How product managers should spend their training budget

Hi, my name is Andre. Welcome to my Newsletter, a (sometimes) weekly column on product management to get products from zero-to-one. If you’re a builder looking for harmony among (product) chaos, subscribe to get the latest Articles and PodDrops. 


Originally posted at albuquerque.io on Mar 11, 2020

TL: DR if you don’t care about article intros and a bit of data & research jump straight down to “As a PM, what is the single best place to spend my learning budget?”.

Life-long learning (1), sometimes known as continuous learning, will go from something that helped people shine in their corporate environments to a Darwinian feature that merely allows our survival.

Considering the breakneck speed at which technology transforms, businesses evolve and professional roles change, being able to quickly adapt yourself will be necessary just so you can keep doing the job you're doing so far, let alone becoming better at it.

…currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform and that about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated, again with technologies available today. (McKinsey)

And let’s not speak about how automation will be eating up a significant chunk of what everyone does today. Now media, as you can see here, loves to talk about the macro picture like “jobs being automated away” but looking at tasks within jobs seems to be more informative of what’s to come. The largest reason is that even if what you do today isn’t covered in all the reports, a material part of things you do today might still be replaced by technology, requiring you to either learn other things or get better at the ones less likely to be productized.

Looking at McKinsey’s report, from a technical feasibility perspective, tasks can either be highly-to-least susceptible to be automated using current technology. So even if you, like me, work in technology (a field that tends to require deep expertise, unpredictable change, and deals with irrational stakeholders, showed on the image as the less-to-least susceptible activities) you’re still expected to have 9% to 25% of what you do strip away. And don’t forget that this is using the technology available today, so imagine how this percentage will change with the technology of tomorrow.

Now data is promising regarding employee training budgets: based on a 2019 training report, “on average, companies spent $1,286 per learner this year compared with $986 per learner in 2018”. And if you look at the methods “most frequently anticipated purchases are online learning tools and systems (44%); content development and authoring tools/systems (both 34%); and learning management systems (31%), certification (26%), classroom tools and systems (25%), and mobile learning (23%).”

But even though I believe there is a need, and great potential in these tools for training, I personally believe both companies and employees are missing on the best training expense someone can make to improve themselves. And this is particularly relevant in soft-skill based roles like Product Management.

As a PM, what is the single best place to spend my learning budget?

It’s not conferences, not podcasts, not books, it’s simple:

Spend your budget inviting unique people for a 1-hour lunch, ask custom-tailored, hard questions and absorb every single word that person says.

Why?

  • These people have amazing stories to tell and have often reflected on their own decisions and consequential outcomes. This hindsight is golden.

  • You can plan who you invite depending on the obstacles and challenges you’re facing at the current moment.

  • It’s not static: you can ask questions, expose your problems and adjust the follow-ups depending on the answers.

  • Usually, these people can spot the most likely decisions you will make based on your questions (as they empathize with your position) and can warn of possible scenarios, helping you course-correct faster.

Beyond the obvious gains, it’s also a fun way to train yourself, grow your network and meet someone you can come back to when new challenges arise.

And if you’re thinking: “these people are super busy, they don’t have time for me” or “I don’t know anyone, how do I invite them to have lunch” or maybe “they don’t know me, why would they have lunch with me?” this is what I recommend:

  1. Do your homework and find the people that make sense based on your challenges. Think big, don’t limit who you want to try to reach out. The “No” is guaranteed.

  2. Prepare a message providing context. I would focus on saying that 1) you would like to invite for a 1-hour lunch (paid by you), 2) the problem you’re facing, and 3) why that person could help you solve the problem.

  3. Look for them on Linkedin. If you have mutual connections I recommend asking for an intro and sharing your message. If you don’t have a mutual connection, send a request and add your message in the note.

Where else could I also spend my budget?

Besides the lunches, here’s where I’ve been spending my own budgets to get better at product management:

1. Medium premium — Ridiculously worth it at $50. The number of high-quality posts you get on the membership, especially when you curate your feed well enough, make this pretty ROI positive.

2. Blinkist premium — Big fan of audiobooks, especially if you commute. Enjoy the views while absorbing good quality content. I am a particular fan of psychology, sociology and behavioral authors.

3. Instead of adding a never-ending list of books I am referring to this article, who just hit the nail highlighting everything I would read to become a better PM.

4. Though I don’t think it’s the best ROI positive way of learning, there are some good conferences out there like ProductConMindTheProduct or even Productized in Lisbon, Portugal.

Do you have other tips on where to spend your training budget?

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