Interviewing John Franck, Author of Every Product Manager’s First 90 Days
When you’re an aspiring Product Manager, you’ll hear a lot about ‘the first 90 days’ on the job. Even if you’re an established Product Manager, every time you’ve landed a new role, you’ve thought about what the first 30, 60, and 90 days will look like.
It’s about more than just making a good first impression and getting to grips with your new day-to-day. These first steps are crucial to how your first year will go.
That’s why John Franck, seasoned product professional turned author, wrote Every Product Manager’s First 90 Days.
We were lucky enough to get an early copy of this awesome workbook, and even more lucky to speak to Franck himself about what inspired him to write it, how aspiring PMs can build their experience before landing a role, and why ‘hit the ground running’ is not good advice.
From Landscape Design to Product
Many different paths lead to product, and John’s own background is a testament to the wide variety of professions that can lead to a career in Product Management.
“I was working in the landscape industry for eight years prior, so acompletely different industry…not one that has anything to do with technology. It’s a lot of manual work.
I actually was a little bit more on the Project Management side. So I was coordinating the actual projects the teams would do, which involves meeting with clients, figuring out what they wanted done. And then I would put together a quote, and then send them that estimate if they went forward, and I would schedule the work with our team. So that’s very much like Project Management.”
While enjoyable, landscape gardening wasn’t John’s destiny, and he knew it. But much like the chicken and egg problem, it’s hard to get into a Product Management role with no experience in either business or the tech industry. ( Difficult, but never impossible!)
To start building up his experience, and showing that he had all of the right transferable skills, John Started doing startup weekend and hackathons.
“[Hackathons] basically let me get experience working on products with no one paying me or hiring me.”
It’s a pretty big misconception about hackathons that they’re only for developers. In fact, you don’t have to be able to write a single line of code to make the most of a hackathon, and they’re perfect places for Product Managers to gain some experience. Because someone needs to be the intersection between business and technology.
“They’re filled with developers, but they sometimes have a hard time communicating their ideas to the people that are ultimately like the stakeholders in it. There’s a huge need for product people in there because they need to bridge the gap. Most of these startup weekends and hackathons involve pitching the idea at the end or showing the work, and that’s where a product manager can really shine.
Because they’re understanding what the developers have been working on all weekend. They understand the need they’re trying to solve. They can then take all of that and communicate that. In my experience, developers were super excited that product people were there. I did several of them and then ended up kind of winning the state award for one of our products. Um, and so that then was able to go on my resume.”
Where The Workbook Came From
Many Product Managers are perfectly set to launch their own side project, or get creative and do something like write a book. Many PMs who have penned their own book went about the process by treating it as they would any other product.
One thing that sets apart John’s book from others, is the interactivity. This is not a book to teach you Product Management, this is a book to help you realize your own brand of Product Management.
“ I’m not here to actually tell anyone you need to do Product Management the way that I’m doing Product Management, because every person’s situation is unique. So I give little snippets of my background in the book, but it’s mostly just to give you a little bit of context. And then after I give that context is when I dive into the exercises and the questions.
So it basically started broad and just kind of narrowed its way down which, in a sense, is similar to a product, right? You’re gathering information, then you’re building out requirements and then you’re getting more information before you’re delivering the final result.”
Tackling Imposter Syndrome
“I think broadly, if you were even to ask the people in your industry that you look up to the most, whether they be leaders in some Fortune 500 company or whatever, I think everyone at some point in their career had/has to deal with imposter syndrome.”
Imposter syndrome is a very prolific topic among aspiring, new, and seasoned Product Managers alike, and is especially rampant when we’re thinking about landing a new job.
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Part of this is because PMs come from so many different backgrounds, which makes it hard to feel like you’ve walked the “right” path to get to where you are.
“It’s such a diverse field. I mentioned this in a book that [Product Managers] have all sorts of backgrounds. They will be people that used to be programmers, or former CEOs of startups, people with UX backgrounds… and that’s the thing. You don’t need to be what someone else is.”
So we all know that imposter syndrome is rampant, no matter how experienced you are. The key to tackling it, according to John, is to try to look at your background differently.
“View that as an advantage, and don’t try to compare yourself to other product people within your own company or other companies. Really lean into your experiences. So as odd as it may be, I can actually pull value out of my landscape experience and bring that into the SAS world.”
Protection from Drama: A PMs Responsibility
An interesting point that John makes in the book, is how it’s a Product Manager’s responsibility to protect their teams from drama, in order to allow them the freedom to be productive. But why is that a PMs responsibility?
It’s the Product Manager that knows everything that’s going on. So they know what the developers are doing. They know what your UX team is doing. They know what the marketing team is doing. They are the only person really with the whole picture of what’s happening. Everyone else only gets really small windows and glimpses of what other teams are doing. And that’s where that’s where drama arises.
Because a team will hear one little thing that’s happening — similar to what can happen in the news, right? You get one little blip of a news story and you have a reaction or an emotional reaction to it without getting the whole picture. And so the Product Manager needs to be the one in there to step in and stop rumors or drama from happening and provide the other information that’s lacking.
