Unfiltered Conversation: Joys & Struggles of Being a New Product Manager

How to adjust your expectations of your first few days, according to five new product managers.

Disclaimer: this article is based on personal points of view and interpretations. It doesn’t claim to be universally true or to describe and/or cover every situation, nor it is a reflection of a particular company. The joys and the struggles listed below are entirely subjective.

We fought for it. We wanted it more than anything else, to become a product manager, a multi-talented, problem-solver, who gets things done.

And finally we got the job. It felt thrilling. It felt exciting. It felt like jumping into ice cold water.

Suddenly, it’s like you’re on a roller coaster. You’ve already bought your ticket, but it’s climbing higher and going twice as fast as you expected before you got on.

This is the magic word: expectations. Because let’s face it, the role of the product manager is one of the most iconic, idealized, and fantasized professions currently out there. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2016 it was the dream job of the majority of MBA graduates.

What Does the Dream Job Really Look Like?

Once you finally get the job, what can you expect, and how do you survive the rollercoaster?

This is what I have been asking myself, now that I finally managed to become a product manager. I felt the urge to write about the topic, both to give structure to my thoughts and to give an edge to other aspiring or new PMs. However, for this post to be truly accurate, I realized pretty quickly that I needed to rely on more than my own thoughts and experience. I needed to broaden my perspective to bring this article to life, making it truly valuable for those of you reading this.

Meet Aleksandra Piwowarek, Busra Al Nakhlani, Evelina Schubert, and Luisa Goncalves, four extraordinary ladies and formidable, enthusiastic product managers.

Like me, they have recently transitioned more officially into product management from very different job positions, and they are all planning to change their careers in order to become product managers.

Like me, they had dreams and expectations for coming into this role. Some of those expectations were fulfilled ten times over, others were different than they had imagined.

This is the first of a two-part post that shares our collective experience in regards to the expectations around the role of the product manager, while the second part will be a practical survival guide to navigate those (adjusted) expectations. Here is the unfiltered view of our stories and how becoming a product manager has been much more (and sometimes less) than we could have ever expected.

Setting the Stage: Expectations

If you are reading this article, chances are that you are dreaming about becoming a product manager, if you’re not one already. Do you remember what drew you towards this particular job in the first place? What did you imagine it would be like getting the job?

I had this image of a product manager as the person who had all the answers,” recalls Busra. “The go-to person whenever you want something done, the biggest problem solver. I wanted to be that person too.
“I wanted the answer to the question, “how do I make things happen?Luisa added.It was this fascinating prospect of having a holistic view while at the same time being an expert, the one that connects the dots, that drew me in, and the ability to translate business requirements into actual products quickly and efficiently.”

Does it ring a bell? It certainly rang one for me when I interviewed Busra and Luisa and heard their dreams and expectations.

We all want to be that person. I wanted it and I bet you want it too.

Because for many of us, being a product manager has very much the taste of the biblical “Promised Land” as far as jobs go. It seduces and promises to fulfill us on the following two dimensions:

  1. Self-actualization: we want to do something that matters, that has a measurable and visible impact. More than that, we want to be fully responsible and accountable for the ‘something that matters.’ We want front row seats, driving the end-to-end process, from ideation, to discovery and testing phase, down to the concrete delivery of the solution. In short, we want to be the protagonist and to actively influence decisions and outcomes.
  2. External recognition: remember that ‘something that matters’ from the point above? Well, it isn’t enough that it matters only for ourselves, we want it to matter for others too. We want to be able to leave our very own and (hopefully) special footprint by having a direct impact on the lives of other people, by making it (still hopefully) better. We crave the feeling of being helpful and being needed. We want to be that special person who is both an expert in their own domain but all also has the ability to connect all the dots and see the big picture.

So according to the job description out there, we all figured that being a product manager would be the perfect job to achieve what we wished for. And you know how the saying goes, be careful what you wish for….

