Your manager in the product team

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

Let’s imagine we posed a question to a group of Product Managers – can you share the list of folks/functions on your product team?

What list would you expect?

When I’ve asked this question, I’ve received answers that I cluster into 4 groups (illustrative).

This turns out to be a helpful way to think about the product team as well… with one exception.

That exception is one that is often absent from lists that describe the product team – the PM Manager

I consider that a big miss because good PM managers play two vital roles to help IC/individual contributor PMs be effective-

A) They help provide the organizational context and feedback you need to be successful: This includes providing clear guidance on overall strategic direction that helps you align your strategy/metrics and also providing feedback on your plans based on their experience.

B) They provide air cover when you need it (and it is likely you’ll need it this week): This is the more critical role the IC PM manager plays. In cultures that hold PMs as the “DRI” or Directly Responsible Individual, the IC PM is accountable for the performance of the product without having any formal reporting authority over the product team. As a result, executing parts of the job may involve pushing folks/rubbing folks the wrong way (when the pushing is over done as you figure out the right balance) from time to time. In such times, air cover is key.

Air cover isn’t just about your manager being the voice of reason to balance your role on the team. It also helps provide the space to execute with confidence that you have the space to try things and fail. An absence of air cover almost always results in an absence in experimentation and, thus, growth – both of the product and the person.

Finally, there is no one else in the organization who is more vested in your success. So, it is a bit of a no brainer to invest in this relationship. And, I’d go as far as to say highly functional product teams rarely become that way without a strong PM <> PM Manager relationship.

Building a great relationships with your manager: As in many matrixed organizations, the PM manager <> IC PM relationship can be a weird one. Depending on the nature of your product, you may be able to get by with little to no working overlap.

And, while there are a lot of folks who attempt to get by with that low touch relationship, my recommended approach would the opposite. So, here goes:

1. Invest heavily in getting to know and understand each other upfront. In a new role, spend time in your onboarding period to get to know and understand your manager. A simple way to do this is to request an hour to do a “user manual” session. Introduce yourselves to each other, share what matters to you and ask questions to better understand what drives them, understand how best to communicate with them, and what they’d love to see in a direct report.

The more you can get to know and understand each other upfront, the quicker you’ll enable trust to follow.

2. Share and involve them as much as possible – allow them to choose how much they’d like to be involved: With their permission, share and involve them as much as possible. Share early thinking/riffs on product direction/wireframes and invite them to brainstorming meetings/team meetings. If they show up on those docs and meetings, ask for feedback and act on that feedback.

I recognize this is sometimes viewed as contrarian advice. I’ve met with a few folk over the past months who’ve all shared situations that share a common cause – the absence of an open channel of communication with their manager. And, in every one of these cases, they were told by someone to only present “the good stuff” to their manager. So, they went through great pains to curate the good stuff and left aside topics that mattered – the pressure they were feeling, the challenges they were facing, and so on.

However, when they’re in the loop, they get to understand the challenges you are facing and how you operate. The better they understand this, the more they can provide specific guidance and trust you. And, the more they can trust you, the more context, scope, and air cover they will provide for you to steepen your learning curve and be successful.

There’s also limited long term upside in an out-of-the-loop manager. If you’re making big mistakes in doing your job, it is best you course correct at the earliest with help from the person who is most invested in making you successful. And, if you are doing your job well, that’s a really good thing for your manager to see.

And, if you don’t trust that your manager is invested in making you successful, it is likely time to leave.

Bonus tip: In the absence of your manager being able to participate in your meetings, a weekly 1:1 is a great forum to keep your manager in the loop. Keep a shared 1:1 doc, populate with the agenda in advance, and keep the hairiest topics right on top of that agenda.

3. For your part, do everything you can do make their life easier. Baseball executive Theo Epstein once said – “Whoever your boss is, or your bosses are, they have 20 percent of their job that they just don’t like. So if you can ask them or figure out what that 20 percent is, and figure out a way to do it for them, you’ll make them really happy, improve their quality of life and their work experience.”

There are many variants of this advice and they’re all valid. The principles at play here are as follows –

1. Everyone has a manager whose job it is to keep them accountable. Even the CEO reports to a board who, in turn, is accountable to shareholders. Understanding how to manage these managers is important for career success and happiness.

2. Become an incredibly valuable direct report and be the sort of person who removes more problems than you create.

These principles are, of course, equally applicable to the IC PM.

Managers make or break our experience. Aside from a few extraneous situations, it is highly unlikely we get anywhere if we have a poor relationship with our manager. In these situations, it is best to leave and find a new home.

