6 Tactics To Accelerate Your On-The-Job Product Management Learning Curve
Updated: Jun 20
How to Cram 4 Years of Experience into 1? One Perspective
I met a friend who is getting into his first full-time Product Management role. He decided to take a significant pay cut and join a niche company to enter Product Management. His hope was to cram in 3-4 years of learning in 1 year of PM at the company to make a switch to a bigger company and better pay.
How can he do that?
Thumbnail from Craiyon AI search.
My coaching services are focused on helping people get a PM role, as I don’t have the same expertise in helping people grow in a PM role. I’m no expert on accelerated career development. I have no solution for avoiding burnout. I have no magic bullet for work-life balance. I share one perspective.
Product management is a multifaceted role that often requires years of experience to master. However, given the right confluence of factors, including factors outside your control, it is possible to accelerate this. What are the ways for new product managers to accelerate their learning process? How can they gain expertise in the field, but fast?
In my conversation with a friend new to Product Management, I recommended these 6 tactics. I share these here, in case they can help you make the most of your first year on the job to consider a bigger PM role.
1 - Say Yes! Take Up Projects That Others Are Not Interested In
One of the best ways to learn is through hands-on experience. As a new product manager, you should seize every opportunity to work on projects. Even projects that others might shy away from. My assumption is if your manager is open for you to take up a project, they consider you capable of doing it. Yet at the same time, if others are not interested in taking it, it is probably a “boring” project. This could include projects with complex technical requirements, challenging stakeholders, or tight deadlines.
Does this sound like the movie Yes Man?
Why? You wouldn’t be given concept to launch ownership of products or features as a new Product Manager. But your growth requires you to own the end-to-end Product lifecycle. By taking up a project not desired by others, you get some leeway to define the concept, execution, and launch within that project.
I see parallels with The Innovator’s Dilemma. Also indie startups vs incumbent businesses. Businesses will not go after niches because it is not valuable for them. An indie startup can build a product to meet the needs of just the niche. They are still a full-fledged product. But for a niche.
2 - Talk to Customers In Every Way Possible
I write this section with some assumptions that I’ll break in the last paragraph.
Product managers must understand their customers' needs, pain points, and desires. This will help you make informed decisions about product development and prioritize features. As a PM, you will ultimately create products that customers love. But, most product teams in most companies are busy with execution. Most Product Managers are busy with stakeholder communication and project management. Most do not get a few hours every week to talk to customers.
I’ve seen great product teams talk to customers very often. But, I have also realized it is hard and often slips by in many companies. Image by macrovector on Freepik below.
Why is this important? PM brings crucial value to discussions with stakeholders or with the engineering-design-product trio. The value is an understanding of customer needs and behavior. Although you would know less about the organization, Product Management, or the product, you are more likely to add value to conversations by investing more time in this. You get a seat at the table by knowing the customer.
How to do this? Build relationships with customer-facing roles such as support, sales, and customer success management. Sales are always interested in pulling PMs in their sales calls. Most PMs want to protect their time from it. Go the other way. Offer to join sales calls.
Shadow sales. Offer to take notes for the sales team. Don't worry about a never-ending time-suck with sales teams. You can reduce your involvement in sales calls anytime you want by following the same steps as everyone else on your product team.
Support often needs to escalate bugs or one-off requests to the product teams. Have in-depth conversations with Support to know all the pains they see. See if you can take part in any events in your company to take over support for a day or an hour.
I wrote the above assuming you are not well versed in the pain points of your product users. But what if you were a UX researcher and knew the ins and outs of customer research (but not this product)? I still recommend the same tactic to you because knowing the customer perspective of this product will help you grow in your role and in interactions with other teams. But what if you were a customer success or support expert for this product and know user pain points? This tactic is less relevant to you than, perhaps, talking to developers who build this product. You can bring in the voice of the customer to the discussions, but you might want to approach developers from the same lens as this tactic. Find every excuse to talk to developers, learn what they do, how they do it, when do they plan their work, and which tools they use. This changes the benefit of this tactic from contributing value to your team discussions to instead upping your skills for your next PM role.
Anubhav shared his experience from Product Management at AWS: “During the early months in my role, I used to have 10 hrs of customer meetings per week. This was partly due to the high-touch nature of our customers and partly because the service was experiencing difficulties, which required me to handle escalations. Dealing with these escalations consumed a significant amount of my time. However, this experience compelled me to stay well-informed about the targeted areas I needed to focus on in order to drive my roadmap. Engaging with customers at all levels, from developers to CXOs, is irreplaceable. The former enables you to fine-tune your product and design highly effective features, while the latter allows you to craft a product strategy that propels the roadmap in a specific direction."
