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Product Managers Need Friends
Why PMs are lonely and how we can build genuine PM friendships to improve our lives.
Being a product manager is lonely.
While engineers often work in teams and designers often critique each other's work, I don't have a consistent group that I feel a part of.
I thought this was unique to me and my struggle to be vulnerable with people, but I'm learning that loneliness is a common part of the role:
Why is this? From talking with other PMs (and asking questions on Reddit and Blind), I think it’s a few things:
We have to be leaders: I notice this when I have to be optimistic about the future of whatever product I'm working on others have the ability to express doubts or concerns.
Roles are not well-defined: The PM role is relatively new and seemingly everyone has a different take on how it should be defined. This leads us to feel insecure in our knowledge and rely on resources that could be plain wrong because there has yet to be an established framework for success in this role.
Awkwardness and Politeness: It can be hard to change a relationship from a strictly professional one to a social one. We also may not know how to navigate the culture.
Unspoken competitiveness: In a role where you're vying for scope, there can be some animosity between PMs. While there are exceptions, people note this as a common theme.
Loneliness isn't a good state for our mental health and can lead to burnout. It’s also hurting our career growth.
All of the big jumps in my career — my first job as a designer, working on winning hackathon projects and my dream role on the WhatsApp Payment team — all stemmed from conversations with inspiring people outside of my current team.
Conversations with other smart people are where I get great ideas, opportunities and advice from someone who is not connected to my day-to-day life.
Loneliness, I'm learning, leads to poor mental health, the inability to have important conversations, and worse career outcomes.
I think this is something we should try to solve as product managers.
👥 Connections versus Friendships
If loneliness is the problem, what's the solution?
I was stumped. But fortunately, my girlfriend (who is smarter than I) shared a famous essay with me to help me think through this problem differently. It was aptly named "The Opposite of Loneliness". Here's the part that hit me (emphasis added):
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life...
It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed.
Something clicked. As PMs, we're surrounded by people every day. We have a "community" — colleagues, Slack channels and PMs we occasionally keep in touch with.
We're not lacking PM connections, we're lacking PM friends; people "who are in this together” and “Who are on your team."
Connections are PMs you chat with on Slack, occasionally tweet at, or catch up with quarterly over Zoom. They may be people who you enjoy spending time with at work, but the conversations don't stray too far beyond small talk.
Friends are people who check in on you when things are rough. People who you can bounce crazy ideas off of and who will root you on in whatever you're doing. They don't feel the need to act professionally with you and they are people you'd love to go to a concert, bar or park with. I've been lucky to have some of those in my PM career:
The opposite of loneliness isn't a bigger network; it's real friendship. In our context, friendship with other PMs who you actively want to spend time with.
Building these friendships will help us become happier and significantly improve our career trajectories.
😕 Friends Aren't Prioritized
PM loneliness is not new. In fact, there are many communities trying to help PMs build connections. They break down into a few categories:
Free-to-access spaces (ex. Product School, PM Facebook Groups, Mind the Product): these are spaces with 20,000-100,000 people interested in product management. They can help you discuss topics (ex. "Should PMs be technical?"), but aren't conducive to building relationships or having 1-1 conversations (the one exception here is Women in Product which I've heard amazing things about).
Courses (ex. On Deck Product Management, Lenny's Course, Reforge): these can be extremely valuable and I admire folks like Andrew Yu, Lenny Rachitsky and Sachin Rekhi who are leading these cohort-based classes. But the time-commitment (3-10 hours per week), price ($1,000-$5,000) and focus on lectures/workshops can make friendship secondary to education.
Communities for aspiring PMs (ex. Lewis Lin's Slack channel, Product Buds): these are great for breaking into PM and I like how supportive they tend to be. But they are targeted to new PMs. When I joined as a current PM, I was asked to give mock interviews, review resumes and have coffee chats.
All of these communities serve important roles and have participants who really benefit from them. But at the end of the day, these are primarily about professional connections, education or interviewing. These are helpful, but as Shreyas Doshi puts it, developing relationships with other PMs can do wonders.
This raises the question: what is the right design of a community focused on PM friendships?
❤️ The traits of a good community
I'm incredibly lucky to have been a part of one community where I made real friends in product management: the Rotational Product Manager program at Facebook. Looking back, RPM helped me make some lifelong friends who have already changed the trajectory of my career.
