Got questions about your product career? You’re not the only one. Here you’ll find exclusive answers from Susana Lopes, Director of Product at Onfido, to five product management career questions.
- What product management roles can be done part time?
- Is people management a requirement of a Head of Product role?
- What advice would you give a new product manager?
- How do you stand out as a candidate for product management roles?
- Should you focus on building great products or on building a career?
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Product people are busy people, and we know we have a lot of content and events for you to take in. This Q&A content comes from our first asynchronous Q&A for Mind the Product members in 2020. These Q&As provide an opportunity to put your questions to our experts without having to be at the event itself. Interested in async Q&As? Become a Mind the Product member today and get in on the action. Our next asynchronous Q&A takes place tomorrow (8 February 2022) and we’re talking product roadmaps with ProdPad CEO, Janna Bastow!
What product management roles can be done part time?
The full question: I’m a product manager with ~5 years of experience. I am reducing my working time down to 20hrs per week. What product management-related roles can be done successfully by a person working part-time?
Interesting question, and one that I haven’t quite seen work in the wild. Here are some things to think about:
Given that you have five years’ experience, you might find that you’ve built up efficiencies in the way that you work. When you compare your output to say, a junior or associate product manager, you’re able to complete the same task, to the same (or higher) level of proficiency in roughly half the time. If you think this holds true, you might consider taking on problems/product scope, that is normally suited to a full-time Junior or Mid product manager, rather than complexity suited to a full-time Senior.
If you’re consciously reducing your hours, I assume that you have a preference for which days you work. However, if you don’t, my advice would be to work half-days every day, then have full days and non-working days. This would go some way to guaranteeing that your working hours don’t affect your speed of decision-making on time-critical tasks. Say there’s an outage affecting your product, a 24h delayed response is much better than 72h or longer if there’s a weekend involved.
By working every day for reduced hours you also optimise for team communication, by being able to attend stand-ups every day, and make it easier to participate in larger strategy meetings without a huge calendar nightmare.
If you keep your hours consistent, say only mornings or only evenings, soon your colleagues will start treating you like you’re in a different time zone. If you can align with one of the time zones in your company, even better.
I haven’t seen this done in product management, but it’s quite common in law firms and large firms in other industries. Effectively two people share the same role. One works Monday to Wednesday and the other Wednesday to Friday, and both do handovers on the overlap day.
It can potentially work if you really know and trust the other person. You might actually get better results due to the increased scrutiny over the reasoning. As long as each person has the ability to make decisions independently of the other on the days they are not there, particularly for things where time to decision is critical.
I can see this work reasonably well for individual contributor roles. However, depending on your long-term aspirations, this seems unlikely to work for leadership roles, primarily due to alignment overhead.
The downside for the company is that they have to pay double for the day and hours you overlap. And they have to double up on things like health insurance.
However, they might believe this is outweighed by positives in terms of better retention (especially for senior people who need flexibility around family life), the extra scrutiny leading to better decisions, plus the ability to bring two people’s skill sets to a role can add a lot of value.
Is people management a requirement of a Head of Product role?
The full question: The product organisation at my company consists of a team of product owners, including a product owner lead, and me as the single product manager. My role as (senior) product manager revolves around “building the right things” whereas the product owners’ role is about “building the things right”.
With everything that comes in making the right decisions, this is exactly the sweet spot that I like to work in. However, since I don’t manage people, I worry this affects my chances in my further product career. I know different roles have a different balance in being operational, being strategical, and being a people manager, but I currently lack the latter on my CV. Is this something that is always expected in roles like Head of Product, CPO, etc.? And what would be your advice to deal with this?
It seems like your company has decided to go for what I call the horizontal slice, vs the vertical slice. I’ve written about this same topic in my post Minimum Viable Product Manager. I also gave a talk about it at #mtpcon Digital in 2020. You can watch the recording: Minimum Viable Product Manager.
Both the article and talk go into detail about the main drawbacks of your current set-up, and the talk specifically ends with recommendations on your next steps for people in your position.
Now specifically answering your question about career progression.
The first thing I would check is whether you have had experience on the “building things right” side of the spectrum. Most modern technology companies would see a lack of experience in this as a no-go, even for an early leadership role like Head of Product, or Product Lead. Without this skill, you won’t be able to teach and coach others on how to be a great product manager. When it comes to leadership roles you mention like Head of Product and CPO the needs will vary significantly depending on company size.
Melissa Perri gave an excellent talk on the CPO role, particularly reflecting on how it’s different in startups, scaleups, and enterprise. It’s called The Product of You.
Generally, Heads of Product roles will require prior experience managing product managers, with the exception of you joining as the first product manager in a pre-seed or series A start-up. Typically in these settings, you join as an individual contributor with the goal to build a team within the first year. While you’re an individual contributor these early-stage companies will expect you to do the full product management role, including “building the right things” and “building the things right”. Once you hire the team more of your time will be spent on operations and strategy. But be mindful that if people churn in your team, or if there’s new growth you’d be expected to cover any individual contributor gaps until you hire a full-time product manager.
At the higher end of the spectrum, CPO roles will generally require not only experience managing and building teams of product managers, but adjacent functions, like product ops, analytics, design, etc.
There are also positions in between these, like VP Product roles. As an order of magnitude, a series B/C company would expect their VP Product to have managed about 5-10 people, counting the managers you manage and their reports.
Generally, my advice would be to first sort out your job scope today and get more vertical in your responsibilities. And start thinking about the size of company you’d like to join, and the type of product leader you’d like to be. Once you nail these two, browse job adverts for your target role in the right size company and assess the gaps between their description and your current experience. You can then work with your manager to create opportunities for you to get that experience in your company, or look for roles in new companies that will help you bridge the two.