3 - Seek The Data. Build Metrics Dashboards
Product managers need to measure the success of their products and make data-driven decisions.
However, PMs are often busy fire-fighting that they don’t have the time to deep-dive into the relevant metrics and counter-metrics for each decision. They may also hard to find time to review output metrics such as page views, support tickets, NPS, or revenue regularly. Not every product team has a product analyst or business analyst.
Given the paucity of time, PMs often work with intuition in the absence of data. Or so they may think. Not every PM has the product sense for the product + industry + company + situation they are in.
This is where you enter. You can take the breadth-first route to understand the available analytics tools and data sets. String them together to get a data-driven understanding of customer behaviors. Talk to teams to find the dashboards that track key performance indicators (KPIs) such as user engagement, customer satisfaction, and revenue growth. Sample dashboard from this article.
There are 2 ways to grow from this.
First, showcase your trials in making data-informed decisions in your projects. Show the data you used to prioritize features, co-design features, and review success metrics. Show your dashboards.
Second, the next time you come across a product decision in your team, offer to deep-dive into the data to provide supplementary data.
Learning to work with data and analytics tools will be invaluable as you progress in your product management career.
4 - Find Mentors; Don’t Expect Mentorship On A Platter
Mentors can catalyze your professional growth, providing guidance, advice, and support. But, if you are wondering how to accelerate your Product Management learning, you are likely not getting sufficient guidance from your team.
Look for experienced product managers within your organization or network who can share their wisdom and help you navigate the role's challenges. Make sure to ask questions, seek feedback, and learn from their experiences. Although there might be some formal platforms to find mentors, you can reach out to anyone and show your desire to learn. To hear about their experiences and learnings.
You shouldn’t go to someone and ask to be a mentee. You shouldn’t ask someone to mentor you. You should make each conversation interesting for them and insightful for you. Follow through on the advice. Then circle back to the mentor about implementing their advice and ask for to continue the conversation.
The same tips from this Cold Outreach article will also work for your outreach within or beyond your company. This includes a pyramid of potential people you can reach out to.
5 - Learn From Books, Publications, And Podcasts; Implement Learnings
A wealth of knowledge is available in books written by successful product managers and thought leaders in the field. Learn the best practices and know case studies to help you become a theoretically better product manager. Make time to read and learn from these resources and take notes.
Why is this important? The usual career growth curve is learning a few new things per project. Each project may take a few months to a year. So you are learning a few things every year. But, you want to accelerate your learning. How can you get feedback on your work to iterate faster? How can you iterate faster to learn more things per project? Reading the best practices arms you with the theoretical knowledge to trial on a small scale in your project. It’s about getting the reps in.
Apply the lessons you learn to your daily work. Convert your theoretical to practical. Since you are in a PM role, you have an opportunity to try the theories and principles out. If you read these books and you are not in a PM role, it is hard to use these best practices in your day-to-day. Without using them, you cannot showcase your skills in a future interview.
Say you read a new way to represent a roadmap. You can apply that one week in one small project or a small part of a project. Or build a parallel roadmap representation from your usual.
Some recommended books, ebooks, and courses from this webinar are:
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman
Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug
More recommended books from this article are:
Deploy Empathy by Michele Hansen
Continuous Discovery Habits by Teresa Torres
The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick
Some recommended podcasts and publications from this analysis are:
How to consume a high amount of content? Some tips here.
6 - Work Nights and Weekends; Prioritize Work Time For Accelerated Growth
Image by DCStudio on Freepik.
You need to get the reps in. The more you complete PM tasks (all above a quality level), the more you are likely to learn PM skills. Tactics 1 to 5 require deliberate practice. You want to move towards the 10,000 hour direction.
But you have fixed hours in your job. You want to learn as much as you want. But your job is only 40hrs a week. And your manager will give you tasks to fill 50-100% of it.
You are a new PM and eager to learn! But, many of the tasks given to you are likely similar to each other, don’t cover from concept to launch of the product lifecycle, or have communication overhead.
Accelerating your learning curve will require dedication and commitment. You have decided you want to accelerate your Product Management learning. You want to accelerate your career growth. Between the three-legged stool of socials, wellness, and career - it's time to prioritize your career. Make a conscious choice to tip the scales of work-life balance towards work.
This is the “time to build” and “get into the trenches”. Invest extra time into your work by going beyond the 40 hours. Work weekends and nights. Use the extra time to execute on tactics 1 to 5. Illustration below thanks to Craiyon Search.
Anubhav shared, “One thing I would stress is the importance of diving deep into whatever you are doing for accelerated learning because depth cultivates trust from your colleagues. With trust, you gain the ability to influence or even take ownership of shaping a feature into a product. I often observe individuals lacking depth who remain at a high level, which ultimately leads to problems in various areas such as product design, pricing, and decision-making.”
