Software product manager’s first 30 days at a new job ….


Happy New Year! I wish you all a prosperous 2010.

So you found a new software product management job or you are moving into a software product manager’s role in your current company. Congratulations! Now what do you do in the first 30 days to make sure you start off on the right foot? Here is a list I have successfully used in the past when I have switched jobs. I hope you find it useful.

Company’s vision and Business Strategy: Your focus should be to first gain a solid understanding of the company’s vision and business strategy and take stock of what exists within the company. Specifically, find answers to the following questions by interviewing internal resources:

  1. Company’s vision and business strategy
  2. What are the current hypotheses?
  3. What are the data points (customers, research sources, analysts, partners etc.) that have been used to arrive at the vision and business strategy?

Target market: Who are we selling to?

  1. What segmentation and sizing has been done?
  2. Which segments are we targeting?
  3. What do we know about the target market?
  4. What do we not know about the target market?
  5. Who are our top customers today?
  6. Who are the customers with the largest potential?
  7. How is market research done? Customer visits? Surveys? Focus groups? Advisory boards? User conferences?
  8. Which customers have we talked to? Key learnings?
  9. Which customers should we talk to next?
  10. What are the pain points that exist in this market that customers are willing to pay for?
  11. What is a typical sales process and how long does it take?
  12. Is there a win-loss document that will give you an idea on why you win and why you lose?
  13. Common objections that are raised in a sales situation
  14. Why do customers buy from us?
  15. What is our unique value proposition?
  16. What solutions are prospects using today? Or in other words, how are they solving the problem today?
  17. What are the pain points of their current solution?
  18. What is the business impact ($, outdated information, process inefficiencies etc.) caused by these pain points?
  19. Have they tried to solve these pain points? And?
  20. What are they planning to do to solve these pain points and what is the urgency?

Your company may not have the answers to all of the above questions, but asking all of the above will help you identify the gaps that you should look to fill.

Competitive Analysis: Who are our competitors?

  1. Who are the main competitors? If you are breaking new ground, is anybody else trying to do anything similar? If yes, what are they trying to do? Traction?
  2. Has anyone talked to competitor’s customers to understand how their solution is working for these customers? Why did they buy?

Get to know your product

Simulate the experience of a new customer. Install your software (if on-premise) or create a new account (if a SaaS product) and learn everything about your product that you can. Understand the development process from identifying needs to writing requirements documents to getting it build, tested and shipped. Attend every meeting you are invited to.

The four ways I have done this are:

  1. Take all the product training that exists
  2. Read through the documentation (Yes, do the RTFM – this may be the only time you would do this)
  3. API documentation (if API exists) – this will allow you to quickly understand different aspects of the system
  4. Specs – read through as many functional specs as you can. It will give you a history of the product and also quickly understand what exists, why it exists and what it is supposed to do.

Your goal should be to be able to demo your product to your peers after the first 45 days. I would recommend that you do not use any demo material that exists today such as product presentation slides etc. Make your own. Can you explain in very simple terms of how your product will help your customers? By making your own slides, you will be forced to think and learn stuff as you are putting your slides together. Just using the current demo material is not going to help as much.

Tools used

Learn every tool that is being used in the company. Ask your manager to get you a personal account in these systems if this has not been done already. This would include

  1. CRM system such as salesforce
  2. Enhancement request database (if one exists) where customers submit requests
  3. Bug database
  4. File servers where important information is stored or can be stored for backup purposes
  5. Specs database
  6. Reports server – where are product usage reports stored? Where are key financials regarding your product stored?

Who do you need to talk to internally?

Given that software product manager’s job is the most cross-functional job you will ever find in a company, you need to plan on sitting down with key stakeholders in every department that touches your product from start to finish. Ask your manager to help you create a list of these key stakeholders.

This includes the obvious ones such as engineering, sales, marketing and also departments such as QA (how do they test your product), order admin (if appropriate – how does a new customer’s order get fulfilled?), shipping (if appropriate – how does your product get to the customer?) etc. Again, you have to understand the entire process from start to finish and get perspectives from everyone involved in the process. Believe me, you will learn something new from every one you see.

Understand people dynamics

This is the most important part, more important than even your product in the first 30 days. You have to start building relationships from day one. Every company has some form of internal people dynamics that you need to observe and learn as you get used to your new position especially in a new company.  People may approach you and tell you stuff (good and bad), but never get involved in any gossip (not that this is just when you are new in your job, gossip is never a good thing) and never take any sides no matter who says what to you. Stay neutral, keep your thoughts to yourselves, just observe and make mental notes.

The last thing you want to do in a new job is to step on the wrong shoes accidentally. Be the most professional as you can be, never let your guard down. But don’t be wooden, start building relationships.

I strongly recommend the book The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins. Great book with great strategies that will help you ease into your new job.

Thoughts? What have your experiences been? What has worked for you and what has not? What are the pitfalls you would advise other software product managers to avoid?

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Image: Courtesy of wondercliparts.com

23 Responses to Software product manager’s first 30 days at a new job ….

  1. Pingback: Some useful tips « Grey Product Management

  2. Rian says:

    Good list! Under competitors, I would also add to get to know their product as well — i.e., don’t just use your own product, also use competitor software to do the same tasks. It’s a great source of ideas and a good way to learn the market quickly.

