Interview with Dan Wong (Urban Massage)

Dan Wong

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dan Wong, Product Manager at Urban Massage and Product Management TA at General Assembly. As both a successful PM and educator, Dan had a number of fantastic perspectives to share.

What is your current role?

I’m a Product Manager at Urban Massage. The easiest way to describe my role is that I attempt to make sure that what we are doing next is the right thing and that we actually execute on it. Usually, that will involve a lot of customer development, looking at data, and looping in stakeholders. Basically, getting a lot of different people together for workshopping and ideating. I work with both designers and developers and serve as a “full stack” Product Manager, which means my role depends quite heavily on what challenges we’re currently facing.

I also teach at General Assembly, a sort of mini-Education House. We teach in-person classes to primarily help people as they transition careers. It’s a challenging job, as a lot of Product Management is about learning on the fly, but we do our best to transfer that to the classroom and teach the ways of thinking. While you’re often told to look past the “hypotheticals” with Product Management, as no product, company, or marketplace is the same, we do our best to prepare students with the skills necessary for their work.

When did you first become interested in product management?

Before I became a product manager, I wasn’t even entirely sure what a PM even was. When I left university, I knew I wanted to work at a startup as I had been doing some web design and photography work. But I saw myself more as an account manager than a developer or a designer, primarily because I guessed that the “people skills” were the strongest skills I had.

So I joined an early-stage startup and took on new roles as we grew. I was always plugged into the conversations with our developer and customers and I organically grew into a Product Manager from there. My CEO eventually approached me to ask if I wanted the more formal “Product Manager” role, and although I didn’t really understand what the role meant at the time, I decided to give it a go. I literally stayed up all night that night to learn about methodologies and things like sprints. I instantly found it fascinating, but only became a product manager through my failing and growing into the role.

What did you study in school, and have you found that it relates to your current role?

I studied Materials Engineering at university– completely unrelated to what I do now. That said, I definitely feel that this studying prepared me for my role. I was a very interested student in high school, pursuing a number of different topics but not exactly excelling in any of them. I learned “enough” of them to pass exams and get my As, but as for actually recalling any of my knowledge, I don’t think I would be able to do that. I was simply really interested in learning more and more about things I cared about.

While in university, I was also interested in a number of things like web development, starting businesses, photography, and design, so my course allowed me time to explore other opportunities. I think this same thinking has actually allowed me to learn a lot of the skills necessary for such a changing job like I have now. That mindset keeps me motivated to keep coming to work each day and to continually be applying my knowledge to all kinds of new things. This diverse background allows me to find success in product management, as I can transfer different jobs and fields of knowledge to my work.

What advice do you have for someone determining if product management is right for them?

I would say that it takes a very particular mindset to be interested in product management. And while it’s one thing to say you are interested in product management before trying it out, really what you have is a hypothesis. My biggest advice would be to test that hypothesis by doing some “self-customer development.” Do a product internship, run your own business, do a placement– anything to gain that real-world experience. Ultimately, it’s about finding out if this is something you really want to do: whether you can live with the low points and still find the high points rewarding enough.

What advice do you have for finding the right fit with a company and product?

First of all, it of course depends on the company, the type of product, the team, and their needs. But, I’d say it’s incredibly easy to find a fit with a company that is working on a product or industry that you have a real passion for. It’s not necessarily just about the conventional job-seeking wisdom that my parents or teachers gave me to “do your research about the company” or “know their products” anymore. I’m a strong believer that you should only work on things that you are genuinely interested in and really care about. You will be fulfilled, the company will be fulfilled, and you will be doing the work to your utmost potential.

I would put a lot of effort into finding what this is for you. I’ve found that simply getting my foot through the door and speaking to people has been the best approach for doing this. It’s about going beyond the standard leaflets at networking events and speaking to people about what their needs are and how your skills match those needs. The way that you sell yourself is figuring out where your prospect needs are and where you as an employee can meet those needs. I would put a lot of effort in finding the right fit and walking away when you feel something is off.

How do you continue to grow as a PM and stay up-to-date on current trends?

The easiest answer, usually, would be role progression. Moving to a different company or into a new role. I’m not just talking about salaries here, but more about responsibilities. I’d say that moving between companies or within a company is the best way to keep growing.

Having said that, I do read blogs, meet people at events, learn through doing, and reach out to my network. I just keep talking to people about how they deal with problems they’re facing or have faced. It can be simple, just sending a Tweet or buying a beer for someone and discussing strategies that helped them through difficult challenges. Though a lot of problems can seem very product specific or limiting, you’ll find that many problems can be solved through talking to others about problems they might have faced.

Another thing I’ll mention is about the learning through doing. You’ll hear this cliché about “finding comfort in the uncertainty,” but I think it still holds true. A lot of product management is about finding that uncertainty and working through it to find answers to problems and questions. The more comfortable you can become in that environment, the more success you will find.

I’d also add that there is still a difference here depending on the type of company, you work for. At a big company for instance, where you might find yourself in a Junior PM role or something similar, a lot of the learning might come from working with more senior employees or working through smaller, more confined problems. Contrast this with a startup, where you might be the only PM working with a small team, and you might find a lot more learning by doing and by failing. These types of differences in roles will make a big impact on your growth as a PM.

Finally, I’d say that it’s important to surround yourself with a great team of people and trust those people to do their own jobs. The PM role lends itself well to people who may feel like a “jack of all trades” who can dip their toes in design, business, and development. But it’s important to realize that you’ll very quickly burn yourself out if you attempt to do this. While it’s easy to have a big ego and feel like you can do everything, it’s important for your growth to keep a level-head and realize that you are a part of a larger team.

Twitter: @danoreowong

LinkedIn: Dan Wong

Urban Massage:

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