A Day in the Life of a Product Manager

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Empathy, breath, communication : focus

Making ideas reality : dependency

Innovate user experience: deploy

Move the needle: data

Whole vision: status quo

Seemingly unrelated but they do sound good, don’t they? Something from a motivational panel, discussing Biz Dev strategies or maybe how to launch a lean start up. Rather, these were the words given in response to the opening question to a panel of product managers to “describe their occupation” in 3 words or less, + an additional word on what their biggest challenge was.

Earlier this week we had the opportunity to sit in at The General Assembly, Los Angeles for a fully stacked panel on a Day in the Life of a Product Manager (PM). Open to potential career pivoters and professionals of all levels, the panel consisted of the following panelists, whom entered their positions from backgrounds ranging from business to engineering to design.

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Assuming we know a smidge about what product managers do, they’re the connection hub between the moving parts, (assuming we’re talking strictly tech). They balance the expectations of the clients/executive team with the business and budgeting needs. They ensure the creative team isn’t just focused on attractive design, but make sure the user experience is just as important. And of course, product managers relay the abstract to the engineering teams to ensure the delivered product is, what it was planned to be. They fill the roles of moraler and supervisor. They keep projects on track and are often met with large amounts of pressure from multiple directions.

“You could think of the product manager role as a jack of all trades, but it’s probably better to describe us as the glue of a project, holding everything together”

LET’S START WITH THE BASICS, WHAT’S A WORK DAY LIKE?

Jen Robinson from Bigframe takes this one. Her description starts off with a standup meeting with her product team. In her case, it’s a small, efficient team with 4 engineers, with the occasional shareholder meeting. Everyone reports updates and obstacles. The term agile development is defined, and the panel agreed unanimously that maintaining this mindset is necessary.

Agile software development – A group of software development methods based on iterative and incremental development…
Depending on the day and stage in a project, a PM could be either managing the work flow of a launch, feature additions, systems integrations, or they could perform evaluation and analysis of previous launches while gauging user satisfaction.
Jen’s list of responsibilities continues: Executive meetings, weekly sprints, bug fixes, and of course ensuring feedback is collected.
“It’s a simple question, but we always want to know each week what went well, and what didn’t.”
So what did Steve Belin of Fandango mean when he answered “Move the needle: data”?  He explains that PM’s must be data driven as much as possible. You always want perfect data on what customers are doing. The challenge is in getting clear numbers, but not often as cleanly as a basic web analytics report. As a PM, you’ll have questions, but not the quantitative answers.
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For example? At Fandango, they examine ticket sales and trends over time. These factors can vary greatly week to week, and movie launches often influence what sales look like. Online usage data, easy. Web analytics, pretty clear. But what does the customer physically do at the  theatre when they’re there and making a choice? Steve speaks about needing quantifiable data, but short of sending focused sample teams on a large scale, these are the data challenges he’s faced with.
Jay Stakelon of Fullscreen adds to the discussion. Sometimes, there’s actually data overload, which is why he’d stated “focus” as his biggest challenge.  When you spend large chunks of time (and resources) looking at data, you begin to wonder what you’re watching and what information is really worth gathering.
He continues with an example where they’d spent a lot of effort on implementing tracking on every portion of a product. At certain points in a business or product cycle, something like that would make sense, but in some cases, it really might not. Say you’re focused solely on increasing conversions on a macro scale. Really, you don’t need to be answering whether the green, blue, or red button works better. Sometimes, the challenge comes from optimizing prematurely.
An example from Fullscreen: Optimizing user analytics tracking on a Fullscreen product, only to find out Facebook (which his company uses to broadcast user content) had completely changed their layout. And unfortunately, their users and viewers are left unable to even access the Fullscreen app.
The conversation moves on to dependence (Jen’s stated challenge) on other existing technologies as Vic Parekh of Machinima nods. His take on the matter? Sometimes, it’s not all about what the user sees. Machinima’s example?
(Paraphrased): If YouTube changes the way their interface looks, it’s your job to use it and find out. You need to research what they do, and on the development/API side, that’s something that you’ll have to go in and fix too.
Vic discusses speed, specifically when technical issues arise. He mentions his personal need to work close to the metal (closely with the team and technology), especially when the product is dependent on an app’s API.
Some questions posted. Are PM roles strictly technical? Or is it more about the user experience? And do PM’s need hardcore engineering backgrounds?
Jay chimes in. “Not necessarily”, as he proclaims his bias towards the user experience. Coming from a design background, Jay talks about considering the user experience (and encourages everyone to read Jacob Nielsen’s Five Principles of Usability). The important thing is if the user can actually extract value.
On whether a PM needs to be highly technical, Jay believes that, at the enterprise level, you don’t necessarily need to learn code, but notes the importance of understanding lingo to work with engineer teams. But if you can go into modify code while balancing technology and business, that’s of course the ideal scenario. The term Jack of All Trades resurfaces. 
“If you have a genuine interest in a subject, you’ll get the knowledge. Period.”
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SOME ANECDOTES AS THE EVENING PROGRESSES:
  • Jen expresses her playful chagrin towards users when she’s been told they had no idea there was a new update/feature/product. She discusses the difficulties of sitting with a user to run through your app and notes people won’t always tell the truth and ultimately, you want to avoid hand-holding on a new product test drive.
  • Vic’s pro-tip: Buy yourself a 20 dollar HDMI cable splitter and just observe your users.
  • Always understand the “why” of the user. Ask yourself is there another way to obtain data. And consider setting up concierge services to assist users before building out new systems.
  • Learn Lean UX, and focus on the iterative process. Always build tests out along the way to get feedback.
  • Figure out if people will understand the flow of a product, but more importantly, do people actually care? Always work with a minimum viable product and get immediate feedback.
  • Build, get feedback, and fail fast. Fail again. Re-build.
  • The list of tools used across the panel: Building mockups with Axure, Balsamiq, Keynote. Prototyping with HTML5 and Adobe Creative Suite. JIRA for bug tracking. White boards, Powerpoint, and Skitch for conceptualizing; and Evernote, Confluance, Pivotal Tracker, Visio, and GitHub for project management and tracking. The takeaway? There’s no prescribed set of tools for product managers.
  • Playing devil’s advocate: Ignore the users. Identify in your business how to get the needle moving instead of focusing on user feedback so heavily. Instead, focus on what metric outputs, more views, more downloads?
  • The ultimate user feedback tester: “Would you recommend this to your friend? Yes or no?”
  • How to sell your idea to multiple departments: Make all requirements detailed, make presentations, and really sell the reasoning and mission. Use Powerpoint and Keynote if you have to. Really connect the different teams with your vision.