So I give an example in the book of a a UX designer, that’s frustrated because their designs are never used by the development team. They feel like they’re working all the time, but then nothing’s been implemented. And I kind of lay it out that it’s just a miscommunication problem because they’re not painting the right picture.
And so the Product Manager can come in there and, for both sides, come in the middle and say, ‘this is where we want to go. This is why we need this. This is why this person is valuable in their work matters.’ They’re the ones that come in there and get rid of all that drama that can happen.”
What Does It Mean to Be ‘The Best
In the book, with tongue firmly in cheek, John states that his main goal is to be ‘the best Product Manager in Colorado.’ But how exactly can you quantify ‘the best’?
“You know, there will never be a when it’s quantifiable and there’ll be some award or trophy sitting on my desk for that. To me it’s more of a mindset. I want to be someone that is sought after by companies to be brought onto their team as a Product Manager.”
Being ‘the best’ is also about being adaptable, with a diversified skillset and experience that allows you to be dropped into a new situation and thrive. It’s also about living and breathing your craft, because product is just that…a craft.
Being a sports fan, John also uses sports as a reference for thinking about what makes a great PM.
“It’s interesting to me that if you watch professional athletes, every aspect of their life goes towards bettering themselves to be a better athlete. It’s not just when they’re playing the game, it’s everything else that leads up to that. It’s their diet, it’s their sleep, it’s the training exercises they’re doing.
It’s always been fascinating to me that athletes are one of the few industries that you see someone being completely obsessed with their craft and it impacts the rest of their life. And so I, as a Product Manager, I want to actually have things influencing me to become better in all the other times that I’m not working. So when I’m doing any other activities within my life, I want that to be bettering me as a Product Manager.”
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Quick Wins and Quintessential Skills
In your first few months as a PM, according to the book, are for learning and absorbing information. You need to gather the knowledge you need to be able to make informed decisions later down the line. Of course, being a great Product Manager still requires skills, as John said when we spoke, you still need to find a way to be productive in your first few months.
“You don’t want to go three months and everyone would be like, well, what’s this person even doing, you know they’ve been here three months. They just sits around and like, sure, they’re listening, but we want people that actually get stuff done here.”
The solution, according to John, is a quick win. “ I encourage people to find a way to do a quick win in those first couple of months, because people are forming their impressions of you. “
So what are the skills that will help new PMs achieve these quick wins? It’s all in the skillset. We asked John what he thought the most important skills for PMs were, especially with the changing landscape of global economies in 2020/2021.
“I’ll give you three. So, first I would look for flexibility, and a variety of backgrounds. Then communication and motivation.
With what we’re facing in the world, currently, and our climate. I think a lot of product managers are going to be hired and they could very well see what they’re hired to do change. So flexibility is key. Because companies are going through mass changes right now…there’s just a lot happening in the world.
And so companies are either going to be facing tough budgets in 2021, or they could be going crazy with new sales. I think a Product Manager that can come in and be really open to what their role is going to look like and how it might change month to month is going to be something I would look for in a candidate. You don’t want someone coming in and being like, ‘Oh, well, that’s not on my job description.’ You want to hire people that are really open to whatever happens in the company and they’re willing to hop in and do, do what it takes to make that product succeed. As for having a variety of backgrounds, that brings strength when products need to pivot. So that’s flexibility.
Doing product management remotely is very difficult. Most of my job is meetings and working with people. I’m used to walking into where our developers are working, pulling up a whiteboard. Video makes [remote working] better, but it still can be hard. Even just reading people’s reactions to what I’m saying. So I think it involves being really good at communication, and I would look for that in a candidate.
Like many of us, John has made the transition to remote Product Management
And then finally motivation — people that don’t get discouraged easily, because you might have some really tough quarters coming up, depending on what’s happening in the world. So people that can motivate other people when everyone’s down because targets aren’t being hit. They’re the ones that can inspire people to keep pressing forward.”
What This Book Will Do For You
As has already been said, this book isn’t a complete 360 how-to on Product Management, because it’s much more useful than that.
This book helps you hunt for the information that’s the most useful to you specifically, and to your own personal style of Product Management. The interactive questions help you to dive deep and think about your specific role.
It helps you to build the mindset that will help you become the best PM you can be.
“I want [people who read the book] to be feel confident in themselves and in their role. So I want them to, when they get through the first 90 days, just feel very confident that when they go into work.
I want someone to believe they can be the best product manager for their company and even broader than that. When someone’s able to have that confidence, that confidence is then put into the product, it’s put into the team and everyone wins within the company when you have a confident Product Manager. I guess to sum that up that’s what I want for people at the very end is that they’ve gone through the exercises, they’ve learned what they’ve needed to learn, and that that breeds confidence.”
Ready to grab your copy of Every Product Manager’s First 90 Days? Don’t miss out and order your copy right here.
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I’m Carlos González, CEO at Product School, and I enjoy sharing weekly tips for Product leaders!
This article was also published on The Product Management Blog.