[Humor] So You Wanted to be a Product Manager

From the moment you watched Steve Jobs announce the iPhone, you knew what you wanted to do with your life: you wanted to be a product manager. It was such a massive shift in paradigm that you finally understood what “paradigm” really meant. Anyone could launch a product that made life better, you thought, but you wanted to be a true visionary and create things that made life different.

You switched your major from computer science to psychology because you wanted to live in the head of the consumer. When your classmates were all doing summer internships at blue chip companies where they wouldn’t do much more than order lunch, you were doing real work at startups, taking notes in meetings and downloading CSVs of Google Analytics data to recreate the charts in Excel because the CMO didn’t know how to use the web. Sure, it was unpaid and you were putting in 60-80 hours a week, but you could just feel yourself soaking in the experiences that would buzz around inside the back of your brain just waiting for the day you would be in a position to make use of them.

The summer before your junior year you were interning at a startup whose mission statement was “10x the PTA” and was perpetually “weeks away” from a closed beta of the MVP—an app to manage class parent snack rotation. You didn’t know that there were no investors lining up for this. You didn’t know that no market research had been done and that none of the early user tests had resulted in anything other than potential non-customers saying “why would I want this?” and that all attempts to get schools to pay for the platform ended in a hard pass. All you knew was that when the product manager quit after an argument with the CEO almost came to blows in the WeWork conference room that housed the whole operation, there was an opportunity for you to move up. You dropped out of school and started your first official product job after an exhilarating meeting with the founder where he raved about how you’d been killing it and how you were destined to be a rockstar and how he valued, no, craved your ideas.

He did not. In fact, at every turn, he found ways to make it clear that all of your ideas were bad and you should feel bad for having them. The company folded the same day your first student loan payment came due.

This was the first, but nowhere near the last time you worked with a founder who had too much faith in their own vision. After a few years, the patterns were clear. Every company you landed at was either focused on making a plus-one incremental improvement that nobody cared about (“it’s like Uber but you can choose what color car picks you up!”), or they were attempting to disrupt an industry that was undisruptable  (“it’s like Uber but for unregulated clinical trials!”).

The one thing all these would-be visionaries had in common was the frothing worship of Steve Jobs and the belief that you ding the universe by pushing your idea into the world until the people who didn’t know they wanted it declare “I want it!” You stopped telling people your origin story.

Five years passed and you hadn’t worked on a single product that made it to market and survived, let alone changed the world. Meanwhile, all your former classmates who’d fetched coffee for resume fodder were moving up the ranks and getting bonuses and VP titles and working on products that people would actually see.

When the opportunity came to join an established, venerated food brand at an even more established, venerated, and publicly traded media company, you didn’t think twice. Their products already had millions of users, and they were—they promised—pushing hard into the new digital frontier.

It didn’t take long to realize that whatever digital frontier they were pushing into was full of tumbleweeds and dry creek beds. For all the big talk at annual OKR meetings about taking big swings and moving the proverbial needle, the mandate for all product development was simple: increase pageviews at all costs and don’t touch anything at all ever between Thanksgiving and Christmas lest you jeopardize the almighty holiday cooking traffic.

Not only were you not innovating, you weren’t even incrementally improving anything. When you weren’t updating Jira, you were reading about the latest SEO best practices and A/B testing whether one font drove more ad clicks than another. And while the products you worked on were beloved by their users, it was that jealous kind of love that didn’t allow for anything to change or grow, just be what someone decided it should be years before you took the job.

You did your best to change the culture, trying to educate and inculcate practices like Design Thinking and the Kano method, but between a management structure that was intent on clinging to a dying business model, engineering leadership that would only tell you why something wouldn’t work, and a general apathy toward doing anything new, you only got more and more frustrated. Anything that wasn’t about generating ad money via pageviews was “too risky for right now.” You presented research on why the ad model was doomed and pitched products that could generate revenue directly, but always hit a wall.

After three years as a glorified project manager you decided it was time to take one of those big swings leadership kept claiming to want. You put together a small group—one developer, one designer, and yourself—and covertly built a VR recipe explorer that created a rich graphical interactive experience for users looking for holiday dinner ideas. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when everyone had gone home, you pushed it live.

User feedback poured in over the holiday weekend, and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. People were tweeting about how cool it was. NPS scores soared. You entered the office the following Monday expecting a hero’s welcome. Your boss was at your desk, waiting.

It didn’t matter that the new feature was cool and popular, or that social traffic was at an all-time high. Pageviews were down 30% because people were abandoning the tried-and-true clunky recipe slideshows for this new experience. It was too big a revenue drop to ignore and you were escorted from the office before rush hour even ended.

When your severance ran out, you took a job at Starbucks, and though the pay was half what you made before, you couldn’t help but take satisfaction in the knowledge that you were finally creating a product with fierce, loyal, and even addicted users, and putting a ding in the universe one latte at a time.

We have something fun for ya. Our latest podcast episode is out!

Author

Scott C Reynolds

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Comments

  1. Wow. After reading this I don’t feel like laughing at all. This is the story about someone’s dreams being crushed, and one that can hit very close to home, at that.

