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The Many Paths Into Product Management

This thriving position brings together engineering, design, and business

Preston Smalley
Dec 18, 2018 · 6 min read
The often winding path to product manager. Photo: @dnevozhai via Unsplash

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If you’re interested in the elusive and rewarding field of product management but unclear about how to land a position, you’re not alone. Each component of product management—design, engineering, and business—offers ample opportunities for formal education. Few degree programs, however, show people how to bring all three areas together, and none that I’ve seen is a B.S. program. The paths that produce the best product managers build empathy for and awareness of the functional areas they work with.

Most people find their way into product management after gaining professional experience in and exposure to design, engineering, and business. Exposure is key; you don’t necessarily need cold, hard experience in all three areas. People break in from a wide range of backgrounds and combinations of experience and exposure.

No Two Paths Are the Same

There is rarely a straight path into product management. This role thrives on breadth and diversity and suffers from narrowness and professional biases (more on this later).

Path of an old colleague at eBay:
Customer service → product manager

If you are dripping with empathy for customers and super organized, you can go a long way.

Friend and colleague Tyler Kareeson’s path:
QA → engineer → product manager

Although Tyler’s background is lighter on business and design, his technical wherewithal enables him to work through issues that often defeat others, like the time he reprogrammed a particularly bad bug and saved his team’s product from being scrapped.

My Path

I moved into product management by following these steps:

  • Earned B.S. in computer engineering
  • Got internship at Microsoft as a program manager (blend of product manager, project manager, and UX designer)
  • Landed job at eBay as UX designer
  • Rose to manage and direct other designers
  • Became increasingly involved in product strategy decisions
  • Earned MBA via weekend classes while working at eBay
  • Joined a former eBay boss, post-graduation, as general manager and head of product for a small company Comcast had bought (Plaxo)

And just like that, I was a product manager.

Even the most popular path to product management is a Choose Your Own Adventure. Usually it looks something like this:

  1. Get degree in software engineering, business, or design.
  2. Begin work as an engineer or in marketing.
  3. Prove yourself at a company and step into the product management role (this is generally easier at growing companies or startups).

As mentioned, unicorn project managers have strengths in engineering, design, and business, as well as empathy for and awareness of the functional areas they work with. If you have a deep engineering background, consider how can you gain experiences with design or business. If you’re all business and design, determine a way to gain a conceptual understanding of how engineering teams operate and perform their functions.

If formal schooling is an option, get a technical degree (such as B.S. in software engineering) with a minor or equivalent in a business topic (strategy, communication, marketing, etc.). It’s also important to learn about design. Read books, attend conferences, and make friends who are design-savvy.

The Pitfalls of Some Paths

Getting into product management is a rite of passage. If you have the resourcefulness to land this role, you’ve also got what it takes to excel. But keep in mind the potential pitfalls of transitioning from other functional areas.

Transitioning From Engineering

Those who transition from Engineering may bias themselves toward their own vision of the architecture of a product. Be sure to give the reins to the engineering team. This can be challenging, especially if you have transitioned from the same team you are now managing.

Avoid making assumptions about what is easy or challenging in terms of scope. Instead, include the engineering team in these discussions. You want to avoid alienating them, and their opinions may be different from yours.

Engineering roles usually have less exposure to customers, but a huge part of the project manager job is to understand user needs. Make sure to engage with customers regularly.

Transitioning From Design

It is most critical that product managers with a design background take care to balance this function with engineering and business. Failing to heed the concerns of the engineering teams or to drive KPIs in the right direction can jeopardize your product and all its elegant design. Your new role is not a blank check to prioritize unchallenged design requests.

Transitioning From Other Areas

Product managers who previously worked in marketing or another area tend to fall into the trap of relying too much on their teams instead of actually doing the job. While you do have to delegate tasks to your teams, you must also understand and shape the product at a technical level. If you can function only as a taskmaster, you’re not fulfilling your role.

Where to Begin

To get started, become active in the startup and product management communities. Go to hack-a-thons, startup competitions, and meetups for product folks. Read lots of blogs and books. Go to high-quality workshops and weeklong classes. Then look for ways to do the job before you actually get it.

Keep an eye on emerging spaces. For example, I’m fascinated by A.I. and what it means for future services. If you attach yourself to a growing industry, you will also be able to ride the wave of growth, thereby setting yourself up for larger opportunities. I got into eCommerce at the turn of the century, as eBay was growing.

Having an MBA can certainly provide you with advantages: instruction, networking, personal branding. Earning an MBA was a great experience for me. I got to carve out 20 hours a week to go deep on interesting topics with amazing professors and classmates. But an MBA is not a hard requirement for breaking into product management. And, in today’s world, the degree may not be worth the expense.

When I went for my MBA at Berkeley 10 years ago, it cost me $80K, and I was able to get eBay to pay $5K per year ($20K over four calendar years) and write off $20K as an unreimbursed business expense. I paid $40K out of pocket.

Today the cost is $136K, and it’s far more difficult to get companies to contribute to tuition.

It’s important to note that everything you learn in business school is theoretical. The case studies are practical, but the lessons remain pure theory until (or unless) you put them into practice.

If you are interested in gaining business school knowledge, read. You can read all the same books MBA candidates are reading. You can read the same case studies. You can find resources online.

Haas graduation photo with my super-supportive wife in May 2008

Reports from LinkedIn and Hired.com illustrate that product management is showing significant job growth, and people in this position are earning some of the most money in tech. The job itself combines the thrill of entrepreneurial experimentation with the structure and learning opportunities of an established organization.

If you have your eye on product management, do your research, reach out to others for guidance, and—most important—be creative and take some risks. Follow your gut and find a way that works for you.

This was produced in collaboration with Mark Mizera and originally published at prestonsmalley.com on Dec. 14, 2018.

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Preston Smalley

Written by

Product & Tech Leader for digital TV entertainment, two-sided marketplaces and mobile apps used every day by millions of people. http://www.prestonsmalley.com

Agile Insider

Exclusive and practical insights that enable the agile community to succeed.

Preston Smalley

Written by

Product & Tech Leader for digital TV entertainment, two-sided marketplaces and mobile apps used every day by millions of people. http://www.prestonsmalley.com

Agile Insider

Exclusive and practical insights that enable the agile community to succeed.

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