Product management is about street-smarts, not booksmarts.
Concept in brief.
Product Management is an apprentice craft. It’s learned in the real world, not in a textbook. It’s not gained by hubris; it’s pursued through praxis, applied theory, aka shipping products.
Concept in action.
There are three types of investments you can make to develop product mastery, each interplay with the other. For example, working at Microsoft was Experience, but became ‘Credential’s when I left the market.
- Experience. To learn how to PM, you must ship products.
- Skills. To ship products better, you must develop skills.
- Credentials. To get into product management and accelerate your career, you must develop credentials.
When you develop a learning plan, know which type you’re aiming to create. If you’re acquiring Skills, bias towards how people you admire learned those skills (street-smarts) instead of the learning which focuses on linear learning (book smarts).
What does this mean? Your ability as a product manager cannot exceed the scale, complexity, reach, or the number of products and product iterations you’ve delivered to market.
Your strength of understanding of the product management discipline can not exceed your ability in conjunction with your empathetic reflection of what it takes to be successful.
To draw parallels from a different craft, a great industrial designer isn’t one who has designed beautiful products but has delivered compelling products into the market. Sure the concept portfolio might get you the job, but your career is defined by the value you’ve helped create.
So the secret in becoming a masterful product manager is to increase the scale, complexity, reach, and the number of products shipped.
Here is the thing. As product management has expanded to become more accessible to newcomers, a lot of aspiring product managers are bringing to the discipline the same learning habits that helped them succeed in school. Dive into the books; read the how-tos, study to become recognized as a great PM.
But here is the secret. Becoming a Good PM is different from habits and practices that lead to academic success or even learning to code. In school, there is a test which tells you did you learn or not learn. The curriculum is rote; the difference between a Freshman and a Senior is the number of credits. Even when you learn how to code, you get the answer right there, the code either compiles or doesn’t.
Product Management is different. In product, the Booksmart don’t ‘win,’ at least not for any sustained period. There are only Streetsmart PMs. Why? Because the streets (marketplace) always gets to vote.
Product management mastery calls for a different approach than success in school, or even learning to code. It’s not a ‘deterministic’ discipline. Like academic success, those who read and study will outperform and outgrow those who don’t. It’s shipping, not studying, that is the entrance fee for career growth and up-leveling your skill.
The secret to why lies in our name, Praxis. Product Management is an applied discipline; it’s not about theory—you don’t win by being right on paper. You compete in the market. Success is not about writing the best spec, user stories, pitch decks, or coming up with the best product strategy.
It’s about developing a vision and delivering it to the market as a part of a team while maintaining strategic integrity.
A lot of non-good products, strategies, and tactics will thrive in the market. Good PMs, look to praxis, the intersection of theory and practice to discover and reflect on how to ship great products that make it through a product development process and thrive in the marketplace.
A lot of new, early, and even senior product managers become stagnated in their growth because they don’t challenge their product management theory. Often they are lulled into thinking that product management is the set of tasks and activities performed or about the skills you have. In reality, Good PM is about forming a hypothesis—not about your product (though you do this too)—but about what is “Good Product Management” and testing and refining and discarding that hypothesis throughout your career.
Your product community, mentors, and managers are like trade masters who help jump-start you by lending you their hypothesis, with the expectation that you will shift and mold this over time to become your own.
No one is born into PM mastery, and no one learned it from a book.
Becoming a PM. Ship a product.
Becoming a PM in title. Develop distinguishing skills and credentials. And master your job search.
Becoming a better PM. Try and ship a better product, better.
Becoming a good PM. Do so with a healthy and empowered team.
Becoming a product master. Become a good PM and teach others to do it better than you can.