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How to excel in your first product role: 10 tips on communication, execution and vision

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There is no such thing as a “highly-trained” product manager (PM). The skills needed to successfully manage a product from discovery to launch (and future iterations) typically cannot be taught in a classroom — they are learned on the job. Product isn’t an area where applicants can build up their experience with personal projects the way a new engineer can develop their own code or a budding creative can build their portfolio. Thankfully, reasonable employers don’t expect entry-level product employees to come in with lots of product management experience. Instead, they look for indications that you are behaviorally suited to product: that you are a quick problem-solver with a strategic mindset and the resilience to get through tough challenges.

After being hired, PMs will be watched closely to make sure they’re swimming, not sinking. And with the notoriously fast pace and high autonomy of most startup environments, it can definitely feel like you’re sinking pretty quickly. So how does an entry-level PM go from almost no experience on day one to competently executing product strategy in a short period of time? We asked multiple PMs at tech companies from seed through to IPO, and they named three areas of the utmost importance: communication, execution and vision.



Communication

1. Distilling complexity back to the big picture

The role of the individual contributor PM is to be able to manage execution-level details with engineers, designers and data scientists just as well as they are able to manage leadership-level strategic discussions. Stakeholders generally span multiple departments, so the ability to communicate the complexity of a product feature that’s being built back to the right level of detail is key to ensuring that each stakeholder feels well informed and brought along the journey.

2. Ability to communicate with engineers

Let’s clear the air — it’s a myth that you must have engineering experience or be very technical in order to be a product manager. However, the ability to communicate with engineers is required to partner effectively. This means learning the differences between front and backend engineering and having a basic understanding of how the two sides interact. Engineers don’t expect you to lead technical architecture discussions, but do expect that you can clear up product decisions in the context of how that may impact engineering implementation.

3. Communicate often

Early startups move quickly. In order to ensure efficient execution, the team must remain closely aligned by communicating often. Sharing brief weekly updates on progress in email, Slack, or a weekly standup are easy ways to ensure that others are getting pulse checks. If they’re still caught off guard, it’s on them for not following the progress updates in detail — at least you did your part to provide the information.



Execution

4. Build relationships

PMs can’t execute without the support of engineers, designers, data scientists, operations, and others. Generally speaking, these functions do not report to the PM. Rather, they’re partners and stakeholders alongside the PM. Building strong relationships with mutual trust and respect is the foundation for effective collaboration. Consider this: what are PMs without engineers, designers, data scientists and operations?

5. Organization is key

Some companies consider PMs to be the scrum masters. Other PMs would find that to be offensive. Regardless of where you or your company fall on the topic, organization is critical. The following are considered non-negotiable organizational materials for effective PMs:
  • A clear roadmap (spreadsheet or deck work best)
  • An ability to track progress throughout the quarter or half (spreadsheet or epics in a ticket tracking system such as JIRA)
  • A clear tie between files used across Product (product requirement docs (PRDs)), Engineering (request for comment (RFCs)) and Design (Figma)
  • A clear owner/stakeholder for each project
Even better, if these materials are accessible across the company then others can self-serve for updates without needing to bug the PM as often. That saves everyone time, especially when speed of execution can make or break a startup.

6. Don’t be a bottleneck

Less experienced PMs can feel overwhelmed with the number of decisions that they need to make, and easily become the decision-making bottleneck for the entire team. The PM is held accountable for making the major decisions associated with a feature or project, however, there are multiple decisions needed during implementation as well. Empower your team to make those decisions by bringing them on the discovery journey and ensuring that they understand what they’re solving for. Well informed teams are more empowered to make decisions and build faster.

7. Move and respond quickly

Responsive isn’t often discussed in Product resources. We’d argue it’s a critical and underrated requirement to be an effective executor. The team could need more context to make a decision or want to walk through a prototype before continuing to build — if you respond later, they’re unblocked later. PMs who are slow to respond slow their teams down.

8. Roll up your sleeves

The role of the PM isn’t to sit in the conductor’s chair and simply tell people what to do. While delegation is a key PM skill required to scale, PMs that are able to successfully earn the respect of their teams are also able and willing to roll their sleeves up when push comes to shove — they’re team players, filling the gaps for the greater good of the team.



Vision

9. Creative thinking

It’s a myth that PMs spend all of their time dreaming about what to build next for their product. Odds are, there’s a mile-high backlog already filled with user pain points and requests from customers and stakeholders alike. The job of everyone else is to make requests and complaints. The job of the PM is to take those data points as inputs and think creatively about the solution that not only solves the pain point, but delivers a delightful user experience.

10. Big picture thinking

The role of many functions is to think about the short term execution — how do we build X by the end of the quarter? The role of the PM is to think about not only the short term but also the long term. What would this product look like in 5-10 years? How would the world be shifted? This isn’t to be confused with the point above about PMs that spend their days dreaming. Let the data guide you and don’t be afraid to dream big.

Remember: PM skills are learned on the job, and you already got the job. With these ten tips in your back pocket, you’ll be prepared to jump in and manage product like a pro. Keep checking Startup Search as we continue our Product series with more tips and advice from real product managers working today.