Those early in their product management careers must not only be the product manager that their current employer needs, but they must also strive to obtain the necessary skills for a sustainable career.
The product management assistant role might have even less clarity and structure than the product manager role. As Brainmates fairly puts it in an article from 2008, the product management assistant is “often neglected.”
Fast-forward to the present day, I don't see too many changes in that statement.
Just as so much of what the product manager’s role is, is defined by the unique needs of the organization, so to is the day-to-day tasks of the assistant. This can lead to several difficult issues for tracking the assistant’s progress:
- Being the product manager’s shadow. Britney Spears was on to something with that “Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman” tune. The assistant is not a product manager. I repeat: NOT a product manager. Often, those early career days are an apprenticeship. The door opens as wide as your mind can wrap around the role and the tasks that must be completed; the door continues to swing outward only as confidence, and ultimately confidence, grows. The assistant might have touched a deliverable, but it’s often not clear to others in the organization what the product manager versus the assistant is doing. So, when others are asked to provide some review on how that assistant has grown is his or her role, it’s not always clear to those outside the product team.
- Tasks commonly executed by product management aren’t. Product planning, choosing whether to build out capabilities through outsourcing or long-term partnerships — even requirements writing can be absorbed and owned by other departments within the organization. You never want to bust something that’s working, but for the assistant, it might prove to be a difficult structure to get hands-on experience for skill-sets that more likely than not, other organizations would require a product management resource be able to execute. This is extremely problematic. The knowledge you gain from reading books on something or watching it being done by others at a distance will never compare with hands-on experience: writing the requirement, collaboratively expanding upon the requirement with the release team, and building out that requirement.
Deep Breaths, Small Steps
I used to freak out about all of the above things — call it early-career identity crisis. You don’t find product management; it finds you. It can be extremely overwhelming to be in a limited boat: the assistant with no experience and the senior product manager with eons of experience. Being in two vastly different places, an assistant can often wonder if he or she will ever obtain the vast expertise experienced through peers. There’s always some pull between the common ideas and benchmarks of progress, increase in roles and responsibilities, and what a real, successful career journey is.
Requirements writing is an art; I felt like having a couple passes at it wasn’t anything to toss in a self-review. It took a lot of talks with a lot of my peers to realize that even if a person in an assistant role doesn’t feel that he or she has completely mastered something (Do we ever?), but there was a time when you weren’t doing that task. Sometimes you can really miss out on seeing just how much you’ve grown when you’re only looking at the big-ticket items of increase in role and responsibilities.
Be vocal. Tell your boss and peers what you're experiencing and what your concerns are. Don't wait for a year to go by for a speaking platform. From others I've spoken with, some of the things listed above, they hadn't really considered. Maybe the assistant will shadow with other departments. If you really care to holistically develop your skills, I think any organization will try to make that happen — I'd want to encourage individual career pursuits and do my best to retain people that pushed to know more.
Every organization is different, but Pragmatic Marketing makes a very good point in its Practical Product Management course: "If you want to make time for something, you have to fight for it. No one is just going to give it to you." I think that statement can be applied to a lot of things.
Here are my related questions for this Wednesday:
- What would make your top-five fundamental skills needed for a product manager list?
- How do you go about tracking your progress within your role?