Back in the early days of Earlywork (ha), we did a piece capturing the notoriously nebulous journey of How To Break Into Product Management.
As myself and Marina both work in the field, we’ve continued to get a ton of questions and interest from the Earlywork community about what product managers do.
One thing we’ve noticed over time: the ‘map’ 🗺 of product management as an idea in peoples’ minds is quite different from the ‘territory’ 🌏 of the on-the-ground, day-to-day work of PMs.
Understandably so, given…
- It’s a fairly new role overall
- There’s not really a standard educational pathway for it
- The hiring of junior or associate product managers has only recently begun to gain traction
- Product management can look fairly different between and even within companies (it’s an ambiguous role by nature)
But in this map-territory correspondence, there are several consistent gaps and myths that come up time and time again, particularly for students and recent graduates.
So how to scalably resolve this issue and avoid looping the same conversations?
Did someone say… newsletter piece? (yes… me)
Now, to ensure we captured the most important misconceptions among aspiring and emerging product managers, we wanted to speak to PMs who were:
- Experienced enough to share battle scars and changes to their product management approach
- Young enough to vividly remember their first steps in product management
- Exposed to both tech giant and startup environments, as these two worlds can approach product management quite differently
So, in true PM fashion, I was lucky enough to spar on the topic with two top young Aussie product managers: James Gabb and Matt Hinds:
So, how did these two stumble into the world of product?
James: “When I was in university, I didn’t know what a Product Manager was until right before I was about to finish my degree. This huge unknown almost led me to not apply for a PM role in the first place.
I only ended up figuring it out at a grad job event at the very last stall I went to where a recruiter told me to give it a shot.
Fast forward 3 months, and I ended up joining Atlassian as an Associate Product Manager.
After spending the last few years understanding what different types of Product Managers do by working as a Product Manager at Atlassian and Eucalyptus, I have come to realise that a lot of my initial assumptions about the role were incorrect.”
Matt:“After finishing a finance degree and spending a few years building FinTech and Ecommerce businesses, I wanted to find a role that was closest to being a “founder”. To me, this meant solving important customer problems and working with engineering, sales and marketing to achieve something big.
I realised that Product Management was this role, but the path there wasn’t easy. There was a lack of practical advice available to translate the experience I’d gained in finance and business into how I’d successfully grow a product team inside a larger organisation.
Now that I’ve been a Product Manager at SafetyCulture, I’ve seen that anybody can do it if they really put their mind to it.”
🚨 Here are the top 5 things we got wrong about product management when we first started:
#1: “Junior Product Managers get given clear tasks by their manager.” ❌
👉 The reality: Junior Product Managers get given high-level goals, but they decide the steps to get there.
Matt: “When I started as a PM at SafetyCulture, I was used to having a manager look over my daily goals from a Sales position. This was a shock, in a good way. It forced me to prioritise my time and the next set of goals I had for the team.”
When starting off in an Associate Product Manager (APM) position, you’ll typically be partnered with a Senior PM to spar on ideas and continue to learn. You’ll also have a manager, mentorship programs, and other support mechanisms depending on the size of the company.
While you’ll be given support, you will rarely be given specific tasks to undertake on a daily basis. Unlike typical grad roles, where you are designated tasks and reports by your managers, a PM has to define their own set of actions to achieve the goal for the product.
Oftentimes, even junior PMs get to influence what those goals are and how to measure them.
This freedom of choice can take some getting accustomed to, but ultimately allows you to fail, learn and improve your thinking at a rapid pace.
The only person who can really manage you is… you.
#2: “A Product Manager needs to be technical.” ❌
👉 The reality: PMs need to understand the process to take features from ideas to reality.
James: “I almost didn’t talk with a recruiter from Atlassian because I assumed they only hired technical roles and Product Management only seemed to be offered as a role in technology companies.”
In reality, there’s always going to be a limit to how much technical knowledge a PM knows.
The fact is - you don’t need to have any more than the basics.
You don’t have to be able to code. You don’t need to be a great designer. You don’t have to be an excellent analyst.
You do, however, need to understand how to work directly within a technology team and a Team Lead. While you might not need to learn to code, you’ll need to have an understanding of:
- What are the limitations of the technology?
