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Imposter Syndrome as a Product Manager
Episode 830th August 2022 • Trying to Product • Parv Sondhi and Alex Cox
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Imposter Syndrome as a Product Manager

Imposter syndrome is incredibly common in product management. Yes, even if you’re 5+ years into the job with a proven track record and experience. And it’s not just product managers — the uncertainty runs deep across our entire industry.

Imposter syndrome is definitely something that exists outside the field of Product Management. But sometimes it can feel like a big enemy within the product management space as well. So grab your diary, lean up against a tree if you're outside, or bring it inside and open a window to get some fresh air and truly absorb this conversation. This is an episode you simply cannot afford to miss.

Let’s delve in!

Key Highlights

[00:59] What Alex thinks about imposter syndrome and whether he has ever experienced it while working as a PM 

[06:51] Why you cannot become a PM by following any particular program, degree, rules, or set of courses. 

[08:13] How imposter syndrome can emerge from delayed gratification. 

[12:55] Why impostor syndrome can result from an inability to step back.

[18:01] Why the PM role is ambiguous in nature 

[20:17] Strategies Alex has used to battle imposter syndrome at work and in general 

[21:40] How Parv has approached imposter syndrome in the workplace and generally by understanding the expectations.

[24:23] How being open as a PM helps tackle imposter syndrome

[26:18] Why we should support and mentor new PMs.

Notable Quotes

  • “Imposter syndrome is probably something almost every PM feels at one point or another in their career.” [01:00]
  • “It takes a lot of courage to even admit that sometimes that there is a thing in product and that impostor syndrome.” [02:32]
  • “I think every Product Manager who I've spoken to struggles with impostor syndrome periodically. I think it's just that space and the type of work that we do as a PM that makes us so susceptible to impostor syndrome.”[04:44]
  • “You just don't have the same journey leading into a product management role. And you're bound to be in a position where you have some grasp over concepts, but then some things you just wouldn't have heard of, because there's just no formal education.” [07:18]
  • “There's so much constantly that we're doing that, it just makes it easy for you to feel like a you're not just doing enough.” [13:30]
  • “Our currency is information, and you have to be learning, constantly be doing something. And that major influx of information can be overwhelming sometimes.”[14:42]
  • “40% of product managers experience imposter syndrome frequently or all the time.”[19:17]
  • “Only 8% of product people say that they've never experienced impostor syndrome. [19:28]
  • “Being vulnerable is like a great way to get around it. Imposter syndrome.” [25:39]


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Today on trying to product, we will talk about one of the biggest fears that we have as a product manager. And that one is not being good enough. Imposter syndrome is definitely something that exists outside the field of Product Management. But sometimes it can feel like a big enemy within the product management space as well. And so with that, I'm going to kick it off. Alex, what do you think about impostor syndrome? Have you felt that before in your Pm job?


Oh, yeah, I think impostor syndrome is probably something almost every pm feels one point or another in their career, that felt it. Almost every time I get a new job, or, especially as I work at companies that are quote unquote, better. At pm at product, I will just say, Wow, am I good enough to be here? Do they make a mistake in the interview process? I think it's definitely something that kind of creeps up on you, and not something you always expect. But I think it's also kind of just come to the territory of being in a profession that doesn't have a formal path. I don't know part of it. Have you had any experiences, maybe, like right now, or at any point in your career, where you kind of felt like you didn't quite belong? In your company.


You know, impostor syndrome is definitely a big one there. And for folks who haven't heard the term, it's that feeling of not having confidence in yourself or feeling that you're not good enough. And I mean, honestly, like, when I started on in the pm space, I think I've dealt with that every single day, I walked into the office, like, oh, I don't know how I'm gonna do this. And then I come out of the den and like, I somehow managed, I don't know how I'm gonna do it again, tomorrow. No, but it's such a real thing. As I've progressed in my career. And you know, as I've taken on more and more roles and opportunities, I always thought it's going to lessen or it's going to change. But somehow, there's always that nagging feeling of what if I'm not good enough? What if the stuff that I'm working on not good enough, and it just stays? And it's a really big one? But yeah, I mean, I've definitely felt it. To get the job. I feel it right. Before I walk into the session with you sometimes. I'm like, we will talk about this. But it takes a lot of courage to even admit that sometimes that there is a thing in product and that impostor syndrome.


Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think I have the same feelings about especially some of the topics that we choose. Just because you're quote unquote, yeah, maybe in design, you don't always know all the pm things. Just everyone's coming from different backgrounds. Everyone learns things differently. So sometimes the pm will say something like, I think recently there was talking about rapid, it's some framework, like, Oh, do you know the rapid framework? I'm like? Sure. And it's like one of those things where you don't know like, if because you don't have like pm school. If it's like you were supposed to know that, or it's something that it's unique to your organization. So it's like one of those things where like, do I lie and say, I know it and then Google it quickly? Or do I just admit that I don't quite know what the acronym is.


I have, it's so true. I think I recently was in a meeting where someone's like, so we'll follow this framework to set our metrics. And for a second, I was like, Oh, I have no idea what that means. I went back and I looked it up. And I'm like, Oh, actually, I do know this. I just heard it by a different name and a different organization. And I use it in a different way. But it's the exact same thing. And I think those kind of moments, compound and make impostor syndrome even stronger, but like taking a step back, sometimes that you realize they go you might have actually done this before.


These are from like the early:


That is so true. And it's weird. That impostor syndrome is so prevalent in product management, I think every pm who I've spoken to struggles with impostor syndrome periodically, I think it's just that space and the type of work that we do as a pm that makes us so susceptible to impostor syndrome. The biggest thing when I think about product management is we've all talked about it, you're always being a conduit to so many different functions in the organization. What that just ends up meaning is that you have so many more avenues of being in conversations where you don't know what some other person is talking about. I don't know

about you, but Alex, like, I'm sitting in a meeting and in one day, I would have this exact like train of thought like, Oh, I didn't know what this technical term meant. second meeting, Oh, I did not know what this legal term or compliance document. Third word is this same methodology. Should I be knowing about this? I don't know what this is for it, walk into a customer support meeting and you're like, wait, CSAT, or NPS? Which one should I use? And there's just like so many different ways that you can end up in a conversation where you feel like you're not doing or not knowing enough. And that just worsens impostor syndrome, sometimes as a PM.


Yeah, I think it's a fantastic point, I think as a PM, you're not just in a single silo of just PMS, you're essentially away from multiple PMS and is working with every other group in the org privacy, legal, marketing, engineering design. Literally, every single type of role on the org is someone that pm can touch in each of those roles. And each of those orgs have their own terminology and have their own kind of lingo and jargon that you're not gonna understand. And so, as a PM, you're like, Oh, I was I supposed to know this? Like, is this something I'm expected to know? I think also, like, we touched on a previous episode about, like having an MBA and I think a lot of PMS do have MBAs. So then like someone without an MBA, you're like, What was I supposed to know this business term, or like this specific thing that the business team is talking about, or the finance team is talking about? So I think there's nothing a lot, especially because you're going into like a lot of information asymmetry, and a lot of these conversations, and that just kind of lends itself to not knowing if you don't know enough, or just, it's just something you're not expected to know.


Yeah. And the point you bring up about MBA is such a good one. Because product management, again, we've talked about, it is not a career that you get into from a specific path or a journey, right, there's no program or degree or set of rules or courses that you need to follow that get you to a pm role. Everyone is coming from so many different walks of life, so many different, you know, starting careers, so many different jumping off points that you just don't have the same journey leading into a product management role. And you're bound to be in a position where you have some grasp over concepts, but then some things you just wouldn't have heard of, because there's just no formal education. And so I think that it's such a good point that you bring up and it's another one of those reasons why you end up feeling imposter syndrome as a pm is just not coming down a single path that everyone comes from.


