Onboarding a product manager – do’s and don’ts in the first few weeks

Main illustration: Sonny Ross

Joining a new company is always hard. You know very few people, your email inbox is empty and you are lost in documentation and the new tools you have to explore.

Get these first few weeks wrong and you’ll be left without the solid foundation you need to be successful at your company.

For product managers these first few weeks are even more intense. You are supposed to be “the person with the context”, you are supposed to be at the frontline talking to users about the product and to the team about the users. In the first 30 days, you have none of that.

In my PM career, I have worked at three companies: a large B2C one with 7,000 people; a small B2B startup with 40 people, and now Intercom with a team of almost 400. They were all completely different products, different stacks of technologies, with different processes and people. However, across all three I found many similar procedures to get a new product manager up and running. The following checklist allows any PM in any company to make the onboarding process easier and will help them succeed faster.

1. Set expectations with management

Even if you have already discussed your personal expectations during your interview, or even if you think your manager will appreciate whatever work you will be doing, as soon as you start you should make sure your understanding of your goals matches your manager’s goals. If you start without it, you can easily end up working on problems that just aren’t a priority at the moment.

Questions to ask:

  • How much time do you have for the adaptation process?
  • What are you responsible for and what decisions can you make on my own?
  • What will make you successful at this company and how will your manager evaluate your performance?
  • What kind of support can you expect from the company?

2. Set your personal goals

Don’t try to fool anybody (or yourself): you haven’t joined the company for charity, but to become a better product manager. Make sure you have personal, maybe even selfish goals, about what you would like to achieve with this career step. Of course, you’ll be working at your best regardless but you should know what the end goal of your hard work will be. I’ve used the GROW model successfully to work out what career progress looks like.

Questions to ask:

  • What skills would you like to improve and how could I do it here?
  • What new opportunities will you have when joining this company?
  • What does the career ladder look like in the company and what should you do to move to the next level?

3. Read documentation

Product specs, project briefs and research docs are a goldmine of information in the first few days. They will help you understand how people work on a daily basis, how they communicate their work and, most important, the philosophy behind the product. Personally, I find reading API docs extremely useful, as it gives a good overview of the product’s structure and core elements. You’ll likely have to write docs by yourself in the future, so try to find as many good examples as possible and scrupulously investigate them.

Questions to ask:

  • Do they use formal or informal language?
  • What structure do different documents have?
  • Do they include any quotes or quantitative proof?
  • Where are these docs stored?

4. Explore the product

Starting as a new PM gives you a unique opportunity – you get to look at the product with fresh eyes as you haven’t been working on the product every day like your colleagues have. Write down every little detail you find confusing and discuss it with the people who built it. You’ll likely catch some bugs that have been missed, but you’ll also get a deeper understand of why things are built in certain ways and not another. Our Director of Product Design, Emmet, recently explained the importance of “actively reading a product” – that’s what you should do.

Questions to ask:

  • What attracts your attention when you start using the product?
  • What would you do if you had to solve problem X/Y/Z?
  • What would you expect when you click on this button?

5. Pair with one of the PMs

As a newly hired product manager, being paired with an existing one so that you manage a product jointly is a great way to help you learn what success looks like. How they communicate with designers and engineers and how they structure their day gives you a chance to know all these little-but-important details before starting to work on your own.

Questions to ask:

  • What kind of research did they do to prepare this roadmap?
  • Who did they talk to before announcing a new release?
  • What did they do in order to write the project brief?
  • How do they work with analytics and research team?

6. Get to know your colleagues

In the same way you need to set expectations with management, you should set expectations with other people on your team too. This is especially important if you are the first product person to join the company: nobody knows what you are supposed to do and how their work should change with your arrival. A good way to start is with an email explaining what your responsibilities will be. Then follow up in person with someone from every department in the company.

Questions to ask:

  • What is the mission of your department in the company?
  • How do they communicate with other PMs? (if you are not the first PM in the company)
  • How can you make communication better for your colleagues? How can you help them in their work?

Naturally you’ll collaborate with some departments (like Research or Analytics) more often than with others (like Legal or HR), but it doesn’t matter. The goal of the product manager is to make sure that a team can focus on product development and doesn’t have any obstacles along the way. The more people you know, the more connections you have and the faster you are able to solve any problems your team is faced with.

Last but not least: talk to everybody in your product team. When you start talking face to face, you’ll lay the foundations required to start working together as a team. And it’s teams that create great products, not individuals.

7. Ask engineers to walk you through technical architecture

Not every company requires a PM to be technical. However, if you don’t have at least a baseline understanding of how the product works you’ll end up making some costly mistakes down the line.

So ask your engineers to explain the technical architecture, and draw as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand some words and, if you are not familiar with the technologies used, do your homework and read about them.

Questions to ask:

  • What technology stacks do we use?
  • How do different parts of the system talk to each other?
  • What technical debt and limitations does the product have?

8. Explore tools the team is using

In the same way a camera won’t make you a great photographer, it’s not the tools you use that will make you a better product manager. But understanding the tools your team uses every day will help you understand the processes for building product a little bit better.

Questions to ask:

  • Where does the team track issues and bugs?
  • Where do PMs build the roadmap?
  • Where can you monitor product analytics?

9. Engage with users

Go to usability testing with the research team and observe how people use different features. Spend a day with sales watching them demo the product. Sit with customer support helping them answer users’ questions and complaints. Read reviews in app stores and social networks to understand what they are trying to achieve with your product. This sort of direct user feedback is something you won’t be able to see in spreadsheets of product metrics so make sure you spend a solid chunk of time early on chatting with users.

10. Don’t break things (at least during your first month ? )

Finally, if you are an experienced product manager arriving at a new company it is tempting to rush into changing processes and tools as soon as you join, especially when you’ve heard that some things do not work – and you know how to fix it.

You probably just think you know how, when in fact you haven’t even seen under the hood. It’s like going on a long road trip in a new car without test driving it first. You may feel confident because you have already driven another car before but then suddenly you are stuck in the middle of nowhere with no clue what to do next.

Be observative. Be patient. Evaluate the underlying reasons, not the consequences that are on the surface. Remember that you are a PM, and PMs never do anything without clearly understanding the problem. Do you?