A career in product management
The product manager role has picked up significant traction in the last five years. It's no longer seen as a job which gets piggy backed on the back of another role. The profession was so jaded that not too long ago if you were a product manager you would find it difficult to explain to friends and family what the role was about and where your career was heading.
People would look at you with a blank face expecting you to explain what is it that you do. Most of us would typically say that we "build stuff" and we would get that nod or a comment like "ah so you are the person who makes my life difficult when I use that thing". Things have thankfully changed for the better. Product managers have been having a rollercoaster ride in popularity and demand. Today the profession is getting a lot of attention and it is now recognised as a critical role, where the product manager is that go to person sitting at the intersection of business, customer, technology and user experience - driving business growth, manage execution risk and solving customer problems.
For those of us who are in this profession we know how we got here. Possibly by accident or a random throw of the dice where one thing led to another. You may have even taken the scenic tour by moving through the organisation before stumbling into product management. Perhaps you started at the counter doing customer service, then operations, and project management or some similar route where you ticked off the boxes which were required for the role and viola you got your first get gig as a product manager. Today it's quite common to see fresh graduates apply for product manager roles and start off their career as a junior product manager.
For the new graduates out there and early career professionals who want to give product management a shot my advice to you is to be persistent, and not to be discouraged if you don't get the role in the first attempt. The key to be being a successful applicant is to have domain expertise in an area of the business or a keen interest in that domain / industry / company / product. The interviewer is going to look for an inquisitive mind, customer empathy, problem solving, persistence and willingness to collaborate to determine if the candidate is going to fit in. I would say that you should also have a keen eye to see if you will fit into the company's corporate culture. Find out what it's like to work there.
“Know your value add. I’ve seen three main PM archetypes: engineer turned PM, designer turned PM, and businessperson turned PM. As a member of the latter bucket, I recognize that I could never out-engineer an engineer or out-design a designer. Instead, I leverage my knowledge of our business and customers to better prioritize what features make it onto the roadmap and help my team understand why we’re building those features.” – Lauren Chan Lee, Director of Product Management at Care.com
Product management is diverse and there are specialisations to choose from - not everyone looks after a products. There are product managers who focus on analytics, risk management, innovation, planning, budgeting and finance within the product management umbrella. These are equally good starting paths to get into product management to eventually become a product manager if thats what your career ambition is. There is no short cut to becoming a product manager, you have to go through the whole nine yards of starting with the basics. If you have experience on the buy side (customer side) where you understand the pain points that would put you in good stead in getting an interview.
Product management can be taught and learnt on the job. Its not rocket science so long you have the business acumen, a sensible head on your shoulders and have an insane level of curiosity and are comfortable with dealing with constant change. There is a debate of whether product managers need to be technically qualified with coding skills. The house view here is that companies should stay razor sharp on what we want the product manager to do. To me its being client focused, value creation, business growth and risk management. Having a technical background is a plus but not critical. A general high level appreciation of the software development lifecycle and Agile methodologies will certainly assist you. There will be some technically advanced products and firms which may require technical competency.
So why are product managers in demand?
The answer comes down to demand and supply. The supply aspect has been low for highly skilled and competent product managers with domain expertise. Its just that over the last few years with so many startups popping up and new digitally driven propositions coming to the forefront there has been a better appreciation for product managers as this role intersects across many functions that need to be engaged if your taking new products to the market. The bottom line is that someone needs to be accountable to getting the job done and coordinating with all the other stakeholders to make the delivery happen. That same person needs to be able to make decisions and say 'NO' to many other competing choices. The product manager is that person which champions the design, build and execution of products for the company.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas.” – Steve Jobs, Apple
In the past it was common to see this orchestrating activity being shared between a business analyst and the project manager with some oversight from a business sponsor. This approach was workable to an extent because there was no rapid / agile movement. Typically a product/system was built and then handed over to operations to then manage the business as usual activities. Releases and product enhancement was not done often. When there were issues being raised by customers it would go in through the feedback / complaint route and eventually a request would land on the desk of someone in technology who would then need to figure out what to do with it.
Today the product manager takes in all the user feedback, data, insights and problem statements and sets out the value proposition and the product roadmap. A strong product manager is able to build out a compelling product proposition. The proposition should be crafted through the lens of the customers. It needs to be relevant, meaningful and desirable. You can build the best products but if you cant connect the dots with the customer it will all be worth nothing. This expectation from a product manager is not highlighted in a job description, and it's often taken for granted. Crafting out propositions is a skill worth its weight in gold.
Majority of product managers have never actually been involved in building a product from ground up, most have inherited products and have built a career servicing products. Startups value product managers who are able to take a concept to delivery. If you have such a skill, you would we well placed as your career in product management takes off. Some product managers have built a career stitching up propositions. A proposition is the delivery of a service using existing products. It's not the same as building a product. In multinational companies it's common to build new propositions where existing products and services may be repackaged and sold. Think of the telecommunications industry - it's the same 4G pipe, with different data plans, call time and services with different package pricing.
Expectations of a product manager
The hiring firm would expect the product manager to jump right into the thick of things. Expectations are that the PM is self driven and will not need to be guided on how to find their way around the organisation. Within a week or so of joining people will forget that the person is new. The easing in period typically wont last more than a couple of weeks, so in this time the PM should have figured out what they need to be doing, who their stakeholders are, what the products are, the problems which are currently being looked at, projects in flight and getting to grips on what the clients are asking for.
Ask why the role was created
One way to find out how well versed the organisation is on product management is to ask for details on the product development culture and the team structures. Useful to also know why this role was created so that you have a sense of how you need to plan your first 30 days in the new role. If your being hired to replace another person, then you know that there should already be some documentation for your to catch up into the role.
Not all product manager roles are the same. Companies are not always transparent during the hiring process on confirming what exactly the PM is going to do. You should ask for this clarity to avoid disappointment. Say you want to work on something digital, then make sure you say that during the interview, else you may end up on some other role which may not fit your aspiration and skill sets. There are also companies which are focused more towards new product launches but do a terrible job of investing in ongoing incremental releases, these companies make