Breaking into Product can be easy or difficult depending on your background. You need to have the skills, the experience, the knowledge… and one thing that will definitely help you is if you’ve built something. Showing the passion and dedication to your side project plays an important role in getting selected for the job. Alex Mitchell, PM at Upside Travel talked about this in one of our live chat AMA’s.
Director of Product at Upside Travel. Prior, he was a PM for Websites and Identity Products, and before that Social Media Marketing at Vistaprint Digital. Holds a degree in Finance and an MBA. After his studies he worked as an Assistant Vice President for Marketing Analytics at JP Morgan Chase. He is passionate about integrating data, design, development, and strategy to build kick-ass products.
Can you tell us more about your background and how you broke into product?
I actually graduated with a Finance degree from the University of Michigan and started my career in Analytics at Chase Bank. I learned a ton about data, got exposure to “programming”, and decided I wanted to work for a small company (not a huge one like Chase!)
I transitioned to Vistaprint Digital (a small arm of Vistaprint) based in DC with a team of 70 developers, product managers, designers, and marketers working on the Digital side of their business. I spent a lot of time working on their Website builder, social media mgmt product, and local listings product.
And then I came to Upside Travel about 3 months ago to manage product for the customer-facing side of the business, and get my first experience at a startup!
The Product Manager role means a lot of different things. Can you please elaborate your role?
In my current role, I work each and every day with developers and designers and other product managers to achieve our strategic business goals. I also support the marketing team at Upside Travel and help with the requests that they have for targeting and tracking new channels.
What advice would you give a green PM? Any advice on how to conduct some effective competitive analysis ?
I would recommend a few things to get off to a great start:
- Ask a lot of questions from other product managers at your company: How do they work with their teams, keep stakeholders updated, continue learning
- Do a lot of reading! There are a ton of great blog posts and books online for the new product manager that should get you off to a great start (quick list here)
- Develop strong relationships with your team. They will be your closest allies (especially your tech lead) so take them to coffee, lunch, learn about them. It will be time well spent!
Can you share a memorable experience from one of your product launches?
One of my most memorable was launching Vistaprint’s New Website Builder, the code-name for our new website builder at Vistaprint. The “last minute” change we made was to build a new subscription infrastructure at Vistaprint that would give us a foundation to grow from in the future.
The decision added significant scope to the project (and a lot of late nights!) but in retrospect was time very well spent as this infrastructure now supports all Vistaprint subscription products (digital and non-digital).
Can you talk a bit more about Vistaprint’s New Website Builder? How much of the development work did you anticipate given your tech skill set?
Full disclosure, I wasn’t on the original team when the product started, but I inherited it from the testing stage and took it to launch. The development work (like many projects) was significantly more than originally forecast. We did map out the major features we thought we needed ahead of time, but once a product reaches customers and data/feedback start flowing in, everything changes.
We realized some of what we had planned for wasn’t relevant/needed and we also realized we were missing some major features that REALLY mattered. I did rely on development team estimates pretty heavily. I would give the product direction, they would share the estimate of effort.
I had to understand the solution (or more accurately, potential solutions and different LOEs) pretty intimately before pulling the trigger. The tech lead on my team was a large help in understanding this.
What are some of the key skills you need to be a Product Manager?
- Learn fast and learn continuously
- Communicate incredibly well
- Be the master of prioritization
Do you have any advice for someone with little to no experience in PM?
Build something! Go to a hackathon or meetups, find a developer/design and work on a passion project. Take this project to the point where it starts to get real, you have “customers” to talk with and collect feedback from, you need to make feature decisions, etc. This is the best advice I have to get into the field.
Would you say programming skills or UX/UI design would be good to invest in to be a better PM?
PM’s come from a lot of different places! I’d prefer to have one of each on my product team than 2 of either. In short, diversity of “types” of product managers in a company is a huge asset. Currently at Upside, we have a mix of technical, analytics, marketing, and travel backgrounds on our product team.
Do you think taking some courses or getting certification could help get a PM job?
There are a lot of learning options out there for product managers these days (Product School for one!) and I definitely think those can help. But one of the other things I look for and something that might be good for you is to talk about a “passion project”. This is something you’ve built and grown and invested in.
Hearing candidates talk about these projects/products helps me really understand how they think about building things (one of the core parts of being a good PM).
What are the top metric generation tools you use for your products to decide on success/failure of a feature or product?
Generally, I need a funnel tracking product (ex. Heap/Mixpanel), a traffic tracking product (Google Analytics), a database that I can query or database front-end (Looker, Domo) and that’s all I need to tell, from a data perspective, if a feature is working as expected or not.
What are some things that you look in a resume and say “this person would make a great PM”?
Similar to some of my answers before, get building (even something small)! When I see someone who does hackathons on the weekend, has a few passion products, it usually indicates that they’ll be a strong fit at a startup like Upside.
In terms of “passing someone” I would say someone who has only worked in 1 field for a very long period of time. Generally this means that their skill set will be too specific and they’ll have a hard time adapting to the generalist nature of the PM role, but there are always exceptions to the rule.
Is transitioning PM roles between different industries (e.g. retail to b2b) just as hard as transitioning from a different role to PM?
I don’t think it’s as hard. There are lots of the same challenges in even very different industries. If you’re working with developers and designers in retail/b2b/b2c as a product manager, transitioning between each is just about learning how to solve different problems. It won’t be easy (LOTS of learning), but not as hard as a role transition.
What’s the ratio of designers vs. engineers vs. PMs vs. other support roles? Did you commit to using Agile or a specific process?
Like most things in tech, the composition of the team should be approached in an agile way. Start with a minimal investment (maybe 2 engineers, 1 pm, 1 designer) and work with that to prove key hypothesis. When the team has more work than time, hire more or bring more people onto the team. We had committed to Agile many years ago at VP but followed a bit of a mixture of Agile and Waterfall (regrettably) when we approached a “set” launch date.
Any final advice for aspiring product managers?
3 big things:
- Build something that you care about (big or small) outside of your normal job
- Keep active in your local tech community
- Never stop learning from others and your customers!
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