The Very Real Joys

Do you remember that special moment when, after starting the job, you truly felt like a product manager for the first time? For Busra, it was the moment she ran her first retrospective: “Having heard of the struggles our engineers were facing, it just clicked in my mind that we were trying really hard to stick to some outdated frameworks that clearly didn’t fit our needs. It was time to collaboratively figure out a new way-of-working to help our team thrive. This was my PM moment.”

Everyone has had what Busra calls a “PM moment,” that feeling of having actually made the difference through your own contributions and improved things for your team and/or your customers. It is a moment that it is as addictive as any drug and that we strive to recreate as often as possible.

If you are a PM the easy wins are few and far between, everything you do needs to be proven and earned as you go, and for this reason, every victory tastes that much sweeter.

Being a product manager can truly be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling career choices. The lists of the joys this job can bring you is long and varied.

For me, being a product manager has proven to be so much more than I could ever have imagined. It is thrilling, it is exciting and stimulating.

Several Realistic Things to Expect as a Product Manager

Here are several you can expect being a product manager will be like and will bring you, based on our collective experiences:

  1. Independence and self-responsibility: as the product manager you are the decision-maker, the one that calls the shots when it comes to your product. You are called upon to independently decide which direction to take and it is ultimately your judgment that will “make or break” the destiny of what is being built. It is not a coincidence that the product manager is often referred to as the “CEO of a Product”.
  2. Leadership and visibility: being a product manager comes with a great deal of visibility. Pretty much everyone inside your organization, especially if it is a small one, knows who you are, and you are often in the spotlight. This could be a good or a bad thing in your book, depending on your personality. For the majority of us is one of the main reasons we wanted to become product managers in the first place. You are the go-to person, and although you do not have lofty titles to sport or any formal authority, you guide your organization and your team through influence and hard-earned respect. According to Evelina, “the fact that leadership is earned instead of being granted is what makes it empowering.”
  3. Connections: as the product manager you are expected to talk with everyone, engaging directly with the customers and the organization, from the junior up to the most senior members. You have the chance to meet new people on an ongoing basis and to form bonds based on respect and mutual admiration. As for the leadership above, this might be a joy or a struggle, depending on your personality. For me, it is one of the main reasons I wanted to become a product manager in the first place. Being surrounded by smart and inspiring people, like the ladies I had the pleasure to interview.
  4. Continuous learning and evolving: the role is by nature so broad and open that you have to continuously keep up by staying up to date. As a product manager, you truly need to be multi-talented, knowing a bit of (or a lot, depending on your particular situation), software engineers, design and business, coupled with a healthy dose of social skills. More than that, being a Product Manager gives you the greatest gift of all, according to Aleksandra: it pushes you to grow continuously, and there are many opportunities to reinvent yourself, your job and your career. If you are looking for adventures and for a job that can certainly be many things, but never boring, this is definitely an aspect you will appreciate. “On my first day of work, I felt very excited, honored by the trust I was given and each day still feels like a new beginning. I know that it is going to be a day full of surprises,” says Evelina.
  5. The community and the frameworks: being a product manager feels a bit like entering a special club, as you gain access to a large, active and supportive community. This comes as no surprise as it is a very demanding job that often requires strong support. One way that product managers tend to cope with the responsibility and the challenges that they face on a daily basis is by forming strong communities, both at a local and at a larger scale, even internationally. “The product management community is more tightly knit than I could possibly have imagined and fiercely supportive.” says Aleks, “and as a discipline product management has so much to offer. It is a framework that you can apply to every situation, even to your private life.” In fact, product managers love to share best practices, tools and frameworks to make other people’s jobs easier, so that “you do not have to reinvent the wheel over and over again” as Evelina candidly puts.
  6. The “Pandora’s Box”: as a product manager curiosity should basically be your middle name. The thrill of revealing complexities, investigating until you find a solution and translating this into actionable requirements. This is what I call the “Pandora’s Box” element. “I didn’t expect that in order to do my job, I would have to figure out things that I thought were completely unrelated and off the charts,” says Luisa. As a product manager, you get to experience the thrill of being presented with riddles you need to solve that could have little to do with each other. It is mentally stimulating and brings continuous novelty. Every day feels different from the previous one and all the more exciting because of it.
  7. Impact and self-actualization: through the continuous delivery framework, you will see the results of your actions and decisions pretty quickly. Few things are more powerful than being able to tangibly see the fruits of your labor at this fast pace, even more so because it is an ongoing process, no matter if it is in small parts and not in a “one-time occurrence” big reveal at the end of the journey. It is extremely fulfilling and brings about a sense of empowerment and self-actualization that is otherwise very difficult to experience and it is one of the main reasons why we love this job so much. Knowing that we are truly able to make a difference in the lives of others, make it a bit better than it was before, is a feeling that is worth every struggle.

