“Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors who are better able to gain the trust of clients.” - Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
It’s scary to think of oneself as an expert. It often requires you to hide your doubts. Doubts. Those doubts in my opinion make for the best experts. Those people have the self-awareness to acknowledge the shortcomings of your approaches. Doubt allows you to address those shortcomings and iterate to truly superior solutions. I never want to lose that. Indeed, the way to become a guest expert on a conference panel can be the same way to be erode your skills.
Nevertheless, I aim to get better at my craft. Right now, that is product management. And people often ask me how I have gotten better at my craft. Here’s how I think about it…
//This post is a part of Startup Edition http://bit.ly/1e2L9uJ - read how others have become experts at their crafts
Explore and be rigorous about your interest in the craft
It’s silly to become an expert in a field without thinking deeply about it at first. Indeed, many of us stumbled into our professions and industries. But imagine you haven’t committed decades to your field yet, and if you can, pause for a moment. Why do you want to be an expert in growth hacking? Or why do you want to be really good at solving access to essential medicine?
It’s going to be difficult to be an expert at anything you’re not either deeply passionate about or believe directly leads to some tremendously important next step in your life. Sure, it’s doable, but if you’re arguing that one should be an expert at something he or she doesn’t care about, we have bigger problems than semantics.
Meet with people already in the field
No better way to understand what product management, or basket-weaving, or accounting, is all about than meeting the practitioners themselves. Cold emails, tweets, friend-of-friend referrals, Meetup groups - this is how I and many others have done it. Don’t be ashamed to put yourself out there just because others seemingly got into the field without ever putting pride on the line.
Maybe you really love numbers and assumed accounting would be for you. But then you meet the accountant, and she is depressed and unexcited about her work. That could be revelatory. Or maybe the product manager misses the days when she was an engineer. Oh, you’re an engineer? You may realize your temporary dissatisfaction with the project isn’t cause to change fields. And the basket-weaver? Maybe the pure bliss he gets from his work convinces you to work for fulfillment, ignore a shrunken industry, and forsake stock options and a steady income.
Would you marry someone without ever meeting? Then why do that with your career?
Reflect on your motivations
Many of my friends from college went into management consulting. Why? Money, prestige, and exit options based on the training received during a miserable two year analyst program.
If these friends had articulated these motivations sooner, other paths may have seemed available. But they were locked into this career path handed down from previous classes who attended our college and returned to recruit the new flock of overworked analysts.
One night during my freshman year of college, my cousin asked me over second dinner in the middle of the night in a New York diner: ‘What are you planning to study?’ I responded, ‘Economics, so that I can get a good job.’ Saying so, somehow for the first time, made me realize the grand mistake I was making. It made me realize I didn’t want to be a person who traded the chance to pursue passion for a fatter paycheck. I switched to Sociology and Computer Science. Now, in hindsight, that seems obvious for a product manager, and I didn’t have to trade passion for compensation. But in 2007, I had no such hindsight.
I ask aspiring PMs why they want to do the role. For some, the reason is vanity. Imagine, for example, if the title was ‘Product Liaison’ or ‘Development Coordinator’. Would you still want the role or do you care about title? Many people then start to frown.
Imagine yourself in this field in 20 years
Maybe product management is the craft du jour. Maybe it won’t be around in 20 years. Simply thinking about the next 20 years may force this question. Will you still find the skills valuable? Will you be OK with the fact that no one will know what the job was about? Maybe I’ll be bored by it then. I don’t suggest planning out every year of your life - that’s often a wasteful exercise, especially if it incurs a lot of anxiety. But think longer term and question your investment in the craft.
For example, I really believe product management will serve me well, not only when I start my next company, but also when I go to development work abroad.
Practice your craft
- Develop the mindset of obsessive practitioners
I advise aspiring PMs to evaluate products and services constantly. Why does Spotify promote playlists? Why does Facebook have ads on the right side and the feed? What would be the tradeoffs of Twitter removing the 140 character limit?
But also, why do toilets have separate lids, both of which you need to touch with your hands? Why do athletic stadiums structure entrances in the manner that they do? What are the tradeoffs of having people look at teleprompters during speeches?
Work on projects at your day job and execute well
You have to actually execute on the principles of the craft to get better. Some learnings only happen this way. Some learnings can only be proved this way. Solicit feedback and reflect on your performance as often as possible.
Learn from others
- Quora / the Internet
- Casual conversations with other PMs
- PM Poker
- Interview PMs
- At Yammer, we are trying to spread our product development methodology to other groups with Microsoft. This requires reflecting on how we build product and clarifying one’s own understanding and having it challenged by others
- I launched my Udemy course. It forced me to refine my thinking and also opened up the class to an audience that raises a bunch of new questions.
Be perceived as an expert
This is my least favorite piece. It has nothing to do with the actual skill-building to be an expert. But what separates experts from people who know just as much or more than the experts? Self promotion and brand-building that leads others to believe one person is more knowledgeable than all the other equally qualified parties.
What do you do to practice your craft and become an expert? Is the concept of an expert evolving over time?
//This post is a part of Startup Edition http://bit.ly/1e2L9uJ - read how others have become experts at their crafts.