What would the ideal learning environment look like for an early career PM? I think my experience was not far from it. I started my PM career in 2007 at a Silicon Valley tech company called Intuit. They had already established a strong definition of the PM role and culture at a time when this role was still very much being figured out across the Valley. But what was unique is that I joined them as a member of a PM Leadership program that they offered at the time. The program optimized for development; I worked with multiple experienced Product leaders during my first few years, across a range of products. This gave me exposure to different domains, teams, and business challenges.

I learned a lot from these great managers and mentors in my early Product career. So in this first half of a two-part piece (see part 2 here) I will pay it forward by sharing some of the learned behaviors that contributed to much of my early growth as a PM.

Don’t chase the hot topic

I’ll share a secret that I’ve kept for many years: when I heard the details of what would be my first job as a Product Manager, it sounded boring as hell. I tried to have an open mind, but I’m ashamed to say that I was not at all excited about this job. The product itself sounded mundane and I didn’t really feel a connection to the customer problem. And bear in mind, this was a time when the PM role didn’t have the prestige that it has somehow gained in recent years.

But as luck would have it, I ended up loving the job and it turned out to be a pivotal experience in shaping my passion for Product Management.

What I discovered in this job, and applied to my next career decisions, was to optimize for learning. An exciting technology or problem space might be cool, but it isn’t strongly correlated to learning. Many of my peers in my cohort worked on more exciting projects but I’m sure they didn’t learn as much as I did in my “boring” project.

Instead of chasing the hot topics, your early-career decisions should put much more weight on these criteria:

  1. Is the manager motivated to invest heavily in my development?
  2. Does the manager have the functional skills to help me learn this role?
  3. Does the company have a strong and clear definition of the PM role?
  4. Does the team use best practices for its development process; is the team collaborating effectively and healthily?
  5. Is there exposure to other Product Managers who I can learn from?

The earlier in your career that you can learn to be effective in your role, the more opportunities that will open up for you. As you grow your PM career, some of the above criteria will become less relevant, and then you can decide whether to apply your strong PM foundation to the hot topic projects. Or you can decide like I did to continue optimizing for growing your next skills.

Your authority comes from the customer

If you get into Product early in your career, you will likely find yourself surrounded by engineers, designers, and other teammates who 1) are all older and have more career experience than you, and 2) have been working on this product and in this domain for longer than you.

Now go lead them!

Dictatorship is not an option (even if it may sound enticing from time to time) since you probably won’t be the formal manager of these teammates. You also can’t defer many of your decisions to the team since you will ultimately be held responsible for the outcomes.

PMs need to earn their authority. And much of it comes from the customer. This is both where you’ll be able to add the most value to the team and where you’ll be able to most quickly gain your knowledge advantage. Because of this, even a Junior PM can begin effectively making product decisions on a team in a period of a few weeks. So make it a top priority to understand your customer.

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