✍️ Letters to an Aspiring PM

PM is what you make of it

December 29, 2022

Dear reader,

Don’t fall for the trap of thinking there’s only one ‘right’ way to PM.

The ‘industry’ will try to tell you the perfect shape to strive for. All the competencies you need to master. Keep up with your peers. Stop doing it wrong. Live inside the Venn.

Oh, and it’s going to be hard (thanks for that?).

It’s easy to get discouraged, trying to live up to all these expectations at once.

Yet we can barely agree where ‘product’ starts and stops. There’s so much variety in product types (whether hardware, software, internal, B2B, B2C, public sector…), the makeup of the team around you, the size of your business, or the sector you serve. Even the classic Venn isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

Job titles add to the confusion as well. Product manager or product owner? What if you’re a program manager, production manager, product ops, PMM? What if you don’t work in or alongside a multidisciplinary team? ”Sorry, you’re not really a PM” is the attitude you get.

It’s made me question myself, too. But I think there’s a way we can rise above the noise.

As a PM, I had an amazing time building the (now sunset) Xbox Music apps and bringing its music marketplace to life. But as part of product engineering, I didn’t own the business objectives that went into running a viable streaming service. I “just” worked on features, within the constraints of shipping on half a dozen platforms (themselves moving targets) and negotiating dependencies across a huge organization. All while balancing what we felt was right for millions of consumers across the globe.

I’d keep reading posts like these and get the sense that I wasn’t a ‘real’ product manager because I hadn’t run my teams according to their ideals. If I wasn’t autonomous, and I didn’t own the strategic problem, then I had no business calling myself a PM.

But I’ve met so many product people who don’t work in this way. Driven, smart, all doing their best with the hand they’ve been dealt. Working through constraints. Working towards small or big wins.

Are we really all ‘fake’ or ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ - just because our work doesn’t line up with what someone else says the ‘right’ version of PM is?

What we’re all trying our best to do is build products in a unique organizational context. And while it’s tempting to assume every context should function like an ideal one, that’s not the reality for many PMs. Rather than assume different is wrong, I encourage you to take it as a sign to lean in.

Just because you don’t practice X doesn’t mean your company is a bad product company.

Not knowing Y doesn’t automatically make you a bad PM.

The longer you spend in this field, the more nuance you’ll see in each situation. Context is everything.

There’s a reason for the trope that the answer to all product management questions is “it depends.” Right and wrong are dangerous judgments to cast in the world of PM.

Right and wrong also don’t age well as sweeping generalizations. Beware those who claim their advice works everywhere.

What they’re not telling you, dear reader, is you don’t NEED to do anything as a PM.

By that I mean, we don’t have the production responsibilities of the specialists who ‘need’ to write the code, design the interface, prep the campaign, etc. and without whom there’s no product to ship.

Which poses both an existential challenge (because generalists are expendable) and an opportunity for us. By sacrificing some clarity in the boundaries of our role, we have the space to ask, what SHOULD we do?

To me, the joy of PM is in embracing this ambiguity.

Some teams look for PMs who are technical, or get deep into data & analytics, or are design-savvy. There’s plenty you COULD do. But I think a smarter way to approach the question is to consider the consequences and impact of what isn’t getting the attention of others. For example:

  • What happens if we’re not aligned on our goals and mission?
  • What happens if there isn’t a clear strategy in place?
  • What if nobody is getting to know our customers, and we’re making incorrect assumptions?
  • What if we aren’t delivering on what we promised?
  • What if we aren’t experimenting with new things, and investing in learning?
  • What if nobody’s trying to scale excellence across our teams?

Questions like these often sit between the seams of different functions in the organization. I’m sure you can think of others. And have a hunch which ones will uniquely impact your organization the most, left unsolved.

Hence the opportunity: you get to choose your own adventure.

That said, an adventure isn’t much fun without companions.

The bit of stock advice I do believe in: you can’t accomplish much as a PM without the support of others. Building impactful products is a team sport because there’s too much for one person to take on alone.

Back to our ‘should’ question. Should YOU be the one to do it all, or does SOMEONE need to be on point? This is where leadership without authority comes into play.

I used to tell friends that a PM is a jack of all trades, and master of none - able to speak the language of the other disciplines, but not quite the specialist to step in and do. But now I’m seeing that the adept PM is a master of influencing others, a distinct skill of its own.

That’s why the luminaries will emphasize communication skills, storytelling, empathy, building trust, and reasoning with evidence and data. It’s all in service of influencing others effectively.

And once you marry influence with a focus on impact? Suddenly YOU have the leverage to make real change happen. It’s an awesome responsibility.

I hope you’re thinking, dear reader, about the kind of impact you can have, and the kind of influence you can build. And feeling that you can rise above what others tell you the right or wrong way is to go about it.

You’re not doing it wrong by doing it differently. Remember, no two PMs take the same journey. Learn what works in your unique context, and what it’ll take to leave things better than you found them.

And don’t be discouraged by the ambiguity; be intrepid. Try a bit of everything.

Staying open to where this exploration takes you is, to me, what it means to think like a product person.

Go choose your own adventure. PM is what you make of it.



Sean K. Gabriel
Thanks for the read 👋
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