Ask Women in Product: What’s a day in the life of a PM like?
I’m at a very small company, and I wear many hats; my title is Product Manager, but I’m not sure my job is really like other PMs.
In this post, four women in product — Shilpi Roongta, Heather Campbell, Karmel Elshinnawi, and Clarissa Matthews— describe a ‘typical’ week at work leading teams that build products to scale. Our four contributors work in different industries, countries, and levels of seniority — two PMs, a Senior PM, and a Director. Together, their answers showcase the breadth and depth of the Product Management role, as well as the varied challenges one can expect to encounter while pursuing excellence in product delivery.
A Peek at Shilpi Roongta’s Week
Editor’s Note: Shilpi Roongta is a Product Manager at XO Group Inc. for the brand, The Knot. Her work focuses on empowering couples who are in the midst of wedding planning with tools to help them through the process, whether that be in deciding on the right vendors or planning day-of logistics.
As is true with many product managers, the length of dedicated desk time I get at work each week during official working hours is almost always unpredictable. The work during the week also varies based on where we are in the product process, what issues we are facing, and the time of year.
Despite the variability in my schedule, however, there are natural themes that occur in terms of where my time goes, as illustrated by these general categories.
Regular Comms. I always start and end my days by making sure I am on top of the emails and Slack messages that I need to write, respond to, or read. While I check emails and messages throughout the day, I find it much better to start and end my days keeping inbound messages under control.
Agile Process. My team operates on a two-week sprint cycle.
- We have a stand-up each morning to kick off the day. We discuss what we did the previous day, agree on what we plan to do today, and identify any blockers that may slow us down.
- We also have Iteration Prep Meetings (IPM) a.k.a. Sprint Planning. During these sessions, we review prioritized user and technical stories in Pivotal Tracker as a team so we’re all clear on the goals and work for the sprint.
- IPM meetings require preparation (see “Desk Time”) and a “Pre-IPM” session where I discuss priorities and open details with Design and Engineering counterparts.
- We follow up the sprint with a retrospective about what went well, what could have been improved, and how we are going to improve them.
I believe that Agile processes are flexible and should be used as needed. We always have stand-ups whether in person or on Slack. There are times, as is the case this month for my team, when the engineers are working on a technical re-architecture project for which I do not need to provide user stories. During technical-heavy sprints, our prep and IPM meetings are devoted to ensuring that the team is not blocked, that they are raising issues as appropriate, and that — while engineering is focused elsewhere — the designer and I are prepping for what is to come.
Core Product Process. Each week, I dedicate some time to activities that I’ve categorized as Core Product Process. These activities include (though are not limited to):
- brainstorming and strategy sessions;
- planning, participating in, or reviewing unmoderated and moderated user research;
- synthesizing findings and discussing them with the team or my design counterpart; and
- performing design reviews for iterations or features.
The duration, participants, and nature of the tasks each week — including the decision as to who leads these initiatives between Product or Design — are always dependent on the scope of the problem we are working on and whether we are working through product vision, strategy, or specifics. The key to success is to identify the right approach and tools for the specific insight we hope to discover.
Collaboration. Because team members sit next to each other, the majority of the daily collaboration that my team does can be unscheduled even though I’ve called out specific intervals on the calendar. I’m also following up with people in adjacent teams on a regular basis. We have a large product organization, with many supporting and adjacent functions, so it’s important to stay aligned. We collaborate to leverage opportunities for efficiency, resolve conflicting priorities, work through dependencies, and give each other insight and feedback based on our knowledge and experience. Adjacent functions include User Research, Customer Experience, Business Analytics, Data Intelligence, Marketing and Editorial, and Product Copy.
Desk Time. There are so many things that are grouped into the Desk Time category! For lack of a better category name, these are just things that happen when I’m at my desk. For example, I regularly dive into performance and behavior metrics to either inform strategy or prioritization, check on existing features, or see how an experiment is performing. I also use desk time for Product QA, writing specs and user stories, grooming the backlog, writing documentation on decisions or learnings for sharing, working on various presentations for stakeholders or people on other teams, and so much more! Getting solid desk time is not as easy as it looks on this calendar. Those pesky 15 to 30-minute windows between meetings are often not long enough to get into the necessary detail and depth. Desk time is often after hours when I’m on my couch!
