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The Post Zero Interest Survival Guide

By John Cutler and Ed Biden

It’s tough out there for product managers:

  • Layoffs continue and there are few open roles
  • Feels like expectations on PMs have radically changed
  • No one is investing in professional development

… no wonder everyone is anxious about their future.

Here’s a quick survival guide for PMs in a world where we no longer enjoy zero percent interest rates:

  1. The macro economic environment
  2. Pressures on different actors in the ecosystem
  3. Practical advice for CEOs and product leaders
  4. Practical advice for PMs

Macro economic environment

Three charts give a lot of context on what we’re seeing right now.

1. US federal interest rates are currently >5% – the highest since before the 2008 financial crisis.

Federal Funds Rate – Interest Rates,USA

2. Inflation between mid 2021 and mid 2023 peaked at 9.1% – its highest point since 1981.

US Bureau of Labour Statistics – Inflation Rate, USA

3. Job postings in software development are as low as June 2020 – the height of the pandemic lock downs.

Indeed – Job Posting Index, USA, Software Development

That is to say: 

  • We’re at the convergence of both longer and shorter term economic cycles
  • There is a lack of stability, and generally adverse conditions for technology companies
  • There are few open roles for job seekers, and lots of competition for them
  • Most people are effectively poorer, as their cost of living is growing faster than their salaries

Whilst market conditions change, if you’re under 37 you’ve never experienced anything like this in your professional life.

No wonder it feels strange and threatening!

Pressures on different actors in the ecosystem

These cycles are nothing new to capitalism, but they change the incentives on everyone:

  • Investors: VC backed and high growth tech companies look less attractive compared to other asset classes like established companies, commodities, real estate.
  • VCs: Find it harder to raise funds and need to allocate their capital more cautiously.
  • CEOs: Can’t raise the rounds they could 2-3 years ago. They need to stretch what money they do raise further. That means hiring less and pushing for profitability.
  • PMs: Pressure to deliver short term financial impact vs. go for growth. Resources are tighter and layoffs an ever-present threat.

Ok, so that explains why things feel all doom and gloom. 

Let’s firstly recognise that these economic trends are bigger than anyone. However you act as an individual, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can’t protect against a systemic shock destroying your business or you losing your job. That really sucks. 

BUT, and it’s a big but … 

That doesn’t mean that your actions are meaningless and there’s nothing you can do.

Far from it. There are things you can do to give yourself the best chances of thriving in this uncertainty. 

Taking action:

  • Is good for your business (more chance of survival / success)
  • Is good for your career (better platform for retaining job / getting hired somewhere else)
  • Is good for your mental health (empowering)

Whether or not you get hit by a force bigger than yourself, being proactive is going to put you in a better place than passively suffering through whatever life throws at you. 

Practical advice for CEOs and product leaders

CEOs and product leaders have more leverage, so the burden of responsibility falls here first. Not even the best PMs can thrive in adverse conditions, so work on creating a supportive environment before questioning individual performance. 

Note: We’re sticking to product advice here, as that’s what we know best.

Talk about the money

You can’t expect product teams to make commercial decisions if they can’t see or don’t understand the business financials. Make this a part of every discussion.

Explain the context

Spend the time up front to explain the business context and financial pressures  you’re under. Product teams can only help if they understand the game they are playing. That includes being transparent about any timelines that need to be hit. 

Be explicit where you will take risk

Teams are usually quite conservative when it comes to risk, because they get blamed when things go wrong. If you need to move quickly or are resource constrained, have an open conversation about where you will take risk. Sometimes you want to copy someone else and ship.  Sometimes you need to move slower and figure things out from scratch.

Provide as much stability as possible

Of course you need to respond to changing market conditions, but try not to change the priorities and team structure all the time. The more stability you can give teams, the faster they will go. To adapt the famous Patton quote: “A good plan violently executed requires stability, and is better than a perfect plan which keeps changing.”

Minimize distractions

Progress is inversely correlated to the number of initiatives you have. Make sure your teams aren’t getting distracted by execs’ pet projects, internal requests or customer feedback. Have a very small (1-2) number of priorities for them to focus on. “If it’s not painful, it’s not prioritization”.  Don’t shirk your responsibility to make tough calls. 

Choose between outputs and outcomes

If you tell teams exactly what to build, don’t expect them to own the results. If you want them to deliver outcomes, give teams the freedom to choose what they ship. You can be top-down or bottom-up, just make sure accountability matches decision-making rights.

Practical advice for PMs

You might be a small cog in a big machine, but that doesn’t mean your actions don’t count, both for your company and for you. Take ownership of what’s in your control: yourself, and play your best game.

You can’t fix everything

Realize that there are a lot of forces at play here, and a lot of actors involved. You can and should play your best game, but try not to take it too personally if things don’t work out. Just keep doing your best.

Understand what you want

It’s easy to get sucked into the narrative of joining a big FAANG or flashy startup. But take the time to understand what is really important to you, personally right now. Is that learning? Stability? Colleagues? Remuneration? You can’t have everything, so recognise you’ll need to make trade offs, then make the right ones for you.

Understand stakeholder interests

Take the time to really understand what stakeholders want, especially if it doesn’t seem to make sense! Often they will have information or context that makes their needs rational, and they are much easier to work with when you drag this out of them. 

Don’t get too ideological

Sure you know some great frameworks and how product works in theory, but don’t let that get in the way of being helpful and delivering value. Everyone is under pressure and hurting. Be pragmatic and work with the colleagues and constraints you have, even if in an ideal world you’d do things slightly differently.

Understand the financials

Learn as much as you can about how the business makes money (or not)—financials, KPIs, etc. Listen to the quarterly investor call if you’re a public company. Ask an analyst or member of the finance team if you’re not. Understand what metrics sales and marketing really care about and are incentivized on.

Write great documents

Write good goal-focused one-pagers, even if you’re being told exactly what to build. Lay out the context, objectives and risks as well as the solution. Include mitigations and trade offs, even if they won’t be considered. Get feedback on these.

Be outcome focused

Show up at every review and present your work from an outcome perspective. That means tying work back to financials, or whatever the company cares about, as best you can. Cover the goal and hypothesis before everything else. Be data-informed as much as possible, and explicit about assumptions and trade offs you made. 

Bring options, discuss trade offs

If you’re asked for something, you can drive clarity, position yourself as a thought partner and cover your ass by giving stakeholders options to choose between. Do  you want an MVP in 3 weeks or a scalable solution in 3 months? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have an opinion yourself. But the real value is in using options to understand the trade offs stakeholders value.

I.e. be a good product manager. Help stakeholders make smart decisions and get the results they want out of product teams, even if they insist on driving things in a very top-down way.

Closing thoughts

The bad news: periods like this inevitably happen, and they are pretty unpleasant.

The good news: the cycles continue. This one will pass too. If you can make it now, you can make it anytime. 

Good luck, be kind to your peers and colleagues and give us a shout if we can help in any way.

Follow John Cutler on Linkedin and Substack.

Follow Ed Biden on Linkedin. Ed is a co-founder of Hustle Badger.

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