The Struggles are Real

Do you recall all those exalting job descriptions that you read (or if you are an experienced product manager you have probably contributed to writing one or two yourself), that emphasize all those thrilling job aspects, like leading a diverse team, taking ideas and shaping them into solutions, creating the roadmap and shipping world-class features?

Good news is, all of this is true. But the bad news is the job descriptions have omitted a few details.

While it is true that the job of the product manager is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling out there, it can also be one of the most stressful and infuriating at times.

Several True Struggles that Product Managers Face

Here is what no job description will tell you:

  1. Where have you hidden my instruction manual?! : unfortunately for you (and for all of us), the job comes with no instruction manual. No matter how much you have read, prepared, shadowed, DIYed it. Nothing will really prepare you for the reality. Trust us, we did a lot of preparation before entering the job. We carefully planned for this, remember? The one thing that the five of us agreed unanimously is that, although it was exciting and thrilling, becoming a product manager felt very much like “being thrown into ice cold water.” And not only do you have to figure out how to keep your head above the water, but to learn to swim like Michael Phelps. Fast. In your first week. Would you like to know when I learned that being a product manager was harder than I could ever have expected? It was right on my very first day, within the first 30 minutes to be precise. It was during my first stand-up, when I saw the happiness and the hopes in the eyes of my team of engineers, like I had the power to solve their problems and fulfill all of their expectations. It felt overwhelming, empowering and terrifying at the same time. There I was standing, in my first 30 minutes as a product manager and already I could feel the expectations climbing to the roof. The result? I spent 15 minutes during the lunch break of my first day in the bathroom doing breathing exercises. The truth? Sometimes I still do that.
  2. “That” Overwhelming Sensation: product management might come with no instruction manual but it certainly comes with a good deal of responsibility, and a lot of good frameworks and best practices. Ironically what makes it great is also what makes it difficult. With so many excellent tools to choose from, how are you supposed to figure out what to apply to your specific use case? Busra shares her personal experience: “I doubted everything I was doing. Should I run retrospectives more often? Should I apply Kanban or Scrum? It really took me a while to realize that there is no right or wrong. All I needed was to be confident enough to take everything that I learned as an input and just experiment to adapt it to my own situation, instead of blindly following things to the letter.”
  3. The “Customer-Centricity Myth”: “There’s a lot of discussion about customers, how important they are and how they should be the center of all our actions and thoughts as product managers. The reality is that not all teams operate like this, especially when developing products for customers who are also employees of your company,” says Aleks. “Product management sometimes gets idealized, so when you start and realize that there are constraints like in every other job, it can be quite the wake-up call.” The “customer-centricity myth” varies not only from company to company, but also from team to team. For some, the customer’s word is the Bible, for others it is less so. For the product managers focusing on internal customers, they must also take business needs into consideration. Sometimes there is confusion as to who the customer is — the end-user or the business. One of the biggest challenges is to figure out how to compromise, as you are expected to create value for both. But it can be a difficult line to walk. “I am working in an internal performance management system and sometimes I feel like instead of writing user stories, I am writing business stories,” says Luisa. “How can I justify building a tool for users when they use it because they have to?”
