I Just Gantt Get Enough

Credit: Liyao Xie

For the past few years, I’ve worked as a Technical Project Manager at Pandora, helping to ship some of the company’s most ambitious projects. I recently switched roles internally to join the Product Management team, which means that a large amount of things are Not My Problem Anymore.

Project behind schedule? Sounds tough. Best of luck!

Need a Gantt chart? Sorry, I only make those in my spare time now.

Is JIRA being difficult? Just cc a bunch of random people on the issue until someone helps you; that always works.

(For anyone at Pandora reading, I can totally still help with all of this. Hit me up on Slack.)

I’ve traded spreadsheets and kanban boards for the opportunity to partner with the Analytics Services group to support our AB testing framework and anomaly detection program. After reflecting on the two disciplines post-switch, I’ve come up with a few high-level similarities and differences between them. While countless technical details differ, the more interesting comparison is between the ways in which each job can be approached.

The Similarities

1. You Have to Have A System

As true for PMs as it is for TPMs. Your job is to do an immense amount of small things, and a few big things. Doing them in the right order is hard, but tools make it easier. I use OmniFocus for managing my to do lists, and JIRA for managing everyone else’s. Some people use notebooks, but you can’t snooze or defer a line on a piece of paper. Go digital.

2. Your Job Is to Leverage Other People’s Brains

I often draw the picture below to explain this idea. The right-side up pyramid is how things should work. The Efficient Way. The value of the employees at each layer of the pyramid is determined by how much they build upon the ideas of those under them and by how they stand side by side with their peers. The foundation of the company is a broad layer of individual contributors with deep knowledge in their specific areas. A solid foundation.

The upside-down pyramid is where the foundation of the company is a tiny group of people. The Difficult Way. Everyone’s mental energy ultimately goes into leveraging the brainpower of those few people who make all the decisions. If they lean towards an idea, that’s the way the whole pyramid tips. If they change their minds, the pyramid tips again. It is not stable, and people get knocked around a lot. But most importantly, the majority of the company’s mental energy is wasted. It’s very frustrating.

Pandora is very much a right-side up pyramid kind of company, but as both TPMs and as PMs, it’s always worthwhile to ensure your corner of the company exemplifies this model to the fullest. Don’t make it about yourself. Focus your efforts on supporting those around you. Everything just works better.

3. You Can’t Let Being Embarrassed Hold You Back

It happens pretty regularly. You’re juggling a ton of stuff, and you are already less of an expert than your team on whatever it is you’re responsible for. You say something in front of everyone that doesn’t make sense or is obviously wrong. You feel silly.

As a TPM, I built up a thick skin for this. Since I always joined projects later in the cycle, I always knew less than everyone. That thick skin has served me even more as a PM, where I’m responsible for the what and the why of projects, yet everyone around me has deeper expertise than I do.

The only way to get over feeling embarrassed is to not dwell on it. Unfortunately, that takes practice. And practice means you have to sound dumb a lot. When you’re pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, you’re going to stumble, but it shouldn’t subdue your motivation to continue to push.

The Differences

1. There Are More Things You Could Do

PMs can be helpful in a dizzying number of ways. The problem is that only some of them are genuinely worth doing. Crushing a to-do list used to be my most satisfying work move, but now my to-do list seems uncrushable. The influx of dependencies on me grows faster than I can knock them out. I can’t delegate the majority of them, so I’m left with choosing what I have to put on the back burner.

This is an important change for me. I prided myself on following through on everything, relentlessly. Adjusting to my new reality is taking some getting used to.

2. There Are More Things to Check

My TPM morning routine would consist of: review calendar, check dashboards, check to-do list, check email, in that order. My PM morning routine…doesn’t exist. Or, more accurately, I tried adding too many things to it to the point that I never seemed to get it all done, and then it’s not really a routine. This is a total bummer, because in the absence of a routine, the first thing I tend to do is check my email, which is a no-good-very-bad habit.

The workday isn’t long enough to keep an eye on everything. My latest idea for coping with this is an iPad app that’s just a grid of all the things I’m supposed to remember to do. When I do one of them, I tap the cell and it resets a “Days Since” timer for it. If someone makes this, I will buy you a six-pack of premium lagers.

3. Problems Are Rarely Solved By You Talking

When running meetings as a TPM, your teammates expect you to avoid wasting their time. Often, that means steering the conversation to focus on the point of the meeting and protecting everyone from rat-holing on irrelevant details. It requires a direct, “here’s what we’re going to do” approach, well-suited for conversations around execution.

Silence is usually avoided.

This approach doesn’t translate as well to PM work. I’ve developed a habit of reflexively finding something to say after the person I’m talking to finishes their sentence. Yet, with complex ideas, people often take the long way around to making their point, often realizing what they really want to say only after hearing themselves try to make their point the first time. From user interviews to brainstorms to stakeholder meetings, less is more when it comes to me taking up space in a conversation.

Realizing this, I’ve begun to adopt the “say nothing with a smile on your face for as long as possible” approach in interactions where I’m trying to learn something. I am still very bad at this, unfortunately. But knowing your weaknesses is itself a strength.

Changing jobs is exciting but a bit weird. It’s hard not to approach the new job through the lens of the old one, and that doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes. That being said, success as a TPM or a PM hinges on a similar base of skills, and if you’re considering making a switch from any discipline into either of these roles, be aware of which of your habits you’ll need to lean on and which you’ll need to break.

And when in doubt:

Huge thanks to Dave Blundell and Chris Patalano for reading drafts, editing, and providing a truly excellent post title.

Pandora is hiring! We have open positions for both Product Managers and Technical Project Managers, as well as a variety of Engineering and Data Science openings.