Best Practices

The Importance of Learning in Product Management

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” – Albert Einstein

As a product manager at AvidXchange, a payment automation software company, I have often observed the importance of continuous learning in product management. In fact, success in product management is often due to one’s innate curiosity and desire to learn. Thankfully, the PM role offers plenty of opportunities for gaining knowledge and acquiring new skills. Below, I’ll go through a few of the main ones.

Understanding the people around you

Understanding the backgrounds and mindsets of your colleagues and customers helps anticipate their reactions to your decisions. For example, a developer on your team who has worked on and made recommendations about your product is likely to have a strong reaction to what appears on your product roadmap. And a customer who has described herself as “risk averse” will probably have strong opinions on your biggest product release of the year.

Product leaders should encourage engagement and discussions between product managers and those affected by their decisions. But perhaps even more than that, asking questions of developers, customers, sales, marketing, etc. makes them feel heard by you. They will see you as someone who wants to work with them to ensure that the best ideas make it into the product. And earning that trust will be priceless as you grow your career.

Learning new skills

Many product managers graduated from college with a major far outside the domain of the product they end up managing. Some of the product managers I’ve connected with recently had undergraduate degrees in communications, computer science, electrical engineering, English, industrial engineering, political science, and physics. I may be the biggest stretch, with my degree in philosophy.

A pattern emerges, with people picking up new subjects early in their career and landing in the world of product management due to someone’s faith that they will figure it out. The fact that they have figured out a complex subject before makes them more equipped to figure out product management. The additional PM task of learning the product domain leads to empathy with stakeholders, whether they be customers or company executives. 

Simply put, you can’t be complacent as a product manager. A good indicator of a product manager’s success is his or her desire to learn something right now, and sometimes that new technology or skill happens to solve a business problem.

Years ago, when I created a calculator program in college using Visual Basic, there was no JavaScript coursework because it was still new to the world. I later learned CSS and JavaScript because I knew the landscape of coding had changed. Even though I wasn’t interested in being a developer, I was curious. Fast forward to today, where having some knowledge of JavaScript proves useful in understanding the structure of my product and it being easier to decipher what an engineer tells me about a JS limitation.

Experiencing new things

Innovative product managers are often early adopters of technology and products. When I was co-presenting at ProductCamp Austin a few years ago, there was a person in our session sitting near the front who took a picture of us by tapping on her eyeglasses. We were both startled because it made a loud “camera shutter” sound effect. Google Glass was only a prototype, so I figured she worked for Google. When talking to her afterward, I found out I was wrong. She was simply an early adopter, working as a product manager at Cisco.

Embracing new technological concepts by trying them out helps your product manager brain cells stay engaged. Furthermore, figuring out new technologies will give you more to talk about with your engineering counterparts.

Keeping up on publications and podcasts

The vast majority of product managers do not publish articles or record podcasts. However, the ones who do are constantly looking for themes across the dozens or hundreds of product managers they know. Then they try to convey stories, best practices, and/or case studies that are relevant to the community.

Fortunately, product management articles aren’t a full-time job to read every week. They are generally 10-minute reads, added to the same blogs each week, and focused on things like planning and roadmaps, product/market fit, and product leadership. Good product managers can often name an article (or author) that they really relate to.

I also want to call out the rich content of product management podcasts, which I think are fast becoming the best source of knowledge in the craft. As many of you already know, The Product Love Podcast is an exceptional podcast for profiles of product management leaders. A few other podcasts have more of a biographical template. Also, there are monologue-style podcasts like Nils Davis’s All the Responsibility Podcast, which are more like an audio blog post than an interview.

What you do with your learnings

Learning is an omnipresent activity in the life of a product manager. You learn about people, technologies and trends, and communication and organizational politics. What do you do with all of the things that you learn? Many product managers convey the things relevant to the organization through stakeholder meetings, product reviews, newsletter-type emails, etc. A few also publish what they find externally on the company blog or on a panel at an industry conference.

The commonality is that product managers seem to find ways to share what they’ve learned. Having the ability to convey learning to engineers, the marketing and sales teams, and other members of the product team can advance your career. Many of them (especially your engineers) will appreciate it because they share your goal of making better product decisions. 

One of the main ways team members get a good feeling about a product manager is by seeing that he or she is trying to learn something relevant to the success of the product. Whether learning is something natural to your personality or something you have to work a bit to achieve, you can embrace your process of learning as the pathway to improving your product.