Being a PM has been the most fun and differentiated experience so far in my exploratory career.
While there are better known core PM skill sets and super powers, some of the related habits are more subjective to personality types.
I’d like to tell you about 4 of my Unofficial Things I Love Doing as a PM, and they have proven extremely invaluable in my work.
But first, a tiny insight on building technology and how software happens (and you can skip straight to the tips if you want to)
Technology is all about People
What I find important to internalize is that technology is really all about people. People, who in many cases sit at desks, typing, click clack pounding on the keyboard. And then, as if by magic, something happens.
Those click clacks are the fundamental meaningful building blocks of an industry. They’re not only different in nature, but their effects positively complement and compound one another: Scientists open doorways for new possibilities, engineers solve technical challenges that enable new product categories, designers put together joyful experiences to delight users all the way to service owners who keep the invisible cogs turning.
The amount and variety of engineering expertise tends to be overlooked when it comes to our favorite little apps that we use each and every day.
As a PM, my role includes researching, defining and working with cross-functional, cross-organizational development teams to execute and deliver high quality software that users need and love. The process is driven both from strategic top-down company-wide directions, and bottom-up ‘this is what our customers are having trouble with and need us to make their lives easier’ direction.
Tasks include bits and pieces of design, pinpointing customer pains through conversations and data analytics; Understanding market trends and technological investments needed to tackle potential futures, thinking about go-to-market strategies and being part of the community. I also get to collaborate with a spectrum of experts: designers, developers, testers, UX aficionados, fellow PMs, marketing, data scientists and Microsoft Researchers.
Here is my list of 4 Unofficial Things I Love Doing as a PM:
#1: Make the daily rounds
Every day, I take 15 minutes to roam the hallways of our Microsoft offices (and team rooms) to visit friends and colleagues. Some I’ve worked closely with, others I’ve occasionally bumped into at one time or another.
The purpose of the drop-bys is to learn how folks are doing, what they’re working on, what challenges they’re running into, and to offer help when possible.
These moments cement the realization that they’re smart people to brainstorm broadly with – and not only experienced professionals in their own domains.
By meeting a few folks every day, I get a glimpse into the organism building software and technology. At times, you will connect a few dots creating an opportunity for your peers and yourself – a tiny extra win for the week.
More importantly, these interactions strengthen relationships with the people I collaborate with every day, investing collective brain cycles to create delightful new people-centric ways to interact with the world.
#2: Be the hallway Socrates
Teams who are building software tend to interact with their immediate crews significantly more than the ‘outside world’. I try to be helpful to members of teams by being part of that outside perspective that inquires more about what they’re building.
Every now and then, I play Socrates: in other words, I ask questions about the customer pain the team is addressing and how they’re approaching the solution. I respectfully ask about how they’ve validated the customer need for their solution, existing solutions and the differentiation that makes their approach more awesome.
Socrates would make a great PM
(Drawing by Simon Fraser)
This practice both helps give colleagues an external perspective, and enriches my understanding of how the various pieces we create collectively fit into our divisional and company’s strategy.
In most cases, I try to listen. The conversation tends to unfold on its own. Questions are much easier to ask than producing answers, as long as the questions are hitting the nail on its head. Insightful follow up questions are significantly harder to ask compared to your initial ones, so make sure you’re engaged in the conversation.
#3: Meet with Fascinating People
Ask anyone working for Microsoft, Google, Apple or the likes about the biggest perk they have at work, and the answer will be “Working with smart, passionate people”.
What’s the next best thing about working for a huge tech company? In my opinion, having the opportunity to meet up over coffee with some of the most influential individuals in the technology world.
All it takes, is sending an email:
And in more cases than not, you’ll have a wonderful reply in your mail box saying:
It’s naturally essential to have an interesting topic to discuss related to the expertise of the individual you’re reaching out to. I tend to read up on what they’ve been recently interviewed on, or the projects they’re involved with. I spend some time thinking about what likely challenges their team would face, and how I would approach their problems.
By simulating the conversation in my head for a few times, I create more conversational opportunities and recognize the questions that might be moot or quickly leading to dead-ends. It also keeps my mind fresh, thinking about a broader scope of dilemmas and solution approaches. Those in turn come in handy when approaching my own tasks.
#4: Pitch the Hallways
We build products and services for people. Those people aren’t normally sitting with you in the office, and occasionally you’ll find the need to bounce off ideas or theories against your target audience.
At Microsoft, and other tech giants as well as startups, we all have channels to reach out to customers, users, potential target audiences as well as analytics engines that help us answer questions.
However, at times when starting out, one of the easiest and quickest ways to bounce off design questions is to grab random people around the company.
Depending on your target audience, you can find a location in the company where passers-by fit a similar user profile and simply pitch, test and gauge reactions.
While that group of people is small and doesn’t help you pick plan A vs. plan B, it can invalidate assumptions you’ve made or reinforce approaches you’ve taken.
The best thing is that everyone is already under NDA, it costs me $0 and very little prep and you get immediate feedback that could shed fun insights about user expectations and behaviors. It’s also a fantastic way to have a reason to meet and bug random people, exercising your offline customer engagement skills (and amygdala).
Even if you’re not a PM, be more proactive with building relationships with your colleagues, reaching out to fascinating people in your company, testing your ideas with more peers, and helping them test out theirs in a Socratic way.
You will find yourself cross-pollinating valuable real-time insights to different parts of your team, creating opportunities for you and others, and most importantly building stronger relationships with the people you work with to build The Next Big Thing.
Which of these principles can you apply today to improve your work? Let me know in the comments below!