What advice would you give a new product manager?
The full question: What advice would you give to someone who is new to product but has been doing complimentary roles for a while previous to that (i.e. web production, customer engagement, digital strategy roles). I would say I have many skills that crossover from previous jobs but would like to develop my product skills more.
As far as I can tell you’re already working as an Associate Product Manager, so congratulations on successfully transitioning over to product! Many try, not all succeed!
My main piece of advice would be to make the most of your first role, by being really proactive and aware of whether it’s setting you up for success over the long term.
I’d suggest you have a read through my article: Minimum Viable Product Manager.
It goes through my philosophy of how to scope the Associate Product Manager role and some suggested timings on increasing your responsibility over time, which should set you up for success long term. You can watch a recording of the talk I gave on this topic at #mtpcon Digital in 2020: Minimum Viable Product Manager. It ends with actionable advice at the end.
On top of this, I’d say really lean into any opportunities you get to use company money to get some formal training. There are many great workshops that you can attend, from the likes of Teresa Torres, the lean UX crew (Jeff Gothelf and Joshua Seiden) and even larger orgs like Pragmatic Marketing, and obviously Mind the Product.
Work with your manager to map out your previous experience against your current role and career ladder and be mindful of where there are gaps. Additional formal training and opportunities to exercise those muscles will accelerate your development.
If your current company doesn’t have a good product management career ladder I’d suggest you look at open sourced ones for inspiration – progression.fyi has loads of open sourced career ladders.
How do you stand out as a candidate for product management roles?
The full question: Do you have any advice for someone trying to move jobs right now? It feels like there are hundreds of PMs all going for the same roles. How can I make sure I stand out from the crowd?
During 2020 most people were grateful to be able to keep their jobs, and there was very little movement or attrition. Now with the relaxation of lockdown measures across Europe, and people less worried about job safety, loads of product managers are reassessing their priorities and applying for new roles.
When it comes to job hunting and positioning yourself, you want to spend some time thinking about your strengths, aspirations and career story so far.
In strengths you could try to assess whether you have built up breadth or depth. For example, have you spent a lot of time in a particular market like Fintech or Health tech? Being a specialist from a particular domain often gives you an edge.
Or maybe you’ve had a lot of breath when it comes to different platforms/stacks you’ve worked on: say you’ve done work on apps, web front end, technical backend, platform, machine learning powered products?
Or maybe you’ve had a lot of experience in a particular type of company like B2B, or B2C or B2B2C? Or maybe you’ve had loads of experience in particular business models like marketplaces, or e-commerce?
More and more product manager roles are becoming specialised, with people who are able to demonstrate prior experience in a particular market, or business model, getting preference over generalists.
When interviewing, be clear about your goals and aspirations. A product manager that says “I just want to learn more about being a better product manager”, is less memorable than a product manager who says “My long term goal is X, and I have identified that the gaps I have right now to get there are in Y and Z. I’m hoping my next role gives me opportunities to develop in those areas.” It shows you have a roadmap for your career and demonstrates maturity in how you think about yourself
When a recruiter asks about your prior experience it’s good to have a quick sharp story to tell them. Have a look at your past experience and think about how to position it with short pitch.
For each role you should be able to say the state the product was in when you joined and how you left it. Ideally with metrics. Eg when I joined retention was X% and I drove the team through experimentation and we got it to Y%. Or maybe you want to use revenue, or new products launched.
Then focus on the transitions between roles, how did each role build on the previous one, or what were you trying to achieve for your career by going from one to the other. These bridges in the story will help the interviewer understand how you think about your career progression and whether you’re strategic with it.
If you’ve jumped around a lot between roles, consider positioning them as a way to either get breadth or depth in your strengths, rather than go through each individually which would probably make it too long.
Here’s my rough career story as an example:
I come from a technical background and studied engineering, including machine learning at university.
I joined Huddle as a graduate and effectively learned how to be a PM there. I worked across all domains from mobile apps, web front end and backend. I loved working in B2B and wanted to join a company that worked on machine learning powered products given my background.
At Onfido I joined and took over the biometrics line of business when it had £XXk revenue, and it was a single underperforming product based on a third party integration. Over my four year tenure I replaced all the tech with inhouse Machine Learning (ML) models, launched three new products from scratch as an individual contributor and hired and managed a team of PMs as the line of business grew. Today the biometrics line of business generates £YYm revenue a year.
Should you focus on building great products or on building a career?
The full question: When I shared this week’s focus on Product Careers on LinkedIn I inadvertently sparked a debate about whether one should focus on building great products (and outcomes) or on building a career. Surely we can do both – but what’s the best way to balance those two?
I was once told by a CPO that in order to get there you need a compelling career story that demonstrates about four to five times that you can have an impact. It demonstrates your product sense and ability to reliably drive good outcomes. If you believe that’s true, in order to build a career to the highest role in our industry you do need to build great products repeatedly. So the two are intrinsically linked.
I’d say you need to build up to radars when choosing career opportunities:
A radar for choosing opportunities that have a high likelihood of success, and bet on roles that will empower you to build great products.
A radar for choosing opportunities that will accelerate your career, and help you build the skills you need to get to the next role. Personally I find both are must-haves when choosing roles and career opportunities. The same is true for assessing whether it’s time to leave the current organisation I’m in.
Over-indexing on one or the other will leave me frustrated. Obviously, this is coming from a position of being able to have that choice, and depending on circumstances, one might need to make a compromise and lean on one or the other.
In that case I would say reflect on what will bring you the most joy. Because if you love what you are doing, it will shine through in the quality of your work, opening doors you didn’t foresee while giving you a better quality of life.
Put your questions to product experts
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