Harnessing Uncertainty: The Transition from College to Product Management
The greatest obstacle to true learning is the inability to say “I don’t know.”
― Marty Rubin
I didn’t realize product management even existed when I started college, much less that I’d pursue it as a career. Coming from a structured school environment, it was nerve-racking to deal with any kind of uncertainty, especially not knowing my career path. However, my experiences during the past year as an Indeed product manager have helped me feel more comfortable about working with uncertainty … and showed me that I picked the right career path, too.
Discovering product management
I first learned about product management during my junior year in college. I was studying Information Systems and wasn’t sure which career path to pursue. When I found out about product management, I was not only interested but relieved — I finally had an idea of what I wanted to do.
The following semester, I learned everything I could about product management: read blogs and books, researched job descriptions, set up informational interviews. I discovered that product management jobs have core aspects that are generally consistent, but the scope of specific roles can vary greatly across companies and industries.
But there was one aspect of product management I only truly understood when I encountered it on the job: uncertainty. Product managers face the openness to define the what, when, and why of the work their teams will do. For example, I have to determine my product’s next steps, both over the following week and over the rest of the quarter. These decisions involve a lot of moving parts and no clear, easy answers.
Managing that uncertainty, and turning it from a liability into an asset, is a huge learning curve for someone fresh out of college. You can’t learn about uncertainty in classes, books, or even through interviews.
From structure to uncertainty
College was the culmination for me of learning how to learn. I had spent 12 years in a structured classroom environment working through assignments with guidelines and deadlines. Instructors provided feedback and grades according to predefined rubrics.
I succeeded by learning how to study and how much effort to put into different types of my schoolwork. I knew ways to find out things I didn’t know, such as attending office hours, joining study groups, asking peers, and searching online.
The key to this success was structure. Classes follow a structure: defined syllabi, rubrics, and grades; previously taught content; similarly worded assignments. I was successful in the classroom and could tackle any challenges in that environment by the time I graduated. I knew how to write persuasive essays, study for theoretical exams, work through practice problems, and execute group project presentations.
Everything changed when I started my first full-time job as a product manager.
Learning on the job
Product management has very little structure. It’s one of the aspects I like most about my job, but it hasn’t been an easy adjustment.
A lack of formal structure gives PMs the flexibility to influence and if necessary, recalibrate the team’s project focus and related tasks, based on company goals and organizational priorities.
As I started my first job here at Indeed, I discovered that product management doesn’t come with a syllabus. PMs set and modify goals on an ongoing basis. Since roles vary so widely by company and industry — even by team — you can’t consult an online study guide for answers about how to manage your product. Shortcuts aren’t possible.
I did find some parallels between school learning and product-career learning. For example, my learnings continually build on each other. Every week, I feel a little more confident in what I’m doing. We may not have TAs in the workplace, but I absolutely have a support system to learn from and lean on.
If you work in a company with more than a few PMs, you’ll have a support system of colleagues who can advise you because they remember being in your shoes. They won’t have had the same project priorities or team discussions to navigate, but have learned from similar situations. My manager, mentors, teammates, and other PMs at Indeed have all been happy to help me as I face different challenges every day.
It’s a huge learning curve
The jump from structured, college life to the undefined world of product management (and the full-time working world in general) pulled me through a lot of mixed emotions. It’s been overwhelming and difficult at times. I think most people sweep this aspect of the transition to full-time work under the rug. I moved away from family and friends for my job, which added a layer of loneliness on everything else.
In my first few months in product management, I believed I should know everything, pick up new things quickly, and that everyone else expected these things of me. But some days I didn’t know what I was doing, or what to ask, or even what I didn’t know. Coming from a school mindset, I thought not being good at my job in the first few weeks would set me up for failure. Changing from that way of life to going home most days feeling overwhelmed and underprepared was really draining.
I realized after a few months that I was wrong. I didn’t need to know everything, and nobody expected me to. My teammates expected and wanted me to ask questions! After I shifted my mindset, I became much more comfortable asking questions, speaking up in meetings, and reaching out for clarification and guidance. Since that shift, I’ve felt more confident and positive about my work each week. Those overwhelming days are becoming fewer and further between. I’m comfortable bouncing back, admitting when I don’t know something, and seeking out guidance for the answers.
How’s it going?
What highlights have I found in jumping into a full-time product management job? Am I enjoying my product management program? Do I like working at Indeed? Would I recommend all of this?
The past year has been incredible. I’ve learned so much and had the opportunity to work with smart, motivated, supportive people at Indeed. Living in Austin has been really cool, too! My work has allowed me to travel to Indeed offices in Seattle, San Francisco, Tokyo, New York City, and Stamford — which was a huge interest of mine when looking for a full-time job.
The biggest change in lifestyle from college to full-time work is that my work is time-boxed now. In college, I spent my days focused on classes, studying, homework, and group projects, and then spent my “free time” working part time and being involved on campus. Now, I work 5 days a week, and my evenings and weekends are my time. I’m very happy to work for a company that respects employees’ work/life balance.
Also, growing pains are good. Maybe you haven’t had them since middle school when you were physically growing, but now they’re professional and personal growing pains. Lifestyle changes force you to learn a lot, and that’s usually uncomfortable. You learn a lot about yourself: what you like and don’t like, who your real friends are (and how to make them outside of class), how to live on your own.
After a year in product management, I now know there’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know,” and the most effective leaders are the ones asking the most questions. I understand a lot more about how the job works … and how I can make that ever-present uncertainty work for me.
If I could go back a few years, I’d tell myself not to be afraid of trying new things, asking questions, or admitting when I’m wrong. I need all those things and more to grow. Complacency is comfortable and boring; growing is challenging and exciting — take your pick.
Learn more about Indeed’s Associate Product Manager (APM) Rotation Program.