Jumping Into the Water

A man jumping into the water

Should you transition to product management?

Today (May, 14th) is my birthday. This is always a good opportunity for me to reflect on my life. The roads I’ve chosen and the roads I am about to choose. Where I’ve been and where I’m going. Am I where I thought I’d be at this point if time? And how can I leverage this experience to be where I want a year or a couple of years from now?

If it sounds to you like self-coaching then I guess that to some extent it is…

But anyway – this is not a personal blog/newsletter, but rather a professional one. And in this context of self-reflection, self-coaching and making changes to your professional career – I’d like to touch on the professional decision of becoming a product manager.

As you probably observed – there is no official academy for becoming a product manager. Well… there could be some out there, but I never heard of them and they are certainly not common. Here and there you can find some courses that will provide you with a ‘product manager’ certificate, but at the end of the day – the grand majority of product managers that I know of, didn’t get any official training and are not graduates of any official ‘product managers’ school.

I touched on this a bit in my last post (‘Distracted by your past’, here) – product manager is almost always not the first role people fill when they join the hi-tech industry. You are most likely to ‘grow’ to this role from a different role. The good news is, though, that you are almost unlimited in terms of the roles you can ‘grow’ from. Again, as noted in my previous post – I’ve seen people becoming product managers after they have been developers, QA, project managers, product analysts, sales and more.

The downside, as noted before, is that due to the lack of formal training and past experience – the first period in this role can feel overwhelming for you.

Let’s see what can be done to overcome this.

But first things first – 

Should I become a product manager?

Like a good product manager you need to ask yourself – ‘why’? Why do you consider becoming a product manager? There could be several reasons. For example:

  1. You are not enjoying what you are doing now and you are wondering whether being a product manager would suit you better
  2. You’ve observed product managers in your company, interacted with some and you find it cool and something you’d like to experience
  3. There is a ‘product ownership’ vacuum in your company and someone suggested that you should fill this vacuum
  4. Nobody asked it of you, but you found yourself doing more and more ‘product’ tasks in addition to your current role because the product managers got their hands full.

There could be of course additional reasons. Whatever your reason is – just make sure you are aware of it.

I think this would be a good opportunity to share my personal story as how I ended up becoming a product manager and later a product leader:

As you might know – I’m a software engineer by profession and I spent many years writing code and leading R&D teams. At some point in my career – I co-founded my startup, Newsfusion, together with my partner. It was very natural for me to grab the VP R&D title and manage all of our R&D operations. I even coded many important pieces of our code and algorithms. My partner took the official product title.

However, whether you wear the official title or not – being an entrepreneur and being intimately involved with your users and how they interact with your product – you learn a thing or two about product management, product strategy and go to market approaches whether you intended to or not. 

When I came back to the labor market and looked to be hired again I was originally looking for VP R&D roles. However, during the interview process for such roles, I found myself asking the interviewer a lot of questions about the business and the product strategy. It felt natural to me to question some product decisions and question the go to market strategy. Some of the interviewers were happy about that but most of the time they were a bit nervous, as if they were saying: “Hey dude… you are here for an R&D leadership role, not a product role. At the end of the day you are going to execute on what we decide – so leave it to us and focus on the delivery, ok?” 

After several such interviews I had an enlightening moment. I suddenly understood that I can no longer focus solely on the ‘how’ (how a feature is going to be implemented) and disconnect myself from the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ (why we decided to work on this product/feature and what is exactly this product/feature). In fact, I came to realize that the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ are now much more interesting to me than the ‘how’.

But then a fear started to grow inside:

“But I’ve never done any official product role before. Who will hire me? How can I pass these interviews?”

Long story short – I decided to face my fears and personal doubts. I instructed the head hunters who were assisting me with finding a job to set me up with some interviews for product roles.

They tried to push back. Reiterating my internal fears that I have no official experience, but luckily I was confident enough to stand firm.

I started going to ‘product management’ interviews. And you know what? I discovered that I’m quite good at it. Turns out that my entrepreneurship experience provided me with a huge advantage. Nothing beats fighting on a product with your ‘life’. I passed all the interviews tossed at me quite successfully and I had several options to choose from.

So this is my story. It shows that you can find yourself in product management even though you never planned it in advanced, and be quite good at it.

Now back to you:

Whatever the circumstances that brought you to consider transitioning to product management – you need to ask yourself whether you are willing to spend most of your time looking how you can deliver more value to all the stakeholders. If you believe you’ll be excited doing that, then here is a secondary checklist of things you need to consider because it’s going to become a main part of your reality:

  • Are you interested in working closely with the R&D, QA, product analysts, UX/UI, product marketing and the business people and be the orchestrator of the features delivery process?
  • Are you willing to accept the accountability and responsibility attached to such orchestration?
  • Are you willing to be in a spot where you are saying mainly ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’ to feature requests?
  • Are you interested in writing a lot of documents and compiling presentations rather than doing something more technical such as writing & compiling code or automations?
  • Are you willing to commit to the big picture and play with the bigger fish in the pond? This means sometimes more politics and certainly more human-interaction.
  • Are you willing to be in a reality which has a lot of conflicting interests where you will need to bridge those conflicts and be constantly challenged for your decisions?

 

For some – the above may sound intimidating. I can help you navigate through this, but I can’t help you avoid it. There is a very good chance this is going to be a big part of your reality.