  4. The “Delivery Factory”: Marty Cagan’s article talks about Delivery Teams in great details and essentially what I call the “Delivery Factory” issue also stems from a misalignment between business and the customer needs. Is what you are delivering meaningful or are you delivering features just to show something at the end of the sprint? How do you balance the business timeline and their expectation with the time needed to conduct a proper discovery? Are you losing sight of your customer and of your product vision because you are focusing on delivering something, anything really, so that your engineers can work, close some tickets and keep the business happy in the process? Because we work following an incremental process, in which we are expected to deliver something every week, things are never really done, and you might run into the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture amidst all the small deliveries, or worse, for whom you are building it in the first place. I have personally worked in a real “delivery factory” before, a manufacturing center, at the beginning of my career. We also used Kanban. We used Gantt Charts. We worked using incremental deliveries because at the end of every week (mmm…sprint?) we needed to deliver a certain amount of products. Looking back, sometimes it feels suspiciously similar.
  5. The “Agile Myth”: depending on the size of your organization, you might have to deal with some serious silo thinking. “In larger organization being agile and quick to change can be a myth. What you are doing impacts so many teams, thus getting everyone on board for rapid adjustments is a challenge,” says Evelina. By contrast, if you work for a small organization, you might not have the resources to adjust quickly. Aligning the organization to make rapid changes, in order to respond to the need of the market, is what you are expected to do as a product manager. Unfortunately, chances are high that, due to either lack of resources or to the dependencies within the organization, you will have to face the “agility myth,” that suspiciously looks like a waterfall buddy.
  6. “The PM Who?” Enter the Gap Filler: what do you do anyway? Are you even useful? “Not everyone gets the role of the product manager and why we even exist in the first place. You are not really a developer and not quite a designer.” explains Aleks. “You don’t hold any formal authority but in some ways, you’re expected to lead a team.” This role is so broad that it is rife with ambiguity. It might not be clear what is expected of you and worse, sometimes it’s not even possible to know. Chances are high that, because they do not understand your role and what you do, your stakeholders will either ignore you or, completely at the opposite, they will try to turn you into the gap filler of your organization, the author of every topic in search of an owner. “Being a PM is very overwhelming and demanding because people expect you to solve all problems. But the magic is to find the right problems to solve and it’s a constant negotiation,” suggests Busra. The line between being the CEO of your product and being the ‘gap Filler’ of your organization can be very thin.
  7. Have I Been Cast for an Episode of House of Cards?: stakeholder management and communication is an integral part of the job of the product manager. What is not clearly stated, however, in the job description is that, depending on your specific role and size of your organization, this might take up to 80% of your time. In fact, you might end up doing way more public relations than product management. If this is the case, then meetings and politics will become your day-to-day job, and persuasion and constant negotiation will become your second nature.

Did We Make the Right Choice to Become Product Managers?

So what is our final appraisal? Was our initial expectations prior to becoming a product manager fulfilled now that we have the job?

Yes, and more.

Personally, I feel more empowered and fulfilled in my job than ever before and this has also had a huge positive impact on my private life. Moreover, I have had the privilege to meet some very special professionals that are a source of inspiration and have become role models for me, and to be part of a community that is generous and supportive. It has given me the chance to reconnect with one of my other biggest passions, writing, and to bond with the wonderful ladies who have helped me craft this story.

Was being a product manager different than we initially expected?

Yes, it is a lot harder, to be frank.

We naively didn’t realize that for all the joys and privileges, we will have to face the challenges that come with a very demanding job. However, you know what the say: the harder the struggle, the greater the joy when you come out on top.

So now that we have set your expectations straight, stick around. Part two, your personal survival guide (remember, the job comes with no manual!) to being a product manager, is coming.

In the meantime, feel free to share your expectations in the comments and, if you are already a product manager, contribute to the discussion with your own joys and struggles!

Sara Tortoli

Sara Tortoli