“I want to be in product when I grow up”..said no one ever
Imagine a world when everyone in product trained to be in product, studied product and set out to be in product. Feels like a boring place?
So it dawned on me the other day, when you listen to interviews or podcasts with Product professionals, there is definitely a common thread that runs through them all. When asked how they got into Product, most of the time the answer is something along the lines of: “I don’t really know, it was a sort of an accident, or… I was doing this other thing and thought, wow, that looks interesting.”
Before I dive in, I have to start by saying — I have nothing against people that have chosen more academic pathways to get into Product Design. In my time working in Product, I have come across many truly brilliant people that have had the best product education out there, but I’ve also met a whole host of equally brilliant people who have come from more humble beginnings, or better described as “product by accident”
I came out of school with three GCSEs, and if I’m honest, I think I have my best friend to thank for one of them. I somehow managed to bumble my way through a degree in — believe it or not — law, through a combination of sheer luck and maybe a bit of hard work.. My university years were a real laugh, and I’m not saying that I’d necessarily change them, but when it came to starting a career in Product, I didn’t exactly reach straight for my law 101 book.
When I arrived as a bright eyed, bushy tailed graduate in the world of work, I quickly realised I knew nothing, and to be honest like many of us in Product, didn’t really know what I wanted to do.
I started off retail-side, where my day to day was pretty much managing ranges, negotiating deals and agreeing cost prices.I was lucky enough to be part of major Microsoft Windows launches, XBOX, Playstation and Nintendo. I worked in a brilliant team who would get genuinely excited about all things sales, but for me, the thing that really grabbed me was the in-store experience. Whilst the team were thinking about the sale itself, I used to stand in the store trying to work out what the customer sees, why they walk past aisles, end caps and promotion material. My mind would wander thinking about how we could create an experience for someone from the moment they walk in.
Before the language of product and design was really used, we called this marketing — and if I’m honest, I think a lot of my passion for it came from my hatred of the “half price” point of sale. I remember listening to my Marketing Director at the time who turned to the buying team and said “how many people do you really think have come into the store today just to buy something half price?” It wasn’t really my education that got me thinking about those kinds of questions, it was just instinct and that was probably the first time I ever asked the question “what customer problem are we trying to solve”
Why am I telling you this? Fast forward to today and I can see that, because my team come from all walks of life, they all ask different questions, have different approaches and tackle challenges in different ways. A woman who started off working in the call centre dealing with customer queries, someone who fell into product after seeing it from a different angle doing a project manager job, a man who was once out in people’s homes fixing boilers; these people are the magicians across the product industry who are building products and experiences, challenging the status quo and asking questions as they go. The fact they ask questions that centre around the customer — that’s the common DNA, that’s the thread between them and the instinct they share. Their experience on the front lines working directly with the customer has proved invaluable, and I think that’s part of the reason why my industry has become one of the most diverse places to work.
When you ask most people who have been in Product for a while, how they got into it, invariably the answer is a mix of luck, accident or one day realising that what you have been doing for a decade has a new language and name. All of these accidental careers in product are different, but are ordinarily, aligned under one mission — solving customer pain points.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve trained and worked with designers and product people that have studied it at university, and many of them have gone on to great things, but most product teams are made up of misfits and rebels. Many of them will have fallen into it through an unexpected route — maybe from dabbling in design in their spare time, working on code, project managing something, working in a start-up or even picking it up from a frustration with a badly designed app (Believe me, I’ve been there before).
I don’t want to be as bold as to say that product isn’t something you can teach — there’s definitely tricks and processes, ceremonies that senior leaders can pass on around building frameworks and articulating ideas, but you certainly can’t teach that kind of passion. Like it or not, passion is not going to be appearing on university syllabuses any time soon, which means it can be found in almost any walk of life.
So, what do I look for when I’m searching for a new recruit in my team?
I’m looking for the legends in-waiting, the rebels and the crazy people that are going to really push the boundaries, because at the end of the day these are the people that change the world! Of course, there needs to be some structure, which is why we embed key principles around being agile, lean and working as a ‘squad’, but I encourage my teams to make those principles work for them, rather than just reading the book and trying to implement 100% of what is said. Yes, I need people that know the foundations, but I also want people that ask the right questions and that aren’t afraid to step outside the box.
After all… It’s when you bring together a former gas engineer, a project manager, and a woman who used to work in a call centre that the real magic happens.