Recently I found myself at an event in the company of another product manager. We soon began discussing our respective roles.
I asked about his background and how he came to be a product manager. ‘Oh I was an engineer, became a scrum master, then a product owner, and now I manage the product,’ came the unsurprising answer. He was head of product in SaaS, and had only ever worked in a technical discipline.
When he asked about my background I said, ‘Well, I was a journalist, then moved into PR, then I was an editor, I founded my own marketing agency, was a head of content for a sort of tech company, then moved into building products.’
‘Intriguing,’ he suggested. ‘That’s quite a leap, from journalism to a tech role.’
‘Not as much as you might think,’ I countered. ‘Think about the qualities of a good product manager,’ I asked, then threw out a bunch of positive traits: curiosity, attention to detail, tenaciousness, resilience, learning fast, adaptability, good communicator, strong planning.
‘The same qualities make a good storyteller, whether they’re a journalist, PR or editor.’
‘Journalism 101 teaches us the cornerstone of good narrative can be found in the who, what, where, when, how and why. And it’s really the same in product management. If I’m missing one of those elements I can’t get a full picture of the story and it’s likely to fall flat. Fail. Go nowhere. The editor of the story will tell me to go back and find a way to get the info. Find a workaround. Solve the problem. Ditto with managing my product. Problem solving is key to both disciplines.’
‘When I started life as a journalist it was because I was curious and wanted to know how things worked then tell the world about it. Likewise with product management.’
‘Back then I wanted to create stories around things that had generally already happened, to help people understand them. With product management I generally want to tell stories about things that have yet to be built, but the underlying curiosity and need to understand is the same.’
‘But how do you deal with the level of technical knowledge required,’ asked my attentive audience of one.
‘Well, that’s what I have engineers for. As a journalist and PR I wrote about personal finance, music, sport, travel, business, payment systems, accountancy, gambling and I was in marketing at the start of social media, SEO and analytics. I would learn as much as I could about a subject – and often it was in language that wasn’t my natural playground – then bank that info and move on to the next subject, building out my depth of experience and always moving forward.’
‘So I take any overly technical communications and, working with the devs, I distil them into a language I understand. And if I understand it so will my CEO and CMO.’
‘Sounds like a hell of an adventure,’ observed my new friend.
‘It is,’ I concurred, drawing the conversation to a close by paraphrasing the eminently quotable Mark Twain to elucidate that journalists – and product managers – share much DNA.
‘In the product world – much like in the journalism world – nothing happens at the right time or in the right place. It is the job of product managers – or journalists – to correct that.’
And with that, just like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, we went on our merry ways in search of another adventure.