Moving into a Product Role

BY JANNA BASTOW ON APRIL 04 2012

A friend of mine recently got in touch, asking for advice as he was going for an interview for a Product Manager role. His biggest concern? He was a social media manager at the time, not a product manager. The role called for him to work closer with a development team than he’s ever had to, and like many in his position, lacked coding skills.  Here’s what I told him:

First of all, don’t worry too much about your past experience.
I don’t know a single product manager who got in because of specific product management experience or training. We all got here by accident!

However, what makes a good product manager is the ability to assess multiple moving cogs, and make decisions that affect all different areas of the job. Your exact role will depend massively on what else the team is made up of, but as a product manager, be ready to stretch to fill shoes you weren’t certain you’d signed up for.

You mention that they are specifically looking for someone to help in product and marketing… that bodes well for you: I see two distinct ‘types’ of product managers in the product management continuum, a Technical Product Manager, and a Product Marketing Manager (and every variation in between). I can’t really code, and I know lots of PMs who can’t either.

For the interview, play on your strengths, and don’t worry about not being a coder!
Push the fact that you’ve got lots of experience in marketing, and in getting people sold on your ‘product’. Think about how your prolific social media work in the past can be applied here.  Point out that you have an understanding of how to listen to users and turn it into tangible next steps (i.e. A user leaves feedback about how they didn’t understand how to change their password, your next steps are to figure out what’s wrong with the form.).

Do you have any experience in marketing analytics?
For example, knowing which links a user clicked on in your email, and whether that resulted in a sign up, is all clearly part of a marketing function. These skills are easily translatable to product: What pages and features do you want users to interact with inside the app? Are you tracking this? Is there any thing you can do to make things more favourable? Consider what you know about analytics already, and be prepared to talk about how you’ll apply that.

Design and UX are tightly intertwined with product and marketing.
Do you have a good eye for design? Can you throw together wireframes, even on paper, that make sense? This is, in my opinion, one of the most fun parts of the role! Find out who else is on the team in the design/UX area, and what kind of support they’ll need from Product. Get a feeling for where your strengths lay, and compare these to what the company already has.

A big tenet of marketing is perceived value, and you’ll find that this carries through to your product.
People like things that feel swish. Think of the bounce at the end of pages when you swipe on an iPad, or a button that just looks and feels more clickable, or big friendly lettering that makes the user feel at ease with a scary form.

You mentioned that you’ll be working closely with the development team.
For this, you’ll need a sympathy and understanding for the development process. Again, you don’t need to know how to code, but you do need to understand your developers’ resource constraints. Part of your product relies on it working consistently. You want it to be bug free, particularly in critical areas of usage – but you’ll have to understand that it’ll never be perfect. Another factor is the speed at which every page loads. This needs to be speedy, as users do notice the difference, even if only subconsciously. Also, if you’re expecting to grow in numbers or in data, your product will need to be scalable.

Listen to your developers.
Understand that a good developer will want to do things right, and will want to make it perfectly bug free, speedy, efficient, and scalable. You don’t need to know how to do this yourself, but you need to be an advocate for this, but also communicate back to your development team why they need to work fast and accept shortcuts in order to get your product out the door.

NB: I’m coming from a startup world, where getting it bug free is not mission critical, but getting it out early to test it with users is. If you were product managing a system for controlling satellite launches or securely sharing medical records, you can bet the focus would be different! Get a feel for what the company needs, and balance the product effectively.

You’ll need to make some tough calls.
You’ll have to keep in mind the needs of all stakeholders (your clients, your end users, your team, etc.) as well as realistic expectations of what can be delivered and what impact it’ll have. There’s no hard rule to effective prioritisation, and no matter how you cut it, your common sense (and eventually experience) will always play a big role in deciding what goes on the roadmap.

Above all, a product role is a communication role.
You’ll need to help translate business needs to your development team, help your sales guys understand exactly what’s coming out of the development pipeline, coming up with ‘user-friendly’ terminology to explain the latest and greatest release. You’ll need to listen to your technical team and help feed back concerns to the rest of the business that may impact anything from that client demo scheduled the following afternoon to long-term growth on your platform. You’ll likely spend much of your day listening to all different areas of the business, and will be relied upon as the person most ‘in the know’ – and will have to make key decisions on what and how you communicate this to everyone else in your team and to your users.

To boil it down, a product manager is a problem solver, a go-betweener, and a translator.
My favourite analogy equates a product manager to being the conductor in an orchestra: While they aren’t musician themselves, nor the composer, they understand what the audience is going to react to and how the orchestra can best pull it off. They know how it’s supposed to all sound together, and can communicate that effectively across a wide range of musicians in order to create a beautiful concerto.

I hope this unofficial guide proves to be useful for others. I wish my friend all the best with getting into this new role, but I also hope that this helps encourage a few other maybe-product-managers to jump into the field.

About JANNA BASTOW

Janna Bastow comes from a user-centric design background and has extensive experience building social web experiences. She founded ProductCamp London in 2010 in an effort to meet and learn from other product managers. As a product manager always looking for better tools, she co-founded ProdPad, product management software that helps you manage your roadmap and your product backlog. Update: We’re developing an e-course to help you set up and introduce a flexible theme-based roadmap, at your organization. We’ll drop it in your inbox when it’s ready – sign up here.

  • Branden Faulls

    There’s a valuable companion article to be written here (part 2?) for employers who are considering hiring new product managers, whether they come from a development pedigree or not. Non-technical aspirants face the challenges you describe, but as a long time technical leader I have to prove my business sympathies and demonstrate my communication skills.

    Perhaps, the best products come from Product managers who must leap this first hurdle as a test of understanding their audience and demonstrate persuasion.

    • Completely agree. Thanks for the idea Branden – perhaps perfect timing with Silicon Milkroundabout coming up soon!  I’ll link back here once I write the post.

  • Great post. Looking forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    You mention the Product Manager continuum. I wonder if you’ve seen (or written) any articles/posts that describes what a Technical Product Manager role looks like?

    Best,
    Brian

    • Good point! I’m coming more from the user-centric side, so it’d be good to get a more technical person to speak to that end of the scale. 

      Guest post anyone? 🙂

      • Daniel Elizalde

        Hi Janna, Great post, thanks for sharing. I’m a Technical Product Manager. I’d be glad to write a guest post on the topic if you are still interested (I know this is an older post, but I just bump into it). I think Mind the Product is great. Let me know
        -Daniel

        • Hi Daniel, that’d be a great idea! We’d love to have you write a guest post. Why not get in touch with me at janna@mindtheproduct.com, and we’ll get you set up.

  • Pingback: New product managers: Job interview tips | OneDesk()

  • Brilliant post, Im a PM 1 year in and always wondered how others got into the role and its good to know it was by chance just like me 🙂 

    A lot of good information to take away from this, thanks a lot. 

  • Brilliant post, Im a PM 1 year in and always wondered how others got into the role and its good to know it was by chance just like me 🙂 

    A lot of good information to take away from this, thanks a lot. 

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