Since the rise of Twitter, and the revolution of blogs about Product Management (including this one), I have long wondered about life as a hired gun, a product manager on a contract.
Clearly, there has long been a market for consultants, and it is quite busy, if you follow the members of Pragmatic Marketing, The 280 Group, and many of the influential product manager bloggers, who offer their services.
But what about the daily grind of Product Management? What is life like in that role. Where you are paid for 40 hours a week under contract, and after the 8th hour, you supposedly switch off and go home.
My argument against that is from my direct experience. In every one of my product management or product marketing jobs, it has been all-consuming. You certainly spend more than the salaried forty a week doing things, and even when you are not on the clock, your subconscious is still at work, you see an interesting, related link, you read it, you have a thought about your feature list, you jot it down, while hiking you have an epiphany and write it down, and so on. Yet, under contract, for three, or six months, you have a role to fill, a set of tasks that are more or less defined by your supervisor, and you just do the work.
Or do you?
For the last 9 months, I have been testing the hypothesis, that as a contract, "hired-hand" product manager, I can just follow instructions, do the work, and then escape at 5:00PM (or whenever the 8th hour is up) and leave the rest behind. Seems simple, but I have found it very difficult to behave in that manner.
There are several reasons, but a short list:
Emotional Attachment - even for a product that I personally am not invested in, came to with no prior experience, I have gained an emotional connection to it. I thought I could just stay above the fray, do what needs to be done, and not be involved, but that is impossible. Perhaps it is a failing of me, but my history of different industries, different technologies, and intellectual curiosity means that I picked up ownership, and am running with it. Even though in the back of my mind, I might be yanked out of it in a few weeks.
Time frame mis-match - My current contract is 3 months, with extensions at the whim of the company. Yet, as I am working on my product (there's that ownership thing) I have a set of horizons. There is the 6 month horizon, the next releases, there is the 18 month horizon, some strutural changes that are desperately needed to improve the efficiency of the organization, and there is the 36 month horizon, where the longer range strategy plays. One would think that as a hired-gun, I would just focus on the near term, and ignore the longer range, but I can't. I feel compelled to work to better the future of the product portfolio, and the business. Can't help myself.
There are many more subtle items, but these two really focus it for me. Knowing that my contract is for 40 hours a week, or five 8-hour days, and that I have bitten off more than that, I gladly step up, doing what it takes, letting my subconscious chew on the problems in the off hours, putting in unpaid time (yikes), all while keeping the thought of what happens if my contract isn't extended from interfering with my motivattion.
My prior thoughts on contract product management were somewhat naive, that a hired contract product manager would just have a definite, well structured set of tasks, and activities to accomplish against a checklist, were not quite accurate.
The role requires someone in it who has the flexibility, the commitment, and the drive to do what it takes. Whether that is a full time employee, or a contractor, the role demands it. Also, this is why one of the challenges in product management, particularly in tech, is that the role defies crisp definition. Universally, it needs to conform to what the culture and organization needs, and if the product manager doesn't fit they need to be replaced.
My belief is that the bulk of the contract product manager positions out there (and to be honest, a large percentage of the open positions I see are for contract lengths of 3 or 6 months) are for "try before you buy" test periods. Giving the on-boarded product manager a dress rehearsal to see if they fit, both skill wise, and culture wise in the organization.
I may be wrong about that, but that is what it feels like as a contract product manager. As always, YMMV.
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