So before we dive into my tale of woe, let’s first make sure that we are all on the same page at least in terms of vocabulary. When you lose a job, there are a couple of different ways to have this happen. One is that you get laid off. This generally happens when the company is forced to reduce its workforce because they’ve run into financial problems or a contract got canceled or they are closing a branch office. Multiple people generally get laid off at the same time. You get the point. When you get fired, it’s a lot more personal. Everyone else is still going to have their job but you are not. You have been told that you are no longer wanted and you need to pack your things up and get out. This is what happened to me. I got fired.
Exactly How Does A Product Manager Get Fired?
Sigh. So I guess I’m going to have to share my story with you. Let me start out by saying yes, this is all my fault. I would like to be able to point fingers and say “it’s not fair” and blame someone else, but this time around I believe that I have to shoulder the blame. I brought this upon myself. My story starts when I got hired by a midsized defense contractor that employed about 300 people. I was working in one of their branch offices that had about 30 people working in it. My last contacting gig had gone away unexpectedly and so this was a nice change – full time employment with a stable company.
The reason that they hired me was because they had gotten themselves into a bind. They were primarily a body shop – they provided IT workers for the Army, Navy, Marines, etc. The government had realized that the military was buying stacks and stacks of computers to talk to different countries when they would work together on the battle field and this company had come up with a clever way to shrink all of those computers down into just one small stack. What this meant for the company is that they now had a product and, hat’s off to them, they realized that they needed a product manager. This is why they brought me in.
I started work full of great hope – new company, new product, new opportunities. From a product manager perspective, things were a bit weird. No real competitors, no real marketing, no real sales, no real pricing. This was about getting the government to buy what the company made. What I did need to do was to find out what their product development definition was and launch a new product. That was no big deal to me, I had done that before. I started things out doing what I believe are the two most important things that a product manager can do: learning about the product and learning about the people. The product was a very sophisticated collection of 5 pieces of hardware and 15 pieces of off-the-shelf software that all had to be custom configured in order to create a super secure system. It took time for me to be able to understand how the various pieces fit together, but I did it. Along the way I meet and made friends with the engineering team. We all got along very well.
As I think back about it, I think that things started to go poorly for me right off the bat. I made mistakes. There are two mistakes that stand out in my memory: I fell asleep at work and I read the Wall Street Journal. Neither of these is all that terrible; however, what I had not realized was that I was being watched. I was placed into an office that I shared with the company’s CTO and their head engineer. As I sat at my desk in the first few days, there was not a lot for me to do as I attempted to find my away around. It turns out that the CTO, sitting on the other side of the room, was watching me. I was burning the candle at both ends and I must have nodded off a few times (you know how that goes – you’ve done it too) and when I completed a task, I’d open the paper and read for a couple of minutes before starting my next task. No big deal – or so I thought. The CTO decided that I was not working as hard as he was. Bummer, but not that big of deal at the time because I didn’t report to him.
Time moves on. The company goes though a small reorganization and now I’m reporting to the CTO. The reorganization happens on a Friday and on the following Monday the CTO calls me into a conference room and tells me that he’s writing up an “Employee Corrective Action” form for the things that he had observed me doing during my first couple of weeks with the company. A month and a half ago. Dear God in heaven – how embarrassing is this? This isn’t going to look good on my product manager resume. Ok, so I can put up with this – it’s just a bump in the road. However, the next day the CTO calls me into the same conference room and writes me up again, this time because an assignment that he had me do for him did not meet his expectations. Two days, two HR write ups. Let us agree that things are not going so good for me right now. Oh, and as we talk about the second write up my boss uses an analogy that talks about if you were playing basketball for the Pistons and you just couldn’t keep up, then maybe you should quit the team and go do something else. What could he have meant by that?
