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Early days of product ops


As I just finished my first year in a product ops role, I thought to share some reflections on this experience for anyone considering a product ops career going forward.

A groundhog day for product managers

If you've been a PM circa 201x you must remember the constant need to answer "what is product management" questions. That's how it is now for product ops. Every day you need to explain to people what you do and fight for a seat at the table.

Moreover, even your fellow PMs sometimes don't know how to use you in the best way. Some treat you as their boss as you ask for a lot of things or organise some stuff. Others think of you as an assistant, often pushing onto you the boring or complicated tasks they don't want to do.

The most often misconceptions about product ops

Similarly to product management in the past, today product ops is being misunderstood and confused with other roles.

Product ops is not project management

Because product ops often deal with processes, some people think we are project managers. They ask for timelines, status updates, progress reports and so on. When they hear you don't have those they might think you're bad at your job.

In reality though, even when PMs and product ops need to put their project management hats on, they need to remember that it's just a tiny part of their actual job. Product ops are there to help build empowered product teams, which should always be a focus.

Product ops is not a data analyst

Another popular mistake is to treat product ops as data analysts. When people hear "product ops helps with data," they think it means they could have some new reports for free. However, even if product ops indeed can create reports and analyse data they should be careful doing that to not feed this myth.

Product ops deals with the strategic aspects of data. They help teams establish their data principles, organise unified and correct data gathering. They also help to connect data science and product management in order to make sure PMs' decisions are data-informed.

Product ops is not a delivery manager

Some companies out there started embedding "product ops" people into cross-functional product teams to help those teams deliver software consistently. On paper, this might seem like a good idea to have someone who will take care of the release process, quality control and go-to-market technicalities. However, if you dig deeper you'll see it's "two in a box" antipattern we so often saw in the early days of product management.

A product manager should cover the entire product development cycle from A to Z. That is a very demanding job and product people tend to be super busy. However, there's a reason why we want one person to be responsible for the product's success and all the previous attempts to split PM responsibilities among several people inevitably backfired.

If you feel like your product managers cannot handle their current workload consider splitting your product portfolio differently. Consider hiring product ops to improve the overall processes, tools and data so your product teams become truly empowered and therefore more productive.

Also, product ops are not scrum masters, product marketers, tool admins, user researchers or coaches of your product managers.

Set clear boundaries as product ops

Boundaries are important everywhere and if you're considering on taking a new product ops role, you need to discuss some things in advance.

Set expectations clearly and put them in writing

Discuss with your hiring manager the reasons they believe they need product ops. Ask them what they think product ops should do and what outcomes they expect to get from you. By analysing their answers you will know if there's an understanding of the product ops role and if you want to continue.

Create a product ops manifest and share it with your colleagues

The role is relatively new and we cannot blame people for misunderstanding it. If you decide to take on this new product ops role, start with writing a manifest. Explain clearly how you define your responsibilities and what your peers can expect from you. Make sure to spread this knowledge as much as possible around the company and make it a part of a new product hire onboarding.

Stick to your guns and let teams learn by making mistakes

Product ops folks tend to be seasoned product professionals. When you've done something a thousand times and see someone struggling with it - you want to help. Unfortunately, this often means you step in and do the thing yourself. While this could solve a momentary crisis, it would prevent your teams from vital learning by making mistakes themselves. So as product ops, you need to respect your boundaries before anyone else would. Don't jump on a problem just because you can solve it, think long-term about who should solve it and learn while doing it.

Get in touch with other product ops to share the learnings and support each other

Product managers in different companies are often competitors. It makes sense, our products compete, our companies compete so we also compete. This often means we don't share nearly enough with our product peers. We play zero-sum games. However, for product ops, it shouldn't be this way. Sharing your product ops approach with a peer from a different company, even a competitor, should be normal. You can learn a ton, get some benchmarks and maybe unstuck your teams, all while keeping the secrets of your company safe. Moreover, the psychological comfort from knowing there are people like you struggling with the same issues might prevent the burnout that product ops folks are in danger of.

It's hard to pave the way

Product ops is a tough role at the moment. Not only do you need to do your job in elevating your teams with processes, tools and data, but you also need to constantly evangelise your position, educating the entire company. This is an exhausting, lonely, and often thankless job (due to a lack of understanding of the product ops role, the salaries offered are nowhere near what they should be for such senior pros). Being product ops today feels like being a product manager a decade ago.

Take it into account when considering a product ops role. Be sure to arm yourself with an abundance of patience and a support network that you can rely on while craving the new path for your company and yourself. And good luck out there, champs!

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