Being a remote product manager is one of the most challenging jobs I’ve ever had in my career. I think one of the things that has been most difficult is defining and understanding what exactly I do and what my role is on the team. If you ask ten people in our industry what a product manager is, you will most likely get ten different responses. Even in the two years that I’ve worked for Fullstack, my daily routine and responsibilities have changed dramatically as the company has evolved and grown.
Setting The Stage
I think we all can agree that, on a high level, a product manager’s role is to “manage the lifecycle of a product” and to “analyze the market conditions to define features and requirements of a product.” But what does that actually mean and how does it play out on a daily basis? This is the first post in a series to explore the ins and outs of the guiding principles I try to follow on a daily basis as a remote product manager pushing to create and deliver successful, extraordinary products to market.
As I’ve pondered product management, I keep coming back to the memory of working as a saute line cook in a fine dining restaurant during my college years. If you’ve never witnessed the awe-inspiring harmony of a well-run kitchen firing on all cylinders, I highly recommend it. In most professional kitchens, you have a line of cooks each with a different station such as saute, grill, middle, salads, and desserts. Running the kitchen is the executive chef or chef de cuisine. This person, also referred to as the expediter, is responsible for controlling the “board,” which houses all the tickets and orders placed by customers in the restaurant. During busy nights, we would have upwards of 30 to 40 tickets on the board at the same time. That’s roughly the equivalent to 120 dishes that need cooking all at the same time.
The expediter has to tell each specific station what to cook, how much, when to cook it, and when to bring it to the window. The idea is that each station puts their dishes in the window at the same time for any given table so the food could be delivered together at the correct time. If the food was cooked too early before the table had finished their previous course, it would go bad. If food was fired too late, restaurant patrons quickly became disgruntled at the sound of their rumbling belly. In addition to timing the delivery of every ticket perfectly, the expediter inspects each and every finished dish to make sure that it adheres to the quality standards of the restaurant.
They have to be able to jump onto the line to help out when needed, run out and talk to a customer who wants face time with the chef, and manage the food inventory to make sure there are sufficient supplies for the night’s dinner service. The expediter also interfaces with the servers running in and out of the kitchen asking questions, educates them on the dishes being served that night, and communicates with the front of the house management to handle out of the ordinary requests, allergies, and special situations the kitchen can and cannot handle.
For an expediter to do his job well, he has to manage chaos and turn it into a harmonious dance where everyone understands their roles and has the information they need to perform their job so that the end result is impecable service and extraordinary food delivered to each and every customer that walks through the door. Watching an experienced expediter run a kitchen is very similar to watching a true product manager exercise his craft. A good product is the aggregate of the team’s ability to create and deliver something that truly solves your needs with a touch of wow.
As a product manager, you need people to succeed at their individual roles and you need to understand your customer, what they need, and when they need it. Being a remote product manager adds a whole additional layer of complexity to the process because so many of the things needed for your team to succeed require spot on communication. I’ve put together a list of 10 guiding principles that I follow as a remote product manager:
- Be the air traffic controller
- Know your team
- Understand your customers
- Make decisions on the fly
- Remove blockers
- Take responsibility and do whatever it takes
- Bridge the gap
- Embrace the unknown
- Address risks head on
- Keep it simple
This is in no way exhaustive, but these ten things represent what I’ve found to be the most important qualities, characteristics, and actions that a product manager has and does. Over the next several posts in this series, I want to break down each of the items in more detail and explore the processes and solutions I’ve found to accomplishing them just as effectively (if not more so) than traditional, office based product managers.