Connecting The Dots Using A Story
As I mentioned at the start, I’m no expert at career growth. I am sharing one perspective. One perspective having six tactics based on my experience. What parts of my experience? Storytime!
Product Ownership As An Engineer
When I joined Qualcomm fresh out of college, I was voluntold to help my colleagues with low-power verification in our semiconductor chip design. I happily took that up (tactic 1 - say yes) as an opportunity to learn from new teams (tactic 4 - find mentors). After I did that, I was approached by the head of low-power verification to move to his team.
Many colleagues dissuaded me from moving because it would narrow my future semiconductor engineering growth (Tactic 1 - less desired project). But, I moved into that team and found opportunities to improve the process (Tactic 1 - implement best practices in a narrow area) and learn Product Management along the way. I built prototype of an automation and got feedback from my former colleagues who were its users (Tactic 2 - talk to users).
Since this automation did not exist, I had to pour through manuals and forums (Tactic 5 - learn from books and publications). Since the regular charter of work took up all weekdays and weeknights, I worked weekends on my passion projects within the role (Tactic 6 - work weekends).
While working at Broadcom, I took up a less desired project of fine-tuning the conversion of signal processing algorithms to chip design language (Tactic 1 - less desired project) because I could own it end to end. My team was full of PhDs and MS graduates, 10 times more qualified than me. But, I became a subject matter expert in a niche (Tactic 3 - learn data or niche tools).
Product Management Ownership as an Intern
When I was at Senergy Intellution or TeleSign, I looked for ways to talk to customers (Tactic 2 - talk to customers). In TeleSign, I built relationships with everyone in sales and adjacent roles (Tactic 4 - seek mentors). I requested to be invited to their meetings with customers. A colleague asked me to help him with data analysis, which wasn’t as cool as my main chart of product strategy work, but I jumped into work and learned from it (Tactic 1 - say yes).
At Cisco, I had dozens of informational chats with colleagues across the company (Tactic 4 - seek mentors) during the day. I kept any work that could be done asynchronously for my evenings, such as competitor research (tactic 6 - work weeknights). I continued to read and listen to tech news and product management best practices (tactic 5 - learn) using the content stack here.
I requested the product team to allow me to shadow their executive briefings with customers (tactic 2 - talk to customers in anyway possible). I was responsible for identifying how to build some Machine Learning features in a cloud platform using online research. However, I talked to engineering and data science teams to understand the technical feasibility challenges and to other teams in Cisco who had done similar projects before (Tactic 3 - Seek data).
Accelerate Product Lifecycles as a Product Manager
When I joined Twilio, I wanted to get as many reps as possible. Luckily, the company grew 10x during my time there, which provided ample opportunities to learn and grow. The general manager suggested someone shadow the accounting, finance, and billing teams to understand and automate their processes. I sat for hours with these teams looking at tedious tasks in hundreds of spreadsheets (Tactic 1 - say yes) to understand the user journey (Tactic 3 - ethnographic research).
I did not want to spend days writing down my research, so it stayed in my draft notes. Until I got feedback, I am not prepared enough for meetings and need to write things down more. I realized exploring a new city needs to wait. I changed my weekday evenings (Tactic 6 - work weekday evenings) from sampling cuisines to writing things down and having a set agenda for meetings.
A few months later, I was automating the creation of invoices for a peculiar pricing strategy. Although I had internal teams explaining the desired outcome, I used it as an opportunity to reach out to customers using that pricing strategy (tactic 2 - find ways to talk to customers). I interviewed them to understand their needs and designed the product accordingly. I took part in events to handle customer support tickets. I joined sales and customer success calls (tactic 2 - any way to talk to customers).
My manager taught me to build relationships across teams, but there was no one in my team to teach me product management. Luckily at that time, I also got connected to UCLA Anderson’s program to connect and learn from senior alumni (tactic 4 - find mentors anywhere).
Customer support needed my team’s help to improve the customer experience to reduce reliance on support. However, there was no bandwidth allocated that year for this project, yes, I took this project up to see what is possible (tactic 1 - say yes to a project even if not desirable to others). I worked with new sources of data (tactic 3 - data and dashboards), identified success metrics, and built dashboards. I learned from books on best practices (tactic 5 - learn from books). I learned from industry veterans in other teams (tactic 4 - find mentors).
Since I was working on a project that had no resources allocated to it originally, I had to identify how to get “spare capacity” for it. I built a roadmap tool for our team and it was the first-ever view of the team’s roadmap (tactic 1 - pick up side projects).
What is your take on how one can accelerate one’s learnings as a Product Manager? How can you cram in 4 years of learning in 1 year?