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How Execution and Discovery Influence the Product Management Career

Written by
Aymerc Zhuo Aymerc Zhuo
Co-Founder @ Stealth
Published
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If you have been in any tech job function long enough, you may have noticed how roles become more and more specialised as employers (and recruiters 👀) get more acquainted to the needs of their business and the differences in skillset of the tech labor. Taking data science as an example, anybody working with data in the mid-2010s was called a “data scientist”, regardless of whether they were making pie charts in Excel or putting machine learning models in production in C++. Needless to say, “data scientist” was just a catch-all term. Eventually, we’ve seen the rise (or emergence in certain cases) of roles such as product analysts, machine learning engineers, research engineers, data engineers… which have been a boon for candidates as job and salary expectations became more closely aligned with hiring companies.

This same tenet can be applied to many other roles in tech and “Product manager” is the perfect example. PMs love to see themselves as misfits coming from non-traditional tech backgrounds and favouring “breadth over depth”, i.e the more you know, the better; that trait help them excel in dealing with senior stakeholders, working with technical teams and talking to customers. However, as the tech industry grew more mature and organisations adapted to technological shifts, PMs are becoming more and more specialised.

Career 1 The illustration above is far from exhaustive

Navigating through each role, especially for PMs early in their journey, can be a delicate task as they depend on exogenous factors (company size and culture, business needs) and one’s personal aspirations and skillset. While each role comes with its own specificities, I would argue that they all revolve around two aspects: discovery and execution. And this is what PMs should care about.

Finding the right balance can be difficult and getting great at both is a continuous journey.

Executing x Discovering

The natural question is: why only those two dimensions? To put it simply, they are the essence of the PM job. “A PM is responsible for making sure that a team ships a great product.” This is the first line from the Cracking the PM Interview book. The key words here are “ships” and “great”.

To put it in a more elaborate way:

  • Can you assemble cross-functional ressources to deliver on time and as per the requirements? i.e can you execute on the strategy?
  • Can you leverage domain knowledge and market research to come up with new ideas? i.e can you discover a compelling feature that generates value to the business and the customers?

Note that I am using “discovery” in this context to describe a concept more akin to “product discovery in the pursuit of business expansion” which is broader than the traditional “feature discovery”.

If we were to put these two dimensions on a chart and attempt to pin different types of PM on it, this is what it could look like:

Career 2 executing x discovering: a chart

First, we have this little chap 🤔 who knows about every single change in the industry, e.g the latest OpenAI model or the latest regulation around data privacy in Europe. They always come up with ideas, good and bad, but would generally struggle to turn them into something meaningful. Then, we have this guy 🫡 on the opposite spectrum who does not necessarily know what’s going on in his field and requires higher-level help to come up with new ideas but, when given a strong strategy, will excel at delivering value to the business and the end customer.

Now you may wonder, which type of PM does a hiring manager prefer?

If you read between the lines, you might roughly be able to identify strengths and weaknesses for each one of them. In a hypothetical scenario, 🤔 is well-versed in analytics and UX/market research, but lacks leadership and communication skills. 🫡 knows how to collaborate with cross-functional teams and prioritise ruthlessly, but needs improvement in technical knowledge and strategic thinking. That blurb should have reminded you of the countless skills that the literature advises a PM to master and the list seems never ending. But if we try to simplify all of this, all these skills ladder up to either being great at 1) discovering compelling ideas and 2) executing and delivering value to the business and the end customer.

If you are great at both, congrats you might just a 🦄!

Career 3 A wild unicorn appears

But if you are reading this, I will assume you are not there yet, and you are probably somewhere between 🤔 and 🫡. So what should you be focusing on?

Execution first, Discovery second

In almost all cases, you would want to focus on being great at executing before discovering; which is somewhat contrary to the product development sequence, where discovery occurs first. The reason is simple: organisations are in no shortage of ideas. It doesn’t matter whether they are good or bad because a fraction of them will eventually turn out to be great. What these organisations are missing though, are people able to transform these ideas into tangible value. Execution is the trait that hiring managers look for, especially for junior PMs.

