January 16, 2006 spout

PM Skill #5: Unblock Others First

PMs often come from the ranks of engineers who’ve been promoted” (aka taken away from the code to go to meetings). Many fight this trend, reverting to their old close-the-door-and-solve-the-problem habits to solve problems, which, as I’ve mentioned, doesn’t work at all well when you’re managing a team.

Even worse, a PM has to do something that’s very weird to most people — they have to help other folks get their work done before they tackle their own work. I call this unblock others first.” This has implications:

  • You have to be in constant communication with all the folks on your team via meetings, 1:1s, phone calls, IM, email, etc. However your teammates like to communicate, you have to be ready to receive and respond quickly. The longer you wait, they longer they’re blocked and the further out your ship date goes.
  • You have to learn to be interrupt driven and good at switching between tasks or you’re never going to be able to swap into the tasks you’re being asked to help with and then back into your own tasks. This is very counter to engineering work, where you have to be able to keep lots of ideas in your head all at once while you work on a deep technical task and interruptions are the enemy.
  • You still have to balance your interrupt-driven PM time with your concentrated technical time, or you’re never going to be able to stay technical enough to keep up with your team. This is the one I struggle with the most. How can I be responsive to unblock my teammates while still having uninterrupted time to myself for technical work?

This last question is the fundamental contradiction when you’re a product PM and it’s one that different PMs balance differently. Some swing a lot toward the technical and risk losing touch with their team and thereby building the wrong thing or missing their dates. Some swing toward the management, losing touch with the technology and losing the respect of their developers. Of the two, swinging too much toward the technology is the biggest danger, but only by a little.

I deal with this by trying to set aside at most a day here or there where I can ignore my team and concentrate on something technical, but I have a very hard time actually doing it. Frankly, I love the constant task switch that goes w/ PMing and I get bored if I go too long without it.

Hi. My name is Chris and I’m a PM. Can I get a hug?” : )