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The misfit product manager: An origin story

The misfit product manager: An origin story

“They try to put me in a box; It’s impossible!” – Ryan Leslie, Grammy nominated recording artist and music producer

If you’ve ever gotten the question, “So, what is it exactly that you do?”, you might be entitled to a golden ticket to the PMMC (Product Management Misfits Club™)!

Seriously, it’s hard enough justifying your worth in an organization, let alone getting the title in an ever-changing industry where there are no shortage of fast-track “certifications” and opinions on what the role actually encompasses.

But, maybe the ambiguity of it all is to our advantage. Maybe our value-add is that we are not confined to a set background, experience, or skill-set. Complexity is the superpower that ultimately equips us with the supreme quality needed for this role: empathy. We’re building solutions for humans, which are by nature, complex! I think it’s beautiful that the tech space is becoming filled with jack-of-all-trade, master-of-none, poignant, poised polymathic product managers.

My journey in this space has spawned several revelations, each of which I’ll share here.

Revelation #1: If I can’t “make it”, I’ll make “it”.

The first revelation dawned on me in my senior year of high school. 

As a musician, I'd just started making beats with software like Fruity Loops and GarageBand. One particular night, after about an hour of finding drum sounds and crafting melodies, I was convinced I'd made my best Pharrell & Chad (The Neptunes) impression in the studio. Then, while bobbing my head to the finished product, the program crashed, and my work was gone. I was deflated.

I realized if I wasn’t gonna have a successful career as a music producer, the next best thing would be to build the best tools for them.

Immediately, my wheels started turning. I asked myself, “How could this be prevented in the future?” and realized if I wasn’t going to have a successful career as a music producer, the next best thing would be to build the best tools for them.

Revelation #2: I suck at coding.

After my admittance into the University of Michigan's Engineering school and beginning my first year, another revelation came to light.

I was surrounded by geniuses, baby Einsteins, junior Sherlocks, and national programming champions — I figured there was no way I would keep up with these students who'd been writing code since they came out of the womb. Alas, my first exam results swiftly validated that fear. I started to think my zeal for creativity and passion for the arts had no place in this realm.

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The last [major] revelation came just a few months after that low point. My counselor asked, "What do you want to do with this major?" I told her I wanted to work at Microsoft (I had a Windows machine and an Xbox at the time, so I figured that's what success looked like). After campus visits by their recruiting team and engineers, I convinced myself to apply for their "Explore Microsoft" internship program.

I wrote essays, studied anxiously, performed (okay) in the interviews, and prayed harder than ever before. Then, boom: "Congratulations!..." read the subject line of the acceptance email. I'd made it!

Revelation #3: I was born for Product Management.

That summer internship of 2007 lit the fire of what would become my career pursuit: finding my unique place in this industry.

I was introduced to the role that most aligned with my personality: Product Manager (Microsoft calls it "Program Manager"). I was building empathy with customers and end-users, collaborating with teammates and stakeholders from different domain expertise, solving problems with a creative lens, communicating and presenting to executives, all while not writing a single line of code!

I'll still get the occasional self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and the dreaded aforementioned question every PM receives at least a handful of times in their career: "...but, what do you actually do?"

It eerily felt a lot like music production – I was responsible for pulling together the right elements and personnel to deliver on a finished product that ultimately connected with people and made their lives more enjoyable.

I had survived failing multiple classes, weaving through academic probation (twice), and a host of other obstacles in school to having a 10+ year career in Engineering and Product, working on some of the world's most beloved products! Yet, I'll still get the occasional self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and the dreaded aforementioned question every PM receives at least a handful of times in their career: "...but, what do you actually do?"

[Software] Engineers write the code. Designers make the visuals poppin’ (I know, it's much more than that, but walk with me, here.) Marketers market the stuff. Finance people work with the monies, and so on. What about Product Managers?

The role itself has evolved and grown over the past 15+ years. I'll leave it to you to search the web and find many of the think pieces and blog posts about what the role entails, who can do it, why it's needed or not – I'm not (entirely) here for that.

However, what is clear is that the position is part mad science, part art, and generalist enough not to have a single definition. You could be doing "all the things" or none of them, and the position can't exist in a vacuum. It requires deep collaboration.

Putting it all together

So, how does a Product Manager actually show their work? What does a Product Manager's "portfolio" look like?

Enter Polywork.

Justin's personal website on Polywork

There has been no tool quite as sophisticated, nuanced, flexible, and dynamic for budding polymaths like myself and, more specifically, Product Management professionals. 

Here’s why:

  • Everything in your ammunition for charting your progress and milestones fits here: blog posts, small wins, big wins, or job changes.
  • PM processes are multifaceted. What if you: 
    • Wrote a functional spec?
    • Talked to some users and gained some unique insight? 
    • Learned a new skill outside of your current domain expertise?
    • Collaborated with a new team member? 
    • Delighted a customer? 
    • Launched a successful (or failed) product? 
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A guide for product managers looking to grow their online presence, sourced from expert interviews, research, and the Polywork community.

All are a part of the PM process, and sharing these moments is welcomed on the Polywork platform. And, of course, an essential aspect of the gig: relationships. Outfitting and optimizing your personal digital identity could lead to you connecting with your next collaborator, mentor, customer, friend, beta tester, ot mate (okay, maybe not...but maybe?!).

Misfits unite!

The culture of creative technologists and world changers is evident in Polywork. The platform is built with the functionality, tech, tools, and features to make sharing any aspect of your work seamless and fun (so long as it's not confidential, ha).

I'm so glad to have found a place in this industry where I can do my best to positively impact people with technology and the most refined platform to share that journey with the world in Polywork.

Polywork is the best place to showcase everything you are and do — get started here.