If you had met me seven years ago and asked me where I thought I’d be in my career seven years from where I was back then, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Young, naïve, and wandering, having just moved from Beantown to the City of Angels, I probably would’ve given you some lame, cliché answer along the lines of “who knows, life’s full of surprises, wherever the wind takes me, I guess…”. Well, seven years past and the wind took me to a place I never, not in a million years, thought I’d be or even have the opportunity to work at, Nike Inc.
Now, not only am I working at one of the most prestigious companies recognized for its brand and marketing prowess leading in footwear and athletic apparel, but I’ve become a product manager at that along the way. Bridging the transition from being a business analyst into a product manager wasn’t always as easy as I had thought or planned it to be. However, I’ll admit with the progress that I’ve made, I’m still learning the ropes and getting to know my ways around product management, only having just made the switch into this space two years ago. With that being said, stumbling my way to a company such as Nike for my first PM opportunity, I immediately panicked and upheld myself to the highest of standards: Perfection.
I foolishly convinced myself into thinking that if I made any mistakes during my journey here at Nike, it would be costly, costing me this “once-in-a-life-time” opportunity. Day after day, I built up immense pressure and stress on myself, making my every move and every decision ever so daunting. This process of learning for me has been nothing short of exhaustion. But by doing so, I’ve pushed myself to grow, and the role challenged me far beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone and limitations. Two years later, after countless meetings, a handful of demos, five global deployments, and successfully dropping the ball on numerous occasions, not to mention leaving Nike amid a pandemic and then coming back, you can say I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks. For those of you that are curious (and for future me that may need a reminder), here are some important lessons that I’ve learned along the way:
1. Network – Get to Know Everyone
From front desk receptionist to team admin to CEO, if you have the opportunity, get to know everyone who’s anyone. Every employee who’s employed fills a tailored role to their specific capabilities or skill sets that only they have or know they can do those others can’t or won’t. For example, receptionists know more about who goes in and out of a building than anyone; they know who’s who of whose. They carry conversations with practically everyone that passes them, so they hear things. Get buddy-buddy with them, and they could potentially be the one who gets your foot in the door if you catch my drift.
The obvious is your direct teammates, who I always reference as ‘The A-Team.’ Your team admin, scrum master, business analyst, engineers/developers, and managers are your rock, your direct pillar of support. Do not neglect them. Build a foundation, build rapport, build trust. Get to know them outside of work, on a personal level. The better you get to know everyone, the faster and easier it will be to ask for help and navigate projects and issues later.
Second is your dependency teams, or who I like to call ‘The B-Team.’ These are the teams that your A-Team works closely with and is reliant on; Design, Tech, Marketing, Finance, Release Management. There are no “I” in the team, nor is there a stand-alone team in an organization. “All-for-one and One-for-all” is the saying I believe. Build rapport with your B-Team as they will more than likely have the answers you’re looking for and help carry you to the finish line.
My advice to those who are taking their first steps into PM is to set up one on ones (1:1) with every member that you meet within the first few weeks of onboarding. If you’re not sure about who to engage with, reach out to your manager or director and ask them who you’ll be working closely with and engage with them in meaningful conversations that will add value to both sides. Come prepared with questions asking how your roles will interfere and what materials or resources they would suggest you look into to help speed up your learning curve. It also doesn’t hurt to inquire what has/has not been working and why the last individual left if the position is a backfill. Your goal is to make everyone’s life easier.
“If you’re not making someone else’s life better, then you’re wasting your time. Your life will become better by making other lives better.” – Will Smith
2. Read the Room
I can’t stress this second point enough. Being able to read the room is a must if you want to survive being a PM. Within the corporate world, some things can be taught, and others only developed over time. This is one of those things that needs to be developed if you ever want to make it out alive. Social aptitude and adaptability are skillsets you want to have in your arsenal, ready at your side and your disposal.
When you learn how to read the room, you’ll become attuned to and aware of everyone’s energy and demeanor. In doing so, you’ll learn how to cater to each individual, group, and setting (known as “Code-Switching”) to navigate the sea of data collection better to serve your team and stakeholders better. Not everyone is alike, not every group will operate the same, and not every set will be the same, so be charismatic, amicable, and likable. The faster you’re able to pick this up, the faster you’ll know when to contribute and become an effective PM. Keep in mind, a PM’s true nature is in building good relationships and becoming influential. It’s more about managing expectations and growing relationships than the actual management of people.
3. Communicate Clearly
A must-have qualification you’ll find required across any PM position is strong written and verbal communication skills. The reason companies ask for this is because, without it, no work gets done. Without clarity and specificity, you create ambiguity. You’re left running around chasing your tail. If you ask me, it’s not a very good look if your main job is to drive direction and progress in product development.
Do not be vague when you’re in meetings or drafting up emails. This is an immediate tall tale sign that you have no idea what you’re talking about, which leads to finding out that you have no idea what you’re doing. If you know the details of the discussion topic at a granular level, call it out and confirm it. If you don’t, ask questions. Going through this process will help iron out any wrinkles and even answer someone else’s question that they had. Not only did you save time, but now you look good in front of everyone. The more specific you are, the more effective you’ll be, and the more your teammates will appreciate you as it will make work a lot easier. The more you’re able to communicate and limit the amount of time you go back and forth on emails and out of meetings, the faster you’ll get work done.
4. Set Solid Goals & Expectations
Just like the feeling of kicking off a New Year and starting anew, there’s never been a better time than the start of a new career or job to evaluate your personal goals and career aspirations. As a new hire onboarding, you are often eager to prove yourself and feel the pressure to bring value to the team from day 1. Using this motivation and impetus, it’s always important to align said milestones with expectations with your manager, making sure your eyes aren’t bigger than your stomach, and you’re not biting off more than you can chew. I would suggest setting clear, attainable goals on; weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. I would then establish checkpoints at the 30, 60, and 90-day mark to track progress, collect feedback, and realign expectations and deliverables.
