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Product Leaders — Be the Shit Umbrella

In October I did a talk for GE’s product team on product management and leadership. At first, I was nervous about speaking to 250 product managers at GE because the products I have worked on are so different from theirs. (They work on jet engines, trains, ultrasound machines, etc., I have worked on Gmail, Facebook photos and wearable tech.) But what I found was that product managers do the same job, though they may work in different fields or domains. Our job is to make an idea real in the world. And in doing that job, we all face similar challenges.

The title of the talk is “Empower: Being the CEO of the Product.” and to be fair, a PM do perform some of the same functions as the CEO.

  • We communicate vision. It’s our job to communicate a story that resonates with a diverse set of people and get them to own it.
  • We set goals and track progress. We set goals across teams/feature areas and we take those big audacious goals and break them into milestones that are tangible and trackable.
  • We are ultimately responsible for getting it done. A PM may not write a single line of code, create any mockups, or manage any headcount, but ultimately he/she is the person responsible for getting stuff done.

But unlike the CEO, PMs don’t have a lot of control over prioritization or the organizational structure. Looking at the job from this perspective brings to mind more real, although much less sexy, job titles.

The janitor for the product

Yep don’t you want to be that guy?

What it means to be the janitor for the product:

  • We are the shit umbrella. It’s our job to take on extraneous tasks that distract the team from what they do best. That includes extra meetings with legal/marketing/sales, managing expectations from stakeholders, or even grabbing food for late night working sessions.
  • We are the clean up crew. When launch days come, we celebrate the pressing of the button and watching the baby go into the world. But, we also quietly brace ourselves for the other shoe to drop, because building products is a messy business and something will go wrong. And no matter how it happens, the PM is the leader of the cleanup crew.
  • We stay in the background when we can. The sign of a great PM is someone who gives away the credit and takes the blame (see above on shit umbrella). When things are going well, we stay in the background and give credit to the engineers, the designers, and the rest of the team. When things go badly, we step in and take the blame so the team can focus on the solution.

The glue for the product

Sometimes we picture a visionary product leader like Steve Jobs who can go into a cave and come out with the brilliant ideas that’ll change the trajectory of the company. Most great product managers I know find vision through hard work. They understand deeply two things: People and data.

People

If you put an engineer in a room and gave him/her a hard problem, he/she will start building. A designer will start designing. A product manager will go find people. Product management is impossible without great collaborators. So great PMs spend at least 50% of their time building relationships and understanding the people around them. They spend the time because they realize people are the most essential yet difficult and unpredictable part of the job.

Data

When thinking about product data, think beyond just the numbers on your dashboard, although those are important. A great PM uses everything they can get their hands on.

  • Numbers — Know the key stats of the product and look at them on a daily basis. Patterns and anomalies will become obvious over time.
  • Users — use the product and watch real customers use the product. The emotional connection to their struggles is the best motivation I’ve ever found to solving hard problems.
  • New Technology — Keep an eye on relevant industries and be curious about emerging trends. That way we won’t miss the next big opportunity by being too focused on our niche in the world.

By doing the hard work and being the expert on people and data relevant to the product, a great PM become the Glue for the team. PMs see connections that are not obvious to others and can give the team unique product insights combining multiple perspectives.

We need great products and leaders

Watching the election and the fallout after, it’s made me think about the products and leaders we need for the future. There’s no doubt that technology had an impact on this election. We now have a country that’s divided and deeply unhappy. The uncertainty about technology’s role led to a lot of blaming and finger pointing. Some blame immigration and globalization for the state of the middle class in the US, and some blame Facebook for bad/fake news that may or may not have skewed the election. I would like to call for great product leaders to step up and be the leaders of this cleanup crew. Let’s build new products that give the world more information, more empathy, and creates real solution-oriented discussions.

If you have time, check out the talk embedded above, there’s a lot that’s not in the blog post including how to set goals for a product. As always, I would love to hear from everyone.

Thank you so much for reading and as always thanks to my friend and editor Reshma for helping me flush out my thoughts.

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