    I can’t for the life of me get how failing to abide to certain political, non IT related views is critical enough to earn people a ban just because they dont agree, and on the other hand getting this story, which gets much closer to the typical SO user life and ditches people’s life dreams aside as a joke thing, is cool.

    Get your values right.

    PS: All the respect for Scott, AFAIK he’s only the messenger.

  2. What a journey this was. I felt hopeful for a while and then realized the crushing fist of capitalism crushes us all at some point. But, I do love a good latte — and there’s truly something for everyone out there. Such a fun read.

  3. Dirk Helgemo says:

    You have me crying, not laughing.

    It’s a “zero risk” culture that gradually devolves to “zero reward.”

    1. Story of my career

    2. Ivan Proskuryakov says:

      you have my dramma

  4. Lol bleak and accurate, love this series

  5. “You switched your major from computer science to psychology”

    Why do so many people major in things in the U.S. that clearly require doctorate degrees to complete and then wonder why they can’t find work with just a B.S.? The most rudimentary research will tell you this.

    1. People generally make those kind of decisions before they actually get into the labor market. It’s not a great system, but the common cries from people like you of “why are people so STUPID?!?!’ speaks to a narrow minded view of the world. Often your ‘research’ boils down to anecdotal evidence and various shallow internet articles that grossly oversimplify the point – generally to reassure yourself that you ‘made the right choice’ and are ‘guaranteed success’. To be fair, a college degree, even in the much lauded ‘STEM fields’ isn’t a guarantee of success either. You often have to move into management unless you want to be replaced by someone younger – having 10 years of experience in an industry using tech that’s 5 years old isn’t great – even if you have a ‘good degree’ with a ‘good company’

      In the end, the only guarantee you have of success is yourself and what you are willing to learn and risk in order to achieve the lifestyle you want. There isn’t a golden path to success, and anyone who tells you ‘just get X degree and you’re guaranteed success’ is selling you something. Ask yourself why.

  6. lol. Worth the read right till the end. i’ve never felt such respect for the starbucks employee’s real passion behind every brew.

  7. Sid Wozniak says:

    LOL this is so good!!! How do I share this? Seriously someone respond and tell me!!!!

    1. uhh, copy and paste the link I guess?

  8. tldr, you seem frustrated

  9. Good thing you marked this as humor. Otherwise, I might not have known.

  10. You gave me a good sample story about a Product Owner. I live in Taiwan, Our industry are not possible to have a good position for PO, I never thought can be a PO in Taiwan, even-though I want to. Taiwanese Boss only need a cheap Project Manager, which is no permission can decide the vision of product. Only can plan the detail of CEO’s order. And helping CEO to pushing developer finish the job on time….

    1. rollerbladegirl says:

      In Taiwan, you say? Is that where lots of electronics are manufactured? I have been looking for any currently manufactured motherboards that do not have support for UEFI. It seems that UEFI is about to be flushed from the general markets. It is an invasive, engineered virus. Design, develop, and manufacture, even as few as 100 motherboards that do not support UEFI, advertise them on Ebay and Amazon, and see how it goes.

      To do this, probably find a currently produced motherboard, that is in beta testing and not yet released onto the markets, purchase the rights to the board and the rights to manufacture it using your own brand, thus skipping the vast research getting to that point. Then strip out the chips that support UEFI, and replace them with chips that do not support UEFI. Do not advertise to other manufacturers. Do not advertise to systems builders. Go straight to Ebay and Amazon. Have an inventory for 100 or so of these to back up your offer, and when selling them, keep an report on Ebay and Amazon of how many are left in inventory, so that you do not oversell inventory. Go from there. Use your own money. Do not take out loans for any business venture. Invest in your own products only what you are willing and able to lose. Go for it. It is your life. It is up to you to make it work.

      Oh, and keep your regular job until your own company can (does) pay you that income level. Will be looking for your product with “for rollerbladegirl” in the description via a listing on Ebay and Amazon.

      1. Dont know if you are trolling or what.

  11. Rohan Bhale says:

    Lol, attempting to disrupt an industry that was undisruptable

  12. Thank you for tagging this.

  13. sid wozniak says:

    ouch!

  14. Ramiro Juarez says:

    Wit all my respect to these that laugh about this history. I COMPLETELY DISAGREE, this is not fun at all, laughing about someone that even work hard, see his dream crash .. is that funy?
    Please put yourself on the shoes of the others, that mean emphathy, a sense on our times is more and more lacking.

    Ramiro.

  15. Nice and funny story, thanks.

  16. who hurt you? UX touched in an inappriopriate way? 🙁

  17. Chris Schaller says:

    I’m going through a forced redundancy right now, After 5 years and very minimal sales, the investment funds dried up. “you worked with a founder who had too much faith in their own vision” really struck a chord with me. Deep down I knew that was the problem for a while but had no idea how to articulate it. Instead, I just thought it was my inability to properly sell my ideas, to formulate a better business vision when I noticed the cracks start to appear.

