PHIL ARAUJO - The Product Heroes

Just Another "What It Takes to Become a Great Product Manager" Story

Just Another "What It Takes to Become a Great Product Manager" Story

The Definition and the Origin on how I found my Path in Product Management

The Definition and the Origin on how I found my Path in Product Management

Nov 25, 2020

I have been away from my job for a few weeks. It has benefited me as I had the opportunity to take a break and reflect for the first time in my career. Time to think about what I wanted. Time to think about how I wanted to continue my work, personal development and growth. Time to think about the idea I want to represent and my mission. Am I still aligned with myself and what I want?

Charles Vane in Black Sails said: “Give us your submission and we will give you all the comfort you need. I can think of no measure of comfort worth that price”

Deepening my self-reflection

Over the past few years, I have served as a senior consultant, practice leader, senior product manager, senior mobile product manager, and chief product officer. I didn't want to follow society's expectations. I followed the path I believed was the best and made more sense. In the end, along the way, based on my motivation and beliefs, I gained momentum in my field, in my skills and my role and acquired more responsibilities.

My reflection is on my work as a product leader, although I believe it can be followed and used by anyone.

I was afraid to become what I observed in big corporates, following the market and what is expected from you. I believe that without looking for more, it ends most of the time with Peter's Principle "People in a hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence".

Therefore, I followed the principle of putting myself in danger in my career as a product manager as much as possible in a risky position where I had to develop new skills to succeed. I later learned the impact of this discomfort on my brain and how it helped me achieve different things. Always at the limit of what I knew, still intending to grow personally, humanely and professionally.

I am constantly amazed when working in the product management field. Product Manager is one of the only jobs you can mould the way you want. It encompasses this diversity in terms of people you can meet, fields to work in or technology. In my career, I've worked in industries I've never touched before, as fascinating as IoT and connected cars and as complex and regulated as healthcare or contractors and human resources compliance. You can ask 10 product managers to define their role, and if they don't use a definition from literature, you can have ten different definitions.

And they will all be right!

I only see life in two ways, and maybe that's a bit black and white, but you decide to be a spectator or an actor. I chose to be an actor and to be as little dependent as possible on external factors. Kind of like a hero in a game, mastering his craft, making choices based on his beliefs. There are times when everything goes well, or nothing goes as planned.

COVID is the latter type, the same as the financial crisis of 2008. It has had and still has adverse mental, economic, and physical effects on people's lives. The loss of my job impacted me in the last months. At the same time, I can't stop thinking it's an opportunity. Now is a chance to take the time to reflect. I did not feel any pressure from the market. I didn't have to look for a job right away.

I speak from a privileged place because I have the choice to do so. After all, everyone was in the same situation, not just one country or continent, and the impact was global. I'm lucky, or am I?

No, I don't believe in luck. You generate your opportunities. My parents raised me in a certain way, and also the influence I had from my surroundings and family. Part of it was a life lesson they lived the hard way: "Be prepared for the worst and take responsibility for whatever you do".

That's what I did, and that's how I defined my career in product management.

I've been interviewing for jobs lately, and every company has a different hiring process. What's interesting is that with the experience of running, managing and monitoring processes, I can almost instantly tell you what type of business I will be working on in the following weeks. The problem is, I can't stand still. It's not in my nature.

The recruitment process extracts the corporate culture and the internal atmosphere. You can identify it by the type of interactions and the questions they ask you.

And, to be honest, some of these questions were very interesting.

Note to me: I should make a compilation of the type of questions I received and the questions I asked for other product managers to see and maybe create a collaborative list.

The most important skill

As I went through these processes, a question stuck to my mind: "What is the most important skill for you as a product manager?"

With experience, you know that you don't answer questions like this too quickly. So I matured my thoughts before responding. I wanted to be honest, tell the truth, and not try to say what my interviewer wanted to hear. One of my weaknesses in the past was wanting and sometimes to be loved. I try to please you too much. I learned over time, through meditation, and as I got older, my desire to be loved came from my fears. It was either the fear of being rejected or not being recognized.

"What if I say what I think and they don't accept me? Does that call into question my worth as a product manager?"

So I hid behind answers that made me feel good. I tricked myself into believing that's what people wanted to hear.

