Written by Sarah Sprague
I remember the first college class I ever took where I actually read the assigned readings each week simply because I was interested in what I was learning. Up until then I had become a professional skimmer and was convinced I would never find the right major. That class was human-centered design, and it is what I consider the start of my career in product management. I just found the intersection between solving problems with technology and how people actually use that technology so absolutely fascinating.
You may’ve just learned about product management as well and are wondering, “Could that field be right for me?” Or, maybe you’ve been thinking about it for a while and still aren’t sure exactly what it would entail. While most product managers are more than happy to talk to someone interested in the field to help get a better sense of the job, there are things that you can do on your own first to answer some of your questions.
So, in an alternate universe, if I was trying to figure out if I wanted to pursue this professionally, here are the three things I would tell myself to do right now.
1. Read These Books
Product management’s gained popularity over the last 10 or so years thanks to great product companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google. But just because it’s new doesn’t mean there isn’t loads of great content already out there! These three books in particular are each relatively quick reads and they cover the fundamental concepts.
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
This book is really more about design and usability than strict product management. It is what started me thinking about everything in life as a product! It’ll make you realize that every single decision that goes into making even basic things like a door or a chair has trade-offs. And those trade-offs affect how people will (or will not) use what you make. You will know immediately if thinking about designing things for people is something you have a passion for or not.
Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan
This is one of the few books that truly answers the question, “What the heck does a product manager actually do all day?” Marty Cagan is one of the godfathers of product, and in this he breaks down all of the responsibilities of the role and gives great real-world advice on how to effectively accomplish each of them.
The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen
In product, and business in general, you’ll often hear references to the concepts from this book, so you may think that you know the ideas well enough. You don’t. You need to read this book yourself to really appreciate the concepts. Noted product management author, Ken Norton described it in his famous Books for Product Managers blog post as, “The most important book of the past fifty years. If you’re a technology PM and you haven’t read Christenson, do so right now.” I listened to him and he was right.
2. Bookmark These Blogs Now and Read All Past Posts (But Really)
There are millions of product and tech blogs out there that are good, but one of the first things you will need to learn as a PM is how to prioritize. So, if you had to pick only a few ways to get your information each week, these would be my picks.
If his name sounds familiar, it’s because we just spoke about him a few paragraphs ago. If you’re trying to get into this industry, you’ll need to know how to do things like define product principles and create a roadmap. Cagan will tell you how to do these things. The good thing for you is that while a lot of people currently in the field may have more experience than you, they still do these things wrong. So, learning about them from someone like him will at least let you start on the right foot without any bringing any bad habits along.
Yes, this name again! Norton’s most famous for teaching us to “always bring the donuts.” He has years of experience in product, most notably at Google, and now as a partner of Google Ventures. Some of his most famous posts include What To Do in your First 30 Days as a PM (I followed these rules in my first 30 days at The Muse and it served me well), How to Work with Software Engineers, and How to Hire a Product Manager. You can subscribe to his weekly newsletter to get good insight into the similar problems all product managers face.
OK, so you don’t need to read all past posts for this one—that would not be a good use of your time. But being a product manager in the digital world is going to require being aware of what’s going on in the industry, whether that’s new technologies being released, recent funding rounds or acquisitions, or just insights into new products across different sectors. There are loads of blogs you can use to get this information (like Hacker News, Gizmodo, and so on), so it doesn’t only need to be TechCrunch. But pick your favorites and get into the habit of consuming this information daily.
The amount of awesome products out there is inspiring! ProductHunt will introduce you to new ones each day that you can learn from, and even potentially use to make your life easier.
3. Start Thinking in a Product Mindset for Everything You Do Every Day
At this point, if the field still interests you, welcome! You’re about to enter a weird world that is awesome and exciting, where your work is never complete and your users problems will never be 100% solved. You’ll soon realize the way you think about everything you use in your life will change.
Have you ever tried to purchase something on your phone and you almost threw your phone across the room out of frustration while trying to complete the purchase form? Well guess what—a product manager was responsible for pushing that live (with the help of an engineering and design team) and there are a million reasons why it could’ve been created that way. Maybe they couldn’t come to an agreement across internal departments on which fields to cut from the form and now the user (and company’s conversion numbers) has to pay for it. Maybe they didn’t properly prioritize the importance of building a responsive form because they didn’t understand what percent of their users use the site on mobile. Maybe they did and you were in the minority, so the mobile features were purposefully deprioritized!
No doubt, if you’re being interviewed by a somewhat decent company, in the first or second round you will get questions like, “What is your favorite product to use?” and “How would you improve that product?” So do yourself a favor now and start thinking in this mindset all day, every day. When you use something that was so easy that you didn’t think about it, take a moment to appreciate that! And think about how hard it probably was for that product team to deliver something so beautifully simple. Starting to view your world with this mindset will help you start thinking like a product manager before you land your very frist job.
Within the world of product management, there are many different directions you can choose to go in. Your experience will vary depending on the types of products you work on and the types of companies you work with. But no matter what, these three first steps should help you figure out if this career is right for you and hopefully ignite your passion for it!
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