How important is a technical background in Product Management? And if you don’t have a background in tech, where can you get the experience?
In a recent Slack AMA Katie Guernsey, former Product Manager at Fullscreen shared her insights on how to build that kind of expertise.
Katie Guernsey is a product strategist who has helped companies, start-ups and nonprofits launch products since 2007. She is versed in web, API, mobile and OTT platform development. She has worked in both ad driven and subscription model media companies, such as, Gospel Media Group properties (Faith.com, Believe.com) as an additional ad revenue business alongside ChristianMingle, and Fullscreen’s Apple TV.
- What is your background and how did you break into Product Management?
- When interviewing someone from Software Engineering what kind of skills will you test?
- What are best advice/tips/books for interviewing for a first product manager position?
- Does one need a tech background?
- How can I get a tech background?
- How do you balance ensuring an API will stand the test of time and avoid breaking changes down the road while also delivering an MVP of it and avoiding over-designing?
- I feel that I’m sharing the same title with other Product Managers who are doing a totally different job. Do you think it’s an undefined job?
- What’s the next step in product management? What are the avenues available to us?
- I work as a project/program manager in pharma/biotech, but I’m interested in jumping into a product role in tech. What would you recommend?
- When you interview stakeholders, how do you prepare for the questions to ask them to get most relevant data that you are looking for?
What is your background and how did you break into Product Management?
Like most Product Managers these days, I came to the career somewhat circuitously. There really hasn’t been a defined career path until recently when people started hearing about programs like this! I got a BS in Computer Science. I hated coding, so I jumped the ship and started working in the arts because of my creative side.
In all those institutions, they learned about my background in tech, so ultimately I decided to work for small tech companies that served nonprofits. After project and account managing those clients, I realized I wanted to inform the product that I was giving the users. Alas, I found out about the career and started applying for jobs!
When interviewing someone from Software Engineering what kind of skills will you test?
I’ve interviewed junior Product Managers, and those with no direct Product Manager experience and all I look for is someone who is analytical and who can think through a user journey. For instance, I think of a feature that I just implemented, and I ask them, how would they build it? What is their thinking process? Which stakeholders would you engage to make sure it’s the best? Would they do a competitive analysis? How do they document their ideas and communicate them?
Of course, I don’t really ask these questions. I make it free form, but those are the things I have the person answer. The business stuff can all be learned. There is so much jargon, but once you get it, it’s easy.
I would say having a technical background is pretty important to me. It’s not dire, but the person needs to be conversant in technologies especially if they are running a scrum team. Otherwise, they get chewed up by the developers.
What are best advice/tips/books for interviewing for a first product manager position?
I think books would help you answer my question in the interview, but you need to be in situations where you are negotiating with stakeholders. Communication is key. How can you tell your story so that the user has these needs and by serving these needs aka building features, the business will ultimately be served? It’s a real balance.
You also have to have tough skin and be willing to lose a lot. This same communication goes a long way with devs, I’ve noticed. They are serving your purposes, yet you have no direct authority over them. It’s important that you create buy-in with them, so they are motivated.
Does one need a tech background?
This is helpful when developers get creative. Developers are brilliant, but sometimes they can be purists in that they want the perfect code. In their visions of visions, they see a perfectly refactored, architecturally sound API.
However, this delays delivery timelines. You need to convince them why compromising their work benefits the business and user, and not be afraid to call this out. Having a tech background enables you to come up with solutions alongside them creatively. Then it becomes a conversation and not a dictatorship.
How can I get a tech background?
Do whatever you can. Take whatever position you can, whether it’s account management, quality assurance, customer service, project management, design whatever that gets you close to tech. The minute you start seeing the problem solving that goes on when troubleshooting issues, you will learn a ton. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be close and interested in the solutions.
And like I said everyone starts somewhere. You don’t have to be an associate product manager. It took me a year to transition fully to product management from project once I started applying for those jobs. I would also say business analyst is a good one. There you learn how to write requirements.
How do you balance ensuring an API will stand the test of time and avoid breaking changes down the road while also delivering an MVP of it and avoiding over-designing?
This is a good conversation with your lead engineer and the director of engineering (both who should be business savvy enough to understand the compromise of solving too much tech debt). The biggest priority is up time. How much risk is it to stop all feature development for this work? What is sacrificed on the consumer side to do this work?
I would say, a major victory for me at Hallmark was killing an API project that was lasting seven months when it should have been finished in three.
I feel that I’m sharing the same title with other Product Managers who are doing a totally different job. Do you think it’s an undefined job?
It is! But it’s ok. Product Management is different for every company. You will find your niche, and that is a beautiful thing. There are so many aspects to what you can do as a Product Manager, and you can find the jobs that align with that if it’s more UX or tech. The world is for your taking.
What’s the next step in product management? What are the avenues available to us?
Maybe entrepreneurship or GM or CEO? I’m still figuring that out. But I’m working with founders and developing new products, so that has been my latest jam.
I work as a project/program manager in pharma/biotech, but I’m interested in jumping into a product role in tech. What would you recommend?
I have jumped from grants management apps to online dating to SVOD. Again, I think it’s about being able to be conversant in balancing user needs with business goals and explaining how you do that. What is your thinking process?
As a consultant for STRV, my clients are from so many verticals! I have to learn each one. Don’t be afraid to approach anyone like a kindergartner. You are essentially an ethnographic researcher. Be curious. Ask dumb questions. You’ll start to learn patterns across industries. Plus KPIs are mostly the same. Get users and make sales!
When you interview stakeholders, how do you prepare for the questions to ask them to get most relevant data that you are looking for?
Stakeholders can sometimes be myopic. They have goals (as they should) and they just “want their landing page tool” or “that subtitle feature” or that “sales pipeline.” Everything is about trade-offs. Hopefully and honestly this is rare.
Your department or GM or CEO has set business goals for the quarter or year. You can always negotiate with stakeholders by explaining the trade off’s and the exact impact that their project will have on those goals. For instance, how much will it cost in development resources to fulfill the project? What gets put off?
I actually created a “project request” form for stakeholders to manage my requests and put it back on the stakeholder to really reflect how this project rolls up to the broader vision of the company. That won’t work for all companies, but you get the idea. That only sort of answered your question, but it should help. Just be curious and learn everything you can.
Have any comments? Tweet us @ProductSchool
The Product Book has arrived! Learn how to become a great Product Manager. On sale for a limited time. Get your copy here http://amzn.to/2uJqg9A
We teach product management courses in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Los Angeles, and New York. To learn more about our upcoming courses and how to apply click over to our course page.