Over the course of my six years as a product manager in the Bay Area, I’ve had a lot of conversations with students, engineers, MBA grads, and others interested in product management. Since there are some questions that come up every time, I thought that it would be cool to address them in writing. By doing so, I can share my perspective with more people than I can physically meet, and my future conversations can start where these answers end. If you’re a PM, and you’ve found yourself in a similar advising role, feel free to use this post in the same way. And if you’re someone considering a career in product management, read on!
What do you do as a product manager?
I create a vision, evolving roadmap, and prioritized feature list for a product based on my understanding of the users and customers (not always the same), the underlying problems they’re trying to solve, and the reasons for solving those problems. Then, I work with engineering and design teams to execute against that vision, roadmap, and feature list. Additionally, I partner with marketing, sales, and customer success teams to create and implement go-to-market strategies.
Uh…yeah…that’s cool…but what do you ACTUALLY do?
Oh right. 😄
There isn’t really a “typical day,” so I’ll share a list of real, measurable stuff I worked on in my previous role at SchoolMint. For context, SchoolMint is a mobile and cloud-based student enrollment and school choice platform that is used by thousands of PreK-12 district, charter, and independent schools. I was responsible for the district product. In that role, I:
- Talked with many public school district administrators to understand what was great and what sucked about our product
- Analyzed current competitors as well as potential future competitors
- Created a roadmap for the public school district product. The format of the roadmap was very similar to the format outlined in Ken Norton’s article, “Climbing Mount Enterprise,” and it was separated into four buckets: 2016 Q3, ’16 Q4, 2017 H1, and ’17 H2 & beyond
- Created wireframes, specifications, and tickets for engineers to use and track when developing a new feature. QA engineers also used those as guides when testing the new feature.
- Managed the development of that conditional logic feature to be used in forms created by district administrators
- Wrote the original Help Center article about the conditional logic feature
- Answered support tickets from parents using the product. We had a support team dedicated to this, but it was important for me to see user frustrations firsthand and solve those issues.
- Identified metrics that helped me understand if the feature was a success, and pulled data and reports to share with my team
What’s the most important skill to have as a PM?
In my opinion, there are four (sorry, it’s never that simple!):
As I mentioned above, I spend a lot of time trying to understand how our user/customers (and potential users/customers) think about our product and problems we’re attempting to solve. It’s only through this understanding that I can create a great product that solves real problems.
- The ability to prioritize ideas, features, and bug fixes
In most companies, there’s no shortage of ideas for product improvements. Everyone has an opinion — internally and externally. But resources are limited, and you have to figure out what’s best for users, customers, and the company. This is why understanding the underlying set of problems and crafting a product vision and roadmap around it is critical. It helps you to figure out your must-haves, nice-to-haves, and won’t-haves.
- The ability to communicate clearly
Once you’ve discovered your product’s path, you have to communicate it both at a high-level (vision, roadmap) and at a granular level (specifications, wireframes, and tickets) to make it happen.
- The ability to “manage” and motivate people that don’t report to you
Product managers must motivate a cross-functional team of people who aren’t direct reports to get stuff done. This is closely connected to #2 and #3 above, since you need to have sound logic and great communication skills to motivate the team.
Do I need to have an engineering background to be a product manager?
This is a question that I get from people coming from non-technical backgrounds. My answer: nope…for the most part.
For the record, I’m a former electrical engineer; however, I’ve worked with many PMs who weren’t graduates of engineering schools or coding bootcamps. Also, I have several PM friends without a formal technical education who have worked at Facebook, Square, Adobe, and other great companies. While they don’t have that background, they understand what’s technically feasible and how long it takes to build, and they work well with engineers. In most cases, they’re strong in other disciplines related to product management like design or marketing, or they bring strong industry experience to the table (e.g., a PM at a fintech startup with years of experience in the financial industry).
That said, there are companies — mostly small start-ups — that require that PMs can review and/or check in code. If you’re interested in product management and aren’t comfortable programming, those companies probably aren’t for you, but you’ll have many other options.
Also, you have an MBA. Has it been useful in the PM role?
Am I using the models and frameworks that I learned in business school at work every day? Nah. However, business school has influenced and conditioned how I approach the four critical skills listed above. And in general, analyzing business cases in different courses with different disciplines in mind (marketing, finance, management, etc.) has given me a better sense for vetting product ideas and avoiding common pitfalls.
How did you find and apply for your job?
My current role at Envoy came to me through a recruiter there. Before that, I found SchoolMint through an edtech career fair, and I also applied online. And I found and applied for my previous role at TuneIn via a job posting on Ventureloop.
Did you have connections at the companies before applying?
At SchoolMint, I had one mutual connection that I didn’t contact until I had an offer and wanted another opinion regarding the company. I didn’t have any connection to TuneIn when I applied. The hiring manager just happened to be looking for someone with my unique background (automotive engineer with start-up experience) for the role (PM for TuneIn’s automotive products). I just happened to be a good fit with the right experience. Sometimes, it really is about what you know, not who you know.
That’s it. For now.
I plan to update this list of questions as I share it and continue to have conversations with future product managers. Feel free to comment and ask questions below. And if you enjoyed this post, please click/tap the 👏🏾 button. Thanks for reading!