What I learned in my first digital product management role

As we approach a new year, it seemed like a great time to do some self-reflection of what I’ve learned in 2019. For many years, I have been the CPO of Vikera Tequila, in which I was across many facets of the product cycle: Product development and strategy, branding and marketing, sales, funding, user/consumer experience and any other slack that needed to be picked up. This year, as I transitioned more into digital product management, I was pleased to know that many of my foundational skills were easily transferable; that being said, there is still so much to learn.

This year, I began working with a small startup called XpertFinder, which strives to eliminate the knowledge gap between technical and non-technical professionals through targeted coaching and mentoring sessions. As I look back at my role as a product manager in this space, I realized there were some key takeaways that will be valuable to take with me into next year and future roles.

1. Pull from your toolbox

The foundational skills that have helped build my career and got me to this point have been my most valuable assets. A Product Manager is always learning, may it be about the product, user, market, or way to collaborate better with the team. Sometimes being across all these areas can be overwhelming but relying on what I already know (may it be leadership, strategy, communication, etc.) has been my biggest support.

As a Project Manager, when difficult situations arise, it is useful for me to compare the situation to a previous experience in my career. How is this situation similar? How is it different? What skills do I already have that will help me solve this problem? What do I still need to learn? Approaching complex problems in this way has allowed me to do a skillset assessment of what areas I may need to improve, but also it gave me confidence to employ skills that I had experience with utilizing, even if the overall product and users were very different from past experience.

Building a digital product was a new experience for me, but calling upon my skills to evaluate the user, think deeply about the product strategy, and admit when I don’t know the best answer, allowed me to contribute to successful digital products.

2. Communication and collaboration go a long way

Clear and effective communication to encourage collaboration is key to accompany the many facets of the Product Manager role. Communication is useful in any position, but Product Managers need to be particularly skilled at thoroughly listening to and conversing with their team, users, and stakeholders, in order to best guide the product to success.

My team at XpertFinder, consisted of four women from four different countries with three different native languages and skillsets. As the Product Manager it was important to exercise effective communication practices while encouraging the team to collaborate by utilizing each other’s strengths. Without clear and concise communication, an understanding of cultural differences, and the patience to correct communication errors, we would have never been able to create a successful product that users love.

3. Be the product expert

The Product Manager should be the go to person for the ins and outs of the product and the user they are serving. All members of the team should be in sync with product direction as what’s best for user needs, however, as with any team, perspectives can vary based on individual priorities. Therefore, the Product Manager needs to pick up where there is slack and communicate product development and strategy as well as user personas, journey, and behavior in a manner that best fits the priority of the stakeholder they’re engaging.

I have to admit, this was the most difficult area for me to perfect. Working in a startup created a lot of consistent change and if the CEO decided that the product should take a new direction, at times I fell behind. In future, despite the pressure of the fast paced environment, I would take more time to fully understand the new strategy and what this means for the user before moving ahead with the next ticket. In future roles, it would be helpful to request a brainstorming or design thinking session when product direction is changed. This would contribute to holistic understanding of the new user personas, user journeys, and market fit with this new outlook.

4. Play to individual expertise but don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications

As mentioned previously, good Product Managers trust the individual expertise of their team members. They understand that delegation and collaboration is essential for success and do so in a way that allows each team member to understand and have confidence in their role. Especially during user testing, it’s important for the Product Manager to work closely with the UX designer and tech lead to be able to fully grasp the user experience from every perspective and expertise.

But I’ve also learned there’s another layer to good product management and that’s asking your team members “why” they chose a particular solution to a problem. By asking for clarifications it creates a learning opportunity for you and the rest of the team, you’re able to encourage strategic problem solving instead of complacent muscle memory, and with varying backgrounds and expertise you’re better able to assess as a team if this is the best plan to move forward. It shouldn’t be done in a devil’s advocate manner or be perceived as naysaying, but rather you’re looking for an opportunity for clearer communication and an opportunity for everyone to expand their skillset, including the subject matter expert.

5. Jump before you’re ready

Becoming a Product Manager has been an exciting journey with a steep learning curve. There are times of doubt and imposter syndrome, but I found it was best to use my enthusiasm for the product and serving users to dive right in and to learn on the go. Backing myself with Product Management courses, popular PM literature, and keeping up with PM trends allowed me to form a steady foundation even in times of uncertainty. I found that my eagerness to craft my skills as a Product Manager encouraged my self-directed learning on the subject and inspired me to take calculated risks even if I felt I wasn’t ready.

Not every move I’ve made as a Product Manager turned out the way I hoped, but I was able to learn immensely from every mistake in order to improve for the future. I might not know everything, and likely never will, but I can use what I do know to figure out what I don’t. My foundational skillset, the experience I’ve gathered, and the grit and eagerness to help others by creating high-quality products will guide me towards defining what kind of Product Manager I want to be.

I can’t wait to see where my product management journey takes me, and I’m looking forward to building new and exciting products in my current and future Product Manager roles.

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