One year into my Product Manager journey at Contentsquare, I wanted to reflect on what I have learned, and how the past twelve months have shaped my approach to solution-finding.
I started my journey as a project management intern for VP of product to whom I mentioned in the first interview that I wanted to become a product manager. Back then, I had no idea what it really meant to be a “PM” — I was simply curious and wanted to talk to all these people.
At Contentsquare, product managers sit between the customer (internal & external) and R&D team. With the former, we detect the WHAT: what is needed to help our customer better understand the end user experience. With the latter, we decide on and execute the HOW: how to respond to those needs in an efficient and elegant way.
Product managers are the go-to persons for any question related to their scope — ie. the part of the solution they are responsible for developing. Therefore, the job includes building the long-term vision and strategy as well as the day-to-day execution on a very granular level. It’s a challenging and fulfilling role that I am truly proud of and can’t stop talking about.
So, without further ado, here are the 9 key things I learned as a product manager:
1. Always put the customer first
Being loyal to your customer/user starts with knowing who they are. Before building a feature, ask yourself: who are you building this for? What challenges are they facing? Talk to them, read their feedback and support tickets, collect the data — these investments are worth the time and effort since they decrease your chances of going down the wrong path right from the beginning.
Being loyal to your customer also means refusing to compromise on their experiences. Sometimes, cutting scope, downgrading the design, or opting for a less expensive technical solution would shorten the go-to-market timeframe. But ultimately, all of these “savings” risk compromising the end users’ experience. When cost-cutting or time-saving decisions are made, the only party not included in the discussion is generally the user. And as a product manager, it is almost a question of professional integrity to protect their interests and advocate for them.
2. Listening is more important than talking
Being a very talkative person, this one was a big challenge for me! Being too self expressive prevents you from hearing what others really think — be it colleagues, business partners or customers. Sometimes, silence can be excruciating in user interviews, and in the past I have felt obliged to give guidance or end my supposedly ‘open-ended’ questions with a list of options. I later realized that doing things this way would prevent me from knowing what the user would have said if it hadn’t been for my prompting. That’s when I realized how important it is to shut up and listen.
3. Prioritizing means saying no
As a product manager, I am constantly facing the question of prioritization. It can be as big as a quarterly roll-out roadmap, or as small as one improvement ticket over another in the backlog. Before entering the PM zone, I always felt like I was able to juggle many tasks at the same time. It might mean pulling an all nighter or skipping dinner, but I always made it.
This is not the case in product management: we are a team with clear objectives, but also constraints, and trying to do everything is a surefire way to not do anything well. Being able to say no to projects/ideas after weighing them up is key — so is listing the pros and cons of such decisions, and keeping a clear record of why you chose not do something in the end. It is very interesting to look back at decisions and a great resource when you are challenged on a past decision.
4. Curiosity over pride
One time, we found a bug after release, and my instinct was to roll back. People on different teams ended up disagreeing with each other about whether to “roll back or hotfix.” I remember that our head of product Luis came in, sat down at the computer, and started to look into the problem. He seemed fascinated and started asking questions, testing different scenarios. People quickly gathered around him to discuss possible root causes and solutions to fix the issue. It looked like a treat or brain teaser for Luis, while I experienced it as a difficult situation for me. Before he walked in, we were all getting carried away in discussion, justifying our own decision making rather than understanding and fixing the problem.
Being curious is something we often forget about after a when we’re working on a project. But it’s important to stay curious, because not only does curiosity lead you to the answer faster, it also makes work more fun. This also applies to talking to users: be humble and curious, ask tons of seemingly dumb questions, and remember, you are not in a user interview to impress anyone — put curiosity before pride.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask WHY
We’ve all been told by people. “I want this button to be blue.” With so many tasks on my to-do list, I have been tempted to just open the feedback box and mechanically note down “5 users asked for the button to be blue.” But why? Why do they want it to be blue? People are very good at telling others what to do, but are quite shy when it comes to sharing what they really want — perhaps from fear of getting it wrong?
I personally would say, “I need a hammer and nails,” instead of “I need to hang a picture frame.” The wonder of product management is that by asking the right question, we can actually identify what the user really needs, and suggest alternative solutions (in this example, Blu-Tack!).
6. Not everything has to be perfect
Launching a product is a process of coming up with hypothesis, testing, and improving. That’s what prototypes and minimum viable products are there for. There are so many books/videos about lean product management, but the biggest barrier to really using that technique turned out to be my own mindset, I was and still am scared of failing. I am afraid of wasting engineer’s time, a designer’s time and companies’ revenue opportunities. I am still trying to accept the fact that “not everything has to be perfect.” I think a common goal for anyone working on a product team is to find the sweet spot between “continuous discovery” and being “comfortably confident” about a decision.
7. Control your emotions
As a product manager it is inevitable to have heated debates with people. We’ve all heard people raise their voices in meetings. But I feel pretty lucky because every ‘heated discussion’ I’ve witnessed happened because the person cared deeply about the topic, and felt strongly about advocating for the best possible outcome for the end user. A reminder for myself and for you: don’t let emotions get in the way, don’t let them be a distraction — use your emotions wisely. Sometimes we are actually all agreeing with each other, we just have different ways of saying it.
8. Data, data, data
One of our mantras is “without data, it is just another opinion”. As a product manager, I couldn’t agree more — getting data on your users is the way to measure whether or not your solution is successful. It’s also by far the most representative and efficient way to get to know your users. Be obsessed with data, there is no such thing as too much knowledge.
9. Adapt to your audience
I am a passionate person, and I talk fast! I was once in a room presenting our future projects to R&D managers, and all these brilliant people looked somehow lost by the time I finished my 40 minute long, nonstop monologue. It wasn’t their fault. They were given no context, no introduction, but just a slew of information. Later, during a training on public speaking organized by the company, the coach recorded and replayed our speech. Mine was extremely fast. I’ve since learned to hold my horses, be generous with context and adjust my rhythm to not lose my audience. And it’s worked!
Voilà! The 9 things I learned at Contentsquare after one year and half as a product manager. There is such a long list of people to thank for this training: product peers, R&D friends, our awesome client facing team members. It’s a fascinating field and a stimulating work environment — I’m excited to keep on learning as I continue on this journey.
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