+1 year a PM, am I better off as a developer or am I being whiny? OR are the tasks unusual

I’ve been a PM for a fintech startup for 2 years now, before this was a developer for a few years, but came from an accounting background. I moved to PM because I had an accounting background and this was an accounting focused business. I am finding myself really hating some part of being a PM, I loved working with customers, understanding their needs and pain points, working with designers, systems analysts, and engineers to develop the features. Tons of fun. Now, I am finding my boss asking me to prepare build vs buy analyses, competitors analyses, prepare decks about our results for board members, and I find myself really stressed at these super vague tasks as I’m given no direction than one or two sentences asking to get something done. Are these typical PM tasks that I am only now experiencing? Sometimes I wonder if I was better off as a dev, I really enjoyed coding and the concrete JIRA tickets that I worked towards and submit a PR for. I could keep my head down, not worry about stakeholders, and just do my thing.

Thoughts would be appreciated!

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I think they are all PM tasks. The some of stuff you don’t like might have a bit of a startup bend (board decks instead of budget decks), but the rest is pretty standard. Sounds like the problem is how these requests are being communicated and not the requests themselves.

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Agreed,

You should give your boss a bit of feedback - let him know that you’re having trouble understanding what it is that you need to do. Explain that you are relatively new to PM, so he can’t always assume you know how to do a competitor analysis. Most bosses are happy to point to a template at the minimum, which can be super helpful.

However, every job has tasks that suck… you said you loved working with customers, understanding their needs and pain points, working with designers, systems analysts, and engineers to develop features. I would really think hard about what you want before leaving this all behind.

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Early on I didn’t like making board decks. Then I realized that I’m providing words for the Leadership team or CEO to say to the board and others. It’s one of the greatest internal marketing strategies for your product. Seize the opportunity.

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I will definitely look into how to upwardly manage, looks like what I need to do next.

I appreciate this feedback, never thought that might be where the problem lies. I will admit, even when I’ve had more direction in the tasks, it’s not work I enjoy compared to the stuff mentioned (working with the team to solution through features)

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These are typical PM tasks, depending on your support structure and leadership team’s requirements.

Other companies may have business analysts, intern PMs, or other team members to share these efforts.

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These tasks generally fall under the influencing and accountability parts of a product manager’s role in mid-size organizations.

In some startups you’ll find the organization moves so fast and lead they forego these activities altogether. While in large organizations they often have folks dedicated to those tasks.

However, overall, if vague tasks, market analysis, and communicating results are not your cup of tea, then product management might not be the best fit.

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Yeah, the go to market and compete is a big and very important bit of it. I’d say if anything this is your boss trusting the insight you should have developed for your market by now and asking for your input to make decisions on, which is part of then growing to a senior PM, growing your internal ‘soft power’ and becoming a valued decision maker rather than managing a backlog. Strategic direction is one of my favorite parts of it and you can’t get there without build/acquire, compete, financials, results etc.

If you don’t like that part of it and want to work on tickets and solving engineering problems, dev is probably a better fit for you. No shame in that - different strokes, different folks. A few of the principal / distinguished engineers in my teams make huge sums of money doing that and staying completely out of leadership or product strategy pieces.

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@NaomiNwosu, What differentiates those well-compensated engineers from their technical peers? Experience, efficiency, specialization, picking high-value projects, etc.?

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@Ahmad, All of the above, plus especially a) huge domain knowledge in a certain critical space and being the “go-to” person (i.e. understanding more than anyone else in the business about some critical large mass of legacy code, for example, or knowing everything about a large API) b) technically owning and driving tough, cross-team engineering problems that involve working on many different, difficult problem spaces simultaneously to solve a large engineering problem for the business.

For instance, using the above example, 10 teams use that critical legacy code but it can’t scale, can’t use a deploy pipeline, isn’t extensible and costs a fortune. A principal or especially distinguished engineer will often drive something like “move this all to AWS / Azure + get a proper pipeline in place.” This isn’t product strategy or compete, it’s all totally internal work, and it’s not line managing engineers or running a dev org, but still critical to the product/eng org and the entire business.

The example I always use is warrant officers vs commissioned officers in the armed services. They are DEEP technical specialists but not do not follow a tech lead / VP / CTO leadership track or deal with high level leadership stuff, they stay extremely technical.

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How long have you been at your current PM job?

In short, yes the tasks you are being asked to do are fairly common and normal for PM work.

That being said, did your boss talk to you about adding these types of tasks to your plate? If you haven’t already, I’d recommend asking your boss for additional direction, guidance, help on expectations for these. And/or, if your boss has examples of these types of documents from other projects you can use as a model. I do that all the time as a 3-year PM, along with googling a lot.

To me, it sounds like your boss is trying to give you these additional tasks to train you for the next level of PM. It seems like you have the hang of Associate/junior PM level work, and now it’s time to start learning these bigger picture, strategic tasks. But again, you should ask your boss.

If you want to keep doing PM or go back to dev is a decision only you can make. But take a deep breath first, ask for clarity and direction, and see where that takes you. Deeeeep breathes.

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@MichaelYoffe, This was really helpful thank you, I have been told that he really is trying to get me ready for senior/leadership roles, but I think I’m realizing I might also have no interest and this type of stuff? But still, very much appreciate your feedback.

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One of the downsides of being a PM is being a proxy for your company’s leadership when they aren’t able to be there, either because they are busy, disorganized, or not as competent at their own roles as you might like.

This means filling in gaps. They provided no clear direction or priorities? It’s going to fall on you to sort them out as best you can (or make them up) and then communicate them, including back up the chain. They overcommitted to stakeholder presentations? That means you get to present! Yes, it sucks and it’s unrewarding.

The reasons you enjoyed being a developer are a double-edged sword. “I really enjoyed coding and the concrete JIRA tickets that I worked towards and submit a PR for.” You enjoyed it because the PM was there to sort through priorities for you and transform vague feedback into concrete asks! You might not enjoy returning to being a developer for the same reason – your asks will be much more concrete, but your input will also be much more limited. Only you can know if the tradeoff is worth it.

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It depends on the organization but those are very good skills to have, and an excellent growth opportunity.

If you’re not comfortable with those tasks use as an opportunity to reach to someone to mentor you. I think having experience on the tactical and strategic side will allow you to have an even greater impact.

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I’ve been a PM for the last three years and everything that you’ve listed above as what you like and dislike are actually similar to my experiences. So first, that validates that everything you are doing is indeed a PM task as usual, but second, you’re not alone.

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Because PM is such a vague role, a kind of catch-all, yes the workload could include at times: “build vs buy analyses, competitors analyses, prepare decks about our results for board members” and at other times “working with customers, understanding their needs and pain points, working with designers, systems analysts, and engineers to develop the features.”

However, it is important to acknowledge that these categories are indeed different skills and different PMs will enjoy and be good at them to different degrees. At a larger company, it is easier to gravitate towards what you enjoy and are good at, but at a smaller one you must do more of what is needed as a PM.

There is another axis, here, which is seniority in the role. The more senior you are, the less direction you need, both because you just know what to do (you’ve done it before) and because you know how to go and find out what to do (“who can I talk to about what info is most useful for the board?”) That said, it is super annoying when you get assigned one-off tasks, with no clear direction, but no real ownership either. When this is happening I like to have a conversation with my boss about it.