A few years ago, I didn’t know the job title “Product Manager” existed. I was a Software Engineer, and I enjoyed coding. However, even more than the implementation of the logic for code, I enjoyed interacting with stakeholders to collect requirements for the applications I built, and laying out the user-centered design specifications. I thrived when dealing with ambiguity and defining the user experience for the products I developed!
Fast forward a few years — I am a Product Manager at Amazon Web Services today.
A lot of people have asked me — “How did you become a Product Manager?”, followed by — “How can I become a Product Manager?”.
I have a technical background. I started coding in high school and always enjoyed building things. After 5 years of data structures, algorithms, object oriented programming, databases…and a bunch of other courses (and three internships), I earned a degree in Software Engineering and started my career as a developer at Goldman Sachs. Along the way I participated in hackathons and worked on a bunch of technical projects.
While at Goldman Sachs, I had the opportunity to mentor a group of school girls as part of the Technovation Challenge. This was a great chance to work with a team to create an android prototype for a healthcare application. This experience reinforced my love for building products ground-up.
I have always had a passion for art and design. I grew up in the 90s when I didn’t have internet in my pocket, so I spent several waking hours using my hands to create paintings and jewelry. After college, I wanted to learn more about design. I took up Ideo/Acumen’s Human Centered Design for Social Innovation course and Scott Klemmer’s Coursera course on Human Computer Interaction. Both were very insightful, and taught me some formal concepts on HCI and design.
By this time I had heard the “Product Management” buzz word. It sounded interesting, and I started researching on how I could become a PM. Long story short, I went on to pursue a masters degree in Software Management. The degree brought me to Silicon Valley — where I networked with some very talented entrepreneurs, product managers, growth hackers and designers. I also learned from some amazing professors and peers at school, where I took up courses on product development, design, marketing research, entrepreneurship and project management. I spent a summer with Groupon as a product management intern. The internship gave me a fresh perspective to product management at a consumer product company. Later, I went on to work on practicum project with IBM, focusing on the Bluemix product. This experience, like the one at Groupon, validated my love for product management. The Bluemix project introduced me to the world of cloud computing and PaaS. The power of cloud computing fascinated me. Few months down the line, when I got the opportunity to join AWS as a product manager, I was elated! My ride with AWS has been great so far.
So, You Want to be a Product Manager?
“Do I need to do an MBA to become a Product Manager?”
“Do I need to know to code to be a Product Manager?”
“Should I go to grad school to become a Product Manager?”
There isn’t really a prescribed path to becoming a product manager. Some awesome product managers began their careers as support and product specialists. These roles are great to gain expertise on customers and their pain points. Some product managers began their careers as designers or marketers. Many product managers I personally know were software developers (or QA engineers) once. Some successful PMs don’t have a tech degree — they studied law, finance, business... Some have MBA degrees, and some don’t.
You don’t have to have a particular degree to qualify for a product management job or be a good PM. However, a degree could facilitate you to get the job. For example, a PM working on very technical products (for example, Big Data or Infrastructure products) would need to understand technical concepts and processes. Technical expertise is also useful to gain respect from the broader team, that is likely to be very technical. A technical degree can help bridge that gap, but if you work hard, learn through other means such as online MOOCs, or learn on the job — you can be just as knowledgable about any tech subject as anybody with a CS degree.
“So, what can I do to become a Product Manager?”
To change career paths or become an expert at anything — you need to constantly learn. First, to be a great PM, you must be very passionate about products. Product Hunt and Hacker News are great places to stay up to date on latest product launches and tech news. Try out new products that interest you. Form an opinion about them. Read books, articles and blog posts on new products, tech, product management, design, growth hacking — anything you’re interested in. Listen to podcasts on building products. (I’ll curate a list of my favorite books, blogs and podcasts soon).
Network, network, network! Attend meet-ups where you can talk to other PMs, designers, growth hackers, engineers and entrepreneurs. If you’re in Silicon Valley, I’d recommend the Lean Product & Lean UX meetup. Hackathons are also a great way to network and build products. Networking will help you learn from experts and grow your job referral connections. It’s also a great way to connect with mentors.
Finally, the best thing you can do to become a product manager is build products. You don’t have to be a PM within a company to do that — you can work on your own side projects and build skills needed to be PM — from ideation, doing customer research, prioritizing requirements for an MVP, designing and building the MVP, marketing, showing it to customers, getting feedback and growing the product. The products you build need not be world-changing — but they will help you learn the art of building a product from scratch and dealing with tonnes of ambiguity. After building the product — showcase it to the world. What if the product fails? No problem, you would have learned some valuable lessons from its failure. Share your journey with others. Ask them for feedback. An easy way to do this is to write about your experience or capturing it in a portfolio. These are great ways to showcase your product journey to teams hiring PMs.
If you’re an aspiring PM, good luck with your journey into product management!