Your career path in Product management

Product management is a promising and fulfilling career. Many consider an option for a career path in Product management. But, the entry barriers are quite high to get into this role, especially in firms, say MAFANG (M + FAANG), which creates high impact products. Why is it so? It is mostly because as a product manager you need to be “well-rounded” (tech + design + business + …) and have certain “bare-minimum” (possess intellect, be adaptive, be tactical ….) skills to receive an interview call, convert it and more importantly deliver at the job. Companies want their new product managers to be assets, not liabilities, who are ready to roll up sleeves and deliver under deadlines. So, it’s important for aspiring candidates to understand this aspect and cement the gaps in their existing skills.

Let’s begin by identifying which candidates are more likely to consider the role of a product manager. Mostly, it’s professionals with either software or hardware background, or Arts or Design background, or business or project management background. So, if a techie wants to be a PM, what does s/he needs to do? Add skills in Business and Design domain. The same logic is applicable to a designer, a business person, or anyone else – Add missing skills.

In the below sections, we’ll explore what advantages each background offers and what steps an individual can take to augment product skills.

Arts

I’ve often seen that professionals from Art backgrounds are worried about their chances of becoming a PM. They lose sight of their strengths and focus on their weak spots, say technical knowledge. Yes, it helps to be technically proficient, but for that, taking an online class or two can reduce the skill gap. It’ll not make you a tech-rockstar but will help you in being comfortable and aware of the technical aspects of your product. Great product managers need to know how to talk to their engineering team, but that’s communication, not programming. They also need to possess critical thinking – evaluate and make effective decisions.

Examples

Someone from an arts background, a Teacher, might become a great product manager in the Edtech industry. Someone who majored in behavioral science or psychology stands a great chance as a product manager for B2C products. It can also be that someone with a linguist background is a perfect fit for a PM role in language localization of a product. Similarly, someone from a legal background can be a great PM for Risk, Compliance, or auditory purposes. There are plenty of such examples!

So even if you don’t have any idea of the Business, Design, and Engineering aspects of Product Management –- if you just focus on your strengths and have customer empathy, you will have plenty of examples to talk about in the interviews. More importantly, you’ll be showcasing your ability to genuinely represent the customer, a must skill for a career path in product management. An excellent example of someone from an arts background and making it great is Reid Hoffman, who majored in symbolic systems.

Where to focus?

Background AdvantageAugment Skills
Handling ambiguity

Having effective communication

Possessing good writing skills

Possessing good interpersonal communication

Making effective and crisp decisions
Leverage domain knowledge to
bring product expertise such as
FinTech, EdTech, Manufacturing,
Retail, Hospitality, etc.

Learn product experimentation
Pick 2-3 websites, apps or favorite brands,
and keep a log of new functionalities and product development trends. Develop an opinion to improve the product genuinely

Develop a basic understanding of technology – APIs, Basic architectures, Databases, Android and Web technologies, etc

Build skills in data analytics

Learn to say “No” frequently and prioritize
things frequently

Design

As a product manager, I’ve realized how important is good User experience. Even a product with great functional utility, but having bad usability leads to customer rejection and the product’s early demise. Designers can have varied backgrounds. Some may have experience in fashion designing, some may have a hardware design background, and some may have a pure research background, etc. Nevertheless, the principles of user experience remain the same – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. This makes a very good reason why Designers can be a great fit and should pursue a career path in product management. However, as a designer, your job will not end after you deliver the specs to engineers. You’ll have to coordinate with stakeholders and ensure that deliverable meets customer’s needs, deadlines, and quality standards.

Examples

Someone with an app design experience would be a great fit to be a product manager for B2C products. Similarly, someone with industrial design experience can be an excellent product manager in hardware, manufacturing, or B2B firms. Someone with a Fashion design experience can be a great product manager in an apparel or clothing e-commerce. There are many such examples. In all these cases possessing a strong domain knowledge becomes extremely advantageous. As a product manager, you will have a great pulse of why and how your users use the product and easily capture their behavioral patterns into product requirements. Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb is a great example of how designers can take a leap of faith and set up their own companies

Where to focus?

Background AdvantageAugment Skills
Possessing creativity and sense of purpose

Having knowledge on conducting Qualitative and Quantitative research

Identifying Customer explicit and latent needs

Emphasizing on usability and functional utility of a product

Conducting product demos and presentations to stakeholders
Become an expert in whatever subjects you are passionate about and build a brand around your passion(s).

Develop a basic understanding of technology – APIs, Basic architectures, Databases, Android and Web technologies, etc

Learn to say “No” frequently and prioritize
things frequently

Improvize on communication with a set of
product stakeholders

Technology

A key challenge that product manager experiences is to communicate the requirements to the engineering team in a way that is effective, clear, and concise. This is where most tech professionals shine.

