What I Learned from My Years in Product Management
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Good Morning Readers,
Back to the newsletter after a long time. The reason for the break has been my first book that got published on Amazon recently, and became has been #1 BestSeller since in Science and Technology 😀
We have sold 1000+ copies in the first 72 hours, and that makes me very happy. If it were not for growth catalyst readers, some of whom have been ardent supporters on social media platforms and have shared this from their accounts — I am 100% confident such a successful launch wouldn’t have been possible.
If you haven’t checked already, here is the link for the book — https://www.amazon.in/Tech-Simplified-Entrepreneurs-Deepak-Singh/dp/9355664990/
To know more about the book and other resources related to it, you can also check https://www.simplify-tech.com/
Special thanks to the editor of the book, Priya Singh, who is also my better half and the editor-in-chief of my life.
Off to the topic at hand,
I recently moved to Unacademy, as Senior Director of Product. Moving away from Flipkart was difficult due to many reasons – smart folks, an amazing set of problems, great managers, etc. The opportunity at Unacademy is, however, even more exciting. Add to that, I have recently realized that education has always been interesting for me. Unacademy is doing amazing work, and the ambition of the founders is unparalleled. And that’s the reason I made the transition.
Every transition in life offers an opportunity to reflect and learn. In this post, I am going to share my reflections and learnings with you. It isn’t a laundry list of everything I have learned. It is, however, the most important thing that has been immensely beneficial in my career. I have written this post quoting examples from my PM career, however, the takeaways apply to every career.
Popular media talks a lot about professional growth but often forgets about the pursuit of happiness in our careers. All of these lessons will lead to personal growth, professional growth, and finding what you love. Over time, I have realized that it’s important to address all of the three things in your career to be happy.
So read on!
#1: Seek autonomy
Autonomy is defined by how much freedom you have to make your own decisions.
‘Adults make their own decisions’ — this is what we have been taught since childhood. So it is every child’s fantasy to grow up as soon as possible so that they can do whatever they want. This desire is very strong since early childhood in all of us — to have control of our own life.
But as we grow up, we realize that following orders actually keeps people at the top happy. So we start doing that because the incentives are structured that way. After all, they know better. As Aristotle said, "He who cannot be a good follower, cannot be a good leader."
Great advice from Aristotle for someone starting their career. Great advice even today in situations like war, natural disasters, etc where you can’t seek autonomy because time is of the essence. Great advice when you meet a person who is far advanced in terms of knowledge and experience. In all of these situations, you have a good reason and motivation to not seek autonomy.
But it’s not so great advice in most of the knowledge economy tenured roles. It is especially not great advice for a mini-CEO role like a product manager. In the Internet economy, things keep changing every few years. So it’s hard to find people who can have more specialized knowledge in your domain. You should, nonetheless, listen and learn from everyone. But have autonomy, and don’t follow blindly.
Following orders will lead to bad features and products. It would lead to fewer learnings, dampen your motivation and lead to burnout.
Be an adult if you are a PM. Think and make your own decisions. It introduces a sense of ownership and belonging to the projects you are doing. There is a reason founders and business owners don’t lose motivation so easily even while doing the most mundane tasks. They have autonomy. As you grow in your career, move to roles and companies that offer high autonomy. At least then, there is a hope to be the person you dreamed to be when you grow up.
But you can’t simply expect others to give you autonomy, you have to earn it. Therein lies the second lesson.
#2: Master the craft
PM is a generalist role, and you have a lot of things to keep you busy. So PMs stop paying attention to mastering domains because they already feel busy and productive.
There is a psychological reason to pursue mastery. Mastery keeps you in a state of the deep flow. There are studies that show that deep flow leads to happiness.
You need to follow the cycle of a new challenge —> new skills —> new challenge to be in the flow state as you see from the cycle in the diagram below.
Easier said than done. So it’s important to have a plan to do so. Where should you start this mastery journey?
#3: Build a toolbox
To achieve mastery, you can create a roadmap. The best product leaders actively build their portfolio of products in their early years. The portfolio makes them look better and they get better opportunities.
An analogy I found useful to think about it in my early years was from the book ‘On Writing’ by Stephan King. Here is how the story goes.
One summer when Stephen King was a young boy, he helped his Uncle Oren, a carpenter, repair a screen door on the side of his house.
“I remember following him with the replacement screen balanced on my head, like a native bearer in a Tarzan movie,” King recalled. Oren meanwhile lugged his toolbox, bulging with tools and weighing in at nearly 100 pounds, “horsing it along at thigh level.”.
‘There was a hammer, a saw, the pliers, a couple of sized wrenches and an adjustable; there was a level with that mystic yellow window in the middle, a drill (the various bits were neatly drawered farther down in the depths), and two screwdrivers. Uncle Oren asked me for a screwdriver.”
Wielding the simple tool, Oren speedily removed the eight screws that secured the broken screen and attached the new one. But King was puzzled. He asked his uncle why he’d lugged the toolbox all the way around the house “if all he needed was the screwdriver. He could have carried a screwdriver in the back pocket of his khakis.”