Only after you have had a few feature/product launches under your belt, successful or not, can you focus your full attention to getting better at discovery. In doing so, you will also position yourself for more responsibility that should organically lead you to more senior roles. At this point, you may be wondering: where does strategy fit in all of this? Surely, you can’t just jump from being great at execution to discovery (and vice versa). Indeed, there is a third axis I intentionally omitted earlier: strategic thinking.

Career 4 Bonus skill unlocked

On your quest to building the “discovering” muscle (or becoming a 🦄), you are actually ****developing strategic thinking at the same time. There is a simple reason for that: strategy is the connecting tissue between a grand vision polished through an iterative discovery process and a sound roadmap ready to be executed on.

Getting better at Discovering

There are countless of resources online sharing ways to get better at generating ideas - some would call it “product thinking” - and I will try not to rehash them. What I want to share is a relatively simple process that works for me and I encourage everyone to find a ritual that works for them.

Career 5 An improvised attempt at a flywheel
  • Learn: there has never been more ressources readily available (most of them for free) in formats that suit everyone: books, blogs, videos, podcasts, newsletters… I have personally found podcasts to be great during a workout and newsletters for quick reads (although you can rapidly fall into a rabbit hole) during a break or when commuting. Try to broaden your horizon at first and learn about topics beyond your field of work. What I’ve found compelling with this approach is the cross-pollination of knowledge in different fields that have the potential to yield innovative concepts, e.g carbon credits on the blockchain (web3 and carbon markets), machine generated content (deep learning and art).
  • Write: that clever idea that popped in your mind on a random walk? Write it down. It may be a bad one, but you will never know until you dig a bit deeper. Writing is the best way I found to articulate my thoughts and disambiguate my mind when I am toying with new concepts. Practicing the art of writing, which I’d argue is an underrated PM skill, has certainly come in handy when it came to writing strategy docs and product requirements documents.
  • Discuss: we all form opinions. Sharing them with friends or peers and starting a discussion is a way to put them to the test. For some, this might mean putting themselves out there and it can feel daunting at first, especially for introverts or people with imposter syndrome. I’ve personally found the benefits of that kind of conversations to largely outweigh the costs (which are predominantly self-inflicted) as I often walk out questioning beliefs I had long held or with new insights. For PMs, communication is a core skill to nurture, and casual discussions/debates have tremendously helped me be better prepared when it came to pushing back on stakeholders, convince the tech team on the next feature to build or explain a technical concept to non-technical people.
  • Build: the last step, and perhaps the most intimidating one. That cool content generation API that you have seen across the internet - have you tried using it? Can you think of applications of it for existing problems? That idea you have been thinking about for a while - can you put together a quick MVP to test out hypotheses? Don’t know where to start? The three steps prior should help. Only by making things come to life can you truly test your understanding and theses on ideas or knowledge recently acquired. After all, the goal is to make things work so there will be holes to fill and plenty of learnings along the way.

And with that, we are back to square one. You can see how the steps above have been building on top of each other in terms of complexity to implement and effort required.

Just to close out on this topic (well, not quite), the muscle you’ve been building in the “build” phase (pun intended) will conveniently improve your abilities to effectively execute as well (which is a whole other topic in itself).

Career 6 Improvised Flywheel+
End Note

Hopefully, some of the principles shared here have provided you with insights into how to upskill yourself and can help you better navigate the evermore convoluted PM job. At the end of day, there are a lot of things we won’t be able to control in our career but can influence. Starting with choosing the area(s) to focus our attention on which will compound to affect the type of work we do, our growth and the skills we develop.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aymerc Zhuo

Aymerc Zhuo
Co-Founder @ Stealth

Aymeric is an experienced Product Manager who's been fortunate to witness and leverage the technological unlocks that happened over the last decade.

His goal in his current venture is to remove the barrier to entry to software creation by leveraging AI. Follow him on LinkedIn to follow his journey.

Prior co-founding his own start-up, Aymeric's experience spans both Product Management and Data Science, working for some of the world's most recognised brands including TikTok, Activision Blizzard Media and King.

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