Hacker Career Advice

Product Management Is Detective Work

Product Managers are Detectives

Last year, I wrote an article about the top skills you need to succeed as a Product Manager. It covers the usual suspects: requirements gathering, sprint planning, communication, etc. and I stand by it.

But I left something out, something that will make you indispensable: detective skills.

Walking the (bug) beat

As part of my team’s triage process, Product Managers review incoming bugs and support issues, before assigning them to Engineering. I like this, because a lot of issues can be addressed with an API call, a link to the documentation, or a kind, but firm no.

When I can’t defer, close, or ignore an issue, I investigate it, with a goal of identifying the root cause and potential solutions. Once I can reliably replicate and document the problem, I can give Engineering the full story they need to fix it.

If you hand off an issue too early, before you understand the underlying issue, you’ll waste developer time and derail your whole sprint schedule.

Tools of the trade

The first thing I like to do is identify the frequency of the problem, severity, and systems involved. This helps me prioritize my workload and figure out where to start looking.

Like any good investigator you’ll need to collect and analyze the evidence. Clear, concise documentation will help newcomers onboard to the problem quickly, and prevent you from having to explain everything from scratch:

If you have a technical background, you can go a step further by digging into the logs, code, and data:

Hitting the Bricks

Product Management isn’t a job you can do with your head down and earphones cranked up. You have to get out there and talk to people.

Detectives build relationships with informants, who can guide them in areas where they lack experience or exposure. I urge you to do the same, especially within big organizations. The clue that blows the case wide open may come from another PM, an Engineer across the globe, your Operations team, vendors, or quite frequently, a customer.

True story: I spent half of last week trying to validate a new feature which relied on some APIs maintained by different teams. Despite hours of searching for and reading documentation, I made zero progress on my own. Finally, I called another PM for help.

I spent five minutes explaining my situation, before she sprung into action. She set up a Slack channel, tagged representatives from each team, and said “Neal needs a hand with X, Y, and Z.” Two days later, my features were live in prod!

Stay curious

In the real world, detective work is fairly mundane: interviewing witnesses, pulling financial records, requesting warrants. High profile heists and car chases are pretty rare. But at every step, detectives ask why. They look for inconsistencies, and question motives.

The same goes for Product Management. Day in and day out, you’re doing discovery, setting priorities, grooming tickets, and putting out small fires. But, no matter how ordinary a task seems, you should take a deeper look.

When you investigate, ask open ended questions to uncover the problem the customer is facing, what they were trying to do, and what actions led them there. Try using the Five Whys method and remember, your job isn’t to fix problems in real time, it’s to detect what’s going on.

This applies to product requests too. When Marketing says “can you please build us this very specific feature that does X?” Your first instinct shouldn’t be to give them a yes or no answer.

In my experience, people are better at articulating symptoms and solutions, than they are at causes and needs. But if you get someone to open up and explain what they’re really after, then you can identify what to build.

Call for backup

Whenever my investigation hits a wall, I recruit a partner. With a fresh set of eyes, we can apply a different perspective, bounce ideas off each other, and hopefully make a breakthrough.

I’m a damn good partner too, because I’ll do whatever I can to make my partner’s life easier. That includes scheduling meetings, writing tickets, documenting everything in Confluence, or taking the heat when we’re behind. It’s my approach to building trust: ask for their best, and never give ‘em your worst.

Of course, everyone has their own priorities, so you may have to flex in order to motivate them. Whether that’s calling in a favor or highlighting the customer impact, (frequency! severity! NPS!), it’s part of their job, so don’t feel too bad. But do remember to pay the favor back, or ideally, forward.

Hard, but not hard-boiled

It’s frustrating to work products where you’re pulled in different directions every day because of a new bug or some priority request. It’s even worse when you’re under pressure to get it all done yesterday.

In the movies, detectives are often sour mavericks with little regard for their own health and other people’s feelings. But that won’t fly in real life. No matter how frazzled you are, there’s no excuse to be a jerk. If you’re feeling burnt out, take a break and get help.