The Path to Product Management

Published Apr 4, 2019

“How did you get into product management?”

I’ve gotten this question a lot, and I’m sure many other PMs have as well. I’d attribute my success moving into product management to a few things: not taking “no” for an answer, honing my skills/craft as a PM in any/every role I could find, education, and mentorship. However, one of the biggest contributors was my ability to pitch myself as if I were a product, and the hiring manager were the customer. If you’re considering a career in product management, this is an important skill to develop.

My First Foray Into Product

I started my career at Google in sales and operations as an AdWords account manager. As unlikely as it sounds, this is where my journey into product management began.

When you’re in this type of customer-facing role, you’re always bridging the gap between a product’s intent and how customers actually use it. It gave me a really intimate look at product, customers, and the people who sell and support product.

While working with PMs and trying to get them to fix stuff, I kept asking myself, “Why don’t these people understand how customers use this product and make it better? I can do this job better than they can.” PM at Google was also this cool kids’ club. Outside of “Engineer,” “Product Manager” was one of the most prestigious and glamorous titles — it was very alluring. Overall, it was a combination of arrogance and naïveté that pushed me towards PM; I think that potent cocktail brings most people to the job.

The Challenges of Moving Into a PM Role

It’s hard to move into PM without a technical degree and without PM experience. Neither is easy to come by. My background is non-technical. I have a BA in American Studies from Stanford. Lots of PM roles require a technical background. But I found a way to create a path for myself into product management because of my product specialist opportunity at Google and my MBA from Kellogg (you’ll see “MBA a plus” on a decent number of PM roles).

You want to get that PM experience any way you can. To move closer to product, I joined the Product Specialist team at Google. It was a voice-of-customer role within sales that served as the interface between PM and sales. I worked with several PMs and engineering teams and learned the ins and outs of Agile, requirements gathering, backlog prioritization, and launch prep.

I then left Google to do my MBA at Kellogg. I’d learned from my peers that getting an MBA often helped people move into PM. After all, companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Cisco hire a lot of PMs and PMMs out of business school.

I talked my way into a PM intern role at Groupon. The hiring manager was skeptical given my lack of a technical degree and official PM experience. But I convinced him that my Product Specialist and AdWords work were highly relevant and that I was a “low-risk” investment. “If you don’t like me as an intern, that’s 3 months, don’t hire me back.” I’d also taken a significant amount of CS coursework in college, so I used that to overcome the technical background hurdle. I was able to connect the dots from my past experience to what he was looking for in the PM (intern) role — that’s key.   

On Being a Woman of Color in the PM World

Being a woman of color doesn’t match the established pattern of “PM,” “leader,” and “technical.” When people look at me, they don’t give me the same assumption of competence, leadership, and familiarity they give white guys. That’s a fact. I just work to overcome that.

Demonstrate your worth/value (you’ll have to do it 2x more than your peers), and then advocate like hell for yourself, while building allies. Your allies are people who you go out of your way to help. They, in turn, will help you and advocate for you.

Being a woman of color actually contributes to my PM superpower. W.E.B DuBois wrote about “second sight:” “[T]he Negro is … born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” As a woman of color, it’s precisely that “second sight” that gives me the ability to take on the perspectives of others (my customers, my teammates, my stakeholders), to step away from myself. And that really makes me a good PM.

The Importance of Support and Mentorship

I still have this (perhaps idealistic) notion in my mind that mentors are people who take you under their wing and coach you and give you opportunities. Early in my career I really didn’t have that — I wasn’t proactive in seeking out a mentor nor did anyone take any special interest in me. I talked to a lot of my peers to learn what they were doing — they were awesome! I sought the advice of senior leaders within Google and they gave me advice — I’m always grateful for that, but it was based on one or two interactions, not a sustained relationship.

Later in my career, I’ve been super lucky to have people proactively help me, advocate for me, and coach me, but it really wasn’t something that happened early on. I want to be honest about that because I want to paint a realistic picture of the support you may or may not get. Ultimately you have to make your own way. If you want help, you have to ask for it, and then you may or may not get it. Be grateful for every bit of help you do get.

My Thoughts on PM Hiring

I came from a non-traditional background, so I’m more flexible than most when hiring PMs. I look for these traits, rather than relying on titles alone:

  • Do you have drive? I always look for someone who’s driven. Are you passionate about this role? Do you have a track record of delivering results, working with lots of different types of people to do so?
  • Are you customer-centric? 
  • Are you humble enough to know that you don’t know everything, and therefore you (quickly) search for evidence to make decisions?

Thinking About Pursuing a PM Career?

Then I’ve got three things to tell you!

  1. PM isn’t as glamorous as it seems. It’s a lot of cat herding, influencing, deciding, and compromising with little information, all involving a lot of conflict. It’s about catering to a lot of other people’s needs. It’s often dirty, in the trenches, unglamorous work. I love it! But it’s not for everybody and it’s a really hard job to be good at.
  2. Get that PM experience anyway you can. Take adjacent or acting PM roles. Get a PM internship. Build your own product and launch it. That will help you build your resume but also decide if this is really for you.
  3. Connect the dots for the hiring manager. They’re your customer, you’re the product — market yourself directly to their needs.

My Final Thoughts

I wrote too much already. But always reach out if you want someone to bounce ideas off of. I’m happy to help people advance their careers and always looking for others to trade war stories with. (LinkedIn)