I Love Being a Product Manager

A friend’s daughter recently asked if she could interview me about my job. It was a written interview, and since I was already wanting to write about why I love being a Product Manager, I’ll post it here.

© 2011 Martin Eriksson via http://sumo.ly/hx1y
In short, I love learning, so being in the middle of all three circles is a wonderful place.

Interview Questions for an Inspiring Person

What do you do? (Name of profession, nature (content) of the profession)

My title is “Product Owner” (also called a “Product Manager” and I’ll use them interchangeably here) however, since that may not make much sense to most people, at least not like lawyer, accountant, or programmer, I’ll explain. A product owner is typically a software project’s key stakeholder. Part of my responsibility is to have a vision of what I wish to build as a software product, and convey that vision to the software development team (programmers, designers, testers). This vision is developed by an understanding of the product users, the market place or business, the competition (or what others are doing), and of future trends for the business domain or type of system being developed. I meet with management and users to understand their needs and then spend time to think and document those understandings into a level that the software development team can consume in order to create the software. Of course there are product owners not just for software, but any product.

What does it take to succeed in your occupation?

Great communication skills — the ability to actively listen to people, reading between the lines, and asking a lot of questions. This also requires humility to ask questions that you might feel are “stupid” because I find if you make assumptions, too many of them end up wrong. A product owner must also be able to explain things in a way that people understand clearly; this requires translating between business and technical perspectives.

A passion for learning — the moment you think you understand everything or think you are right is when you will fail as a product owner. I love learning about different parts of the business and what users need in order to do their job, and this never ends as there is always a different way of doing things. I also love learning about new technology and new ways to developing software. Both of these love of learning areas are an essential part of being a successful product owner.

Political savvy — Every product has multiple stakeholders, and since each stakeholder is a person, this means they each have different perspectives and opinions, even if they may agree on the overall idea for the product. An essential skill for a product owner is balancing the different stakeholder desires and needs relative to the vision and return on investment, and the ever-present time and budget limitations, in order to decide what product functionality is delivered.

Is the profession overcrowded?

No, and likely never will be. As technology advances and penetrates more and more of our lives, the need for product owners will continue to increase.

Secondly, while I believe with a growth mindset many people have a potential to become a good product owner, not everyone enjoys the challenge it takes to excel in the areas I laid out in your previous question on being successful as a product owner. This then limits the number of people who become product owners, or at least successful ones.

Do you find the future of your profession hopeful?

Yes. Product owners look forward to solving challenges. You could say that every entrepreneur, and every person who is working to solve an issue, even as large as global warming, is a type of product owner, as they seek to understand a problem, come up with a vision to solve it, and then work towards a solution. Being a product owner provides excellent training and skills for quite a few even larger roles in this world.

What are some basic requirements for your occupation?

Academic training (degrees, certificates, etc.)

For software products, it’s common for product owners to have a computer science degree, however I have a business/finance degree, and I’ve met others with marketing degrees, physics degrees, and even a degree in theater arts! However, no matter which “side” of things you have your education in, a product owner will need to educate themselves in the other side. Those with a technical background will need to spend time to education themselves about the business or process their users and other stakeholders are in. For example, someone working on an application dealing with accounting will need basic accounting knowledge in order to have an effective conversation with a accountant about their requirements. For those from a non-technical background, a deep curiosity and desire for self-learning about the development side is an ingredient for success. For software, that means basic programming, architecture, and DevOps knowledge; for non software products that could mean understanding basics of the engineering required to produce the product. As I mentioned before, this is why a passion for learning is one of the keys for product owner success.

In the software world, Agile methodology is king. And there is formal Product Owner certification available from several sources. While not a requirement for all Product Owner positions, it can be helpful in getting a job.

Non-academic/personalities

High Emotional Quotient (EQ) — on the job, even if you have a deep understanding of the product, from both a technical and process perspective, if you don’t have the people skills, you will fail as a product owner. This is one part that I have been forced to grow in over the years in order to be a successful product owner; and I love this about being a product owner, because it has helped me with relationships in other parts of my life. Without EQ, you will not be able to understand your stakeholder needs, nor be able to have the necessary back and forth communication with your development team that is required to deliver a product that meets your stakeholders’ needs.

What is your academic background, and how has it contributed (or not) to your current job?

I have a Bachelors in Business with a Finance concentration. As a product owner, this has helped me in two areas. First in using a more logical, Return on Investment (ROI) or metrics, approach to balancing what product features to deliver. This on a fundamental level means investigating and using the return, which could be monetary, user satisfaction, user hours saved, or even reduction of risk, compared to the investment of time and budget for development of that feature. Second, in my working on finance related software at Microsoft, Expedia, TrueBlue, and others, my Finance and accounting background has been useful in quickly understanding business users’ needs and their processes.

Did you know about/train for your job while you were in college?

I didn’t know about product management or the product owner role when I was in college.

How did you find your interests when you were in college?

When I first entered university, I started out with a target of computer engineering. After taking a few of the required classes I realized I was not enjoying myself, so I switched to construction engineering management. However, I still was not altogether keen on learning in this new area, so I left school for a while and worked in sales and then doing financial analysis. I did enjoy those subjects, so when I returned to school I picked business with a finance concentration.

While I don’t necessary recommend dropping out of university before finishing your undergraduate degree, I do highly recommend after getting an undergraduate degree that you go work for three to five years before deciding to go back for additional post-graduate education. Of course there are exceptions to this such as some hard sciences, medicine, or law, where the work experience may not matter as much. This work experience is important in giving you a real-world foundation to base further education on, and for finding out what you really enjoy before investing further in education. Also, for post-graduate students with no working experience, the transition from academia can be difficult to adjust to, as college “smarts” doesn’t necessary translate to on the job success.