And as the evening wraps up, the panelists provide their final thoughts. And with their four very different backgrounds and perspectives, we still manage a unified set of final takeaways. Product management, can be extremely high pressure. Your role is a focal point for multiple departments with very different needs: tech, design, business, executive; and with your attention and priority being pulled in every which direction, it can really break you. But for those who have the passion (and not just interest), it allows creativity. It is actually fun (all the panelists agreed on this) and ultimately provides a deeply satisfying experience.

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MORE ABOUT THE PANELISTS

Jay Stakelon is like a Swiss army knife for digital products with expertise in product management, user experience design and software development. He has over 10 years of experience designing and developing digital products. He’s the VP of Product Design at Fullscreen, where he previously ran product management and now focuses on UX, interaction and visual design, prototyping and building a super-kickass multiplatform design team.

Jen Robinson
 has been building web and mobile tech for more than 10 years. With experience in engineering, marketing and product management, she specializes in shipping product at early stage startups. Jen is currently Head of Product and oversees the Engineering team at Big Frame where she defined, managed and launched Big Frame’s web platform. Steve Belin is passionate about developing products that solve problems in the marketplace and provide great customer experiences.  For the past seven years, he has launched new B2B and B2C products in online ticketing, ecommerce, and learning management.  Steve currently manages Fandango’s web and mobile commerce platforms.

Vic Parekh
 started out as a Software Engineer and worked for a decade in this role before making the leap to Product. His Product experience spans various industries such as Mortgage Banking, Dating, Online Ecommerce, and Entertainment. Vic has worked on strategic and operational aspects of Product Management. His interests include Analytics and Lean Product Development.
ABOUT THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
General Assembly is an educational institution that aims to create a global community of individuals empowered to pursue work they love, but offering full-time immersive programs, long-form courses, and classes and workshops on the most relevant skills of the 21st century – from web development and user experience design, to business fundamentals, to data science, to product management and digital marketing.

They help professionals achieve their goals of transforming themselves from thinkers into creators through education in technology, business, and design.

Tim Wut

Tim Wut was once in pursuit of a paper-laden career in bankruptcy law. He now writes for TechZulu, covering startups and founder stories. He explores the inspiration that drives entrepreneurs and shares lessons learned in the startup trenches. Writer by trade, storyteller at heart.

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