Five Essential Steps for Getting into IoT Product Management
You want to get into IoT product management, but where do you start? What skills do you need? Which companies are working on IoT today? Start with these five essential steps.
According to analyst firm Gartner, there will be over 20 billion connected devices by 2020. This trend is fuelled by companies around the world embracing the IoT trend and launching more and more products that are connected to the internet. I’ll be the first to admit that the IoT industry is very young, and there are many products out there that don’t seem to add a lot of value. These products are often hyped in the news and are the center of attention in consumer shows, so I’m not surprised that so many people are skeptical about IoT.
But the reality is that the products that get all the attention are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many companies launching incredible applications with IoT. We are already seeing great innovations with smart cars, intelligent manufacturing, and improvements to critical infrastructure such as energy and water systems.
To succeed in this new technological era, companies from small startups to huge enterprises are realizing they need a solid IoT product strategy and they need product managers to help in this area. In fact, as I write this post, LinkedIn has close to 2,000 job openings for IoT product-related roles just in the United States, so it’s no surprise that the most frequent question I’m asked by fellow product managers is, “How do I transition into IoT Product Management?”.
Below, I outline what it means to be an IoT PM and the steps you can take to start your journey into this career path.
1. Make Sure Your Basic Product Management Skills are Solid
IoT Product Management is still Product Management.
There are, however, some key aspects that make managing an IoT product very complex. But before we look at these aspects, I should emphasize that regardless of the product, technology, or industry you work in, the role of the product manager is always the same: build products that add value to your customers and to your company.
If you already have experience managing a tech product, then you’re ahead of the curve. All your experience is directly applicable to IoT. The experience of understanding and validating users’ needs, creating a business case, defining and prioritizing requirements, building roadmaps, working with engineering, managing up and more – these are all skills you can put to work immediately in IoT.
If you don’t have product management experience, then I recommend you start by working on a non-IoT product before jumping into the complex world of IoT. A few releases of either hardware or software products under your belt will make it much easier for you to attract the attention of IoT companies.
2. Understand the Full IoT Technology Stack, and be an Expert in at Least one Layer
Although we call them IoT “products”, in reality as an IoT product manager you are building a system. That’s because there are five layers in the IoT technology stack. These layers are:
- Device hardware
- Device software
- Cloud platform
- Cloud applications
If this concept is new to you, take a look at my IoT Primer for Product Managers.
IoT products have much more complexity than, say, a Cloud product, which only has the two Cloud layers listed above. And each of these five layers could be considered a product in its own right. So managing an IoT product is like managing a portfolio of five products.
When you switch to IoT Product Management, you have the challenge of understanding the relationship and interdependencies of all five layers.
The good news is that most hiring managers understand that it’s very unlikely to have a single person to manage an end-to-end IoT solution. So unless you are in a very small startup, the chances are you’ll be working with other product managers who specialize in the different layers of the IoT stack.
This is where the concept of a “T-shaped” Product Manager comes into play. An IoT Product Manager needs to have a solid horizontal understanding of all five layers of the IoT technology stack and how the end-to-end system works. You should then complement this with deep vertical understanding in one of the layers of the IoT technology stack.
For example, if you have experience managing a mobile app, then you are already familiar with Cloud platforms and Cloud applications. To get into IoT, you should focus on learning (at a higher level) how the other three layers of the IoT technology stack work (device hardware, device software, and communications) and how all the layers relate to each other. That way, you’ll be an expert in two layers and be skilled enough to have intelligent conversations with other teams about the complete system.
Similarly, if you have hardware experience, then you’re already familiar with the device hardware layer. But to get into IoT, you need to understand how the other four layers work, at least well enough to be able to participate in strategic discussions about the end-to-end product and to coordinate with the Product Managers for the other layers.
3. Understand What Types of Companies you Could Work for
If you are new to IoT, it can be very daunting to understand which companies are doing what. A good first step is to understand the types of companies working in IoT so you can get an idea of the potential opportunities they might have and where your skill set could be a match.
This diagram shows the three types of companies I’ve identified:
As the name implies, product companies are building IoT products to sell to other companies or to consumers. Companies that build end-to-end products are the ones that get the most press and buzz. These companies provide a finished product that includes the five layers of the IoT technology stack.
But building an end-to-end product is not the only way to work in IoT. Since IoT systems are very complex, there are many companies that focus on building specific components of the IoT technology stack.
For example, some companies focus only on the Cloud platform, others only on analytics, others only on hardware components, and so on. So if you are already an expert in one or two layers of the IoT technology stack, it might be easier to find opportunities if you go after companies that also specialize in that layer. Say you already have Cloud experience; then you’ll have an edge when applying to a company providing IoT Cloud platforms as products.
By services, I don’t mean the “as-a-service” business model (which is big in IoT by the way). Rather, I’m referring to companies that provide professional services to take customers through the last mile of their implementation. In fact, some of the biggest consulting companies like Accenture, Bain, Tata, and others have (or are building) IoT practices to meet the growing demand they see from their customers worldwide.
Services companies have a wide range of services that span the whole lifecycle of IoT products including strategy consulting, development outsourcing, deployment, field services, and asset management, to name a few.
Many professional services companies build internal tools or products to accelerate the timeline of the services they provide. These internal tools need Product Managers, so there’s room for us in services companies.
Companies Implementing IoT for Internal use
The third group is companies looking at IoT as a new way to solve existing internal problems. Their goal is not to release an IoT product commercially, but to connect existing equipment to the internet so they can optimize their processes and get better visibility into their performance.
Think of an industrial company looking for new ways to optimize its manufacturing plant to improve its yields – by connecting its manufacturing equipment to the internet (which turns them into so-called smart devices), it can act on new data that leads to process and automation optimization.
The takeaway here is that these companies are building products. They are internal products, but products nonetheless. Despite all the hype around smart homes and wearables, industrial applications for process optimization is the biggest area where IoT is making a difference today, and it can be a great opportunity for a PM to get started in IoT.
The three types of companies are depicted in a Venn diagram above because there’s a lot of overlap between the three types. In the IoT world, many product companies offer services. Many professional services companies build internal products. And some industrial companies develop products for internal use and to then sell to others.
These blurred boundaries add complexity, but also provide a great opportunity for us Product Managers to expand our horizons and understand the big picture of how complex product ecosystems work.
4. Focus on a Specific Industry
IoT is an umbrella term that encompasses everything from smart toasters to self-driving cars to smartwatches and everything in between. Given this lack of clarity, it’s easy to see why people are confused about how to start pursuing an IoT product manager role.
I recommend that you focus on an industry in which you can leverage your existing domain knowledge. This will make you more attractive to companies and will make it easier for you to start conversations with them. For reference, some of the industries in which IoT is having the biggest impact include (in no particular order):
- Smart homes
- Smart cities
- Smart buildings
5. Learn From People Already Working in IoT
The best way to learn, especially about a new topic or industry, is to learn from people already doing that work. Identify companies you are interested in and reach out to the IoT Product Managers there via LinkedIn. Attend meetups and trade shows. Find publications (blogs, magazines, podcasts, etc.) that you like, and read everything they produce. In short, find a way to educate yourself by learning from others.
The Bottom Line
IoT is projected to have tremendous growth in the coming years. And working as an IoT product manager is a great opportunity to grow your skills and be a part of one of the most innovative areas of technology today.
By focusing on the recommendations above, you’ll have a much better understanding of what skills are needed and a better chance of breaking into IoT Product Management. Good luck!