My feeling, though, could be summed up by the following quote:

Eric Thomas said: “You know others more than you know yourself.”,

So I finally answered the question after my break, which was simple "Leadership".

Product managers do not exist alone. Product managers are relay runners. In this work, I take the baton from one place and pass it to another. I play with and for the team. There is nothing personal about it and the most essential truth. As a product manager, I am not a superior being with superpowers or imbued with a divine mission. And whoever thinks that should come back to earth and get a reality check ASAP!

However, the difference between product managers is how they think about leadership. The soft skills also take the team to another level of performance and happiness.

You can take all the definitions that are in the books, and you will see that it boils down to this concept:

  • "the communal manservant to your engineering team, holding a large, cumbersome shit umbrella above their heads bent over keyboards on which they furiously type" — Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez

  • "CEO of the product" The hard things about hard things by Ben Horowitz

  • "In the middle of technical, business and UX" — Martin Eriksson

As a product manager, I don't exist alone. Also, the "manager" role in the title is more honorary than anything else. I am not a direct line manager of the development team or the designers. I work with them and make decisions on functionality, strategy, product vision, and roadmap based on input from others. However, I don't have a "lethal" power. It is like being an unarmed sheriff who needs to "force" my coworkers to do whatever I want. Therefore, my relationship skills and leadership skills are essential for success.

I am always in relation with someone and rely on someone else to find, build or launch ideas. A product manager is a catalyst for the wishes and minds of the people they work with. Here is an example of one of my typical weeks.

Monday, I can have product manager meetings and then engineer meetings. Maybe Tuesday or Wednesday, I'll talk to architects about projects we need prototyping or analyze new potential features. I can discuss with the sales, marketing, customer success, onboarding, customer support, strategy, UX, or design team. During these days, I can also meet with customers, prospects and potential users. Wednesday or Thursday, I organize discussions with engineers to discuss new epics. I will do demos and prepare communications for internal use and be a support to other departments.

I am not special

I'm not unique with this kind of schedule. I can't tell you what a day needs to look like in your position as a product manager. Depending on the situation, I can tell you approximately who I need to talk to. I imagine my week as a marked path, where we go from riddle to riddle until finally finding the real pain's grail. The famous "WHY".

I know that I am not doing my job alone, and since the product is the basis of a collection of other people's work and thoughts, they will look to me as the owner of this knowledge for answers, clarification, or brainstorming. They will come to me when something goes wrong, when they are stuck in their work when they cannot achieve their goal.

And that's what makes the job of a product manager so exciting, unusual, and so exhausting and frustrating. When they send you that email, that phone call, or they request the meeting, you've got to be at your best. You must be the leader of yourself and your emotions, above all else, because they will come with theirs. This way, you can be fully present at the moment and help them, unlock them and make their lives easier.

Apart from being a torchbearer, I like to define my role as a person who manages frustrations, others and mine.

I can't count the times I have had to make tough decisions, like stopping product development or saying "NO" to a customer or even the CEO. It's the truth; however, I can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs, and I must understand that I can't put my ego into my decisions. The ego must be under control as it is just an obstacle to my path to success.

I have to be the voice of reason because I am the custodian of the product, the team and the users behind it. Being the guardian doesn't just mean being protective. It also means believing in my mission, and being adaptive, tough, resilient and relentless.

Radical honesty

Reflecting on this, however, I began to feel that my answer was only one possible answer. It's my view of product management, and it's also product management that suits me. It is an entirely selfish way of acting and looking at something. Maybe this article is a confession. In any case, I try to be sincere, authentic and transparent in explaining it.

I guess that's because a friend of mine sent me this article on "radical honesty" a few weeks ago, and it has influenced my writing lately.

I'm also tired of reading articles telling me what to do, and how to act when to get up in the morning. No one has the science infused in them and if everyone knew in advance what was going to happen, why are there so many questions and so many failed products out there.

What I mean is every answer is right if it's right for you, if you believe in it and are passionate about it! No one can tell me what it's like to be a product manager. Of course, there are all the technical/hard skills involved; however, this is the easiest part of the equation. I also recognize that I have been influenced by my readings and my personal interests. My background is unique, as is the combination of knowledge and experience that I have acquired.