So the way that this story ends is a bit anticlimactic. The CTO pretty much said that he wanted me to show my value to the company by being able to complete a project that would be useful to all. He handed me a project, really didn’t discuss what he wanted, and let me work on it. As you can well imagine, what I produced was good work – but not what he wanted. was pretty much my “three strikes and you are out”. Yes, he had set me up and no, there was nothing that I could do to prevent me from being set up. My time with the company was effectively over.
What Could I Have Done Differently?
Ok, so I admit it. I screwed up. I set the CTO against me from the get go and then I ended up in a situation where he decided that I had to go. This is a mistake of my own making. What could I have done differently? Outside of the obvious – don’t fall asleep, don’t read the paper it turns out that the solution to this problem is actually pretty simple. The first thing that I should have realized is that I was dropping into a company that had a specific way of viewing the world. They were really a body shop – they provided IT workers who would do a specific job for the government. What this meant is that the people that they hired provided an immediate return on their investment. They produced tangible results from day one.
One of the challenges of being a product manager is that the things that we do don’t have an immediate pay off. Just to make things even more challenging, we often don’t do things. Instead we get other people to do things for us. You should be seeing my point – I was not able to produce results like the other people at the company were. I did have a chance to get a lot of things started. I was working to create a system by which the company could support its products after they were sold. I was creating a list of features that could be added to the product in future releases. I was creating a system that would allow customers to easily customize and order the product. However all of these product manager projects take time. None of them would have a payoff for at least six months and it turns out that I didn’t have six months to spend.
So given all of this what should I have done. In hind sight, it’s pretty simple. I should have realized that as the company’s first product manager nobody there was going to have a clue as to what a product manager really does. What this means is that I was going to have to act like people that they do know – temporary IT workers who produce results immediately. What I should have done was to create two lists. One list was the list of standard product manager tasks that take a long time to complete from start to finish. The other list would have been of “short term wins” that I could have been doing and showing to others to let them know that I was adding value to the company right now. Everyone would have been impressed with the product programs that I set up over time, but they needed to see success right now to know that they had made the right decision in bringing me in now.
What All Of This Means For You
So what what should you take away from my sad tale? Well, if you work in a small environment where there is a good chance that people will be watching you to see what kind of work you produce, no matter what your product manager job description says you can’t just focus on the traditional product manager tasks. The reason is because what product managers do can take too long to set up if you are working with people who don’t understand what product managers do. You won’t have the time that you need to be successful.
Instead, you are going to have to adjust to the work environment that you find yourself in. If the company is used to having their employees produce results on a daily or weekly basis, then that is going to be what you will have to do. You are going to have to find product related tasks that you can accomplish quickly. Once you complete something, you will then have to take the next step to get the word out about what you have accomplished. You are going to have to become your own best cheerleader. Nobody else is going to do this for you. If you want to hold on to your job, everyone has to be able to see that you are producing results right now and not have to wait until sometime in the future to see what you can do.
The answer is that no, this is not fair. If anyone can tell you this, it’s me. We might be the best product managers in the world but if we are working for a company that wants to know what we’ve done for them lately, then we are going to have to deliver. In the end, and I’d still have a job if I had known this, we product managers are responsible for understanding the environment that we are working in and adjusting our working style to match it. If you can do this, than unlike me you’ll have a good shot at having a long and happy product manager career.
– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™
Question For You: If your company doesn’t understand that product manager tasks take time to complete, how can you still show value?
Click here to get automatic updates when
The Accidental Product Manager Blog is updated.
P.S.: Free subscriptions to The Accidental Product Manager Newsletter are now available. It’s your product – it’s your career. Subscribe now: Click Here!
What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time
So I’m not sure if you are aware of it, but it turns out that all of the people in the world can be divided into one of two different groups. These groups consist of people who like to get their morning coffee from Dunkin and people who like to get their morning coffee from Starbucks. Traditionally once you’ve picked which group you want to belong to, you will never change your mind. The product managers at Dunkin have decided that they want to grow their market and so they are preparing to change their product development definition and do battle with the Starbucks product managers in order to see if they can win some more customers over to their way of doing coffee.