1:1s. I have regular 1:1s scheduled with my design lead, engineering lead, manager, and others to have a formally dedicated time to talk through what is going well, what can be improved, how we are working together, and get feedback. I also have 1:1s with some colleagues in those support functions to have a regular cadence of sharing. These take time from the day and may end up getting rescheduled to free up time for troubleshooting or to let me represent my user base in larger group meetings that lack scheduling flexibility.
Zone Meetings. We follow a squad structure where we have several squads that make up a zone, and all zones make up the product org. It goes without saying that we work to ensure that we are all aligned on our goals and priorities, aware of each other’s work, and are sharing knowledge.
Product Department Meetings. In addition to meetings meant to improve cross-team collaboration, we have what’s called Product School, where a member of the team presents on a topic to share knowledge for the team’s continuous growth. It’s an important time for the team to take a step back from the specific projects we are working on and to think more broadly while learning something new or developing our craft. All PMs send out a weekly update, but on a monthly basis, each PM also presents to the rest of the product org for three minutes to describe what problem their squad is solving, what outcomes they saw in the previous month, what they will be working on in the upcoming month, and where they can use help.
Extracurricular Activities. The fun stuff! I am co-lead of the company’s Women in Tech (WiT) resource group, and we hold a monthly meeting where we cover topics such as professional development, career trajectory, giving and taking constructive feedback, and imposter syndrome. It’s important to me to facilitate valuable discussion and create a supportive community for my fellow WIT! We also have a Slack group called Coffee Culture that randomly pairs channel members with one another through a Slackbot called @donut. Each pair has two weeks to meet for “coffee” and get to know one another. It’s been a great way to get exposure to other departments and people!
As you can tell, there are many different types of meetings and activities that fill a week; variety keeps the job exciting! Product managers have multi-dimensional and cross-functional roles, so you’ll do well if you can find ways to stay organized, prioritize what gets your attention, switch contexts smoothly, and thrive in the face of uncertainty.
A Peek at Heather Campbell’s Week
Editor’s Note: Heather Campbell is a Product Manager at Booking.com. Her work centers on the new user experience (sign-up and onboarding) for property owners who list and operate properties on Booking.com.
My mornings typically follow the same routine:
- Read through newsletters and industry news for ~15 minutes.
- On Mondays, I take ~10 minutes to prepare for meetings and think through our team’s priority for that week. I also note down the ideal outcomes for each discussion I will have that day.
- I try to prioritize meetings that are related to the week’s priority or our team’s Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) and say ‘No’ to unrelated requests. This prioritization is something that can always be improved, but thinking through my whole calendar for the week on Monday has been pretty helpful.
User Feedback. Every day I look at two sources of user feedback to understand the current experience in our product:
- Read through comments in a feedback tool we use to collect feedback from our users. I forward interesting comments to relevant teams, investigate issues I’m seeing, and make a note of anything related to my team in a ‘living research document’ that I maintain as a high-level summary of our learnings so far. The team uses it as a reference point for internal stakeholders to understand our product area, as something to reflect on when we set OKRs and prioritize our work, and to make sure we don’t repeat research we already have.
- Watch Hotjar recordings of users using our product.
Planning. Each Monday, the team meets for 45 minutes to an hour to plan what we want to achieve by the end of the week, and agree on what each person’s contribution will be to make that happen.
- I prepare by looking at the current state of our product development, how we are tracking against milestones, and what work is blocking us from getting to our next milestone — it could be development, analysis, research, design, copy… you name it.
- I also update our sprint board in Trello, so we have relevant info in front of us during planning discussions.
- After our planning session, I send a weekly update to stakeholders about what we aim to achieve that week and how it tracks against our OKRs and milestones.
Unblocking. After stand-up, I spend the time until lunch with the team, making sure they are unblocked on anything they might be working on that day. Unblocking might mean looking into data for a story to inform the design, talking through a user flow, or getting information from people outside of our team.
My afternoons are devoted to these activities:
Prep for an upcoming research trip. We are planning a workshop at one of our support centers to understand the common struggles of our users. I think through the format and operational details, then share the plan with our Team Lead and User Researcher for feedback and next steps.
