Background - Link to research

A commonality I found in Product Managers was the strong presence of an active imagination, the understanding of the foundational building blocks needed to construct it and the perseverance to bring it to life. PMs are observant of their environment and seek the necessary tools to navigate through any problem that stimulates them. By being able to break down a problem, visualize it and leverage their strengths, PMs unify different groups of people to solve a particular problem. 

Part2 - The Different Paths to Product

Build your own Start-Up, Venture or Business.

We've all heard stories of people scribbling ideas on napkins and months later their idea blows up and takes the world by storm. Well, grab a napkin and begin to brainstorm your next project. Pursuing this route can help you acquire the essential skills needed to succeed as a PM in any environment. It doesn't matter what idea or methodology you choose to bring it to life, as long as you justify your motivation for the idea and how the process worked for you. In reality, you learn by simply creating ideas and validating them. 

Robleh's story

Robleh started on the entrepreneurship path very early in university, from selling LED belt buckles to customized iPod earphones. As blogs became more popular, he shifted his focus to the internet and started sneaker play, a social network for sneaker enthusiasts. Growing the site caught the attention of brands like Nike, Adidas, and New balance and later led to an acquisition. While taking some time off, he bootstrapped the creation of a children's education app for his daughter, which got up to number 2 on the app store. Robleh then formed his studio for making apps, which later got acquired by Shopify and led him to his current senior product lead role.

Belinda’s story

Belinda studied to be a journalist as a way to bring information to people and empower societies with objective truth. After a few unpaid internships, she secured a full-time role as an associate editor and enjoyed the behind the scenes of crafting stories, finding creative tools to help curate content, and empowering others to write their own stories. Belinda moved on to a client success and training role at scribbled live, a tool she used as a journalist where she got to empower and support other reporters and editors. While cultivating a close relationship with clients, she funnelled feature requests and feedback to the development team for iteration. It was when she knew she wanted to be a product manager and started interviewing while freelancing and working on her tech newsletter until she got a job.

David’s story

David started on the path to a computer science degree but later switched to new media that focused on human-computer interaction and user experience. Still familiar with software development, he kicked off a freelance career after graduation and built websites for people for three years. David was then approached by a friend to do a streaming startup, and worked on for another two years but left after things became stagnant. Taking a break from tech, he decided to pivot to a career in photography for four years but also found that unsustainable and went back to tech to try out his startup again. When that didn’t work out, he met up with an old client who offered him a job as a product manager at their startup.

Join a Start-Up: The Smaller, The Better

Usually, early-stage start-ups with less than 30 hires don't need Product Managers. At that phase, the founder is likely leading the product vision and working closely with the teams to communicate how best to solve customer problems. Employees rarely enter these small companies and become a PM from the start. However, early-stage start-ups are a great place to gain the skills needed to transition either internally into a product role (as the company grows), or to another organization altogether. A small team makes it easy to understand each person’s role and knowledge is easily shared throughout departments, meaning that anyone can fill in for another role if the need ever arises. The nature of start-ups also means that not enough people can handle the scale of the work to be done, which allows for others to pick up tasks in other disciplines. 

Stacey’s story

Stacey initially desired a career in academia while pursuing her degree in cinema studies. After her masters, she sought advice from the CEO of the start-up she was working at during her final year of school and was convinced to join them again as an office manager and executive assistant. Stacey executed multiple roles at a micro-level and learned to work with design, development, and got experience in sales, business development, and customer success. After the start-up folded, Stacey reflected on her start-up experience to figure out what she enjoyed the most. She later secured a role as a project manager at a media company, transitioned internally into a product manager role, built up her skills, and then joined a tech company as a product manager.

Deepika’s story

Deepika found it easy to grasp arithmetic concepts and chose to pursue mathematics and economics at university. She got a part-time job at the Apple store, where she held different roles in sales, product training, and UX research. After graduation, she desired to make a more significant impact by working at a startup as a way to get more responsibilities to add value to a company. Deepika joined Joist and worked through understanding where demand came from, built relationships with customers, channeled that feedback to the product team, and convinced the company to invest in certain areas. Realizing she enjoyed this process, she reached out to a mentor who guided her to apply to agencies where she got her first product manager role at tribal scale.

Kyle’s Story

Kyle studied the combination of media & information technology and business administration with hopes to one day create his film studio or advertising agency. At a startup weekend, he got to pitch his idea and work with a team to build some of it out, which revealed to him the many challenges of entrepreneurship. After graduating, he got an IT consulting job where he got to understand customer needs, perform market research, and synthesize the results for executives to make final decisions. Kyle noticed the gaps that existed in many organizations he worked with to align the vision, timeline while motivating teams to achieve product excellence. He understood what role that helped closed that gap and reached out to startup founders through ProductTank, which he helped start to secure his first product management job.

