"So, Bob, I'm thinking about applying for that product manager job. Any advice?"
I looked up from my spreadsheet, blinked a few times. Motioned him to a seat.
"Thanks. Is this a good time?"
"It's always a good time. So you want to be a product manager."
"Yeah," he nodded, all smiling and eager. "You seem to like it. And you get to do all kinds of cool things like set the product direction and talk to the press. I think it would be a great job."
"You get to do a whole lot of cool things, yes."
"So, any advice?"
I had dreaded the arrival of this moment for my entire career. It's one thing when your kids ask you for advice, but here was another professional, a bright, capable guy with his own life and ambitions. Asking me for advice. Without warning.
"Yeah, two things."
I've got one of those black Vornado pedestal fans in my office that I value not so much for its ability to move air but for the steady wash of white noise it creates. Most of the time I'm unaware of it, but for some odd reason I noticed it then, whispering to me of simplicity.
"Actually, only one thing. Who does a PM work for?"
This stumped him. "Well, who do you work for? Wouldn't that be the same person I would work for?"
"Partly. You work for the customer."
"What do you mean?"
"You're a smart guy. . .you've been a programmer, you're getting your MBA, you've got all the skills. But from day one you have to re-orient yourself as an advocate for one person - Joe Baloney who lays down cash for what we're making."
"So you're telling me to be customer-centric."
"Customer-centric is a slogan, a buzz-word. What I'm telling you is to forget about what we call our products, what we think their value is, how we package, price and sell them. The day you become a PM you have to conclude that all those decisions were made by idiots who never left the building."
"But you made a lot of those decisions."
"So you're telling me that you made bad decisions?"
"What I'm telling you is that I made decisions based on my understanding of the customer. My understanding. You need to build your understanding. You can't trust mine, or anyone else's. It's like a cynical Reagan Doctrine."
"What's the Reagan Doctrine?"
"The Reagan Doctrine. . .never mind that. The bottom line is that you work for the customer, so you need to go out and know the customer. Right away, day one, no exceptions. Because unlike being a programmer who knows how to code, or a sales guy who knows how to sell, what does a marketing guy know?"
"How to talk?"
"We know the customer. Because without that knowledge, all a marketing guy knows how to do is talk, like you said. Talk about what he thinks about the products as they exist today, and what other people know about the customer."
"And what other people think is. . ."
"It's chatter. If all you can do is reiterate someone else's opinions, you're not bringing anything of value, and most of what you'll say, while certainly articulate and interesting, won't matter. Unless you bring the knowledge of what the customer wants with you, you're a worker-bee. Bring that, and you're the most valuable person at the table."
"Don't executives know what the customer wants?"
"They know that unless we build things that people want to buy, bad things happen. Sales knows what their current prospects want. Engineering and support know what the last person who submitted a bug wants. There are a lot of people who think they know what the customer wants. They're all wrong. . .no, actually, they're all probably partially right. It's your job to really truly know. Which is why you work for the customer - all of them, and that includes people who haven't bought yet."
"So you're telling me to know the marketplace."
"No one knows the marketplace. It's like a great big mountain - we can all see it, we can all find our way up and down it, but it's just too big for anyone to truly, comprehensively know it inside and out. The best you can do is to get as much primary and secondary research as possible, talk to as many people as possible, and be aware of what else is happening around you."
"So the best advice you can give me about being a PM is that you need to talk to people."
"Yes. Talk to them, and listen without judgment. Then trust your conclusions and advocate for them relentlessly. Because you don't see any customers sitting around in planning meetings making decisions. They rely on you."
"So you've got nothing to say about how to do the job?"
"I just told you everything. The rest you have to figure out for yourself, because that's what all of us do."
He seemed to chew on this for a moment, then brightened.
"You originally said there were two things, then you only told me one. What was the second one?"
"I was going to say that you should know going in how you plan to get out."
"PM is a great job, don't get me wrong. But have you ever noticed why you don't see many 50 year old product managers?"
"Because the job teaches you something that you absolutely, positively have to know. But once you know it, you want to use it in new ways."
"Like to run a company?"
"Sure, if you want. Or maybe you want to bring a bunch of products together into something bigger. Or maybe you want to take what you know and try to open up a new line of business. There are all kinds of things you can do with what you learn from being a PM without the grind of writing requirements and sweating the details of releases and doing bug reviews and recording webinars."
"I thought you liked doing those things."
"They've got their moments. . .and you have to know how to do them. Think of it like being an apprentice cook. You used to have to start as a commis, an assistant, and you learned by watching different cooks do different things. If you want to read a good book about how to be a great product manager, go read The Apprentice by Jacques Pepin. It's the same thing."
"So you're telling me that I should only be a product manager for a while?"
"You should be a product manager until you know how to do the job."
"How long does that take?"
I smiled wickedly. "That depends on whether your products sell. Which depends on how well you know the customer."