great way to put it, there's:


is true. And I think when I think about other factors that could lead to impostor syndrome and product management specifically, another one that comes to mind is Pm is one position where it's very hard to quantify or show your results. Man, there's the concept of delayed gratification. And our delivery, or the artifact that we deliver isn't necessarily something that we have individually worked upon. And what I mean by that is you get the team together, you put up some requirements and have a couple of meetings, get everyone together, and then everyone just executes perfectly on their individual tasks, like the engineering is top notch, the design is top notch, everyone else analytics, all of them. And somehow the product gets delivered. There's so many times where I just attribute that delivery to like, like, it was luck, but everyone else's hard work and expertise, I was just the one who caught people together. And that feeling or that thought a lot of the times makes you wonder the for the next project, the next initiatives that I don't know how I manage that 1am I good enough to live with this one?


Yeah, there's some projects where as a PM, you almost don't do anything. And it just magically comes together. And then you're like, Yep, I guess I can take credit for that. But I really didn't do anything. I think especially in these bigger companies, and you have a really good project manager, like the project manager will take on almost everything. And as a PM, you just kind of write some requirements, get everyone to nod their heads in agreement, and then the project manager almost takes everything. And then depending on the project, you might not even have too many clarifications at the end. It's just like a very odd feeling where you're attending all these meetings, but there's really nothing for me to do except nod or listen in. And then if there's any questions, I mean, I've had a couple where there's literally no questions. It's like the specs were all like, super clear. Everyone understood. And then I guess also the stakeholders were there, like the people who agreed on their requirements. So any clarifications, they would provide? Because I don't as a PM, like, I'm not the marketing person who's making this marketing pool. I just got the people together to write the requirements. So then the stakeholders there who's going to answer and clarify, I'm just here to shepherd the requirements through sometimes it's a very weird feeling where you're kind of like this project really doesn't need me. So yeah, definitely agree with that statement.


It's true. Like there's so many projects where you end up getting people together, as you said, have that requirements handed off and then it just happens at the end of it and you wonder if you actually even did anything and before the next thing happens, you're just wondering if your cover will be blown will others realize that you actually didn't do anything, they'll be like, Wait, pardon, set up anything for this, like everything else was done already. And all of that just ends up impacting an individual. And compounding again, that feeling of maybe what I'm doing isn't good enough, is a big feeling manner is something that I feel a lot of PMS feel and struggle with. And, and it's not necessarily about someone who is ultra confident and someone who's low on confidence. It's just the nature of the job that unfortunately, you know, propels this feeling.


Yeah, it's like one of those things is unavoidable. And it also depends on the project, like a lot of projects, maybe not a lot, but some projects don't really need you. That's just kind of the reality. But other projects, like I had this one client project, like almost a year ago, at this point, essentially, they were like maybe three weeks away from launching on the App Store is a, like an app for finding dishes near you. Like food dishes, like if you want to punch Thai or something, it would find a restaurant with that specific dish. But I got on three weeks before launch, as like the first time there have like a product manager on this project. And it's almost done. And I'm looking around, I'm like, huh, there's no map, there's no way to filter the actual ingredients of a dish. So if you want like chicken pie versus shrimp, a tie, there's like core features that are just missing. And I was like, huh, like it was made by engineers. It was made by like one designer. And I was like, I guess this is what it looks like when there isn't a product manager because as a product manager, we're always there at the beginning of a project. So we never really see what it looks like. If people go without a product manager, like what ends up happening. And they have like a stakeholder who doesn't necessarily know what requirements they need. And is at that moment that I realized that like sometimes product managers do, or like necessary, because essentially, none of the features were right for the user, for someone who's trying to find a dish, like there's no way to find the restaurant near you, there's no way to get the address for that restaurant to go to actually navigate to it, like really kind of fundamental features that were missing. And just because there wasn't some product person to think through the end end experience. I think we often feel like imposters because we get to see a project from beginning to end and it feels almost effortless. But just know that there are projects out there that are looking for you. And you get on at the end. And you can see what it really looks like when there is no product person there.


