A Non-Typical Onboarding Checklist for Product Managers

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More often than not, once you get hired as a Product Manager at a new organization, you go through an onboarding period. The duration of the onboarding can vary a lot, but from my experience, it's typically not shorter than 4 weeks and not longer than 3 months. This is the time period where you are expected to learn the necessary things needed to do your job. Such things are:

The people.

You will be formally introduced to some of the key people you will be working with most closely: your boss, your team, and, depending on the size of the startup, your department.

Processes, or a lack of them.

You will be introduced to how things get done at the company. How you request vacation time, how to handle sick leaves, on-call duty/standing in for other teams, and, most importantly, how the product is built. Even if you are the first PM hire, there will be some things that people do consciously and in an approximately reproducible order, which you can call a process. However, if you are the first PM at your startup, you will most likely be expected to establish processes that are more efficient and transparent than what's in place currently.

The product.

If you were hired, you likely got your hands on the product beforehand to have a clue for your interview. If you didn't but still got hired, you are lucky. (There are obviously exceptions. Here I am referring to a typical B2B/B2C SaaS startup.) Now, it's time to look behind the curtain. You'll see the smart solutions, but also be prepared for the sloppiness, shortcuts, the MVP and V1 features that were never iterated on, the critical part of the product that nobody wants to touch, the "fancy" tech stack that the tech lead forced on the founding team but has since left, and now no one understands it, and it awaits being rewritten in React. You'll learn the history, and certain decisions will be explained and justified to you.

The culture.

Very likely, the hiring manager told you about the company culture, which they read from their internal Confluence/Notion page, and which even they don't fully believe is true. They will talk about data-driven decision making, transparent, respectful, and clear communication, and about avoiding unnecessary meetings at all costs. Quickly, you will realize how different the actual culture is from what they documented and what they might be working towards.

This is not a comprehensive list of things that you'll be walked through during your onboarding process. Some companies will have more sophisticated and formal onboarding processes with checklists, while others will not. However, whether you do or not, you will be exposed to these things. In my opinion, if you are conscious about it, you can get more out of it.

My recommendation for your first weeks as a Product Manager

Here I am sharing the things that I found highly useful to do my work effectively and to integrate quickly into the team. I will try to keep the list updated if I discover any new learnings. I am also trying to share the things that you won't see on a typical onboarding checklist.

Make a friend.

This one isn't specific to the product manager role, but it's something I learned through the years, applying and getting hired as a PM. At the start of my career, at 21 when I joined the first startup, I was also eager to make friends at work, likely influenced by the countless Hollywood movies I've watched. The sad truth is, as an adult, you won't have many chances to make friends outside of work. If you make a friend, it's not just that you'll have more fun and someone to talk to or grab coffee with, but you'll get to know the anecdotes and gossip that go around in the company. These insights will tell you more about the company dynamics than any documentation you'll find. So, don't shy away from trying to make friends. Worst case, if it doesn't work out with the company, you might still establish a long-lasting connection. If you feel like there's nobody to make friends with, leave. Seriously, leave whenever you can. You won't enjoy your time there.

Remember YOUR perception of the product.

In your first weeks, you will ask as many questions about the product as possible (just like suggested in all the other articles you've read), and you will be explained many times why things are the way they are and that it's perfectly fine. You won't even realize how quickly you pick up on these explanations and take certain assumptions for granted because you've heard them from your boss, team, and peers. Don't forget the time when you were a user of the product, even if only briefly when you were preparing for your product management interview. Those insights, first impressions, and your general perception of the product are extremely valuable. If I were you, I would make a list of these things and double-check if any attempts were made to address them in the past.

Observe first, but don't shy away from fixing things that are broken.

Unlike larger organizations with established processes where changing things requires the involvement of 53 other people and takes decades, at startups, making changes can be relatively easy. If you see something that isn't working as well as it could, use your prior experience and propose a solution. BUT, observe first. Every organization and every product is unique. Don't make the mistake of being the know-it-all after the first 2 weeks. Remember that things can be done differently but still effectively.

Thank you for reading this article. If you have any non-typical advice for PMs joining new companies, please let me know, and I'll be happy to extend the list.