Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Product Management: How do I get started?

How do I get started as a product manager?  Where do I start?

I have often read questions like this from product management forum.  I think it's a natural question for new-comers to ask when they are trying to decide whether to get in to product management discipline.  Having been a product manager myself with engineering background, I want to share my perspective on how to start the product management career.

A little bit about myself, I graduated with Computer Science degree and spent my first several years of my career coding.  I don't hold MBA or come from business background.  So the answer that I'm about to give may be biased in some way.

Going back to the question.  How does one start becoming a product manager?  What can future candidate do today to prepare for a career in product management?

Here's my answer:

Start doing product management yourself, just as you would start coding if you want to be a programmer.

It's a deceptively simple answer, but has many aspects that are core to product management.  When you are first starting out, the best way to learn is to start doing it.  If you are lucky enough to get offered to manage a product (like my case after working with the team for seven years), then it's the best scenario because you get to learn by doing it and get paid at the same time.  But if you are not as lucky, the second best thing is to create your own product and start working on it little by little.

Here are the reasons why taking the initiative to try becoming a product manager is so important.

1. Product manager must be entrepreneurial by definition.

Unlike any other role in an organization, product manager is the one person who does not have the product handed to him.  He has to conceive a product idea, test whether market exists, build the product, release it and enable the sales and support team to sustain the business.  In other words, business starts from product manager (I'm assuming that we are talking about product company, not service company).  Product manager is the one who has to make things happen by creating a compelling product.

No one wants to hire a product manager who likes to be told what to do next and expects to get things handed out to him.  To prove that you have what it takes to be a product manager, you have to demonstrate that you are willing to take initiatives and create something new.

2. Product manager must be a connector to the rest of engineering, marketing, sales, and support team to make the business of selling the product work.

Once the product is released, product manager's role is to make sure each part of the team have what they need to get their job done in efficient manner.  Perhaps this is the most difficult thing to practice and depends a lot on how organization is structured.  The key point to realize is that everyone will be looking at the product manager to set the ground rules of how to take in feature enhancement requests, how to share product roadmap, how to present the product in competitive situation, and how to support the product in the optimum way.  Note that these are in addition to talking to customers, participating product development cycle and the likes, that are the routine product manager's tasks.

Product manager must be capable of earning every team member's respect and trust.  Integrity is a must-have.  With strong work ethics and personal responsibility, product manager must connect all the team members around the product that he's responsible for.

3. Experience trumps any school education.

Having a relevant product management experience is far better than having an MBA degree from top business schools.  It's because the first two essential qualities of successful product manager, entrepreneurial spirit and personal integrity, are something that a business degree cannot vouch for.  Learning from the spot, especially from one's own experience will count way more.  (Inversely if you see a hiring manager who values top schools more than your substance, I suggest you walk away because it tells you that the culture values recognition more than actual growth.)

If you have stayed with me this far, you must really be interested in trying to become or get better at being a product manager.  Let me share a few tips on picking out your own project to start on your own.

1. Choose something that you are interested.

Pick something from the area that you are drawn to.  That way, it's easier to find out where to start when researching, and even if the effort does not materialize into anything, at least you are doing something that you enjoy doing anyway (business folks call this reducing the opportunity cost).

2. Create something that you can use.

Pick a project where you can create something for your own use.  In addition to reducing the opportunity cost, it has added benefit (and very important one) of being able to iterate rapidly with customer feedback (because customer will be you!).  In fact, this is the idea recommended by many successful startup mentors.

3. Make something small that works right away.

This may be the hardest one to do.  It's not easy to create something small.  It assumes that you can distill the problem down to its essence (which is not an easy skill), and you have what it takes to develop something that works from the day one.  Remember that what you are after is not creating a fully featured product.  What you are after is going through the exercise of creating a new product and demonstrating that you are capable of going through a new product introduction cycle.

If there is a complex algorithm that needs to be implemented, don't go ahead and implement.  Use realistic mockups and human-powered simulations to get a feel for how it might interact with you to solve your problem.

Once you have started a project, give yourself a pat on the back.  Now you are not a newbie.  You are a product manager with resume-worthy experience.  Put it up on your resume and talk about as the most recent project that you have worked on.  Make sure you have the link to the product available so that you can include the link in your resume.

If you have done all these, you will have 10x likelihood of getting the initial interview (I know because I am always looking out for a new talent).  Not only that, you'll also have lot more to talk about when you land your phone screening interview with the hiring manager.

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  1. Are there any accredidated program in the market for product management?

  2. There are a few. I've heard good things about Pragmatics Marketing. There are MBA courses available from UC Berkeley as well. If you are in Silicon Valley, join SVPMA. It's a good place to start networking.