And actually that also touches on this. Another reason why I feel you know, product management can be a space where you end up feeling a lot more impostor syndrome is we talked about it, there's just so little time to actually take a step back or take the back seat in the sense of like, okay, you know, there's no code that's in review. There's no design spec that's being reviewed by someone else, there's no moment for you to take a step back. You're constantly having to evolve, learn. If there's one day where there's like, less hustle and bustle of like, meetings, then that's the day when you're supposed to be like doing outreach, figuring out CSAT scores, figuring out what the reviews are for your product online, like trying to collect more data or digging through data analytics, like, Okay, let me look at user research. There's so much constantly that we're doing that, it just makes it easy for you to feel like a you're not just doing enough. And that also ends up fueling that fire of oh, man, there's just so much to do, and I can't do it. Maybe I'm a bad PM.


Yeah. And there's like infinite amount of information that you need to take in as a pm because I feel like almost our bread and butter is or maybe like the currency of our trade is like insights, like the analytics, the data, the customer insights, and like we like kind of try to shuffle all these insights that we gather from all these disparate sources into something that makes a good

product for user. But oftentimes, like nobody realizes it, maybe it's in the PRD, maybe it's in your documentation, the artifacts, but most of the time, you're not explaining all the thought and research that goes into a lot of these products.


It doesn't even stop at like customer insight. Just imagine the second you learn something like, okay, the technology has evolved. What's the next thing they need to build in? Like, how do you bring the new technology and like, I've had moments where when I have some downtime in terms of no meetings, the next thing I'm doing is like, what's the next technology out there that I need to figure out and bring in and evolve and embed? And then it's like, Okay, do I know the market right now has anything changed? Has a new app launched, as you said, right, like our currency is information and you have to constantly be learning constantly be doing something. And that major influx of information can be overwhelming sometimes.


And it's something that's like hard to quantify. You're not gonna go up to someone say, Hey, did you know this this night? I mean, it might come up occasionally in meetings where you're like, Oh, I just saw this key insight. But most of the time, it's not something that anyone ever hears about it. Just something that magically appears in the final product is like one of the specs of the reason that you're doing a specific thing a specific way, but no one's going to know the reasoning. Most of the time,


it just, unfortunately also highlights so much stuff that you don't know a lot of the times as a PM. I am gone Cindy reminded about things that I don't know, I know, we brought it up earlier in the conversation as well. But everything has so many of these factors as leads up to that point of like, How many times am I reminded, during the day that I don't know, stuff that I should be knowing, or I think I should be knowing. But you know, it's okay, not knowing. But that's not the feeling, I guess the only thought that you stick with is like, should have known this.


Yeah, as like you never know enough. Because also like for product, it's like sufficient just to know everything from the business side, you also have to know everything from the design side. So all the UX are all the user research studies. Then on the engineering side, you need to know how the entire system works, what systems are impacted, which teams do which part of the systems who to go to if anything's impacted? Like when you're making a product, it's like, what teams are going to be impacted? What systems are going to be impacted then from what UX research is necessary? Whatever A B tests you're gonna need to do, depending on the product? And then like, what are the business goals? And what is the business trying to drive for. So it's not like you're doing one specific silo, you have to know, at a minimum, a large

percentage of all three, or if you touch more products, or more orgs, like marketing, or legal, you gotta be up to speed on them, too. So it's just this constant treadmill of trying to stay up to speed on all these different orgs and all the different information that they have.


Okay, we said that PMS are usually an intersection of all those orgs. That's a big thing. We've talked about that. And we said that because we're interacting with so many people, it's hard. And that can always lead to that feeling of inadequacy. But even if you take a step back, and

let's say forget how much we are interacting with others, even when you think about pm, or just product managers, or product management in general, there's just so many different ideas or views of what product management is, what a product manager does, what are the expectations of a PM, like it's just so ambiguous, and it's so different across industries, across organizations, across even teams within the same company, that as someone who is a PM, it is just so uncertain about knowing what it is that you need to do on the job. I've definitely been in moments where I don't know what my role is sometimes. And like, what is the right thing that I should be doing? Because it's not defined? It's not written out? Like, I need to build a feature, write the code for it and submit the code for a PR that's not defined for me as a product manager. I just don't know sometimes. What does success mean for me? And what is that expectation? And that sometimes just comes down to the fact that the pm role is just so ambiguous in nature? Yeah,


yeah. Couldn't agree more. A lot of times, it's trying to figure out what you as a person and a company should be doing. So you know what the goals are, if you have any bandwidth for another project, and you see an opportunity, it's really up to you as a pm to identify the opportunity. See, if it makes sense, and then start pitching people in order to get the ball moving on that.