Provide feedback on initiatives from other teams. I try to reserve time throughout the week to go through the product plans, research, and analyses that other teams have shared to give them feedback and ask questions. My goal is to make sure that our respective teams remain aligned and informed of new progress and decisions.
Discuss Communication Plan for launch with Marketing. We’re launching something that will affect the workflow of internal teams, so I’m working with our Product Marketing Manager to decide how best to communicate the launch internally. This planning includes details such as who will be affected, what we want to share, the communication channels and media we will use, and who owns each step.
Collaborate with the designer on complex stories. When we have a user problem where the solution is not clear, I’ll spend time with our team’s designer to discuss how we can best get user feedback and put together a test, such as a prototype in UserTesting.com or street testing.
1:1s with copywriter and data scientist. Our copywriter and data scientist work across multiple teams, so we have a regular 1:1 to discuss progress, impediments, the backlog, and relevant learnings that can affect their work.
Reflect on team progress/strategy. I maintain a series of strategy and research documents that I check weekly to log and reflect on the progress we’ve made, what we’ve learned, and how that affects our roadmap — all while being mindful of the user experience across all our products and how we’re contributing to that. I use this time to think about the big picture — the key questions we’ve answered, the remaining hypotheses we need to validate, and how that should shape what we’re working on (e.g., do we need more research about something?).
So what’s a day in the life a PM look like? There’s a little bit of everything! There’s a mix of talking to users, working with the team to orient ourselves towards our next milestone, communicating with stakeholders, and taking some time to think about the bigger picture. That said, while I try to maintain some semblance of a routine, no week ever looks the same!
A Peek at Karmel Elshinnawi’s Week
Editor’s Note: Karmel Elshinnawi is a Senior Product Manager at Phone2Action where she contributes to a SaaS platform for public policy campaigns. Clients include non-profits, trade associations, and businesses who use the company’s mobile, web, and voice tools to amplify the voices of their grassroots supporters.
My days start at 6:00 AM. I walk the dog, make coffee and breakfast, and skim over email and Slack to check for high priority issues that I need to address. I listen to a podcast on my way to work and usually arrive between 7:30 and 8:00 AM.
An early start gives me a nice chunk of quiet time. My days usually fly by as they are filled with focused goals and tasks that I need to achieve. The expression “time flies when you’re having fun” truly applies!
Here are the high-level categories of work that consume most of my days. I can relate to the concept of wearing lots of hats, and it’s worthwhile to note that context-switching is one of the most important skills to master as I have to jump between meetings and tasks on very different topics, all day, every day.
The category that’s usually the first to be sacrificed for the “Fire of the Day/Week” is Product Prep/Research — I usually block my calendar so I can have that time reserved and, if needed, I say no to meetings that aren’t absolutely necessary.
- Common Deliverables. These include product specs, research stories, design decisions, presentations, product documentation, user research, and feedback.
- User Stories. The results of emails, research and various conversations with cross-functional teams will be captured in Jira tickets. I translate them into “stories” that are added to the backlog.
- Backlog. I manage the product backlog and prioritize the tickets to make sure that my team doesn’t have any dead time in between feature development.
- Grooming sessions. Engineers provide feedback, estimates, and technical notes needed for stories for which I’ve provided acceptance criteria and mockups the day before. My engineering team is great at discussing any technical limitations and presenting alternative solutions.
- Unblocking. I schedule time with the subject matter experts from engineering to discuss high-level strategy and potential blockers. This work is needed especially when coordinating with separate front-end and back-end teams. I am spoiled in the sense that most of my engineers are full-stack and are extremely knowledgeable.
Product Strategy. Product Strategy is the foundation of our product lifecycle. During Product Strategy meetings we discuss vision, goals, and initiatives — it’s essential that we keep the team aligned on the overall North Star of the organization. We have various initiatives and projects that the team works on, so these strategy meetings help us identify priorities.
We also discuss any complex product problems that the team is working on and weigh the proposed resolutions. Our Engineering team has grown in size to support the increased workload, and now we’re looking to do the same for our Product team and are hiring in anticipation of running more than one sprint at the same time.