Leverage your Domain Knowledge

Finding a place in technology can be a difficult task at first, but leveraging your strengths with the years of experience working in a particular field can help you get into a company solving a problem for that industry. The many years spent working at a bank can possibly lead to a job in a financial technology company as you bring with you a crucial understanding of the business and its customers. For example, by assisting customers who invest through difficult-to-use traditional trading platforms, you recognize the pain points and the opportunity available for companies like Robinhood and Wealthsimple. Depending on the role you’re looking for, companies might be more lenient when it comes to all the skills required to carry out the job. They might take you on, even if you don’t demonstrate all the experience at the time you apply. The understanding of the product offering can give you more time to learn about the other skills you need for the job. It creates an easier path since you won’t have to spend as much time learning about the industry.

Jyoti’s Story

Jyoti went into university for business to find a career path to take advantage of her creative and analytical side. While interning at blackberry as an operations associate, she saw how powerful advertisements could be to improve the customer's perspective of products, which got her interested in marketing communications. After graduation, she joined an advertising agency as a strategic planner to use business data, market research, user insights, and competitive analysis to convince customers to engage and buy products. Jyoti then looked for a blend in technology and strategy roles as she desired to do more than drive perception but have a direct impact on sales and retention for the business. She leveraged her background to get a product marketing manager role at an ad-tech company, which she later used to transition into product management.

Elyse’s Story

Elyse grew up exposed to the business of fashion through her family, which led to her degree in business administration. After gaining international expansion experience while on exchange in Australia, the cross-section of the digital world of fashion started to interest her. She got an MBA in the states and took the opportunity to explore the job market there with a role as an international eCommerce business analyst at BCBGMAXAZRIA doing competitor analysis, market research, and negotiating with vendors. While working on an international launch, she worked closely with the development team at an agency to break down the business requirement documents into user stories and enjoyed the collaborative aspect of problem-solving. When returning to Canada, Elyse wanted to join an agency and searched for postings that had similarities to her experience, which led to a job as the first product manager at Tribal scale.

Hirsch’s Story

Hirsch used his degree in accounting to secure his first job at a startup which also gave him exposure to sales and business development roles. After making the jump to PWC as an auditor, he formed a team with seven other cross-functional members to create a volunteer innovation and technology group within the company. Leveraging their diverse set of skills, his team used design thinking to solve problems for clients. Hirsch then secured a short term placement to a technology strategy team to help internal teams use best practices to solve client problems. With his new interest in technology, he was able to use his domain knowledge of accounting to transition to CaseWare as a product owner.

Join a Company with the Intention to Transition.

This chapter discusses individuals who already learned about product management but needed to find where they could get the formal title and training. They all looked for roles where they could excel using skills from previous experiences as a step towards their longer-term plan of becoming a PM. Being very transparent about their desire to move during interviews, even when they felt they didn't have all the skills. Their stories highlight how they communicated to employers about their offering, what agreement both parties made, and how they were able to convince them when the time for the transition came around.

Lindsay’s Story

Lindsay took the business school route as a way to explore the many career options and got an internship in HR at a startup during her master's program. While working full time as an HR specialist at a large corporation, she got the chance to integrate software in the company to improve processes and saw the immediate impact on technology on the business. Lindsay went back to school to get more technical knowledge and got a job as a business analyst to gather requirements to help build out health care products for clients. She gained a keen interest in user research and the desire to work closer to customers, which revealed her interest in product roles. Lindsay then took a job as a QA lead at a startup where she reported bugs and suggested product improvements, which helped her transition internally to become a product manager.

Darlene’s Story

Darlene started her career as a nurse as she saw it as a way to easily transition into other jobs. Along with her training in education, the combination allowed her to spend 15 years in the health industry, and she shaped different roles for herself beyond what was defined. After going down the entrepreneurial path as an independent broker, she learned a lot about the insurance space, which motivated her to find tech solutions to solve some of her problems. She used a product called Finaeo, and after sending the CEO 15 pages worth of feedback, she got offered a job at the company. After working as an Advisor success manager for 18 months, Darlene transitioned internally to become a product manager.

Anthony’s Story

Anthony initially imagined his life in the hospitality industry with the goal of one day become a hotel manager. After spending a year working at a Four Seasons hotel, he decided to switch his university program to business technology management, which got him a full-time job as a business analyst. He enjoyed the process of gathering business requirements and then communicating them to the technical team to execute, but wasn’t impressed with the waterfall development method the organization had. While searching for a better approach, Anthony learned about agile development and design thinking, which motivated him to take a UX and product design course. Anthony was recruited by a startup that wanted to use the blend of his BA, UX, and technical skills, which helped in his internal transition into a product management role.