It's funny, like, as a PM, you're supposed to be the expert on the product. And when someone says expert on the product to someone outside, it's like the expert on everything related to the product, like any problem that happens will get dumped on the PM. Eventually, they can funnel it to the right resource, the right people, the right team, but you are the intake for that problem. And that itself can be so overwhelming. And sometimes, because sometimes the problem is just very easily viewed as the PMs responsibility to solve.


And yeah, especially if it's like a front end type of problem with high visibility, then it's a pm that everything gets funneled to immediately solve it. And it's not just like one person who notice it typically is a lot of people. Yeah,


it is a role where imposter syndrome can kick in really easily. I actually read this stat recently, and I wanted to share it with you. I don't know if you've seen this, but and we'll link it in the podcast. But reports have shown that 40% of product managers experience impostor syndrome frequently or all the time,


it's a lot longer than I would have expected to be honest.


Only 8% of product people say that they've never experienced impostor syndrome. I wonder


what the percentages of people who just never feel impostor syndrome? Or you know, like there's got to be subset of the population just always feel super confident in their abilities. And I wonder if that's like a per se,


I hate those people.


So of the people who can experience impostor syndrome, 100%. Yeah, that's,


again as a PM putting putting a nice spin on the metrics there.


Of course, but have


you know, we've both dealt with that we've both felt that we both still feel it so many times. Like, is there something that you've done to sort of avoid, maybe not avoid but like, battle impostor syndrome at work, or general?


I think it's like, that feeling of inadequacy just kind of drives you to always be learning more and trying to prove yourself. So I think what ends up happening at least I feel like whenever I started a new job or start working with a new Client, it's like, Man, I don't know anything like,

these guys are paying me a lot of money. I gotta like, act like I know stuff. And so in the act of like trying to vacuum up as much information as possible, I kind of just ended up starting to be more useful. And people are like, Oh, wow, like that's really useful and they start giving you kind of this praise, you're like, oh, maybe I actually am doing something correctly. And that's only what ends up kind of tipping the scales. So I'd say like, normally, it's like after a little bit more than a month, then I start feeling a little bit more settled. But especially like clients, I think, I felt personally like I was charging stupid amounts of money to these people. And then they will kind of really believe everything I'm saying, and I don't really know what their businesses, especially when I'm first starting, but just like seeing that confidence that people have in you, whatever you're saying, it seems like it makes sense, at least to them, even if it doesn't make sense to you. That's kind of what slowly chips away at the kind of that feeling in your gut that you are really doing what she supposed to be doing. And it finally clears up and you get a little bit less stressed. And you can move on with your job.


And that's a great way to tackle impostor syndrome, for sure. Yeah, that's interesting. I'm thinking about some of the stuff that I've done. A for me was just recognizing the fact that, you know, I'm feeling it. And I think that's a big one for everyone. I'm pretty sure that that was for you as well. Just recognizing that. And then I think for me, it was one of the things the ways I've tried to approach this problem or tackle it is having conversations very open and candid conversations with my manager or with folks who I work with to sort of understand like, Hey, what are the expectations? I think that ambiguity aspect of it can really lead to impostor syndrome. And for me, I've seen like, being able to have a good definition of some of the things that are expected out of me, and using some sort of frameworks to align like, Okay, this is what I need to do. And this is where I'm getting to, I think that really helps.


That's a fantastic point. But just like, understand the expectations. Yeah, you're right.


