Product Management: Dreams, Heartaches and the Great Indian Reality

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A whole bunch of newbie product managers and wannabe PMs are a victim of content marketing.

They’ve imagined a discipline/role that is not practical. Their world view is based on the enormous amount of reading material, the free ebooks, the blogs, the podcasts that they get free access to. The material may be actually helpful and well received by the known thought leaders across the world. However, if one looks at the most popular material on the web, it is either from companies selling their culture or companies selling their courses. And guys who are consuming this without much context of product management practice are setting themselves up for disappointment.

I’d add two instances that triggered this rant:

Case – 1: A techie, say Kriti, is doing a formal product management course but can’t see the similarity between what she sees the product managers do in her current organization versus what she thinks they should be doing based on what she is being taught. She is confused about whether she has picked the wrong course or whether her colleagues are doing it wrong. Both could be possible, but, since she’s not the only one finding that disconnect, I can see that something is broken.

Case – 2: A startup maverick, Vivan is an energetic fellow. He joins a mid-sized company and he wants to become a product manager, knows a lot about what’s happening around in the world of product management. The source is, of course, the internet and the articles from the product course companies and SaaS companies which have built their story on content marketing. That’s the world view he comes with and when he gets a real opportunity he is not able to match it up with the imagination. He thinks there are things that PM would be doing and certain things he would not be doing. Which ideally should be the case, but, as a PM you gotta fill a lot of white space. You need to get shit done. But, he is confused. Within the first few weeks, he starts to think about whether he is in the right role.

And then I ran a quick poll on twitter to see if there are others suffering. More than 50% think they aren’t doing what a PM should be doing. 

Product Management Role : India Reality
Product Management Role : India Reality

Product Management articles look so perfect. But…

Honest enough?
A lot is written in retrospect by content writers, who have to come up with a story that sells. Even when it is based on true events they can always sequence the events and modulate certain sections to make it presentable. Makes for great reading, also drives the insights home, readers can definitely learn from it. I love reading them and drawing from them. However, as an existing PM, I can imagine the missing details. Those who haven’t really done product management – have no way to read what’s left between the lines.

One part of the story
They tell you what they did, what was the philosophy behind it and how it turned the tide. Some may also occasionally talk about what didn’t work. All carefully drafted and showcased. What you definitely miss out on is that what you see is just tail of the elephant (sorry tip of the iceberg is too cliched). There is Chaos, Failures, Frustrations that are usually summarised in a line for completeness. In fact, there is no use of writing about or reading up the gory details of things that did not work. But, since you are inspired by reading just one part of the story over and over, you are set to be disappointed by reality.

Race to the bottom
As someone who’s selling a course or a certification program, you have to meet your numbers. Which means you have to get more people on top of the funnel, excited about “Product Management”. So you try to make it look cooler. You have to build upon the imagination of others to stay relevant and capture more market. And that’s where you’re setting people up for disappointment.

The predicament 

The excitement about Product Management among youth is palpable. Everyone from non-Techie IITians to management trainees from IIMs/ISBs and even people with 10+ years of domain experience is trying to get into this field. Some of the hype is justified and some are not. And there are various articles that bust the myths around product management as well.

However, in my 14 years of experience in the industry and those 6 kickass years as a product guy – I’ve come to realize that any role at a progressive organization is a lot about hustling and getting-shit-done.

And it is not all about the newbies being at fault. Many startups, organizations also create PM function without much deliberation. They see a gap as they scale and think what they need is Product Management to fill it up. The lack of understanding is evident if you just have a look at the PM JDs on job portals. There is an eerie similarity in all of them, and most of them are quite disconnected with what the real job would be like. E.g. A 2 years PM experience guy  – JD says should be experienced in creating Strategy and Roadmap  – really? (Note that they are an e-commerce site being used by Millions of users)

Here are some samples of JDs for an e-commerce company, a fintech, and an ed-tech company:

They are themselves so unsure of what they want. All they seem to be looking for is a person with some proven logical, analytical capacity and communication skills – In short, an MBA from Top Tier institute, preferably with Engineering background.

There are Dreams and there are Heartaches associated with the Product Management function across the board. Anyone planning a career in this needs to be more objective and better informed. It’s cool, but, there’s a lot of dirt under the rag. If you aren’t up for it, find something better.

[Written by Ujjwal Trivedi. Ujjwal leads products @MoveInSync]

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