Hidden Tasks of Product Management
Being a good product manager isn't as glamorous as it sounds.
Just like few graduate with a specific data engineering degree, no one graduates with a product management degree. To new graduates, the career path looks high leverage, high impact, and extremely strategic. While all that may be true, the path to a high impact product manager contains more than meets the eye.
The most impactful people managers don’t simply tell their team what to do and leave it at that. They empower their team, follow up on progress, and validate approaches given their background and experience.
Product managers should oversee their company’s offering (i.e. product) like any manager oversees people.
Let’s start with the obvious: the job of a product manager is to make the company’s product better. Usually, the metrics by which the product is measured are established at the executive level. The “product” in this case can be however narrow or broad, depending on the product manager’s seniority.
Using DoorDash as an example, one product manager (or team) could be responsible for any of the following:
The core restaurant marketplace for consumers, measured by dollar amount of orders per month for volume or number of new users per month for growth.
The dasher’s experience, measured by the number of orders completed per month for volume or number of new drivers per month for growth.
DashPass, measured by monthly revenue for volume or number of new signups per month for growth.
What’s obviously involved in oversight of any of these products is working closely with the engineering team to make sure scope of work is defined and timelines are met. If it were to just stop at that, you could easily call shipping a finicky un-measurable product a success.
So what is there to do for PMs beyond strategic management?
Hidden task #1: Being data-driven
Product managers need to be data people, but are inherently biased towards showing the product under their purview working well however unintentional. What makes a true data person is natural skepticism.
Product managers should be asking themselves:
❓Do I have the entire context? Don’t make any decision with only half the story. When it comes to data, there are so many types and each may tell a different story. Make sure to always consider all of the following: web analytics, backend data, and customer research.
❓Am I making decisions based on data or pre-conceived notions? First, always be able to point to data that backed a decision (or at a minimum didn’t contradict it). Second, as any analytics team member will tell you, it’s easy to misinterpret data by accident. Take a step back, look at data at face value, ask questions, and get second opinions.
Being a data-driven product manager starts with taking data and making a decision—but it doesn’t end there. With that decision comes an understanding of how it will affect the organization at large, and constantly questioning if it was the right decision in an effort to course correct.
Hidden task #2: Owning quality assurance
The pinnacle of skepticism is quality assurance. Using incomplete data to measure a product that doesn’t behave as designed isn’t a promising way to make an impact. In particular, product managers should be focused on the following two types of QA.
💡Is the product acting as designed in all edge cases? It’s easy to build the happy path: perform A, B, C, and voila! But what happens if the user navigates from B back to A then try to get to C? What if they change their user settings between B and C putting them into a different user experience? Product QA is an exercise in testing all probable user scenarios to ensure the user flow is engineered as expected by the business stakeholder.
💡Does the data generated by the product match real-user behavior? Even in the happy-path case, step C firing a page load event only 50% of the time will make conversion look atrocious when it isn’t. During product testing, have a designated person looking at step-by-step frontend event data and backend app data to make sure data represents reality. After all, the data generated is the only way to measure product performance in aggregate.
If no one owns quality assurance, it won’t be done. As the primary stakeholder in the product’s success, the product manager is best positioned with the most context to bridge this essential gap.
Hidden task #3: Getting stakeholder buy-in
As they say, it takes a village. New products are implemented by engineering teams, the word is spread by marketing teams, users are supported by customer success, and their performance analyzed by data teams. Everyone on this list needs to have the same understanding of what exactly the new launch entails.
✔️ Engage data teams as early as the RFC stage. An RFC (Request For Comments) outlines technical decisions that influence the implementation of the product. Part of every product is the data generated, which can be stored in a variety of different ways. Making sure engineering and analytics teams are aligned will make both the pre-launch QA and post-launch analysis go much smoother. An alternative could be something like a PRD but for analytics, i.e. an Analytics Requirements Document (ARD). While I haven’t seen anyone else use this type of framework, I’ve had a lot of success with it.
✔️ Make all stakeholders sign off on the PRD. A good PRD (Product Requirements Document) contains more than just what the product does. It outlines assumptions, constraints, and non-goals. One assumption could be the financial implications of launching the product, which should get sign off from the risk team. A constraint could be the level to which the new product is customizable per user, impacting how customer support can help.
Involving stakeholders early means when it comes to building the product, there aren’t non-technical roadblocks. Because the product manager can also be acting as a project manager, they are best positioned to make sure all stakeholders have the same understanding.
Great PMs will get it done
Good product managers will play it by the books but are not-my-job people—great product managers will pick up whatever needs to get done to make their product launch objectively a success.
Lack of oversight on any part of the product launch leads to miscommunication, bugs, and incorrect decision making. With the right amount of involvement, great product managers have organization-wide impact.
Thanks for reading! I talk all things data and startups so please reach out. I’d love to hear from you.