The Shortest Product Manager Job Ever!

The end can come for a product manager when they least expect it
The end can come for a product manager when they least expect it
Bill Selak

So here’s a quick question for you: what is the shortest time that you’ve ever worked at a product manager job? Product managers are generally considered to be valuable members of the product team who work on the product development definition and we can have a direct impact on the bottom line of the product project that we are involved in. We’re valuable and generally a company would be resistant to getting rid of us as long as our product is doing well. That’s why I was surprised when I got fired after two weeks on the job at my new product manager position.

The New Product Manager Job

I had been working for a startup that had run into some financial problems. What this meant for me is that they had stopped paying me. For a year and a half. You might wonder why I stuck around. I don’t have a good answer to that question outside of saying that I really liked the people that I was working with, I was comfortable in my product manager position, and I really believed that great things were ahead of the company and we would soon be a big success. However, that never happened and so I ended up going searching for my next product manager opportunity.

My search ended up with a local firm that had developed a cloud based application that allows companies to keep track of the hazardous chemicals that they were either using or producing. Although this was a new market for me, it sounded interesting and I felt that I could provide value as a product manager. They already had a product manager and so I was going to be the external product manager who dealt with customers, competition, trade shows, etc.

I actually worked for this company for a total of three weeks. However, one of those weeks was filled with sales training for a batch of new sales people that had just been brought on. That week didn’t really count. I spent my time during the other two weeks visiting with developers, business analysis, sales people, etc. I would ask them what they did, why they did it that way, and if they thought that there was anything that could be changed to make their lives easier. Pretty basic product manager stuff. I would touch base with my boss, the vice president of marketing, every so often to make sure that everything was on track. He indicated that everything was going well.

An everything was going well until the Monday of my fourth week with the company rolled around. I got into the office nice and early as I had been doing. I sat down, turned my computer on and started to figure out what I needed to get accomplished that day. This is when my boss came into my office and shut the door behind him. Just in case you don’t know it, this is never a good indicator. He sat down and said “Jim, I’m going to have to let you go. You are not compatible with the environment of this company.”

Clearly this was not going to be something that I could add to my product manager resume.

The New Job Comes To An End

Ok, so that was a bit of a shocker. I certainly didn’t see that coming. You know that I stared at my boss thinking that either this was the worst joke ever or that he had somehow made a terrible mistake. But no, he was not leaving and he certainly seemed to be serious. I then proceeded to pack up my office and my boss helped me to carry my art out to my car. We shook hands and I drove off. I clearly had more questions that I had answers, but as a parting gesture my boss had offered to have lunch with me in a couple of weeks to talk.

I spend the next week with all sorts of scenarios running though my head. Had I failed the company’s background check somehow? Had someone set me up and used my computer to do something that should not have been done? Was I a bad person? Finally, two weeks had passed and I was able to set up a lunch with my boss. I came prepared to listen. I really wasn’t ready for what he told me. He started things off by saying that the decision to fire me was his decision – nobody told him to do it. He decided to let me go because people had been coming to him saying that I was a nice person, but that they didn’t think that they could work with me.

I needed to know more: what horrible thing had I done in two weeks (!!!) that made me somebody that they realized that they could not work with? This is where the story took a strange turn. It turns out that in this startup, back in the early days the CEO would walk around. She would ask people what they were working on. They would tell her and then she would tell them that that was wrong and they should be working on this other thing. Apparently she did this over and over again. Eventually the people at the firm got a form of PTSD (battlefield fatigue). When I showed up and started to ask people questions about what they were doing and why, apparently I triggered their PTSD and caused a flood of bad memories come back to everyone. This meant that I had to go.

What All Of This Means For You

Even now, long after this firing happened, I still sting when I think about it. A whole series of questions run through my head: what could I had done differently? Did I make a mistake asking all of the questions that I asked? With the benefit of time, I now blame my boss a bit for how this all played out. I mean, firing someone is a fairly dramatic move. He didn’t give me any indication that there were issues before firing me and so I believe that he should have exhausted all possibilities before “pulling the trigger”.

However, in the end, perhaps there was nothing that I could have done that would have changed this outcome. There is nothing in our product manager job description that would tell us how to deal with a situation like this. The questions that I was asking everyone were the standard questions that product managers always ask. There was no way that I could have known that past events had implanted PTSD into my coworkers or that my questions would serve as a trigger for this condition. I never got any feedback that I could interpret as being push back.

I’m not 100% sure what the takeaway lessons from this event are.. As a product manager, a big part of your job is to communicate with other people. This means having a lot of conversations with people. Obviously we don’t want to anger or offend anyone. However, we always have to be keeping our eyes open to see how people are reacting to both us and our questions. If you detect that someone is becoming upset when talking with you, you’ll need to stop the conversation and take them aside in order to find out what they believe is really going on. Learn from my mistake: don’t let people become upset without being aware of it!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: If a group of coworkers has had a shared bad experience in the past, how can you find out about it?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

How many of you have ever been involved in a water balloon fight? I’m willing to bet that most of us have at some point in time. Do you remember how that went? You got some balloons, then it seemed to take forever as you used the hose to fill the balloons, and then you proceeded to run around your yard throwing your balloons at your friends trying to get them as wet as you possibly could. I think that we can all agree that the biggest delay in our fun was the annoying time that it took to fill up all of those water balloons. Well good news, that problem has been solved. However, soon after it was solved someone else came along with the same solution. What’s a product manager to do?