Transition internally within your current company.

Individuals that fall into this category learn about product management and realize their desire to fill that role while engaged in a different role at a company. They work to prove themselves and showcase how they can add value when given product responsibilities, learning what works well with the product team members, these individuals are constantly asking valuable questions to fill any knowledge gaps. They position themselves very close to customers and the development teams to understand the flow of how new features are determined. In addition to other learnings done outside the work environment, candidates eventually find the confidence to speak up and voice their desire to move within the company.

Tevis’s Story

Tevis grew up with the influence of entrepreneurship for social causes from his parents, which motivated him to study international development and social entrepreneurship. While at the university, he realized his achievable potential when he became more organized with a high productivity lifestyle that led to volunteering for an NGO in Costa Rica. His experience being an ambassador for the NGO got him a full-time role as a program site specialist to help coordinate, onboard and support over 300 volunteers. Tevis returned home after a year and worked briefly as an account manager then used the combination of his skills to get into a tech company as a proposal writer. While working through writing proposals, supporting sales teams, and leading operations with CRM management, he presented a business case to the CEO and secured his transition into product management.

Jackie’s Story

Jackie spent her high school juggling AP science and art classes and went on to attend USC for pre-medicine, majoring in biology and a minor in photography. While on a study abroad term in South Africa working on a mobile clinic, she realized she enjoyed more of the problem-solving aspect of medicine vs the day-to-day. After graduation, Jackie got a digital camera, taught herself how to edit photos and began building a portfolio from people on craigslist who she’d reach out to shoot. She ended up contracting for a company that wanted to build out a photo database for food and eventually built out their photography team. She saw a way to improve the workflow of the photographers and made suggestions to improve the internal tools, which provided a path to transition internally into product management.

Sorren’s Story

Sorren held multiple roles in marketing across different small organizations and was later recruited by air miles to do relationship management to help partners launch campaigns. After two years, Sorren moved internally to digital marketing to help create campaigns for clients. Sorren remained in the department, which gave her a holistic view of how things worked across multiple channels while focusing on acquisition, growth, and frequency of use of their products. While working on a particular project, she built a strong relationship with the mobile team by asking questions and providing helpful feedback. When a product specialist role opened up, she transferred internally and was then later promoted to a product manager role.

Part 3- Product Skill Sets

Curiosity

Curiosity is one of the foundational elements found in many Product Managers because it fuels their desire to learn about any topic of interest. It helps to acquire knowledge about a problem space and provides a lens through which to explore different perspectives - a key component to forming a sound, holistic vision. Curiosity provides individuals with an exploratory mindset that questions the status quo, similar to how children become aware of their environment as they grow and learn. This, in turn, invites the challenge of seeking more information in order to expand one's ability to be analytical. The simple act of remaining curious often drives the urge to come up with potential solutions that improve the current ways of carrying out a particular task or function.

Empathy

Empathy helps to understand how others feel, which is crucial in building relationships with customers and to know the value of a problem they are experiencing. Similar to being compassionate, it allows individuals to provide a helping hand to pull others out of uncomfortable situations that can cause harm or inconvenience. It is the feeling that helps to see other perspectives that exist in the world and how to align them for the better. Empathetic Product Managers use this as a motivation to solve customer problems because they know how much it means to them. They also use empathy as a way to navigate the challenges, processes, workflows and blockers team-members face to make them more productive.

Persistence

Persistence in this context refers to the act of not compromising on one's vision for themselves or the customer. It is the drive that allows individuals to achieve remarkable results because of the amount of passion and effort placed in fulfilling the desired goal. Persistent Product Managers usually have a high bar of quality attributed to their work and push back on anything that may result in creating an inferior experience for the customer. This chapter also shares the story of Mark who used persistence to get a job as a Product Manager.

Comprehensiveness

There is a substantial amount of value that comes with having extensive knowledge that spans across industries. It takes time and patience to acquire but proves to be a fruitful investment because it trains individuals to pick up concepts quickly and apply it when required to solve problems. Product Managers who are comprehensive strive to ensure they consider all the possible options available and pull from their broad knowledge base to tackle situations they find themselves in. This chapter also shares the story of Alex who used comprehensiveness to get a job as a Product Manager.

Initiative and the Desire to Learn

Companies rely on Product Managers to form a vision and lead teams towards new opportunities that benefit the business. They must take action to stay ahead. This is driven by the initiative to continually learn since customer needs change at an unpredictable pace. Technology is always advancing, therefore unlocking additional possibilities and competition has a way of sneaking up on you, which puts pressure on companies. A clear path isn't usually defined, so creating time to learn and investing in best practices helps overcome the challenges that are required to deliver great products. This chapter also shares the story of Jenny who used her initiative and desire to learn to get a job as a Product Manager.

