Paul Meighan, Director of Product Management, Amazon S3 and Glacier, gave this presentation at the Product-Led Summit in San Francisco in 2023.

I work on Amazon S3, which is one of the world's first and largest cloud services. If you’ve been on the internet today, you probably interacted with our service either directly or indirectly. We have millions of customers, many trillions of files or objects in the service, and lots and lots of usage.

I want to talk a little bit about my experience with this service today because I think it gives us an interesting perspective on product management for a few reasons. 

Product management in the cloud

Because of our scale, we have really fast cycle times. We get a lot of reps and we do a lot of launches every year. But we also see a lot of stuff because we have so many customers who come to us with random problems and queries.

Additionally, the little things add up. As a product manager, you may see a bug or problem that affects one out of a million requests, and you can decide to just release notes that. But for us, one in a million is a lot every day. It has a meaningful impact on the customer experience, and these ‘little’ problems can have big downstream effects. 

As a result, we're obsessed with the details. We have fast cycle times and we're getting a lot of repetition. We're seeing a lot of customer situations, doing a lot of launches, and we learn a lot. 

On top of that, we have so many customers who are coming to us about how to build in the cloud.

I deal with a lot of product teams, product managers, and product leaders who are building on AWS on top of S3, so I also get to see their mistakes and what they're doing. So it's just an experience of seeing a lot from my unique vantage point in the cloud.

The theme of this conversation is related to making mistakes and getting stuff wrong. Over my last five years in the cloud, I’ve messed up a ton of stuff and got a lot wrong. And what I've found is that the key to being a great product manager is to figure out how to get really good at being wrong.

My goal is to provide you with practical tips that you can apply to help you be better product managers.

Building the wrong product

You’ll definitely end up building the wrong product. It's a heartbreaker, but it’s totally going to happen. It's just a question of how wrong your product will be when you launch it.

There are three things that I try and coach our product managers to think about:

  1. Embrace the churn and iterate on your product definition.
  2. Write down decisions as they come and keep them documented.
  3. Avoid one-way doors. 

Let's talk about each of those.

Embrace the churn

A lot of product managers come to me frustrated with the churn. I’m writing a requirements document and they’ve got to review it and review it and review it. 

I'm here to tell you that churn is good and that you should embrace it. You’re probably not going to come up with the best idea, and it's really not your job to come up with the best idea. Your job is to find the best idea. 

So, if you can iterate and bring your stakeholders in and just iterate and iterate and iterate, that's how you're going to build a great product.

Write down decisions and keep them documented

You're going to make decisions along the way. With my team, I always ask them to write down their decisions. We use a simple decision doc format. There's no magic to it, it's just: 

  • Summary
  • Option one
  • Option two
  • Option three. 
  • Which one do we recommend?

And then we bank it.

The reason we do that is because it allows us to record our decisions so we can go back and check things like, “Why did we do that last year?”

That helps you from being wrong twice. It also allows you to validate your logic with actual writing and review. Clarity comes from writing, and it's a great practice to help focus the mind. 

And whenever all your stakeholders are looking at, it, they can look at the words, we can talk about what's on the page, and it helps when you're debating and going back and forth on a decision. It really helps to get buy-in and alignment from your stakeholders and leaders if you're talking about a document and not some idea that's in your head or a slide somewhere. 

Avoid one-way doors

One-way doors are decisions that you can’t come back from. They threaten to break the business, so they can't be wrong. So you’ve really got to pay attention to the one-way door decisions, think about them, and take them very, very seriously.

Two-way door decisions can be reversed later, so it's not worth the time and effort to spend a year thinking about a two-way door decision. It's better to just go and do your thing, and if it breaks, then roll it back and revert the decision. 

Good examples of when we make our decisions are API contracts. If a customer builds against your API, that's your API. You can't go change it and introduce breaking changes later. 

I’ve also been really wrong about some product names in my career, and they can box you in. They can prevent you from doing cool features that you want to do in the future because you named the product incorrectly in the first place.

So be very careful with product names.

Also, anything that a customer builds a business process on top of. It's really sad to go to a customer and say, “You're going to have to change the way you do business.”

Getting P&L wrong 

Now I'm going to talk about pricing.

This is a question that we get from leadership all the time: “How much money will we make?” 

On one hand, it's reasonable for leadership to want to know how much money you're going to make. On the other hand, it's ridiculous. We can't predict the future. We're going to be totally wrong about our answer to this question. 

That said, I ask my PMs for this all the time, and you're going to be asked this as well. But the correct answer to how much money you’ll make is P&L. That explains the volume of how much you’re going to sell, how much you’re going to price it, and how much it's going to cost. 

Let's go through this dumb P&L example: 

Table showing an example of P&L forecasts from year 1, year 2, and year 3

First of all, they’re getting the volume projections wrong. There's no way they're going to get a forecast right. You can't predict the future. Predicting the future is impossible.

Secondly, prices may be right because you can set them, but in B2B, we have sales discounting too. I'm going to be wrong about that, so prices are going to be wrong.

So, wrong volume plus wrong prices means my revenue top line is going to be wrong. 

Now we go down to cost. You definitely can't predict costs. You're going to be wrong about that.