That is why, for me, all of the following definitions are also correct.

I think the most crucial skill for a product manager is:

  • the technical aspect of the product and understanding of how to provide the best product with the best technology supported by innovation and market trends;

  • the delivery side of the product and being able to master delivery processes such as Agile, Kanban, Scrum, and Waterfall as this will ensure that the product is delivered with the best quality and on time;

  • the marketing side of the product and being able to understand the market and the competitive landscape, being able to talk to customers and make them understand the value of the product so that they adopt it which will bring them value;

  • the strategic side of the product and being able to analyze current and future trends to find the best strategy and vision based on the accumulated knowledge and the strength of the existing company.

I just made these up. The point is, whatever you have in mind, I could go on and on. Maybe as a reader, you will decide to put your own version, and I will be happy to quote you and add it to this article.

What I'm trying to convey, to any reader or anyone else who aspires to be a product manager, is that there is no right answer. You decide what a great product manager is.

I still think there should be a clear distinction between every single role in the company in terms of responsibilities. So WHAT are you going to do is one and that should come from the employer, but HOW are you going to do that is something completely different and I find my way great for multiple reasons. One of the biggest is — it's good for both me and my teammates.

It's good for my teammates because there is no person in this world that doesn't want to have fun and be happy. Especially if the work we're doing together is tough.

It's good for me because while I am trying to have fun I am also exploring the boundaries on a daily basis. I define my role and that's how I am trying to achieve more and more. I am growing and the growth may be potentially recognized. If I am just doing what I am being told, that's not enough, that's not growth, that's not exceptional, that doesn't even deserve praise, that's being regular, standard. That's OK. And do you want to be OK? I know for myself the answer to that question is — No, thank you, I'd want to be great!

I do me! You do you!

For my part, I choose this path, or if I'm honest with you, this path chose me. I haven't changed who I am on the inside. I have my own style of leadership, based on fun. I love people, I love to laugh. I like to bring joy to people's lives. Most importantly, I love to see other people happy.

However, don't get me wrong. Again, this is something selfish! I do this because it makes me feel good. I like to think I have something to do with this laughter and memory we have as a team. I love to create rituals, celebrate life, and turn boring things into exciting things. Anyone can be a great product manager when things are going well, but can you be a great product manager whether things go well or wrong. Can you survive anything? After you left, what did you leave behind? Do you know if your team will follow you, support you and go to bat for you today? More importantly, are you ready to go to bat for them?

My reflection brought me to this conclusion:

I want to have the biggest impact on people around me in my daily life, I want to be able to help people in any way so they can reach their true potential.

It is why I am writing this kind of article and why I launched a podcast with a friend (The Naked podcast). We all need more truth, love, honesty, transparency and care. I am not ready to help everyone, though. I will be miserable by doing so. More importantly, I want to be myself. I want to build products that help people, positively impact people's lives and a culture around it where people have fun.

As a Product Manager, I know I can impact the lives of others and decided some time ago to help improve the lives of people around me.

“You must realize that there is something special within you, a basic goodness that you must choose to manifest in every way you can — toward your family, your profession and your planet. Each of us has something to offer.” Les Browns

Your job will take up a large part of your life. You don't have time to do the job like someone else. And as Oscar Wilde said: "Be yourself, everyone's already taken". So why not join me on this journey and look inside yourself to find who you are and be the product manager you want to be?


Empower Product Creators into Digital Leaders.
One Skill at a Time.

I boost your digital creation skills and amplify your product management impact with proven techniques.

Gain A New Perspective on Leadership and Digital Product Creation

Joined 686 subscribers receiving

© 2023 Phil Araujo


Empower Product Creators into Digital Leaders.
One Skill at a Time.

I boost your digital creation skills and amplify your product management impact with proven techniques.

Gain A New Perspective on Leadership and Digital Product Creation

Joined 686 subscribers receiving

© 2023 Phil Araujo


Empower Product Creators into Digital Leaders.
One Skill at a Time.

I boost your digital creation skills and amplify your product management impact with proven techniques.

Gain A New Perspective on Leadership and Digital Product Creation

Joined 686 subscribers receiving

© 2023 Phil Araujo