“Yeah, but Stevie,” he said, bending to grasp the handles, “I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”
Build your tools for product management. Some of the useful ones I found are tech, design, data, how to conduct user interviews, how to conduct usability testing, understanding growth metrics like retention and churn, business models, strategy 101. Toolbox of product management is such a wide and interesting topic that I can write a post around it. Possibly the next one.
#4: Don’t take pride in working long hours and being busy
When I was doing an internship in ITC while in college, I used to miss breakfasts because most of the days I was working late at night. What kind of manager are you if you can’t manage your own life.
Get busy living or get busy dying: As PMs, it’s easier than most jobs to be very busy. There are open JIRA tickets, strategy meetings, user research, etc. to keep you busy 12 hours a day. But if you are not growing your skills, are you really busy living? Following orders all day and doing the same repetitive ad-hoc tasks would lead to inevitable burnout. I experienced it in management consulting. As Andy says in the movie Shawshank redemption,
#5: Polish your weaknesses
Even if you do all the things above, you are prone to some weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses are natural while others are learned behaviors from our parents, teachers, and managers.
As you move up in your career, these weaknesses amplify and more people can notice them because the bets are higher. So it’s important to figure them out quickly.
How do you figure out a weakness? Performance reviews help to a certain extent, but the magic comes through 1:1s with your peers, reporters, and managers. In 1:1s, you can be candid about a lot of things without being defensive. I have found that the more vulnerable you are in your 1:1s, the easier it is to give and receive feedback.
Another thing that works very well is long-time, close friends. I recently tweeted around this which sums up my thoughts around it.
This particular lesson is my favorite one, so more on this in later posts.
#6: Pick the right managers, and the right company, in that order.
The level of autonomy usually increases as you move up unless you have picked the wrong manager or the wrong organization. Managers are more important than the company since they create the sub-cultures in the team which can be different from other team cultures and overall company culture.
Managers also determine your future options. If your manager ends up going to a great place, there is a good chance you can reach there through recommendation. Managers also cover all the points discussed so far:
Autonomy — Good managers increase your autonomy over time.
Master the craft — They inspire you to get better at the craft.
Toolbox — They create a roadmap for your skills, and push you to gain them
Busyness — They usually manage expectations and timelines better. But more importantly, they know how to manage relationships and life. You learn a lot from them around this.
Weakness — Good managers are great at spotting weaknesses and the cause/fixes for them.
And that’s the reason, your manager is possibly the most important decision of your career.
Your company matters because you don’t want to get stuck with a company that isn’t growing or going to shut down at some point. They don’t add much to the recognition/ brand value of your work.
If you are stuck with an average manager and company, there is one thing you can do immediately — find the right mentors.
#7: Find the right mentors
There is nothing more beautiful in the professional world than a good mentor-mentee relationship. A mentor is someone who has walked down the path you are on and can offer you good advice time-to-time.
People want to choose mentors who are quite experienced. There are two problems with that mindset. First, it’s hard to find good mentors who have lots of experience. They don’t have much time to mentor. Second, in the new age jobs, you won’t find very experienced folks. In fact, the advice from very senior folks might be counter-productive in some situations. Find someone who is 4-5 years ahead of you, and seek mentorship from them.
Another problem that people face is around how to ask people for mentorship. Usually, you don’t need to ask someone to be your mentor explicitly. Find a problem you are facing, and then find someone senior who can help you with the problem. Schedule some time with them, and discuss the problem. Depending on how much you and the other person love the interaction, the relationship will evolve. That’s the reason, it takes time to find good mentors. So start early.
Some of the folks I have been fortunate to find myself as mentors/friends — Gaurav Dahake (Bitbns), Dipanjan Dey (Mindtickle), Rahul Agrawal (Lets Transport), Arnav Kumar (Leap Finance), Arindam Mukherjee (Next leap), Ankit Khurana (Flipkart), Gaurav Bansal (Cointab), Ankit Tomar and Aniket Deb (Bizongo). There are others who helped me a lot in school/college and it’s hard to put all the names. But you get the sense :)
#8: Finding what’s important to you
If you do all of the things mentioned above, you could still be unhappy sometimes. And that could be because of one last thing that matters most— finding what’s important for you.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “ If you have a ‘why’, you can bear almost anyhow”
As a child, we have a limited understanding of the world and tend to do what brings us joy. Over time, we tend to pick things that make us money, give us approval and awards. And when we get dissatisfied, we tend to think that we have to be the child and follow our passions. And that leads to a lot of heartaches for a lot of people.
But what if you could ask a different question — what’s important for me, and maybe for the world that I want to do? Elon Musk asked this question and built interplanetary travel and electric cars.
“When thinking about what would most likely change the future,” Musk said on the “Third Row Tesla” podcast in February, “there were five things that I thought would be.”
Those five things turned out to be — the Internet, AI, human genetics, multi-planetary life, sustainable energy. I think we all agree that he has done well for what felt important to him :)
Going back to Nietzsche’s quote, my interpretation is that once you find what’s important to you, you will most likely enjoy it. So keep looking!
With this, I would conclude this post. I look forward to hearing from you more about the book. Do submit the reviews on Amazon if you have already been reading it.
Wish you a good day,