And that's a really good way to put it, you know, understanding expectations, I think that really lifts the pressure and the onus from my head to always be second guessing if I'm doing the right thing or not. And of course, that's still going to happen from a day to day perspective, from the conversations from the metrics and all of that. But because product management is a long term play, as part of your role, Yagyu rollouts and the products that you deliver are long term, that expectation and understanding it's a long term thing, and aligning your expectations and your thought process that can be really helpful. And it's been really helpful for me, just

being able to define, okay, what are some of the activities that are expected and what I need to do and what my peers, my colleagues, my managers expect me to do? And then driving towards that,


I think, that has been one of the ways that at least I have tried to tackle it is, is just setting the vise for myself, like, why am I doing this? Why this needs to happen? And like, what do I need to do? That's one of the ways that I think I haven't heard anything else on your site. Like I'm trying to think. I think that's like a fantastic insight. Just making sure you understand the expectations while you're doing something. That's like a great way to deal with it, especially you kind of bring your manager on the journey or your mentor out on the journey with you. And make sure that everything's kind of being level set. Because I think for me, like I typically instead of being more fond, I just kind of ask for feedback to make sure I'm not doing something egregiously wrong. But then if the feedback is just all good, it's not necessarily that helpful. And it makes you wonder if they're just being nice, because it's a new relationship. So I think there's always like this doubt, almost paranoia that comes with the imposter syndrome. So I think what you have that technique, I think, is a really constructive way of going about chipping away at


it. Yeah. And I think there's another aspect of this that I think I don't do enough of which I think I should, but I feel like is a great way to tackle impostor syndrome, definitely, as a pm is just being open, besides asking for feedback on how you're doing based on your expectations, but then being open with the stuff that you don't know. And I think showing that vulnerability is actually pretty strong, and it's a great asset. And I think, being able to be open not being afraid for asking questions. I think that's a really big one as a PM as well, because it's one of the toughest ones to do is especially knowing that the role requires you to know the answers. But putting that thought to your back and actually going out and asking questions. I think that is super, super powerful. And even I don't do enough of that. And I should be when I talk to you when I talk to others. The one thing that I realize is like, nobody knows everything. It's just not there. Like no one out there knows every single thing that's happening, whether they're a PM, whether they're an engineer, designer, like everyone's learning, and everyone's figuring it out. I need to constantly remind myself of that, and then let myself know that it's okay to ask those questions. I think that's definitely It's a big one for me that I really want to try and do more and more of. What do you think about that? Alex? I feel like it could be a strong one that we should add to our tool set.


No, I totally agree. I think being vulnerable is like a great way to get around it.


Imposter Syndrome man, each time I talk about this it like, I just get very passionate and very into the topic, because I think it's a big one. I think it's one that is something that a lot of us

into the topic, because I think it's a big one. I think it's one that is something that a lot of us face, but we don't talk about, and we don't mention it. And I think it's worth sharing that everyone feels it. And it is okay to feel it. Identifying that you feel it. That's such a big step and then working towards making sure that you know, you can tackle this problem. That's definitely something that everyone should try. And yeah, yeah, I


totally agree. I think it's just one of those things that most people don't realize that everyone else is going through as well. Like, if you see a new pm on your team, they're probably feeling a little bit like an imposter. I don't know what they're doing or they don't belong there. So I think just reaching out to them and trying to be that mentor to help them get over that initial hurdle to make them feel like they belong there. And they deserve to be there, I think is a great way to proactively help other folks who are likely feeling the same thing that you felt when you are new, or when you're going through something of a transition in your Pm career where you didn't have all the answers and people kept looking up, it seems like you, you knew what you're doing. So I think there's lots of ways to overcome it internally. But also understand that other people are going through this too. And any way that you can help them is super beneficial to the entire team.


That's just such a great takeaway, that anyone who's listening if that's the one thing that you remember and take away from this is that everyone else will be feeling the same thing. And I think the best thing you can do is reach out and support our other product folks and let them know that they're not alone and you understand that feeling that you're going through and show that support. I think that's such a great, great thing to say, Alex.


Yeah, I think this has been a good episode. So yeah, if you guys take away one thing, just know that other people can use your support. Any final words?


Nah, man. It's, as we always say, put in the reps. But the one thing we add here is that you are not alone.