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Product management stress in tech

It is the most stressful work I’ve done other than graduating from MIT for undergrad.

After my MIT graduation I went into consulting. I thought it was an interesting and sometimes challenging job, some stress here and there, but nothing compared to the stress of attending MIT. Sometimes I may need to work every awaken hour for 6 weeks in a row, but I knew the work was going to be done and I’d do a damn good job.

I then worked in Customer Success at a startup. Similar experience. Some crunch times here and there, but manageable. If I worked smart and longer hours here and there, I felt confident in my work and was happy with things.

Working as a Product Manager was a whole different animal. Here are the few reasons I can come up with:

  • Unclear expectations: most Product Managers are expected to figure things out, which is fine, but often you have to do so with little to no data/research, lots of uncertainty, and are being judged by everyone else in the company.
  • Opinions galore: it’s easy to look at a product and say “this sucks, they should have done this better.” All of your friends probably do that all the time. When you’re the PM, everyone is telling you that, giving you all the helpful feedback they have, without realizing the countless tradeoffs and challenges that were necessary to get the current version of the product out.
  • In your eyes, the product will always feel incomplete: as a PM you are constantly looking at the product of your work, the product, and seeing all the ways in which it could be better. The good days of feeling very proud of how polished everything is are hard to come by.
  • You’re NOT the CEO of your product: a CEO hires and fires people. A CEO has the authority to restructure the organization to make it work how he or she wishes. A product manager has no direct reports (usually) and needs to lead through influence at all times. It is challenging.
  • Other teams expect you to fix their problems: the sales team will hear from prospects about something that’s missing in the feature, or something that sucks, and they will expect you to fix it. Customer success will hear from 100s of customers complaining about what’s not working. The design team will tell you all the ways in which the product feels Frankesteinian, like 10 pieces of shit got randomly linked together, and why you need to redo the full user experience. All of these will look to you and say… “when are you fixing this.”

In the end, it boils down to this. While in every other job I had I could satisfy everyone if I worked harder and scoped down the problem, as a Product Manager I will always disappoint colleagues and customers I care a lot about.

I will need to de-prioritize features or fixes that my teammates or customers are eagerly waiting for. Or that enhancement that would make everyone’s life so much better. Making these tradeoffs day after day, and learning to still be proud of the work you and the team are doing, is a very difficult thing to do and a source of constant stress.

Hint: a lot of meditation and soul searching helps cope with this.

Update: I wrote an article on dealing with ambiguity and stress at work as a follow-up to this. I hope you find it helpful.

Note: originally posted as a Quora answer to the question How stressful is it to be a product manager at a tech company? This answer got over 150,000 views on Quora and over 725 upvotes, likely making it my most read writing to date.

Last Updated on January 22, 2023 by Omar Eduardo