  3. Mark Johnson says:

    Love this list. Two things I might add: 1) I try to have lunch with as many people as possible. It’s a good way to start a personal relationship with people. 2) Meet with engineers and ask lots of (smart) questions. You’ll need their help later and you want to make sure that you know what they’re doing.

    • gopalshenoy says:

      Mark – Yes, totally agree with the lunch part. I have done this many times and it works so well. This is true especially with dev managers because believe it or not, they sometimes never get a chance to get out of the building to talk about work in a very informal setting.

  4. Nice job. This is how strategies can be formulated. Assembling all the baseline information. However, if this has to be sought out as a completely new undertaking (getting all the data) then the predecessor PM didn’t do their job. I am a strong advocate of the PRODUCT MASTER PLAN as the go-to resource for everything related to the product, the organization, the market, finance, documentation, etc.

    One other point. This is a fairly huge undertaking for the first 30 days. In the interviewing process, some of this should be asked for by the PM. After all, you have to know what you’re getting in to so that you can envision yourself taking over the product. Otherwise, you might find yourself managing a product you don’t like or believe in.

    Steven Haines
    Author: The Product Manager’s Desk Reference

    • gopalshenoy says:

      Steve – I agree. This checklist is to make sure that you get to unearth all the resources that may exist which could include all the work done by the previous PMs. What I have found usually is that such information exists but are stored in number of islands of information. And if you ask and the manager says it does not exist, you know what is a gap you may want to fill.

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  6. brianhodgson says:

    beyond 30 days, it is important to refresh on this periodically to ensure you are in touch/aligned.

  7. Russell Mackay says:

    A great summary, how often we forget the basics and jump right into the most current fire.

  8. Ashok Kabadi says:

    Great list. I find it can work at established and large companies where documentation is available and many people are around to fill in the blanks. The only issue is that the list is large, as someone else said – but if it takes 45~60 days, so be it. As for small companies and start-ups this doesn’t work. Documentation does not exist, is incomplete, or is outdated. Folks are super busy and many don’t have the answers themselves. PLUS, you are expected to make quality and complete intitial deliverables during that same time – and that ends up taking the priority (or risk losing the job, in today’s highly competitive market). So in this case, the learning takes a lot longer.

    This is what I have seen in my experience.

    • gopalshenoy says:

      Ashok – Thanks for the comments. As far as small companies, I have successfully used this in companies as small as 50 people. In fact I find that it is easier to collect the information or find that it does not exist in smaller companies because the people you need to talk to are right there.

  9. Val says:

    This is a great set of steps for those product managers who have been at the same company, with the same products for a long time. Take a week and think like a new user, if you can! Validate the strategy, review the competitors. Lets be honest with ourselves, no matter how much we WANT to be doing all those things, we usually end up fighting fires, managing releases, sitting in on sales calls or figuring out priorities. We don’t spend as much time as we should with our product and our competitors.

  10. Chris Brown says:

    Great article, but what about meeting your customers?? If your product is for enterprise, go out on a few sales calls to some of your bigger clients and prepare to be awed by the amount of feedback and insight (and, yes, plenty of hot air) you will receive. If your customer is the general consumer, then get your hands on as much consumer research as possible.

    Chris

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  12. Prashant Wagle says:

    Mr. Shenoy,

    I am breaking into the role of a product manager post my MBA at an early stage startup. Your posts certainly help me form the right mental approach as I go into the job.

    Appreciate the contributions.

    Best Regards,
    Prashant Wagle

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  14. That’s true that our focus should be to first gain a solid understanding of the company’s vision and business strategy and take stock of what exists within the company. Nice blog.

  15. Prabhat says:

    Appreciate the simple yet important steps you have mentioned in the post. Joining in a new role can be overwhelming at times, and its quite easy to get ambushed with demands from various functions.
    From my personal experience, i realize that after the initial breather, in which you are expected to pace yourself up (most of the times without too much guidance), it becomes more and more assumed that you’d have the answers.
    Utlizing this self-help initial phase in the most structured manner is key and having a meticulous list like the one above can take the suspense out to a large degree. Just makes you more confident in those initial days while conversing with the know-alls of the organization.

  16. Nitesh Jain says:

    Great article Gopal. Have recently joined a new job, and this would certainly help. Some points to share on my side. Apart from lunches, it is also good to take opportunities and meet people over coffee in cafeteria. Most of time people are busy on their job, so it is good idea to catch them over tea/coffee. This would sometimes mean, watching them leave their seat and go to cafeteria, and then follow them (stalking did I mean 🙂 ) Other things that I do is be part of as many group meetings as possible, get introduce and observe the group dynamics. It is also good to get an idea on history of how the product has come up and also history of how team has been built, Mr. X got Mr. Y, and they had worked together or are classmates etc.

    Cheers
    Nitesh

  17. vishal says:

    What percent of time should the new PM focus on outside the building activities (listening to customers and learning) vs internal i.e (working with engineers to build). FYI The company has already shipped product and has paying customers in 2-3 market segments.

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  19. blackhat says:

    Thank you, I’ve been seeking for info about this subject matter for ages and yours is the best I’ve discovered so far.

  20. LOMBARDI BPM says:

    This is a great set of steps for those product managers who have been at the same company, with the same products for a long time.

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