Rule 2: Don’t be a victim.

As a product manager it is tempting to blame failures on the action – or inaction – of others. This is dangerous because it allows one to avoid responsibility for the commtiments they make.

To be a great product manager you have to be a good leader. That means holding yourself accountable. The best definition of accountability I’ve seen describes accountability as “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving desired results (Connors, Smith and Hickman, ‘The Oz Principle‘).”

When I worked on the Yahoo! home page a colleague approached me with an idea that would generate significant new revenue. So the two of us sat down to check his math and figure out how to implement it.

It turned out that he was right, but that to implement his idea we’d need to rely on a dysfunctional team in a distant office. As a result, completing the project would require both of us to spend a lot of time doing other peoples’ jobs.

So we started the project and began to muddle through. Soon enough, the predicted problems arose and began to slow our progress. Frustrated, I took the issue to my boss and asked for his advice. I described the problem to him and he gave me some detailed guidance. Then, we wrapped up the conversation something like this:

“Will this make money for Yahoo!?”


“Is it good for the user?”


“Do you still want to do this?”

“Yes, but it will be a huge pain in the ass to implement.”

“Then don’t be a victim. If you really want to do this, you can – and I’ll give you all the help you need. It’s up to you.”

And so I had my revelation.

This project would require me to get my hands very dirty – but the business benefit was huge, and if the project succeeded I would get a lot of the credit. So I decided to commit and push it through.

It turns out that the problems weren’t nearly as big as I originally thought. After a week or two of messy work – which consisted mostly of managing people who didn’t work for me – we got things on track and launched the feature. And it actually performed as expected, and drove a significant amount of new revenue into our business.

Too many people fall victims to their dependencies. Victims blame others for their failures rather than taking accountablity for things that happen and trying to correct for them. Leaders take accountability for what they commit to do.

That said, smart leaders are very careful what they commit to. You can only take on a few of these “special missions” at once and so you need to save them for the most important things. You also have to accept the fact that sometimes, the most important things will be things that you are ordered to do, not necessarily the things that you feel the need to do. When this happens, argue vigorously, accept the orders of your superious, and plan for the “I told you so” contingency. That way, if it turns out that you were right all along, you’re still in a position to fix the underlying problem.

Rule 1: “No, you are not the user.”

For all my time at Yahoo I’ve had the good fortune of working under Tapan Bhat. I worked for him directly for the first year as we tried to sort out My Yahoo!.

“My” was and is a pretty geeky product, with a lot of power user features. Our job was to figure out how to turn it into a mass market product. Having it for several years before abandoning it I felt that I had a great sense of what users wanted in a “personalized home page,” and what we needed to do to make the product grow again. I spent endless hours working with our engineering team to spec out what I thought were killer features, only to see them blow up in the lab. (Fortunately, Tapan and the designers kept most of the really dumb ideas from ever leaving paper). It turns out that I had a great idea of what I wanted on a personal home page, but no clue as to what our users actually needed.

At the time our strategy was to upsell front page ( users to My Yahoo! I realized that I was nothing like a typical front page user, and so everything I came up with fell flat. To make matters worse, I had a hard time identifying and empathizing with those users, and reading the research didn’t help.

What finally worked was to use people I knew, who used the home page, as personas. I had classmates, parents, and siblings who all used the front page, and like to personalize things. So what worked for me was to put myself in their shoes and reconceive each potential feature in terms of how – or if – they might understand it.

Eventually, putting myself in their shoes became second nature. But from time to time I still get worked up about a product I own not working exactly as I might want it to, or a feature I really need getting deprioritized by someone on my team. If they’re wrong, they’re wrong. But often times I just take a deep breath and then slowly say “No, Joseph, you are not the user.”


Marty has his own, similar rule in his “Top 12 Product Management Mistakes.”

Joe’s Rules of Product Management

Something to blog about

After nearly four years at Yahoo! I finally feel like I have something to blog about.

One of the best things about my job is that I get to learn from some of the best minds on the internet. Periodically, something that I learn resonates so deeply, or describes my situation so precisely that I can’t help but print it in 30 point font and hang it on the wall of my cube. This happens very rarely – about once a year. But these rules inevitably make me a better product manager, and – more importantly – make my job more fun. So I thought I’d blog about them over the next few weeks as the mood strikes me. Some of these may seem simple, or pedantic – and that’s by design. It’s meant to make sense to the casual observer. I’ll try and include links to more detailed resources in each of my posts.

Joseph's Office

Before I begin…

A great primer on technology product management is Marty Cagan’s book Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love. Marty also blogs on the silicon valley product group website.