Problem solution becomes easy, but unfortunately, this also adds an inherent bias to move towards solving a problem than understanding a problem and it’s subproblems comprehensively. Also, make no mistake in assuming that this makes engineers more eligible for a product manager role. Just as with other professions, engineers also need to polish and augment their product management skills vis-a-vis soft skills. An often tried and tested approach for transitioning into product management is to go for an MBA to learn business skills for PM jobs

Examples

Most of the modern-day unicorns are software-driven. In fact, a famous article by Marc Andreessen explains why is it so. In the article’s context, software engineers do have an edge in building products. Consider the types of engineers – A front-end, backend, and full-stack software engineer; Each can build apps or websites to show their product skills and customer-centricity. Similarly, a hardware engineer can create new devices or mash it up with some IoT technology to create new experiences for the end-users. There is a freedom to experiment and iterate, no one’s stopping you!

The ability to code software provides engineers with some edge in “how to build a product” but they still need to figure out “why to solve a problem?” and “what to build as a product”. When engineering professionals focus on these aspects, they build that elusive well-rounded personality for a fulfilling career path in product management. Bill Gates is a great example of how a software engineer with a passion for technology can learn and drive business, and set up his own company

Where to focus?

Background AdvantageAugment Skills
Technical know how -Software/Hardware
Architectures

Ideate and ability to innovate

Good Risk management – avoiding slippages, detect potential bugs

Excellent documentation skills
Spend considerable time on improving
soft skills – communication, presentation, etc.

Develop customer empathy and understanding

Improve on interpersonal abilities – within and external to the team

Focus on product philosophy – “why”, “what” of building a product

Learn skills for gathering requirements, prioritizing features, product marketing

Business

Understanding of business is one must ‘skill’ for a Product manager. But, what does business mean here? Well, it could mean anything from understanding the nature of the market, your market share, market growth rate, your present and potential competitors, risk and threats to existing markets, consumer behavior, product positioning, etc.

Professionals with a business degree or from sales and marketing have at least some familiarity with these concepts. It is easier for them to justify the business impact either in the form of a firm’s topline or bottom line. For that reason, people with business backgrounds find it transitioning to the role of a product manager a bit interesting. However, the thought of collaborating and working deeply with engineers and designers, on a daily basis, can make a business professional slightly jittery. So, carefully weigh in all such considerations before pursuing a career path in product management.

Examples

Someone from a sales background can be a great product manager for B2B, B2B2C, and in some cases B2C products. They are the ones who are in frequent contact, across channels, with customers. This gives them a good pulse of the market demand and customer needs. Someone from a marketing background can be a good product marketing manager. They understand both the product and the market really well. This helps them in suitably positioning the product among competitor’s offerings. Similarly, someone from Accounting or commerce background can be a great product manager in the Banking or FinTech industry. They easily understand cashflows and the ROI of spending every penny for revenue generation, etc. Meg Whitman, CEO of HP completed her bachelor’s in economics before going for an MBA at Harvard.

Where to focus?

Background AdvantageAugment Skills
Sound understanding of Market Dynamics

Quantifying ROI and making growth projections

Awareness of Competitor strategies

Know-how of the firm’s financial health

Business and regulatory risks
Develop an understanding of
technology – APIs, Basic Architecture, Android and Web technologies

Develop an appreciation for user
experience, design and product usability

Build skills in data analytics

Build skills in prioritization and product
execution

Project

Project or program managers on a daily basis have to juggle time, quality, and cost. They have to interact with engineers, designers, and other stakeholders on a frequent basis. Interpersonal skills, prioritization, and road mapping, etc are a few key skills they excel at. This gives them a great advantage of being objective, operationally efficient, and knowing about product features thoroughly.

In terms of operational excellence, a project manager or a program manager is closest that one could come to a product manager. However, there are many other skills that need to be picked up before becoming a full-time PM – understanding customer and their pain point, capturing and communicating these needs as requirements for the team, emphasizing on customer needs, product sense, creating mocks, participating in design sprints, get customer feedback, etc.

Examples

Someone from a project background is well equipped to carry out tasks related to product planning and execution. In most B2B firms, where client needs are clearly captured and documented, a project manager often plays the role of a product manager. Quite often in industries such as Telecom, Networking, Semiconductors, etc., this is the case. A great case in point on why project managers have the skills to become CEOs is captured in this article

Where to focus?

Background AdvantageAugment Skills
Basic understanding of technology –
APIs, Basic architectures, Databases,
Android and Web technologies, etc

Basic understanding of Design

Adequate skills for planning and
prioritizing tasks

Familiarity with Planning
tools and representing it to stakeholders

Interpersonal skills
Effective communication
Taking full ownership of the product
success and failures

Develop skills to wireframe and mocks
for the product feature

Documentation of customer needs as
requirements

Polishing skills on user research and product experimentation

Conclusion

Practice! Practice and more Practice. Read a lot of books and upskill yourself through courses. As a product manager, you should have a high degree of self-awareness. Be compassionate for user needs, mindful of the user and business needs, be opinionated – Discuss and Debate with your peer PMs and management but make your voice heard, and be bold in making tough decisions frequently. If you want to play it safe and want a change career path in product management, don’t make a drastic jump. You’ll definitely feel the friction in carrying PM tasks, at least for a few years.

You can make a change to some other relevant role within your organization. Opportunities will not simply land in your lap. You’ll have to go the extra mile in influencing, networking, build relationships within and outside the organization. If this does not work out you may choose to consider a career in a startup or pursue an MBA for your higher education.

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