I am a software developer. Throughout my career I have been that person who is technically capable but truly shine in the leadership skills. I champion Agile processes in every team I have been to, manages stakeholders well through proper expectation managements, and a great mentor. So seeing how I excel more on my soft skills than my technical skills, I thought product management is a perfect role for me.
I don’t think that was a wrong assumption. I still believe that I will be an excellent product manager. Nevertheless, I failed miserably on my second attempt at the role. So here are some wisdom to share on the cost of my hindsight.
Expectation of the role
Product management in general is about being the representation of the customers and the market. But every role is different even if they have the same title. The role I applied for had some expectations that I wasn’t expecting and might even disagree. But nevertheless as the discipline evolves, these responsibilities get more standardised among companies.
The biggest unexpected element for me was that a product manager is expected to be a visionary. I mean, it sounded like an obvious responsibility but I wasn’t expecting it to be a character trait rather than a process. Part of the interview conversation was to see if I had a vision for the team. In a deeper sense, it was a test to see how much I understood the domain, the market for this domain and if I can propose a plan. This presented a challenge for me because I didn’t know that being a visionary was a big part of product management. I came in with the expectation that a vision is made not born. I thought that it is created through a process of understanding the users, understanding the needs and the wants, defining the problems and with the creativity of the team to produce a goal. But coming in with a solid vision can be a big winner during an interview.
Next is about saying no. Product managers often jokes about saying no more than saying yes. My approach was about data driven and being diplomatic with stakeholders. But I felt that there were an expectation of a more assertive approach. As a developer I like to discuss things. Every disagreement is a conversation. And most of the leadership training talks about influencing through understanding what the other parties want and build a solution. But in a role like product manager where you can be constantly asked for things and everyone want it now, the answer that senior managers want to hear more is probably “no”. Just “no”.
Selling the product is another key aspect that I didn’t do well. The question I was asked was how to get buy-ins from investors or senior managers who haven’t heard of certain technology (Kafka) or don’t understand why they want to invest in your team. Expectation here is to be able to show how you can manage senior stakeholders. As I haven’t done much of those in my career it was difficult to draw from experience. But one way to approach is to use tools like Lean Canvas. The key here seems to be about being high level and show the value of what you are trying to achieve. You also need to be able to zoom out using the language that different group of people can understand. For example, senior managers might not understand or need to understand the intricate detail of your solution, but they are more interested in why you want to build it, how much it’s gonna cost, and how much money it’s gonna make. And doing all of these with enough data to back them up and to convince the stakeholders.
So what is next?
Failing an interview puts you in a weird place. I was really grateful that the hiring manager was someone I knew and worked with before, and they gave a very honest feedback after the interview. However, it was also very brutal. I definitely felt horrible afterward and ashamed for a long while. They were great feedback nonetheless and it opened my perspective more into this role. So moving forward is important but I’m still on the fence if I want to pursue this career path.
And even when you are at a great place where you feel supported, have a good feeling about where you are heading in your career, and getting a lot of great feedback on your current role; failing really put your failures on loudspeaker. It was really hard to not feel like an imposter, that everything is not as good as it was, or maybe you are not good enough. This is all a normal emotion and it’s important to acknowledge them. It is also very important to be kind to yourself. Imagine if you have a friend who have just failed an interview and feel like the most useless person in the world. What would you say to that friend? Can you treat yourself like treating someone you love who is going through a tough time?