I want to share what this program did exceptionally well to foster friendships. This is not meant to be an advertisement for the RPM program. Instead, it’s a potential blueprint for the type of community that the wider PM industry needs.
Here's how this community created genuine friendships:
🤟 Friendship > Curriculum: during onboarding, we were told time and again that we should spend more time getting to know each other than doing our training modules. We accepted the advice and spent time eating lunches together, going on a trip to Sonoma and going out together on the weekends.
🔒 Small and safe: you can't have meaningful friendships with 1000s of PMs. Our small group of about 15 people allowed us to get to know everyone individually and have intimate conversations that were not performative.
🏃♀️ People of the same calibre: we bonded because all of us were equally smart, ambitious and had similar career goals. This community thrived because anyone could reach out and you would be excited to speak with and learn from them.
🌍 Diverse: Homogeneity is boring. Hearing stories from someone with different lived experiences, skillsets and cultural upbringing makes a community exciting and dynamic.
🏦 Investment: Admittance to this community requires rigorous screening and people who had the same goals. It also requires us to go to events and organize things for the community. This made us all feel like we had "skin in the game" for the community to succeed.
🔑 Access: As a small group of high calibre PMs, we could access the most intimate, useful conversations. These included
🥗 "Tiny Lunches": 5-6 PMs would have a candid conversation with industry titans like Sheryl Sandberg, Fidji Sumo and Chris Cox. These conversations were exponentially more enlightening than fireside chats in front of 1000s of people. Conversations got personal, specific and involved the whole group (rather than a Q&A).
⭕️ Circles: Groups of 3-4 PMs and a more senior PM would get together every week to support each other. We'd talk about how things were going on our teams, common themes (ex. performance reviews with our managers) and ask the senior PM for advice.
📚 Playbooks: There were onboarding guides, templates to start off with and best practices from people who had been in our shoes before. This gave us a clear playbook to do our job better and shed light on what it takes to get to the next level of our careers.
This community helped me create real friendships with other insanely smart PMs. Outside of friendship, there was an even bigger impact on my career trajectory:
📈 Higher performance: RPMs routinely perform at the level of PMs with 2-3x the experience.
🧑🚀 Exit Opportunities: RPMs are poached to go to places like Stripe, Chime, venture capital or found their own startup. When they stay at Facebook, they excel quickly to leadership.
🛣 Proven paths to product leadership: Seeing people in your community go on to do insane things is inspiring. It also helps you understand what you need to do to cross the IC to PM leader chasm. One example is Ashley Yuki, a 2013 RPM who is now the Co-Head of Product at Instagram. Hearing stories from people like this makes our path to becoming product leaders clear.
With all of these incredible attributes, the RPM program had its limitations — I only met people from Facebook and only learned how to do things the Facebook way.
This is where I see an opportunity to build on some of this community design to create something truly unique.
Introducing Product Circle ⭕️
Product Circle is designed to be an intimate group for PMs at top startups and companies to build real friendships.
These friendships will create great memories, introductions, opportunities, side-projects, startups, mentorship, ideas and conversations.
Being a member of this community involves:
🤟 Friendships with top PMs: In your first week, we'll introduce you to other PMs with overlapping interests who we think can make for great first friends. We'll host in-real-life (IRL) member events, deep-dives on hot industries (ex. crypto, creator economy) and regular peer coaching sessions (modelled after my experience with "circles" at Facebook).
🔑 Intimate events with product leaders: We know that chats with 5 people are more honest than those with 500. We invite Head of Products, first-PM hires and Directors/VP of Product to have candid, open and practical conversations with our community.
🔒 Conversations you can't have anywhere else: It's hard to speak to your manager about everything. It helps to have a safe space filled with people of the same calibre as you to talk through things like switching teams, product consulting, bias at work and more.
📚 Exclusive Resources: A crowd-sourced vault of the best resources to give you a leg up. Examples include templates on how Spotify plans go-to-market, Unity does product requirements and how Stripe creates a writing culture.
Our guiding principle is friendship > connections. With this mantra, I see us creating a product version of the famed “PayPal Mafia” (but more diverse and thoughtful) with each member going on to build teams, products and industries that move the world forward.
If this sounds like the type of community you want to be a part of, join us.
Know someone who could benefit from a community like this? Share this post with them (especially for diverse candidates).