It can be hard to break into Product Management, but sometimes the role just finds you without you consciously seeking it. Networking and creating connections with people is the key to getting the job you want which is why you need good communication skills. But what else do you need? Dan Durkin, PM at AmEx, responds.
The Product Marketing Manager at American Express optimizing the end-to-end card application experience. Previously he spent over two years working in digital publishing, focusing on video and editorial content for VH1.com, HealthCorps.org, LogoTV.com, and About.com. Holds a B.A. in Theater Production and a M.S. in Interactive Media Management.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got into product?
Product found me! I joined American Express in 2013 at a time when the company was transitioning from traditional waterfall to agile development. My title changed from “business analyst” to “product manager” and I was fortunate to learn on the job along with the rest of my organization. But the people and the product talent at AmEx was what encouraged me to continue following this path.
Was there any formal training or onboarding from AmEx when they transitioned you?
Yes, we had consultants from Deloitte give us day-long trainings. Not as valuable as on-the-job learning, though.
If the product already exists how do you come up with roadmap of improvements?
Our biggest metric is completion rate. We test and learn until we hit 100%. Also, there are always new card product launches or new offers to consider. We also think about new marketing strategies – like how can we make the application experience better for applicants applying through credit karma?
I am a generalist with experience in Tech, App Dev, Training etc. Is that a problem dealing with business?
Never say you are a generalist. Pick a few specific skills and find a job posting that aligns to those exact skills. Think like a PM when it comes to job postings – what seems to be the hiring manager’s problem and how can you (and only you) solve it?
Do you use design sprints?
AmEx has a uniform design language (a la Twitter Bootstrap) and I am optimizing a channel that’s already built (AmEx.com has always had card applications), so there’s not always something net/new to design. But generally, we have a robust UX shop with dedicated UX researchers.
As a recent graduate, what types of opportunities should one look for to get into product management?
I always say start in Analytics. A lot of the most senior product people at AmEx started in the analytics group. Since you’re fresh out of college, I would consider internships.
How technically-skilled are you and how important do you perceive those skills are?
I took a web dev course with Bloc. I always say web dev is like a foreign language – you learn how to read it, speak it, and write it. To be a product manager you should learn how to read it and speak it well! Writing code is not important, but know what an Angular service is and how it works.
Which skills help you most in your current role? And how about domain knowledge?
I can’t stress how important communication is. If you can “sell” an idea to the organization with a strong business case, you will have much success. For domain knowledge, keeping a pulse on people like The Points Guy helps a lot, as applicants are much more likely to apply for cards when there are rich offers tied to our products.
Is there a particular place where you get the latest market and technology trends from?
Twitter – is this answer cliche? I would say follow people you admire over companies and products. The people always have more interesting things to say.
What BA skills did you find most helpful in your transition to PM?
I was a Theater Directing Major, so bringing together many creative voices (designers, actors, etc) towards a singular vision feels very relevant to my PM career.
What’s your opinion on next generation payment systems such as human chip implants (biometric authentication)?
American Express’ vision is to be the world’s most respected service brand. Notice the word payments is not there. We are looking at opportunities to provide next-gen servicing (FB messenger, Alexa, VR) in addition to where the market is going (mobile wallets). I doubt we will deal with P2P payments.
What is your favorite question when you interview PM’s on your team?
Tell me about a time you were proven wrong and how you learned from it.
Can one get a position without much Agile experience and if not what is a good way to get it?
If you can do waterfall, you can do agile. Focus the resume on delivery and execution rather than planning.
How do you know when to target people for credit cards?
I would defer to my marketing colleagues here. I just make sure that they finish the card application when they get there. Prospective Card Members are targeting on sites like credit karma, the points guys, creditcards.com, etc… Existing Card Members are targeted based on spend – so, if you spend a lot on travel on your AmEx everyday card, we might try to sell you a Platinum Card which has really rich travel benefits.
Any books that you recommend reading on Product Management
What skill set does AmEx look for in a candidate? How did you get your interview?
I am an enigma. I was hired at AmEx as a contractor by someone who was my boss in a previous role at another company (keep your network close!). That said, AmEx loves strong communicators who can navigate complicated requirements and busy politics.
Can you name a few skills you’re working towards mastering and/or learning to improve as a PM?
Patience and attention to detail. I am a high-level kind of person, so digging deep in the details in my development area but I am getting better and learning every day. Beyond that, I try to stay on top of what’s happening in the space. I follow a lot of tech/ product people on twitter.
Do you use any third-party analytics tools? If so, any you recommend?
We don’t use third-party tools. We use Adobe Omniture/ Site Catalyst. Amex is a bank so we are scared of fancy startup type of tools.
How do data scientists help out PM’s and how do PM’s help out data scientists?
Our Data Scientists mostly work with our Risk Management group. They work on building the models that influence back-end decisioning (within 30 seconds!). I mostly work on front-end enhancements (as will most non-technical product managers), though we have a statistical analysis team that helps us with test & learn.
How much does a resume/cover letter weigh when you’re hiring an entry-level product manager?
The truth is, I don’t review resumes. HR does that. Focus on the keywords in the job posting and hit on them as much as possible. All I care about is the interview and how well the interviewee communicates.
Would you say someone with PM and basic tech skills but no data experience can transition into product?
My background was theater directing and social media management. I am only in this field because of my network. Always go with good people.
When choosing between an experienced/inexperienced PM, what would tilt the balance towards the latter?
Depends how well the one without PM experience can communicate. Experience on the side counts. Interviewers love to see what you have built.
As an Aspiring PM do you recommend searching for intern opportunities or an APM role?
I would think about starting with an analytical role, the skills are more transferable. Think about “optimization” and how you could work in a test & learn capacity for an organization. It will be easier to become a Product Manager once you have the digital background.
Any advice for aspiring product managers?
Be an expert communicator and get it done!
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