Cross-Team Meetings. I spend time with cross-functional teams like sales, marketing, customer success, and upper management to discuss product priorities, incorporate their feedback, and keep them informed. Getting insights from sales and customer success is extremely valuable as they have daily interactions with current users and prospects. The co-founders have an open-door policy so I can drop in whenever there’s a matter that requires their immediate attention — no need to schedule a meeting or work through a chain of command.
As you can imagine, the work I do changes so often that I never get bored, and it is gratifying to collaborate and interact with different people across the company! I also set aside time to zoom out of the day-to-day, so I don’t overlook thinking about the health of the product and our overall progress towards our North Star.
A Peek at Clarissa Matthews’ Week
Editor’s Note: Clarissa Matthews is Director of Product Management and Planning at The Atlantic. Her work centers around a media website with all the accoutrements: app, video, audio, social platforms, and even customer service.
My weekly activities fall broadly into these eight categories:
- Planning. We follow Agile (roughly), so these activities include planning two-week sprints, keeping our backlog of Jira tickets moving, and planning further out for our product pipeline.
- Stand-ups and Check-ins. Daily stand-ups are a helpful way to keep things moving as part of the Agile process. As for check-ins, I have weekly or twice-weekly 1:1s with product managers as well as 1:1s with my boss and my boss’s boss.
- Project Meetings. I have numerous meetings with small-to-large groups of stakeholders from different teams — most often sales and marketing, editorial, and product — to plan different projects. These projects can range from a redesign of the site, to adding a new site section, or trying an experiment on a new platform. Our product managers tend to wear the project manager hat as we run these meetings and plan out the project milestones.
- Focused Product Work. Well, “focused” might be a bit aspirational. Between meetings (and I’ll admit my meeting schedule has gotten a little bit out of control), I work on writing product requirements, running QA, doing user testing if I’m lucky, or sometimes planning an A/B test. Most often, I end up troubleshooting through a fire drill. It could be that our Content Management System (CMS) is doing something weird, or something is wrong with our ads, or our traffic from search seems low. A lot of requests are urgent: when ads are broken, we’re losing money by the minute. If there’s a problem with the CMS, it usually comes up right at the moment someone is desperately trying to publish a time-sensitive story.
- Vendor Management. Tasks of this nature revolve around billing, scoping the work that our vendors do for us, tracking usage of tools before we go into overages, modeling our future usage to see if we need to change our contract or switch vendors, and reading contracts in progress to make sure they fit our business needs.
- Catch-up / Industry News. Catching up with coworkers and reading industry newsletters are how I make use of ‘breaks’.
- Team + Hiring + Training. We have fun events like birthday celebrations or baby showers with the team. For hiring, I look at resumes, do phone screens and in-person interviews. I also do a lot of training, both for people joining my team and for people on other teams who use the tools that my team manages or builds.
- Personal / Errands. I have a kid, so I can’t work long hours like I used to. I race out the door at 5:30 PM (well, usually a few minutes later, hence the racing) to get to the daycare in time, then I catch up on some work later in the evening.
Our small product team is going through a phase of expansion. It’s an interesting transition as I try to rein in my work and focus on particular products rather than wearing many different hats since our product managers also act as scrum masters, project managers, and QA. As you can imagine, it gets pretty hectic, but it’s also proven to be a valuable (and fun!) learning experience for the team to have insight into these aspects of building our different products.
Editor’s note: It’s no easy task to define a ‘typical’ week that will be true for all product managers. The vast majority of product management professionals do work that is varied in nature and riddled with crises, both real and perceived. In some cases, the work is further complicated by the political culture of the organization.
Still, it’s the thrill of accomplishment and the satisfaction of building products that drive many of us into the profession in the first place. It’s the perfect role if you’re the type who gets a kick out of solving the small and large problems faced by individuals, organizations, businesses, and society. It’s the ideal career if you thrive in the midst of constant change, enjoy a driving pace, and find fun in challenging environments.
Whether it’s working on a feature, a product, or a platform, product professionals will juggle many batons and wear different hats, and their day-to-day work and schedules will reflect that variety. At the end of the day, the role of the PM can be summed up as simply doing whatever it takes to get the job done.
Thank you to Tanya Elkins for editing this piece.
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