How did you get your job?

Like many other current product owners or managers, I didn’t target this role, but this is changing as product management becomes more well understood. Due to my performance on a finance related job in understanding both the business and technical sides, I was asked to be a product owner. The company I was working for at the time was growing very fast and the president saw how the right software could solve some of the operational bottlenecks. After investigating the software that was then available and finding severe limitations, we decided the best route was to build a custom software solution and make this a key differentiator versus our competitors. Once this software was launched, it did indeed become an advantage for the company.

Now that product owner roles are getting more traction, even though there is not any formal degree for “product owner” or “product manager”, there is a more understood pathway.

What are the stages in this occupation to climb to reach “the top”? (Also define “the top” of your profession)

Depending on where one wants to go, there are a few “tops” for a product owner. For larger or more complex products, for example MacOS or iOS on the iPhone, there would be many product owners, with a product owner director setting overall vision and managing the rest of the product owners. For a company with multiple smaller products, you may have a person leading all the product owners, perhaps ensuring interoperability, similar look-and-feel, in addition to across-the-board vision, as well as helping the overall product development process to use best practices across the various teams.

Due to the wide-range of skills and passion for learning required, a product owner role is a great step to get to startup entrepreneur, or even upper management positions such as CTO, COO, or even CEO.

Once you have a product owner role, focus on executing and improving in each of the areas I laid out before in what it takes to be successful: great communication skills, a passion for learning, political savvy. None of those need to be innate, and a person would be lucky to be above average in one of those areas naturally. So focus on a growth mindset and see failures, of which there will be many in this role, as a learning experience. Since you will be very likely building a wider knowledge base than most others in the company, and due to the EQ you would be strengthening, you will be in a great position to move up the ladder in any company.

What is the average start-up salary for your occupation?

Geography matters a lot, as with many other jobs. In Seattle, where I live, a junior product manager starts around US$85,000, average across the United States is around $65,000. Of course this starting salary can rise quickly depending on the other experience the person brings. With good background in a key business area or technical area, a first product owner role could be well over $100,000.

What can the “top” salary be? Within strict product management a senior level or director level product manager can reach over $200,000.

Explain your working environment and work hours.

Most days I work from home, attending meetings with the development team via voice conference. Much of my time is spent breaking down larger business and user requirements into “stories” that the development team can effectively deliver on. When I head into the office, I use time there to meet with stakeholders to understand their needs, preview designs and functionality with them, as well as meet with others on the technical side to work together to remove obstacles and formulate roadmaps on best practices.

Currently my team is all in the same time zone as I am, so I have a fairly normal working day. When I was the product owner for a startup, some team members were in Taiwan, so I would break up my day to allow for some work time during my early morning or late evening in order to meet with them online. There have been short times were I put in more than the normal 40 hours a week, usually in the last weeks before a software release. However, I have observed with both myself and development team members, more than short periods of time of over 40 hours a week only results in diminishing returns and burnout. Much more effective is to ensure there is uninterrupted concentration time to get into a state of flow, where quality output increases.

What are some advantages and disadvantages for your occupation?

Advantages: great for continuing to grow and learn, and where those positively affect your personal life as well. Excellent foundation for becoming an entrepreneur or rising to upper management.

Disadvantages: can be stressful at times; trying to balance stakeholders with competing requirements, educating stakeholders around unrealistic timeline expectations, development teams which maybe new to the product or technology, and all the normal challenges that working with people entail. But then again, don’t take yourself so seriously, be humble by listening, learning, and admitting your mistakes, and the stress will not last long.

What is your advice for me if I were to follow your footsteps?

Assuming you are looking at software product management, I would advise studying Business, picking any option (i.e. accounting, entrepreneurship, finance, HR, marketing, operations) except Information Systems. Why not pure computer science, informatics, or even Business Information Systems? Because I believe much of current university level CS/Informatics/IS courses are behind in the technology and methodologies you will end up involved in; and you will very likely end up using, as a product owner, a far higher percentage of what you learn in your business related classes than in CS.

Does this mean those CS/Informatics/IS classes are useless? No. You can pick a couple of those classes as electives if they interest you. However, you instead need to teach yourself how to program using the incredible resources now available online for free: Apple’s “Everyone Can Code” featuring the newer Swift language, freeCodeCamp’s Learn to code and help nonprofits, Codecademy. In fact all my own technical ability I learned on my own, many times by taking on a project that I just wanted to do and just figuring it out. By learning coding through this type of online learning, and also getting together with other programmers locally at your university or in your city to perhaps work on an open source project together, you may find yourself ahead of the traditional CS students in producing a useful end product.

Once you have some programming skills, get involved and contribute to an open source project, where your code contributions on GitHub then become a great portfolio. This shows potential employers you have technical knowledge and passion.

While at university, join a startup. There is likely not a university without a set of students who have come up with an idea and are trying to make a go of it from their dorm rooms. It’s low risk, and high reward for what you will learn trying to create a product and company, even if the startup itself fails. And who knows, the startup might become profitable!

Once you graduate, you may, with the experience above, be able to land an actual product owner role. But if not, don’t fret, take a business line role, and then look for ways you can volunteer in that role to help improve business processes and how to leverage software to increase efficiency. Don’t forget to continue your open source contributions. And with both of these, you will be well lined up for an open product owner/manager role.