Three Lessons from a Product Manager

Debo Aderibigbe (MBA '16)

   

     This summer, I interned as Product Manager at VMware, a large tech company that creates software to do things

traditionally done by hardware. I strutted in feeling like the Incredible Hulk. Halfway through a Cornell MBA, I

was there to show VMware they were missing out on my unique value. However, after a whirlwind of

handshakes, orientation videos, and intern start checklists, I sat at my desk feeling like a pimply- faced teen.

A meeting with my manager left me with half a page of chicken scratch notes: “Check the feasibility of building

a new product in a parallel space to ours.” Daunted, but not broken, I was in for a summer that taught me three

big lessons about the product management role.
 

Lesson 1: Ambiguity is abundant, and sometimes frustrating, but it’s secretly your friend.

     It started off nerve-racking. For the first two weeks of a 12-week internship, I woke up every day asking

myself, “What the heck am I supposed to be doing?” I tried. I failed. I restarted, constantly. (Hearing, “That’s not

it” from my boss was common at first), and constant trickles of evolving truths made me realize something.

In product management, it is normal, even expected, to have an extremely iterative product development

process. Wild goose chases are good, if not time consuming. What I ended up loving most about

the ambiguity surrounding me was that I felt I “owned” the process of conquering it, bit by bit. Once I let go of

the need to find “The One Business Framework to Rule Them All,” it truly became my product. I had

accountability for its success – this is the kind of feeling I’d longed for in attempting to be a technology force

multiplier.
 

Lesson 2: Product Management is a careful dance between creativity, analysis and soft skills.

     My biggest breaks came not from Albert Einstein light bulb moments, but from playing with data that was not

new at all – available both on the Internet in and house – and looking for serious holes. I used competitive analyses, feature breakdowns, wireframes, and many more tools to drive analysis. The wisdom I

used to make my decisions, however, was just as vital as the tools I used to get there, and it was firmly rooted in

most of my first year courses. I used my Data Analytics, Critical Thinking and Marketing classes to filter through

user data, features, and value propositions in order to create insights. I used Negotiations, Oral

Communications and Strategy to establish “give and take relationships” with all the customers,

engineers, marketers and other stakeholders. I also used Finance and Accounting for projections an

d models. I learned what it means to drive a product, but as “CEO” of my own little product space, I had to turn all

my MBA learning into a knowledge incubator where my product could grow.
 

Lesson 3: The MOST important job of a Product Manager is to LISTEN.

     By far, the most important skill a product manager needs is the ability to empathetically listen and observe. I spoke to over

50 different stakeholders, customers included, to drive my product. Conversations never went the direction I expected,

which was fine. Everyone has a lens that they see the world through. If that lens isn’t quickly identified, immediately falling

in love (or hate!) with their ideas is inevitable. In the end, finding trends among those who were interested in my product

space breathed life into my project.
 
   At the end of my internship, I came to discover that product management isn’t just a role; it’s an art, a

science, and performance all at the same time. Nearly everything that I accomplished required me to exert some kind of

influence over myself, over engineers or product stakeholders, or in engaging customers. That, now, is my goal in terms of

sharpening the rest of my time at Johnson, and I’m looking forward to “product managing” the knowledge that results.