- How fast can the team move?
- Where are the biggest blockers?
- When is it best to provide my own opinions and insights?
At a fundamental level, you need to have a solid grasp of the high-level process that comes with taking features from ideas to reality.
Some recommended reads to build a foundation of how this happens:
- The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen
- Inspired by Marty Cagan
- Cracking The PM Interview by Gayle Laakmann McDowell & Jackie Bavaro
#3: “A Product Manager just focuses on strategy.” ❌
👉 The reality: A PM is a gap filler.
Matt:“I needed a customer case study done for marketing ASAP due to a new product launch within the next week. This was way overdue and the internal team were going to take 3 months! I rang up a contact in Queensland who organised a camera and we filmed it the same day.”
Product Managers find the unmet needs of the product and jump in to do whatever it takes for their product to succeed.
While you might have gained a skill set that could apply to product (design, analytics, etc.), you’re going to have to extend your knowledge to other areas to become more of a generalist.
If we release a new feature and we’re getting bombarded by customer support tickets - you help the team bring the number of tickets down to renew trust.
If you need a videographer for a customer case study - don’t wait for lengthy processes - go get one on a marketplace today!
If you need some new designs to unblock your developers - jump into Figma and figure it out or build a case to get design resources from another team.
PMs aren’t just worried about the strategy of the product, they’re responsible for the success. This means you have to jump between strategy and execution on a daily basis.
A book that captures this concept of operational hustle super well (even though it’s not strictly a product book) is Shoe Dog, the autobiography of Nike founder Phil Knight.
#4: “A Product Manager has to come up with all the ideas.” ❌
👉 The reality: A PM should facilitate ideas from stakeholders.
“Ideas are cheap, execution is everything” - Chris Sacca (Shark on Shark Tank)
James: “In my first role, I spent ages researching figuring out what the right path forward was for my team. While I assumed this helped developer resources become more focused, it actually caused me to become a blocker because I couldn’t get ideas fast enough to the team.
Then I switched my mentality: instead of becoming the source of ideas, facilitate information to the best people to provide ideas to move the product forward.”
Your development team knows more about the tech and can challenge your understanding of its limitations. Not only that, they know what can be done with the technology, and this can provide a critical source of new features and enhancements.
Your designer understands holistically how users should be interacting with the product.
Your analyst knows more about the underlying numbers and can help you predict if we’re moving in the right direction.
And this is just your immediate team, not to mention other internal & external stakeholders.
Your customers feel the problem and understand more about the industry. They may not always have the solutions, but they’ll have the pain points and desires to guide you towards them.
Getting your team involved earlier on in the problem definition and exploration process will help you get buy-in and help bring your team closer to the customer.
#5: “A Product Manager can only improve the product by adding or changing features.” ❌
👉 The reality: The PM needs to consider the product at a holistic level, and that goes beyond the pixels and buttons.
James: “My first experience in a PM role was to increase users for our mobile app. While I assumed this meant changes to the user onboarding in the app, what it really meant was building better relationships with key stakeholders within large enterprises. This was 10x more effective than any product change.”
PMs are not just feature builders.
The product is not just the pixels and buttons; it's everything a customer touches. The marketing, the pricing, the onboarding, the support system, the community.
There are many levers to increasing the chance of success that a Product Manager has at their disposal. You need to continually reassess what the team is working on to make sure it’s of the highest impact for the product.
Once they understand the biggest opportunity for improvement in the product, assuming that only a tech improvement can solve it is ludicrous.
If your sales are dropping - instead of investing more into technology, maybe you should divert resources to fuelling marketing with customer case studies.
If you need to test something quickly - see how users respond to a community announcement with a few mock-ups before you actually build it.
Now, these are 5 of the biggest PM myths, but there’s a ton more nuances and misconceptions along the way, and as someone looking for a PM role, it can be super confusing to navigate the plethora of information out there.
Since breaking into product management is becoming increasingly competitive, James and Matt spent hundreds of hours over the last few months collating all their experiences, knowledge and latest PM insights into a guide that aims to accelerate you on your pathway to becoming a PM: The PM Playbook.
The content isn’t available anywhere else, and any readers that purchase the book can also receive personalised support from James and Matt on their product management career journey.