Product Management FAQs

Over the course of my 3 1/2 years as a tech product manager in the Bay Area, I’ve had a lot of phone conversations and coffee meetings with students, engineers, MBA grads, and others interested in product management. Since there are some questions that come up every time, I thought that it would be cool to address them here. In doing so, I can broaden the audience, and my future conversations can start where these answers end. If you’re a PM, and you’ve found yourself in a similar advising role, feel free to use this post in the same way. And if you’re someone considering product management as a career, read on!

What do you do as a product manager?

I create a vision, evolving roadmap, and prioritized feature list for a product based on my understanding of the users and customers (not always the same), the real problems they’re trying to solve, and the reasons for solving those problems. Then, I work with engineering and design teams to execute against that vision, roadmap, and feature list.

Uh…yeah…that’s cool…but what do you ACTUALLY do?

Oh right. 😄

There isn’t really a “typical day,” so I’ll share a list of real, measurable stuff I’ve worked on over the past couple months at SchoolMint, in somewhat of a chronological order. For context, SchoolMint is a mobile and cloud-based student enrollment and school choice platform that is used by thousands of PreK-12 district, charter, and independent schools. I’m responsible for the district product. So far, I’ve:

  • Talked with many public school district administrators to understand what’s great and what sucks about our product
  • Analyzed our current competitors as well as potential future competitors
  • Created a roadmap for our public school district product. The format of the roadmap is very similar to the format outlined in Ken Norton’s article, “Climbing Mount Enterprise,” and it’s separated into four buckets: 2016 Q3, ’16 Q4, 2017 H1, and ’17 H2 & beyond
  • Created wireframes, specifications, and tickets for engineers to use and track when developing a new feature. QA engineers also use these as guides when testing the new feature.
Example of a recent development ticket
  • Managed the development of that new conditional logic feature to be used in forms created by district administrators
  • Wrote the Help Center article about the conditional logic feature
  • Answered support tickets from parents using our product. We have a support team dedicated to this, but it’s important that I see user frustrations firsthand and solve those issues.
  • Identified metrics that help us understand if the feature is a success, and pulled data and reports to share with my team

What’s the most important skill to have as a PM?

In my opinion, there are four (sorry, it’s never that simple!):

  1. Empathy
    As I mentioned above, I spend a lot of time trying to understand how our user/customers (and potential users/customers) think about our product and problems we’re attempting to solve. It’s only through this understanding that I can create a great product that solves real problems.
  2. The ability to prioritize ideas, features, and bug fixes
    In most companies, there’s no shortage of ideas for product improvements. Everyone has an opinion — internally and externally. But resources are limited, and you have to figure out what’s best for users, customers, and the company. This is why understanding the real set of problems and crafting a product vision and roadmap around it is critical. It helps you to figure out your must-haves, nice-to-haves, and won’t-haves.
  3. The ability to communicate clearly
    Once you’ve discovered your product’s path, you have to communicate it both at a high-level (vision, roadmap) and at a granular level (specifications, wireframes, and tickets) to make it happen.
  4. The ability to “manage” and motivate people that don’t report to you
    Product managers must motivate people that aren’t direct reports — engineers, designers, and people upstream — to get stuff done. This is closely connected to #2 and #3 above.

Do I need to have an engineering background to be a product manager?

This is a question that I get from people coming from non-technical backgrounds, especially once they know that I’m a former engineer (I studied electrical engineering, not CS or CE, but I still get the question). My answer: nope…for the most part.

I’ve worked with PMs who weren’t graduates of engineering schools or coding bootcamps. Also, I have PM friends without a technical background who work at Facebook, Square, Adobe, and other great companies. They understand what’s technically feasible and how long it takes to build, and they work well with engineers. In most cases, they’re strong in other disciplines related to product management like design or marketing, or they bring strong industry experience to the table (e.g., a PM at a fintech startup with years of experience in the financial industry).

That said, there are companies — mostly small start-ups — that require that PMs can review and/or check in code. If you’re interested in product management and aren’t comfortable programming, those companies probably aren’t for you, but you’ll have many other options.

Also, you have an MBA. Has it been useful in the PM role?

Kinda.

Am I using the models and frameworks that I learned in business school at work every day? Nah. However, business school has influenced and conditioned how I approach the four critical skills listed above. And in general, analyzing business cases in different courses with different disciplines in mind (marketing, finance, management, etc.) has given me a better sense for vetting product ideas and avoiding common pitfalls.

How did you find and apply for your job?

I found SchoolMint through an edtech career fair, and I also applied online. And I found and applied for my previous role at TuneIn via a job posting on Ventureloop.

Really?? Did you have connections at the companies before applying?

At SchoolMint, I had one mutual connection that I didn’t contact until I had an offer and wanted another opinion regarding the company. I didn’t have any connection to TuneIn when I applied. The hiring manager just happened to be looking for someone with my unique background (automotive engineer with start-up experience) for the role (PM for TuneIn’s automotive products). I just happened to be a good fit with the right experience Sometimes, it really is about what you know, not who you know.

That’s it. For now.

I plan to update this list as I share it and continue to have conversations with future product managers. Feel free to comment and ask questions below. And if you enjoyed this post, please click/tap the 👏🏾 button. Thanks for reading!