Anyway – if this sounds indeed intimidating then let’s balance it with the other, rewarding, side of product management:

You are going to have much more impact than before. You’ll be in a position where you can move the needle for your company – and once you are there – the skies are the limit.

So – you need to consider this as a full package:

More accountability, more responsibility – but much more impact than you probably had before.

If that sounds interesting to you – let’s proceed.

 

How do I become a product manager?

If the opportunity hasn’t knocked on your door naturally yet – create one!

Announce your intentions and inform your superiors that you would like to evolve to be a product manager. They may be open to it or not. Even if they are open to it – there may not be an open position for a product management in your company as for now.

Analyze your company status and growth vector. Are you expecting to grow? Are there any new business units or squads that are planned to be formed soon? Are there any product people who may leave?

Your boss may provide you with hints of such hidden opportunities within your company.

However, if your boss is not playing along, or if you don’t see any such opportunity coming up soon – I encourage you to look outside.

You don’t need to leave your job just yet – just start taking product interviews. Get used to the questions and prepare yourself until you find a job posting that you REALLY want. Then go all in – 

  1. Learn about that company whatever you can
  2. Learn about the specific role whatever you can
  3. Try to find people you know who are working there and make inquiries
  4. Prepare for the interview and predict the questions you’ll be asked based on common questions you can find on the web and what friends who have been to such interviews tell you.
  5. Most likely, if you pass the initial interviews, then you’ll be given a home exercise. Most chances it will be related to the company’s business – so make sure you understand their business in advance. Be ready with your presentation template.
  6. Show your passion for working there. It leaves an impression.

 

At the end of the day – you’ll be considered junior – so set your expectations accordingly. Look for entry level roles and don’t waste everyone’s time by applying to senior product roles. There is a lot you need to learn – so be humble and motivated.

I am positive – that if you really want it – an opportunity will show itself. I saw it happening a lot of times. All the people I know who were serious about getting into product management – found their way in and they are doing just fine. So as long as you are not discouraged by rejections – you will make it too.

 

I have so much to learn – how do I improve?

Yes, the first days as a product manager can be overwhelming as noted above. There are two main venues that can greatly accelerate the pace of which you’ll get better at your job:

  1. Finding a good mentor
  2. Expanding your horizons

Looking for a Mentor

This one may turn out to be challenging. The problem is not with finding people who will be willing to help you, but rather with finding someone who can really take you to the next level.

My suggestion is always to look for the best mentor you can find and not settle on the first product manager who is willing to guide you. 

Who is considered the best product manager in your company? Start with him/her. Don’t be afraid. At most he or she will tell you they are too busy so you’ll look for the second best.

If you can’t find someone truly professional in your company – look for a mentor outside of your company. There are also groups and organizations (such as the Product League) who will assist you by matching you with a top-class mentor.

Again, the message here – a great mentor is super important – so don’t settle and look for the best you can get.

Expanding your horizons

There is a lot to learn. Devote some of your time to expand your knowledge.

There are a lot of online resources you can read. However, much like a mentor – a lot of it is clickbait and will provide you with very mediocre advice. Look for the writers that you believe provide you with the best value to your time.

Personally, I am spending less time reading on the web and instead I listen to podcasts. At first, when I wanted to become better at product management – I listened to product management podcasts, but to be honest – I couldn’t find product management podcasts that really provided me with new knowledge (it could be that I just didn’t look deep enough – but it is what it is). Instead I found that entrepreneurship podcasts are much more beneficial for me in terms of product management.

I said it a lot of time – but I will repeat it here again – adopting an entrepreneurship state of mind will greatly improve your product management skills (see my original article about this here).

Here is a list of some of the podcasts I listen to. For some – you can simply listen to random episodes, but for the others you’ll need to dig carefully the episodes you want, because not all of them are relevant.

Here is a very short list (I provided links to Apple podcasts, but you can find those in any of the main podcasts providers):

  1. The Tim Ferriss Show (select your episodes carefully as this is very long formed)
  2. How I Built This
  3. NFX
  4. That Will Never Work
  5. 30 Minutes or Less (in Hebrew)

 

And there are more of course.

I use my commute time to listen to those and I’m constantly learning new approaches to product development (and entrepreneurship, of course).

 

What if I find that I don’t like to be a product manager?

In short – you tried, you figured out it’s not for you – you move on in your search for the role that you’ll enjoy doing. That’s part of life.

I know of several people that didn’t enjoy their current roles and thought that product management was the answer. Some of them consulted with me and during the conversation they understood it’s probably not for them.

Others actually made it to product management and found out that it’s simply not enjoyable or too stressful for them.

Again – it happens all the time and this is perfectly fine.

One thing, though – if you think about leaving the world of product management – make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. It could be that the company you are in is the problem and not the role. For example, it could be that the culture is broken, you are surrounded by ass@#$les or there is simply too much politics.

It doesn’t mean all the companies are like that. Maybe changing the atmosphere is all you need?

Anyway – worth consulting with someone external to your company for understanding why it doesn’t work.

And if you are certain that chasing the ‘why’, the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ are simply not your passion – move on. There is plenty to do in this life 🙂

 

That concludes the post for today. Again, if you found it useful – feel free to ‘like’ it. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

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