Becoming a Product Manager

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The CrossroadsI was at a crossroads in my career for the first time. Up until this point, I [JR1] had always been in national accounts, strategic relationships, partnerships, [enter whatever creative name you want to call it here], and my primary focus was to create and maximize relationships with external companies. But my department was being redeployed (at my recommendation), and I needed to pursue a new role within Ramsey Solutions. So, I found myself evaluating my transferrable skills. In my national accounts role, I had to have a flare for marketing, sales and operations, so I decided to pursue an opportunity to serve on the Operations Team for a couple of months to tackle some lingering team challenges.

The solutions [JR2] in this role took many shapes—marketing, process flows, legal and digital. Thus, this operations role is unexpectedly where I got my first taste of product management since several of the operational solutions heavily involved digital solutions. Although I’m not known for my technical skills (my husband would agree), I am very particular about experiences and impactful simplicity. So, I inherited a small (but mighty) squad of engineers, and they filled in my technical gaps. I was pretty nervous about pursuing something so different from anything I’d ever done, but fortunately, I work for a company that’s very supportive of team members trying new things. So, I relied on my gumption and we got to work.

It worked! Our squad was able to release several digital solutions for both our internal team and external customers that drastically improved the operations of our team. I really enjoyed working with our engineers to bring visions of a better future to life; I was hooked. As my temporary role on the Operations Team came to a close, I decided to take another leap of faith and pursue a career in product management. Once again, I was very nervous because of my perceived shortcomings, but I let my passion drive me to continue researching this job prospect.

The ResearchTo get my bearings, I started connecting with product managers from different departments over coffee to determine what their backgrounds were and what they believe makes up a great product manager. To my (delightful) surprise, several of them had entered product management via other roles—sales, operations, design, etc. I actually didn’t meet anyone who was “trained” in product management from the get-go. They all got curious about it from other roles and evolved their way in, which was comforting. Through my discussions, I also heard themes around key characteristics to be successful as a product manager, which I’ve outlined below.

  1. You must have insatiable curiosity. How can we make this better? What will have the best impact? Why are users driven to take certain actions? How will certain changes impact the business? Will users even care about or know how to use this enhancement? Be prepared to answer many questions about every solution you’re rolling out. Without insatiable curiosity, you just might miss the mark by not getting all the right context to guide your solution. But with that right context, you can solve many problematic symptoms in one fell swoop!
  2. Be passionate. You must care deeply about the impact you want to drive for your customers and your company. Without the right passion, product management can become a platform to show off technical skills or grandiose ideas, but that’s not the point. Your passion should be driven by real impact, which can completely reprioritize what you thought you should focus on. Sometimes your customers will surprise you with what they care about and are willing to adopt or buy!
  3. Identify the root problems vs. symptoms. It’s so easy to hear about a customer issue, take it at face value, “solve it,” and move on. But if you don’t put in the work to ask the extra questions and get to the real root of the problem, you may be working to solve just one symptom of a bigger problem, and new symptoms will surface. Practice reading between the lines. Identify problematic patterns to solve, rather than the varying symptoms, and determine if there’s a common root issue to solve. This will narrow your team’s focus to key projects.
  4. Stay disciplined. Product managers have a lot thrown at them, so you need to be disciplined to maintain team rhythms that maximize outcomes as well as prioritize focus. It can be easy to get distracted by fly-in work [JR3] or the opinions of others, so stay focused on what will move the needle most for your team and company overall.
  5. Knowledge of the business. You must understand your business to make sure you solve problems in the right way. Without understanding the operations and goals of your company, you’re at risk of leading your team astray. Do the team’s priorities align with the goals of the business? Does the solution you’re considering maintain or create key information the sales team needs? Are you building in a way that the marketing team can leverage and pour jet fuel on your solutions as they go to market? Get very familiar with the different parts of your business so the value your team creates can be exponential as other team members leverage it!

Great. Key characteristics—check.

Next, I started reading. What does the daily life of a PM look like? What are the team rhythms? How do you maximize the value delivered by your team? To answer these questions, I highly recommend Marty Cagan’s books Inspired and Empowered! These books gave me a great foundation to be able to plug in with my team quickly and start adding value. But I’m a visual learner, so my next step was to shadow a couple of product managers to observe these concepts out in the wild.

Shadowing really helped me internalize the types of meetings they attend, decisions they make, how they lead their teams, and more. This is where I had my aha moment around expectations for expertise on the team. Product managers don’t need to be able to execute every single detail themselves; that’s what the engineers and designers are there to help you do. You need to know enough to 1) appreciate the work that needs to be done, 2) help the team break down the work into deliverable pieces, and 3) understand when the scope is growing beyond the boundaries of the original request.

The EpiphaniesI don’t want to breeze past this important point: As a product manager, your greatest value is not in how well you can code or design. It’s in how well you can lead your team to deliver the most value to the business. Your team will help you learn execution details along the way. Sure, it’s helpful (even recommended) to take a coding class or two so you have a basic level of understanding and empathy. But you don’t need to be an engineer or technical guru to be a successful product manager. In fact, one of the greatest values you can bring your team is communicating clearly with stakeholders so you’re in touch with the business’s direction and your team has context for and support around your business’s current initiatives. You are the liaison between your team and the business—and that’s a very important role!

The Happy EndingI have loved the growth I’ve experienced and the results the business has seen since I stepped into this new role. There’s never a dull moment, and every day is a little bit different. Solving real problems for the business so our customers can be more successful is such a rewarding mission to come to work to every day! I’m grateful for having such a supportive team and company that allowed me to broaden my horizons and be courageous on this new path.

If my story resonates with you, you might be a great fit to pursue a career in product management! Find yourself a company that truly supports a culture of growth (like ours—we’re hiring!) and start talking to your leaders about how to step into this next phase.