As a non-engineer with no prior product experience but a strong inclination to enter the domain, I initially struggled with the idea of justifying my ‘unconventional’ background to recruiters. Truth is, product management has evolved to become one of the most multidimensional, meritocratic and fluid fields within tech. We have come a long way from times when a PM role came with a set of rigid barriers to entry, one of which was having a CS/ some other engineering degree. With firms making provisions to segment PM roles from technical PM roles as well as changing the definition of what “technical” constitutes, there’s huge opportunity for passionate folks from diverse backgrounds to add value in this space.
In this short five-part series, I am sharing my favorite strategies to help anyone looking to transition to product management, irrespective of their previous area of focus. I genuinely believe product is one the most exciting places to be at right now, and I hope my learnings can enable more people to consider this as a potential career path.
#1 Improve your understanding of the product management role and determine if it excites you
I am guilty of being one of the many folks whose initial interest in product was sparked because it sounds snazzy. Over the years, through conversations with industry experts as well as my own experiences, I have developed a much broader understanding of how PMs actually create value for a firm and the society. This understanding is important because it gives you a strong, personal set of reasons to decide if you want to pursue this domain.
In a nutshell, a product manager owns a product area for an organization. S/he can be involved in any or all stages of a product’s life cycle, including identifying and justifying the customer need for a product, and then conceptualizing, building, launching and improving it over time. There are multiple groups/ functions that can contribute in this journey, but it is the PM’s responsibility to combine their contributions to achieve the final desired product.
How we define a product is where things get interested. To do this, let’s contextualize a popular framework used in tech circles, to classify any product a PM can build as a ‘painkiller’ or a ‘vitamin’.
Consider an example where many customers using Uber are complaining about high driver cancellations and are leaving the app because of this. In this case, a PM will be pulled in to solve this customer pain point. The PM may brainstorm a number of ‘painkillers’, ranging from introducing driver penalties for cancelling, to building self-driving cars, to solve this problem, and his/her chosen solution will be then be the product in this case.
Now consider a different example. In 2019, Whatsapp released its 2.19.352 update, that allowed it to support Emoji 12.0. Essentially, this let Whatsapp introduce 230 new emojis, including the ones below:
Note that unlike in the case of the Uber example, here a PM didn’t build this feature to solve any specific customer complaints/ pain point. Rather, s/he preemptively built a ‘vitamin’ to further improve current customer experience. Doing so had the impact of making millions of conversations around the world much livelier, and we are definitely not complaining! :)
By this definition, a product could be any tangible/intangible product, feature or process that improves customer experience. While some of these solutions might be solely based on pure engineering innovations (e.g.- an improvement in Google’s search algorithm), others solutions could be rooted in operational, marketing or other functional innovations, and it is a PM’s job to combine these innovations to create solid vitamins and painkillers.
How do PMs achieve this? At a strategic level, they are always ‘listening’ to customers, market trends and industry innovations. Great PMs can anticipate customer needs even before customers express it. They are the guardians of customer experience in any company meeting, and are always brainstorming incremental, or sometimes moonshot ideas to improve this experience.
At a tactical level, PMs translate moonshot ideas into reality using a combination of organizational tactics. They thrive on ambiguity, but also use their creativity and intuition to put hard numbers to back whiteboard visions. They rarely have any direct authority over stakeholders, but are able to get buy-ins from people across multiple levels, using powerful communication techniques. They keep the group organized and moving through fool proof planning, but aren’t hesitant to find scrappy solutions to everyday problems or surprise roadblocks. They are ‘generalists’ in that they can filter and ramp up on required functional areas quickly , but are ‘specialists’ in that they always understand their customers and product area better than anyone else in the room. At the end of the day, a product’s success is determined by how much it delights its users, and a PM takes pride in claiming full ownership of that success or learning opportunity.
If you find this narrative exciting, you are already halfway there! You will find that being a PM isn’t about scaling just one skill set linearly, but is more about combining a bunch of diverse areas and continuous learning. I am learning at the same time as you are, and over the next few weeks, we will explore the best strategies to position ourselves as we embark upon this journey.