Going into my senior year of university I expected to graduate into a software engineering job, so finding myself in an APM program with zero formal product experience was unexpected. Those two years, however, ended up being an incredibly transformative and educational experience. Here’s what I learned during the time I spent in Yahoo’s Associate Product Manager (APM) program.
At the most basic level, I spent my two years establishing a baseline for how I operate as a product manager. The hardest aspect I grappled with was knowing 1) what to do and 2) if I was doing it well. This is especially tricky with product management since you lack many standard measurements of productivity and success. There’s no “right way” to answer either of those questions, and it’s a driving force that will remain present through the rest of my career.
However, it is exceptionally difficult to even start to answer those questions if you don’t know where to start looking. Being in a company with other product managers gives you that starting point. Observing the way they approach product management gives you an initial set of data points. That, combined with your own reaction, allows you to establish a spectrum to explore.
For example, you can evaluate everyone you meet through the lens of a couple fundamental product skills:
- Product and business sense
- Analytical and data sense
- Technical understanding
- Project management
Take note of how each person approaches each aspect. For example:
- Product and business sense: Do they base their thinking in OKRs or customer feedback? How much emphasis do they place on competitors? How do they judge features? Where do they make usability tradeoffs for increased revenue?
- Analytical and data sense: Do they look to data to find opportunities? Have they synthesized their own metrics or do they rely on industry standard measures?
- Technical understanding: What types of decisions do they lean on their engineering lead for? How often do they push back on engineers? Do they build within constraints, or dream big then cut down?
- Communication: Do they favor docs, slides, or conversations? Are they emotionally persuasive or logically persuasive? How do they project confidence?
- Project management: How formal is their structure? What’s their organization system? How deep into JIRA are they?
You may judge some of their positions to be bad. That’s good to know. When you’re starting out, avoiding bad ideas is as important as finding good ideas.
You may judge some of their positions to be good, but when you try to copy them it doesn’t work for you. That’s also good to know.
The point isn’t to assemble your personal guide to product management from pieces of your peers’. It’s to establish a framework for you interpret what you see so that you can decide if something is worth adding to your PM skillset.
This idea of molding a set of product management skills into your personal style is my second major takeaway.
As you encounter ideas, frameworks, tools, habits, and challenges, it’s useful to remember that these elements contribute to your personal style as a product manager. Your entire environment — your team, product, stakeholders — changes around you as you rotate through different teams, allowing you a diverse set of test cases. During these shifts, reflect on what’s working for you and what’s not. It’s the same evaluation you made of other product managers, but this time turned inwards.
For example, here are a few observations I made about myself while in the APM program:
- I’m much better at writing useful, thorough documents than I am trying to be persuasive extemporaneously
- I tend to over-assume compliance from other teams, which leads to conflicts and delays down the line
- I tend to over-explain decisions, to the point where I cause new confusion
- I’m viewed as “highly responsive” on Slack
This isn’t meant to be a static list. This is just a snapshot in time to help you take stock of where you’re at right now, so you can better direct your focus towards improving the future. For example, knowing that I over-explain decisions, I paid extra attention whenever I saw others communicate decisions they made, and adjusted the level of detail I gave accordingly.
My final takeaway is the opportunities afforded by the program itself.
The first opportunity is mentorship. Every company will say they have a culture of mentorship, and many APM programs even emphasize some version of exec talks. However, this is information is not exclusive to APM programs; you can find interviews, books, and talks from similar execs online, and learn roughly the same amount from them.
The specific benefit of APM programs is your cohort. Cohorts vary in size but they all provide similar benefits:
- People going through very similar processes in their career, from dealing with imposter syndrome to leading their first quarterly planning meeting
- An expectation of community and sharing that removes barriers for asking for help
Being put in a group that has a bias towards sharing and helping, with people who are facing similar challenges as yourself, gives you more perspective, access to more ideas, and ultimately makes you a better PM faster than an exec speaker or TED talk ever could (or reading this blog, for that matter).
The second opportunity is the fresh start afforded by the rotational nature of most programs. You get to reinvent yourself as least twice. This is good, since chances are your first stab at being a product manager probably isn’t the one you want to stick with for the rest of your career. The rotation allows you the opportunity to shed old habits, move past mistakes, and embrace new styles by removing the burden of history that typically inhibits us from moving on.
This is not to say you should abuse this privilege — don’t be an asshole or slack off just because you know you won’t be on a team for much longer. But in a space where decisions aren’t typically easily reversible, having a period where they are is something of a secret weapon.
Associate Product Manager programs offer an incredible environment to develop as a product manager for those fortunate enough to participate in one. If you want to take another steps towards joining one, check out the Yahoo APM site, APM List, or my interview preparation resources here on PMTL.
I put together a 9-part course on algorithms designed for non-technical readers that's a great, gentle introduction to thinking like a programmer. Get the course for only $5, or download the first chapter.