When it comes to setting your goals, be ambitious. Dream big. Think Big. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t, especially yourself.
“You will never achieve anything greater than your highest aspiration. If you want to make a million, you’ll make a million. Not a million and five.” – Dan Pena
When it comes to setting expectations, be clear and straightforward. You want to let your manager know exactly what to expect, no surprises unless getting the work done early. Set clear expectations on workload and bandwidth. If you’re over capacity or feel overwhelmed, let your manager know that you need help. It’s better to be safe than sorry. As much as you want to prove you’re able to take on the work being asked, asking for help shows signs of strength, confidence, and resourcefulness. In a world where people expect problems to be solved fast, surrounding yourself with people who can help you in different situations is highly valuable.
5. Always Question and Ask Why
The following tip will take time to master. Ever since we were young, we were taught to follow orders, take directions, and never question authority. Those were the steps one needed to follow to become a teacher’s pet and get gold stars. Well, today, being a PM, you get to break all those rules and go against what you’ve been taught your whole life. Now, I’m not saying go riot and question authority every chance you get. What I mean is to be curious and pursue the path of enlightenment. If you don’t understand why something is being done, ask. Be an advocate for always asking “Why?” whenever you feel uncertain about something.
At first, you might feel that it’s not your place, or you might feel disruptive, but you’ll come to realize that your team and even yourself will appreciate you for doing so because it brings about clarity. Sometimes it even calls out the elephant in the room. You might now know it, but someone else could have the same question but is too afraid, thinking they may get judged. Here’s a secret: no one is feeling; it’s all in your head. By asking questions, it helps define the reason why people are doing what they’re doing. It outlines the problem, and at times it even outlines the solution.
- Why did one project take priority over the other?
- Why was one solution better than another?
- Why does the system function the way that it does?
- Why did the solution fail?
- Why did it succeed?
6. You Might Not Have All the Answers First
In the world of product management, know that everything is dependent on something. You are at the very center. You have to bring individuals, groups, and teams together to get the product made. You are the liaison to those around you. You might have one piece of the pie, but you’ll never have the whole pie until everyone comes together.
The Who: It depends on who the stakeholders are.
Internal Stakeholder: Team Members, Management, Leadership, Executives
External Stakeholder: Customers, Sponsors, Investors, Vendors, Suppliers, Financiers
The What: It depends on The Who.
The idea. The vision. The strategy. The product. The execution.
The Why: It depends on The What and The Who.
Revenue. Growth. Expansion. Consumer Engagement & Conversions.
The How: It depends on the teams.
Developers. Architects. Engineers. Designers. Marketing. Management.
The When: It Depends on The How, The Why, The What, and The Who.
7. Prioritize & Organize
Welcome to adult life. Time to put on your big boy/girl pants and roll up your sleeves. The PM role’s entrepreneurial nature means that there is no one telling you what you need to do when you need to do it and how you need to do it. No one tells you what problems you should prioritize solving first or how you should schedule your meetings. It is all on you to make all the calls and shots now.
At the end of the day, the PM’s job is to organize the team’s work, manage their individual tasks, set expectations across the board, and coordinate meetings to ensure everyone’s aligned on product vision and processes. The PM’s job is to take on full responsibility for any mistakes made or milestones not met. My advice to you would be to manage your time the way you would manage any product. Always ask yourself – Am I utilizing my time to the fullest? Am I doing the most impactful piece of work that I could be doing right now?
Organize and Prioritize:
- Calendar – Meetings. Which one is more important to attend? Which one can you skip and get details from later?
- Goals – Which goal is most important and why.
- Project – Which project to prioritize? Which project will bring you closer to your goal or company’s goal in this case? Revenue? Growth? Consumer Engagement? Brand visibility?
- Product Backlog – Which user story should the team be working on first to get the work done?
- Sprint Planning – Which body of work adds the most value and why – gives leadership the bigger picture of what the teams are doing and how they’re working together to bring the product together.
8. Learn & Document
As a PM, you have to always keep yourself up to date with the latest technological trends and advancements. What tools and apps could potentially make your work easier? What problems are people facing that a tool or application could solve? Take advantage of the resources that are at the tip of your fingertips.
“Work smarter, not harder.” – Allen F. Morgenstern
Always keep an open mind. Have an insatiable desire to learn. Embrace new teachings. Document your journey as I always find it useful to help me memorize and retain what I’ve learned, and pass on your knowledge to your colleagues.
“A good document can keep a meeting focused, set an anchor for cross-team collaboration, and evidence a decision point for reference over the long term. Ideas and words tend to float around, write them down if you want them to stick” – Tiffany Tsui, Product Manager at Peloton Interactive and PG senior member
Lawrence Tai is a first-generation Asian-American (Taiwanese) born and raised in Baltimore, MD. With a background in Information Technology, he has over 8 years of Management and Development experience spanning across the Technology, Entertainment, and Footwear and Apparel industries. He has developed and maintained healthy relationships with clients and stakeholders such as Cognizant Technology Solutions, Sony Pictures, DreamWorks Animation, The Walt Disney Company, and most recently with Nike. Throughout his career, he has managed and led teams across developing various technologies such as CRMs, Digital Assets, Web Development, Retail Payment, and Order Management systems. He has worked cross-functionally across many departments to achieve company objectives in an Agile Scrum environment while proactively prioritizing product backlogs and roadmaps that reflect the priority of work and development while maintaining client expectations and product vision to achieve company goals. He’s currently a Product Manager at Nike and hopes to share his insights from his experiences to help grow the Product Management community.