On the other hand, if you’re considering a new role, it is worth prioritizing a connection with your prospective manager as among the most important criteria. When you choose well, you work with managers who appreciate your strengths and help ensure your weaknesses don’t get in the way.

And, every once a while, thanks to the power of incredibly aligned  incentives, these relationships transcend work relationships to become deep friendships.

When that happens, it turns out to be special – both for our career growth and our happiness.

Understanding the news and working with data

There’s a learning curve involved with understanding how the news works.

We might begin – as kids at least – with the assumption that the news is the objective list of everything of note that is happening around us/the world. But, we learn over time that a big part of understanding the news is looking beyond what is presented to us and asking 3 questions –

1. How was the information sourced/collected?
2. What have they omitted/chosen to omit?
3. What is the bias in their reporting?

Interestingly, the learning curve around working with data when we make product and business decisions is no different. The early promise of big data was that large amounts of data would solve any problem.

That promise didn’t pan out.

So, asking the above questions when we look at data/analysis and marrying a desire for data with a healthy skepticism for what it is telling us ensures we keep asking the questions that help get us closer to the truth.

As in the case of the news, better to replace “data driven” with “data informed.”

Personal IPOs and stock market tickers

Eugene Wei had a post on his excellent blog yesterday where he drew parallels between individuals building brands on social media and a company going public.


One way to understand the impact of these public social networks on humanity is to think of this as the era in which humans took their personal thoughts and lives public at scale. Billions of humans IPO’d, whether we were ready for it or not, explaining why the concept of a personal “brand” became such a pervasive metaphor.

In another era, most of us lived in social circles of limited scope. Family, school, coworkers, neighbors. We were, for the most part, private entities. Social media companies quickly hit on the ideal configuration for rapid network growth: take the interaction between any two people and make it public. Conversation and information-sharing became a democratic form of performance art.

One reason social networks quickly converged on this as the optimal strategy and configuration is that the majority of people on any social network merely lurk. By making the conversations of the more extroverted, productive nodes public, you sustain the interest of that silent majority of observers with what is effectively crowd-sourced (read: free) content. The concept of 1/9/90 is that a stable equilibrium can be achieved in a large network if the shouting class, the minority which entertains the much larger but silent majority, is given enough quantifiable doses of affirmation (likes) to keep the content spigot flowing. As these large public social networks grew, even many who were previously modest began taking the stage on social media to karaoke to the crowd. Live fast, die young, and leave a viral post.

Just as there are many advantages to being a public company, becoming a public figure carries all sorts of upside. Once your ideas and your self are traded publicly, anyone can invest and drive the value of those goods higher. If you’ve ever written a viral blog post or tweetstorm and gained thousands of followers, if you’ve had a YouTube video picked up by traditional media and found yourselves interviewed on the local news, you’ve felt that rush of being a soaring stock. Social networks not only provide public liquidity for anything you care to share on them, but they also continued to tweak their algorithms to accelerate the virality quotient of their feeds. In a previous generation, Warhol quipped the duration of sudden fame was 15 minutes, but social media has made that the time it takes to become famous.

The problem is that, like many private companies who find the scrutiny of public markets overly stringent, many of us were ill-equipped for “going public” with what were once private conversations and thought. It’s not just those who made enormous public gaffes and got “canceled.” Most people by now have experienced the random attack from a troll, the distributed judgment of the public at large, and have realized the cost of living our lives in public. Most celebrities learn this lesson very early on, most companies put their public-facing executives through PR training, but most humans never grew up under the watchful gaze of hundreds of millions of eyes of Sauron.


It is a powerful analogy and it made me wonder about Instagram’s recent decision to remove “like” counts. If an Instagram profile is the equivalent of a stock ticker, a “like” may have been the equivalent of the stock price.

And, as there’s only so much good that can come from constantly monitoring short term fluctuations on your stock price, removing “like” counts may turn out to be a master stroke.

Marketing dog food and happiness

What does marketing dog food have to do with building products, success and happiness? Everything, it turns out.

When Paul Iams launched Iams 999 – a high quality, high protein variety of dog food – he didn’t have a distribution system. So, he needed customers who were willing to go through a lot of trouble to get this shipped over.

It turns out there was just this right group – owners of show dogs. These folks loved what was great about Iams (better health + shiny coats) and didn’t mind, or even liked, what was bad about it (hard to get => competitive advantage).

We are all not different from Paul Iams. When we seek partners, customers, and managers, we strike gold when we find folks who love what’s good about us and don’t mind what’s bad about us.

As these relationships start with appreciation of our strengths, these managers, partners, users, and team members give us the most useful feedback, push us to become better, and also give us air cover and support when we inevitably screw up. We all need that appreciation, push, and support to ship our best work.

And, making the effort to find our segment makes all the difference in the world.

