When I reflect on all the mentoring sessions that I have had so far, I can say that the different sessions couldn’t have been more colourful. I tested several early stage versions of apps, I brainstormed on new ideas, I have shared career advice and I spoken to many product managers who are in a similar state as I am and we exchanged experiences and learned from each other.
Nevertheless, I do see some patterns of topics, which occur regularly and I want to take one of those today and write down my thoughts for more people to read. The topic that I chose for this blog post is around how to transition to product management from other disciplines. Spoiler alert: it is possible, always. But it requires endurance, passion and commitment.
For me, far and foremost it is the passion to solve customer problems, which means to be 100% customer centric and have the ability to put yourself in your customers shoes at any given point in time. The more empathy a product manager has towards their target group the easier and more natural it gets to come up with the best solution. So what I am looking for in interviews is the passion for the customer. Secondly I put lots of emphasis on a data driven mindset as this is a precondition to be able to assess which products to prioritise. Third are communication skills and with that stakeholder management. For senior product managers this list continues with (4) the ability to define and execute a product strategy for roughly a 12 months time horizon. I know from my own experience that product strategy is a hard nut to crack, it’s worth its own blog post so I won’t go into detail here. Just make sure you’re growing this capability if you apply for a senior product role or higher.
Now, let’s take a step back and revisit the initial question in more detail: Irrespective of whether I was asked about my opinion to move to product from project management, engineering, or elsewhere, my first question was always the same: what are you missing in your current role, and how do you think product management can be more fulfilling for you? To me, this is a very important first assessment, because it helps me understand how strongly someone has reflected on their current situation as well as what their expectations of such a transition to a product management role are. By starting off with this question, sometimes I realise that people have only seen a fraction of product management given their limited visibility from out of their current role. This is absolutely natural and doesn’t come to a surprise, of course, so I tend to start with a run through what product management is, and what I think are the key capabilities. So, let’s do that here as well:
What is product management?
(Please be aware that this is a simplified answer for the sake of readability of this book post, but I try to be as concrete as I need to be to make this a valuable answer.)
Let’s start by looking at a product manager's typical activities & responsibilities:
The driving force for product managers is the customer, i.e. the end user. This is true for B2B and B2C products but might vary for more technical product managers who’s customers might be internal stakeholders. In any case, in product we strive for customer satisfaction, which means identifying and then solving existing problems customers have, engage with them regularly and (if possible) even watch them do “their things” and see how it could be improved. Engaging with customers and their viewpoints is for sure the one most crucial capability to being a successful product manager who can look back at a track record of solving customer problems which led to a step change in KPIs and hence contributed to the company’s vision and strategy.
Next to the time spent with/on the customer, product managers spend a majority of their time with their engineering folks or engineering related topics. Product people want to make sure that their engineers work on the right things at the right time, hence their primary day-to-day focus is on the preparation of a prioritised backlog with well defined acceptance criteria and impact KPIs. Similarly important, it is for them to keep work in progress low, which allows the team (1) to focus and (2) to finish work that can be released to customers.
Speaking of the right things, highlights the second big responsibility of product managers. They want to make sure they solve real problems that matter to customers. There is nothing worse than launching a product that is never used by its audience. In order to make sure this doesn’t happen product managers want to align with their research and design colleagues as well as analysts to not only assess (forecast) the impact of products they have planned, but more so that there is data proof about the solution actually solving a real problem for customers. Why is this important? I have seen feature/product launches without strong metrics attached. This overtime leads to lots of code which needs to be maintained and bugs that need to be fixed for products or features which only a fraction of customers uses. Product managers want to under all circumstances prevent this from happening. It is a waste of time and energy. Product people want to invest their engineering time on the products that really move the needle, have strong customer impact and ultimately contribute to company success.
Further down the line, for product managers who have already launched multiple products it is expected that they keep an eye on the performance of these products. Products are hardly ever done, when launched initially. It takes iterations to get to excellence and only through iterations product managers will come to a point where they can say that their product delivers the desired outcome. This is what moves them from good to great.
In order to be able to do this constantly and for multiple products it is a big advantage if product managers can pull and analyse their own data. For as much as possible, they want to be independent, so that they can move fast, make decisions within their teams and then act on those autonomously.
Finally we shouldn’t underestimate the part of stakeholder management and with that communication skills, which is in my opinion crucial to be successful as a product manager. There is continuous (and absolutely necessary) interaction with all the cross functional disciplines such as research, UX design, copywriting, engineering, marketing, sales, analytics, data science, legal and sometimes pricing and/or finance in order to launch successfully. It goes without saying that one does not always need to involve all these disciplines, as this strongly depends on the product to be launched. But it is for sure, that for almost every launch at least half of these stakeholders need to be either involved as strong contributors and collaborators in launching a product or -at minimum- need to be informed and kept in the loop. Product managers who think they can launch great products just by themselves will not survive in a company long term. Product management is a team sport, not an individual one. If someone prefers to work alone they should not consider moving to product.
To conclude, for everyone who considers moving to product management, I strongly recommend reflecting on how much purpose and fulfilment you can feel with solving other people’s problems through technology. If this is a strong yes, then I would confidently say that with endurance, passion and commitment everything else you can learn.