Communication

Communication seems like an evident skill that most jobs require since it is such an essential part of interacting with others. When relating this to product management, it is probably one of the essential skills to have because communicating with others is the majority of the job. It carries a lot of weight, and it is easy to make a mistake or misunderstand what others intend, which can have a significant impact on customers or the business. Whether in a verbal or a written format, Product Managers often have to share the same information in different ways to different people who are working on a specific context of the project, and it can be a challenge to communicate effectively. Communication, in this context, encompasses listening to different perspectives and asking the right questions to clarify ambiguity for the collective good. This chapter also shares the story of Eric who used his communication skills to get a job as a Product Manager.

Being a Team Player

The majority of responsibilities of a Product Manager involve interacting with other members of the organization to execute on a vision. Unlike other standalone functions across a company, a Product Manager can't carry out their tasks autonomously. It is why building trustworthy relationships with customers, engineers, designers, executives and others is one of the most critical functions to be successful in such a role. Being a capable team player goes beyond telling others what to do; it involves championing the vision, motivating team members, collaborating on ideas, unblocking them and recognizing their efforts. A great team player builds a unique culture around ensuring every member of the team knows how they contribute to the vision and fosters activities to promote enjoying the process of bringing the ideas to life.This chapter also shares the story of Morgan who used her strength as a team player to get a job as a Product Manager.

Detail Orientedness

Many great benefits come from understanding things at their core. Product Managers that pay close attention to details when building products are more likely to be laser-focused on the problems they are solving. They tackle issues from First-Principles perspective, which accelerates the discovery of root causes for any challenges they face. Their ability to observe customers grows more confident when determining what experiences to prioritize. As a result, making improvements becomes second nature, and finding opportunities is an area where they excel in moving the business forward.This chapter also shares the story of Andrea who used her attention to detail to get a job as a Product Manager.

Resourcefulness

Resourcefulness is the ability to use the tools at one's disposal to effectively solve problems in creative ways. It builds up the capability to handle situations that fall out of plan and allows for flexible workaround. Similar to scrappiness, it enables Product Managers to see beyond their current constraints and utilize existing resources to achieve the desired outcome for all. This chapter also shares the story of Mostafa who showcased resourcefulness as a strength to get a job as a Product Manager.

Adaptability

Advancements in technology ensure companies always have to move fast to keep up with trends and industry best practices. This is especially true for start-ups. Often pressured to deliver a unique value proposition at speed to release functionality to end-users. In such an environment, sudden changes occur, and individuals must be adaptable to fulfil any unexpected request which may arise. As a Product Manager, several situations can result in things not going according to plan, but the expectation is to keep moving forward. A common challenge is the lack of resources required to complete a project, and in such situations, the Product Manager fills in that gap to ensure things still get done. This chapter also shares the story of Quadri who was adaptable which helped him get a job as a Product Manager.

Continuous Improvement

Releasing a product to the world is a great accomplishment; there is so much that goes into bringing an idea to life. The challenge that follows is to ensure customers continue to use that product, and it is improved over time to meet their changing needs. Continuous improvement is necessary for any product to be truly successful. It makes Product Managers aware of any inaccurate assumptions made while developing the product. It also helps to plan out the correct approach to fix any outstanding errors and fuels the practice of iterative product development. This way, putting customers at the center of product design. This chapter also shares the story of Magda who used continuous improvement for her resume to get a job as a Product Manager.

Presentation

Product Managers are exposed to enormous amounts of information about customer needs, competitor offerings, market behaviour and technology trends, which they have to make sense of. Researching is a big part of gathering valuable information and synthesizing various data points into digestible chunks before presenting it to stakeholders across an organization. Presentation skills come in handy to deliver details that matter in a concise way, which keeps the necessary parties informed at the right times. This chapter also shares the story of Mann who used his presentation skills to get a job as a Product Manager.

What's Next?

I really enjoyed putting this project together, and if you found it valuable, please shoot me a note on LinkedIn and let me know what you think. I'd appreciate it. If any of the stories really inspired you, reach out to the person and tell them what action you were able to take, which helped you in your journey. I'm sure they will appreciate it.

I intentionally started with this project because it is early in the funnel for those who have just begun gathering information about product management or the technology industry. By now, you should have a better understanding of what it takes to get into product, and how others have landed their first product roles. You are also aware of the challenges necessary. Be kind to yourself and understand that it might take some time to achieve your goal. However, rest assured that it is possible. I hope by reflecting on the stories, they will keep you motivated to keep pushing forward.

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