Magic and math

A simple way to understand how investors think about our business/product – they come for the magic and stay for the math.

The inspiring story is the magic that many of us associate with charismatic leaders. In times when everything is going up and to the right, there’s a lot of appetite for magic.

Eventually, however, no amount of magic can save a business or product from the math. So, our ability to deliver and capture value in a way that results in consistent y/y growth rates is the kind of math that creates its own magic in the long run.

From time to time, it is natural to wonder how much more successful our businesses/products might be with more magic and showmanship.

But, that’s short term thinking. The magic is the personality and the math is the character. And, while personality opens doors, character keeps those doors open.

So, if we had to invest in just one thing, let that one thing be making the math work.

This applies just as well to those who invest in our careers/lives.

PS: Unlike investors, our users/customers are just as likely to stay for the magic as they are for the math.

Discomfort and the obstacle

On most days in my attempts to do a half decent job as a Product Manager, I see two themes show up regularly in my reflections – i) Something new either got messed up or got real close to getting messed up and ii) I did something that upset somebody.

And, a realization that has accompanied these reflections over time is that there is no solve for this. (This was disappointing.. until it was liberating.)

Here’s why  – if we’re both stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone and attempting to drive change, it is impossible to avoid making mistakes. The only questions worth focusing on then are – are we aware of them? And, are we following up with creative, constructive, and corrective responses?

As long as we’re doing that, that uncomfortable feeling in the stomach is the price we pay for our own learning, long term growth, and, hopefully, progress.

Of course, this isn’t limited to product management – it applies just as well to many jobs, to parenting, and to life.

The discomfort is a leading indicator of the obstacle. And, the obstacle is the way.

Time to do it twice

A friend recently shared a quote – “How come we don’t have the time to do it right but always have the time to do it twice?”

It has my vote to be framed and put on the wall of any room where folks get together to plan their product roadmaps.

In these rooms, we often find ourselves in positions where we need to make trade-offs that benefit the short term over the long term.

But, these decisions almost always result in rework in the medium term. And, when it arrives, rework doesn’t allow for any other option.

So, for the next time we find ourselves in such a discussion, here’s to remembering that they’re better off being the exception rather than the rule.

The Walkman decision

There’s a great story about a decision Sony made when they shipped the legendary Walkman.

Against the advice of market research, Sony’s co-founder had asked the engineering team to build a portable music player that would ease the boredom on long flights. The engineers then came back with what could only be termed a product manager’s dream – for nearly the same amount of effort and cost, they were able to add an additional feature – a record button – to this cassette player.

But, to their dismay, Chairman Akio Morita asked them to remove the record button.

By reducing the device to serve a single use case, he eliminated any potential user confusion. In the same way McDonalds removed cutlery from restaurants to make it clear how they wanted customers to eat their burgers, Sony released the Walkman with a lower range of functionality to give them the highest chance to change customer behavior.

And change behavior they did.

(H/T: Alchemy by Rory Sutherland)

The story of Sandwich

John Montagu was a consummate card player who didn’t like meal interruptions while playing his favorite game of cribbage. So, it is said that he asked for veal stuffed between two pieces of bread to make it easy for him to eat while playing.

As John Montagu was also the Earl of Sandwich, others started asking for the “same as Sandwich.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

For when we find ourselves stuck in discussions about building for the “average” user, it is worth reminding ourselves that the sandwich, like many innovations, happened on the edges thanks to a passionate early adopter with a weird request.

(H/T: Alchemy by Rory Sutherland – a fantastic read)

Skyspring Hotel New York

Someone we know in India received an job offer from an acquaintance in the Middle East to work at a Skyspring hotel in New York. They needed to front $600 for the visa and he’d received instructions via an email.

They come from a modest background (his mother is a cook) and she asked my mother to help check if this was a real job – $600 is a lot of money after all. The “pay upfront to get this job” rang all kinds of alarm bells. But, it was hard to dismiss it outright since it came from someone they knew.

And, it didn’t help that Google had a very convincing looking card show up on search.

Of course, it all unravels the moment you spend more than a minute investigating. The hotel has no trace on Tripadvisor or Booking.com and the phone number doesn’t work. The email has a few typos (why do scammers not get that right?), was sketchy on details of the work visa, and it came from a questionable looking “@consultant.com” email address.

All in all, it was more sophisticated than the traditional Nigerian prince scam and it could have fooled someone who wasn’t discerning. I think the Google card was the most convincing piece of the scam and I couldn’t find a way to flag it on my phone (I found it on my laptop and did so).

It did get me thinking about how important it is to design products with scam/bad actor use cases in mind. It isn’t enough to just think of the happy path.