✍️ Letters to an Aspiring PM

Bring a machete, not another framework

September 24, 2022

Dear reader,

You may be early in your journey, but I want you to know, I’m already proud of you for choosing this path.

I remember feeling anxious entering the jungle that is product management. It’s wild. Unpredictable. The terrain can be hazardous. And you may be thinking, I’m not ready to lead this product yet, I can barely see through the trees! Does anyone have a map to this strange place?

I’ve got good news for you: you don’t need to worry about that map. (We’ll get you a machete in a bit.)

Don’t get me wrong - it’s easy to get lost in this jungle. I thought I’d found a map early on: all the product frameworks that would help me make sense of what I was expected to do in this role. Frameworks touted by the luminaries of our field. Packaged in colorful books, expensive courses, and fancy certifications.

I started studying them voraciously, thinking if I just knew that one more thing about prioritization matrices, opportunity solution trees, agile backlogs, growth metrics, OKRs, CRO, AARRR, HEART model, Kano model… what have you. Once I knew all that, I’d be a rockstar PM too.

But then I misled my team. Made the wrong priority calls. Embarrassed myself in front of customers and stakeholders, and presided over failed projects.

I’m not blaming the frameworks for my mistakes. But I just wanted you to know the truth about them. They’re not the map you think they are.

It’s seductive when you’re being sold a map to the jungle. You start to think, that’s what the experts say I’m missing. They’re reputable sources, and they’ve got great examples to back it all up. It must be the way.

The problem is, once you start believing frameworks are the map you’ve been looking for, you might fall into the same trap I did. Spending your days devouring information, trying to perfect your knowledge before you’ve ever unleashed it on the world. But we can’t work in a silo as PMs. There’s no substitute for working it out with your team, your customers, and your stakeholders.

Here’s the truth: real world product management NEVER fits a predefined framework. It’s messy. Markets are unpredictable, research can tell you the wrong things, data gets misinterpreted, stakeholders lead you astray. Just because it worked at one company doesn’t mean it’ll work at yours.

If it was easy, we wouldn’t have a career path in this industry… yet here we are, standing at the edge of our jungle. So I’ll say again: I don’t think you need another framework.

Instead of a map, let’s talk about bringing a machete.

The jungle’s terrain keeps changing. In fact, we’re often the ones changing it!

So let’s put aside the jargon of frameworks (hint: jargon is something people like to hide behind when they don’t fully understand something). I just want you to remember three simple questions whenever you feel lost:

  • What’s your product really for?
  • Who is it for?
  • How does it make money for the business?

That’s it - no magic framework. Think of this more like a machete: a simple tool to help hack through the terrain when you’re not sure where to go next.

These questions appear simple on the surface, but they’re timeless, and answering them thoroughly is an exercise in discovering what really makes products work in the real world.

I learned about them the hard way, looking back after my products failed to launch, or failed in the market. I remember being so excited when I joined a v1 edtech platform team at Microsoft. We were going to leapfrog Blackboard and Coursera, build on the strengths of Office Server, and fix the modern classroom! But we got caught up in our internal politics, got lost in the jungle, and years later found out we’d built a solution in search of a problem. We’d lost sight of what it was for.

Cutting our losses was the right move, but it hurt. And we wasted an opportunity to make peoples’ lives better and grow the business in the process.

I was still early in my career then, and lacked the clout to influence beyond my team. I often wonder if the outcome would’ve been different had I asked better questions.

The beautiful thing is, unlike a machete, this tool gets sharper the more you use it. You can ask what a product’s for, who it’s for, and how it makes money, of just about any product or service you encounter. That’s how you develop good product sense - understand the fundamentals deeply, then apply them broadly.

Don’t worry, you’ll get to that fancy scaled innovation framework later. You want it all to build on solid foundations. That’s your gift as an aspiring PM, dear reader: your thinking isn’t entrenched from years of being lost in the jungle.

So do me a favor, and don’t buy into the belief that you’re somehow incomplete as a product manager, just because you don’t know a certain framework. If ever you feel lost, reach for your trusted machete and remember, your first job is to learn to see and learn to communicate what your product’s for, who it’s for, and how it makes money. The rest will build on those fundamentals.

Good luck out there in the jungle!



Sean K. Gabriel
Thanks for the read 👋
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