market fit. Look at a group of people that tried your product in a period of time (week, month, quarter). Then look at how many of those people continue to use your product for a while. You will have a fairly deep drop-off on the first month. Does it flatten somewhere? If so, that means that there are customers who are finding value in your product, which means you have PMF with these customers.
    • Create a retention curve by plotting the percent of active users over time (for each cohort of users). If it flattens off at some point, you have probably found product/market fit for some market or audience.

Further reading