As product managers (PM), we never stop learning because products never stop evolving and changing. When you join a new team or product, you need to quickly get up to speed on the product’s technical implementation, design, user research, and business needs. But how do you do that, especially if you’re short on time or the product is technically complex? How do you focus your learning so that you can be an effective PM for the team?
This blog post is based on my experience as the new cloud.gov product manager after having worked as a PM with 18F for two years and more than 10 years in the private sector. As I reflect on my journey with cloud.gov, three factors have been instrumental in building my knowledge: having a learning mindset, prioritizing what is critical to know, and pairing with your teammates.
Embrace a learning mindset
It can be intimidating to learn a new product, especially if it’s using a technology or providing a service outside your existing expertise. There is the added pressure to get up to speed as quickly as possible so that you can contribute effectively.
However, it can be less intimidating by approaching the situation as an opportunity to learn—when faced with something you don’t understand, rather than beat yourself up for not knowing the answer, look at it as the chance to learn something new. The learning never stops as you deepen your knowledge, you uncover new areas to explore which will keep you nimble and responsive.
Prioritize what you need to know
When I started with cloud.gov, my only experience with the product was as an end user through my work with the Federal Election Commission, which used cloud.gov to host their website, fec.gov. When I joined the cloud.gov team, I had to start learning about the platform. As a PM, my goal was to understand the technology well enough that I could prioritize and have discussions with our engineers. It was not practical for me to build the same depth of technical knowledge as the engineers but I needed to understand enough of how the parts work together so that I could build a roadmap and collaborate with the team.
I concentrated on the key services and platforms used by cloud.gov - Concourse, BOSH, Cloud Foundry, and Kubernetes. The learning materials I found to be the most helpful were case studies of companies that migrated to Cloud Foundry. I looked for patterns in the stories the team was working on and on bugs uncovered by us and our customers.
Pair to facilitate learning
Many of the materials (videos, blog posts) I was reading and studying were written for a highly technical audience. And it was difficult to know which sources were trusted authorities and experts on the topics. So I reached out to one of our engineers and asked if we could pair. We started by going through my list of questions (terms, services, why one service rather than another) and discussing the context of why these things matter and how they work together. We met two or three times a week, usually for 30 - 45 minute sessions. The sessions were kept short to maximize learning capacity and to not take away from our day to day responsibilities. We continue to pair about once a week. As I’ve learned more, our sessions have evolved to focus on relationships between platforms, the importance of practices and processes, and what cloud.gov means for product managers.
Whether you are new to product management or are a seasoned PM, continuous learning is part of the job. Products evolve so our knowledge must evolve with it. When in doubt, ask yourself, “What can I do or learn so that I’m the best product manager for this team?” Remain open to learning, prioritize, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and pair with your colleagues.