    When I signed on, the product seemed bulletproof, it was an untapped market, it would change the world, I believed in it, as did everyone I talked to. I was brought in for my own ideas and experience but over the years I was forced to watch us make the same mistakes that I had already learned from in the past, it became harder and harder to improve the vision that was there, to take it from what it was, to what it could be…

    Now the market is flooded, there are many similar ideas to our own, but we never got there, because we didn’t adapt or learn from the mistakes of those who pushed their ideas that also didn’t gain any market traction.

    With each new contract, project or employment, we learn something, this time my lesson was that “I am not always right, but neither is the other guy”, “A Single Concrete Vision” cannot easily succeed, to do so requires dedication and can’t easily involve other creative minds. Instead, your product vision needs to have a dynamic and collaborative nature, all members of the team need to buy-in to the vision, but they also need to have a voice in how or why it should evolve. Together we can be far more successful than each of us individually.

    When I look at the “greats” one other key element stands out, those who succeed do so by surrounding themselves with creative and productive minds, and though they stand as a figure head, they listen to those around them and do adopt change or suggestions from their team, even if they keep a tight overwatch.

  18. I may be too old to get the humor, here. And how is this even tangentially relevant to Stack Overflow?

    Don’t suppose there’s a way to entice Nick Craver or Sam Saffron to write a blog post? Posts by those fine fellows were usually entertaining and/or informative, back in the day.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go chase some long-haired hippies off my lawn…

  19. “it was that jealous kind of love that didn’t allow for anything to change or grow”
    🙂

  20. Sometimes when people’s dream broken and he or she does need time to rearrange/recover. Yet, I believe a broken dream is somehow a new path to another bigger dream. You just have to open your eyes and ear to see and hear it.

  21. Komal Rangoonwala says:

    I initially reckoned the article to be half as good as the title. Turns out it’s twice as good! It was worth reading till the last full-stop.

  22. Is this millennial humor

  23. In my view, this story is a mockery of lottery losers by lottery winners: “if only this person had enough intellectual abilities to use my winning number XYZ instead of his YZX”. There is no honor in mocking someone’s misfortunes. Of course, statistically, STEM graduates have better chances of being successful in professional employment than graduates with degrees in other disciplines. However, firstly, STEM degrees are not suitable for everyone: some lack interest, some lack abilities, some lack time/money. In my life, I have known at least one person who had reasonably exceptional abilities to do a degree in math/CS, but chose to study a subject that eventually led him to do a prestigious fully-funded PhD in arts/history in one of the top universities in the US (most likely, he is on his way to have a successful academic career in his chosen area of interest). Secondly, there are, indeed, many examples of successful businessmen/professionals who do not have a degree in one of the STEM disciplines (some do not have any degree at all). It is all really quite simple, some try and win, others try and fail.

    1. To be it kinda seems like mocking lottery losers by people who made boring but safe investments.

      Still punching down a bit though.

  24. Well, it’s unnecessarily by changing your major to anything. In fact steve jobs was college drops out and he didnt even study any computer science at all. He was studying art at reeds college. He was very passionate about technology since he lived around silicon valley company. He discover many things that could lead him to his career in the future with his fellows and with his parents support even know he was adopted.
    You seriously shouldnt trust a movie as a motivation to change anything in your career. I’m not saying that movie is bad, but they’re scripted and their storyline is clear, real life is much more complicated than that

  25. Elizabeth Singh says:

    I don’t think this was intended to be cruel at all. To me, the portrayal of the project manager was intensely empathetic and commiserating with the experience of buying into a vision that doesn’t pan out. Whatever your background, being targeted for doing the right thing is a pain we all know. This feels like the sort of piece that is supposed to be funny precisely because it rings true.

  26. That was brutal. Soul crushing to the very end. But very believable. Life is a lottery on who is going to make it big.
    How many 10 year olds are playing basketball to be the next big pro basketball player? How many of those even make it to the high school team? Of those that make that, how many make it the College team then pro?

    Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Harvey they were not born with silver spoons.
    Napster, born in a college dorm, rose to huge fame, now? crickets

    Pick yourself up, dust it off and hit the next challenge head on, will you see $$$? maybe, maybe not. Just keep swimming

  27. Oh Boy! I could literally feel every word that’s been written! I’ve lived through this journey, and everything is true except for the last part. I believe that you should only let set backs take you back enough to be shot into the air like a slingshot. 🙂

    Brilliant write though! Thanks for this!

  28. It was like watching an America’s Got Talent episode with the only difference that in the end everything goes to shit

  29. “The company folded the same day your first student loan payment came due.”
    🙂

  30. Mohammed Saud says:

    Thanks I’ll never look at a starbucks employee the same way ever again.

  31. Humour 404

  32. Miguel Brandão says:

    Is this a true story? How did the end conversation go? How was the case made that that was actually a good idea?

    This wasn’t funny, it was just sad.
    Very well written, but sad.

  33. The best kind of humour is that so close to the bone it has us all crippled with anxiety. Bravo, Sir.

  34. Błażej Michalik says:

    ಠ_ಠ – my face right now

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