Best Practices

Product Thinking Isn’t Just for Product Managers

Published Aug 23, 2019

I had lunch last week with a journalist who reminded me of myself in my early career. She was curious about sustainable business models for the local news industry and interested in creating a career path that blended journalism, business, and technology. The difference? Unlike me in the first year of my first job, she already knew that a product management role was an option that would meet her goals.

As a local news reporter just out of college, I had no idea such a position existed. The established role of a product manager was rarely found in most media organizations more than a decade ago, and product management certainly wasn’t taught in journalism school. It wasn’t until I was in a graduate program about five years into my career that I learned about agile methodology, design thinking, and creating business plans for technology projects. By then, I was already working on product strategies for a media company and leading audience development initiatives for those products. I just didn’t have a formal product management title.

In a relatively short time frame, product roles have emerged as must-haves for media companies, especially as news organizations focus on subscription business models and improving the digital strategies of their news products. I now have a formal product title at McClatchy, a media company with 30 local newsrooms across the nation, and I even co-taught an online course on product management for journalists. The rise of such product roles across all types of industries has led to new courses in business schools that teach the analytical and technical skills that product managers need. But just as important are the soft skills and lessons learned through navigating complex organizational structures and having a strong network of mentors and peers.

Over lunch that day, I guided my colleague through a few areas that I found pivotal in my own path from journalist to product manager. And just as I believe you don’t have to have an official product title to embrace product thinking, you also don’t have to work in journalism to find these experiences helpful for your own path.

Seek Alignment

Becca Aaronson, director of product at Chalkbeat, says this well in an article for the media institute Poynter: “Product managers are the original silo breakers. The field emerged in tech companies to bridge the divide between marketing and technology teams and represent the voice of the consumer throughout product development. Ultimately, product managers are responsible for the success of a product, as it’s their job to find balance between audience needs, business objectives and technology constraints to deliver products people love.”

Even if you’re not a practicing product manager, you can find projects that require you to collaborate with multiple teams and identify areas to align tactics to a core strategy. Volunteer your time if you have to, but focus on clear ways your contributions can help combine different objectives to meet a shared goal.

Find Sponsors—Not Just Mentors

Both mentors and sponsors can greatly benefit your career path, but there are distinctions between the two roles. I think of mentors as being helpful in showing you the ropes and providing advice about your job. Sponsors, on the other hand, will bring you to the table and advocate for you in your current role or a new one.

I’ve been fortunate to know both in my career. As a young journalist, I had editors who mentored me in my newsroom by providing extra feedback on my work, helping me learn about career opportunities, and even writing letters of recommendation for graduate school and job opportunities. At one company, I had a boss who went a step further. After learning about my skills and areas in which I wanted to develop, she started inviting me to executive meetings and assigning me to important projects in her place. By bringing me to the table, she introduced me to other leaders in the company and advocated for a new role that allowed me to work on more strategic initiatives—a crucial step in my path from journalist to product manager.

Finding the right mentors and sponsors, and knowing the difference between the two, builds the kind of support you’ll need to move toward new opportunities along your path. Knowing that I would not be at this point in my career without such strong support, I have vowed to empower and advocate for others who are seeking help with their careers.

Use Reporting Skills to Understand Your Audiences

A great journalist can glide through an interview with ease, knowing the right questions to ask and finding ways to make their source feel comfortable talking about a subject so that they have enough input for an article. As my career path veered into audience development and product management, I never lost those reporting skills. In fact, I feel like I use them more strategically now when talking to people who use our products, or when writing scenarios for product documentation.

Journalists are usually naturally curious, empathetic, and critical thinkers. These soft skills transfer easily to the work of product management. In fact, they’re the kind of traits that help prospective product managers stand out in a job interview. These types of skills help show that you are able to learn and understand business models and audience needs and then think critically about the opportunity and solution.

Find a Peer Network

I mentioned the importance of mentors and sponsors, but there’s one group that might be even more beneficial for keeping you inspired in your day-to-day work—your peers. Last year, I was part of a women’s leadership accelerator that included women in many types of roles in news organizations. We all bonded on a number of topics, from work/life balance to salary negotiation to career path development. Among the dozens of women in attendance, a handful of us realized we all had product positions. We’ve since bonded around our shared job functions and check in regularly, even if just to vent about a frustrating day at work or share a new idea for a product. We’ve also found a few opportunities for collaboration, such as speaking at a conference together and co-teaching an online class.

A peer network doesn’t have to be intimate, either. Women in Product has created a wide network of women in product careers who communicate with one another through a Facebook group and other channels. I also know of a few Slack channels dedicated to product roles in different industries. The point is to find people you can relate to and learn from them. Never underestimate the power of connections through a network and the opportunities that could result.

Continue to Carve a Path

I’m still a journalist at heart who is curious about the kinds of products that will be needed for the future of news. I know my career path might lead to roles that aren’t yet defined, much like how my current position, lead product manager for news, didn’t exist when I was a young journalist. For me, that’s OK. It means that I’m constantly thinking about the challenges and opportunities of our industry and the skills that I’ll need to learn now to equip me for another role that will make a difference for media products in the future. Even in other industries, the growth path for a product manager isn’t always clearly defined. My advice is to focus on your passion points—the parts of your job or industry that you feel most excited and curious about—even if you’re not exactly sure where your passion will lead.

As my colleague and I wrapped up lunch that day, I assured her that product management roles are key to the future of journalism. We’re working strategically on business models, analyzing data and user research about our audiences, and prioritizing the most impactful projects that meet our goals. In most industries, product manager roles have gone from nice-to-have to must-have, and this heightened focus creates many opportunities for the career paths of anyone interested in product—from a seasoned product manager to a journalist who simply wants to impact the future of the business but isn’t sure where to start.