How I Became a Product Manager
Originally written as a series of tweets.
I often get asked how I became a PM and arrived where I am today. So! I’m just going to share it with everyone.
I grew up in NJ and had no idea what the tech industry was until about halfway through college at Stanford.
At that point, I knew I wanted to be part of making things in the tech industry. At that (very late) point, I switched my major to Symbolic Systems.
Symbolic Systems is computer science + philosophy + linguistics + psychology and has a legacy of PM-esque alums (Marissa Mayer, Reid Hoffman, etc). https://symsys.stanford.edu
But, I took the minimum required programming classes and opted for CS classes that were really just design classes. In earnest, I had no idea how to write code.
So, when it came to looking for jobs, engineering was out. I didn’t even know what a portfolio was, so design was out too. Product management was what was left.
When I applied for every entry-level PM position I could find (dozens), I was rejected by every single one, mostly due to lack of job/CS experience. (I can still name every one of those companies 😊)
I completely failed at getting a job the traditional route. I was also graduating heavily in debt (loans, medical bills) and definitely had to work at graduation. 😳
Meanwhile, I “wasted” an inordinate amount of time answering questions on Quora, trying to learn about the tech industry through other means.
Unexpectedly, because of my Quora answers, someone from a startup called box.net cold messaged me about a new team they were starting.
Coincidentally, Aaron, the box.net CEO (who was 3 years older than me!) spoke at one of my classes. He was… kinda weird but overwhelmingly charismatic and smart.
Box.net CEO Aaron Levie is an entrepreneur who seeks to reinvent how enterprise businesses share content across their…ecorner.stanford.edu
That convinced me to meet the random message-er. Their new team was focused on “building a platform” (I had no idea what that meant); the role was for sort-of-PM work (the top line was the actual title initially 😂).
This was my in — I jumped on it, interviewed, got hired, and started working immediately (a few months before graduation).
But, I barely had any idea how to do anything: product management, platforms, developer products, enterprise software… How was I going to make myself useful?
I started by reading everything Aaron read — Grove, Christensen. Moore, Benioff, etc — dude was only 3 years older than me! If he could do it, so could I (I thought).
And I kept voraciously reading as much as I could — it seemed like the only way to compensate for (a lack of) years of experience. I taught myself half a dozen programming languages, started building web apps…
And the job itself was so many things: designing/building web pages, building APIs, writing documentation, doing developer support, business development, customer meetings, speaking at/running events, and so much more…
In my first year at Box, I probably learned more than in all four years at Stanford combined.
Eventually the company grew, the org changed, and my title shifted from “Platform Something” to “Product Manager” along with it.
I eventually got tapped to lead product for an acquisition (@crocodoc) that we ran as a standalone product/business within Box. My learning curve got even steeper; it was amazing.
But, that curve plateaued at some point. I was spoiled by my first three years. I tried to find something else to do internally to no avail.
I saw @pmarca tweet about Slack in early 2014, tried it, and instantly fell in love. The product wasn’t perfect at the time, but you could feel how much they cared about it by how it evolved.
Slack also seemed on the forefront of how everything in enterprise software was changing, as @stevesi presciently wrote just before it launched.
What happens when the tools and technologies we use every day become mainstream parts of the business world? What…blog.learningbyshipping.com
I clearly believed in Slack as both a significant company and significant product. This was the place I should go, I thought!
I spent weeks agonizing over whether to even apply for a job at Slack (I’d had one job at one company for 3+ years — leaving felt like leaving home at that point).
I had no contacts at Slack and simply applied through their jobs site. And was almost instantly rejected. 😭😂 “No need for more PMs at this time.” There went that hope.
I injected an ill-advised “stroke of brilliance” into the conversation.
And that, for reasons I’ll never truly understand, tipped Stewart’s opinion and led to the Slack recruiter following up with me again offering an interview.
After that, I spent several weeks meeting the Slack team, interviewed, and got hired!
It honestly took me some time to get adjusted to Slack. But, 3+ years since then, I’ve PM-ed several of our most important things ever. Knowing how this all started for me, it still feels unreal.
So! To everyone who asks, if you want to get where I am, just do all of that. 😉