Become a Product Manager Without Tech Background with Salesforce PM
How does one get a job as a Product Manager without technical background? What are the dos and don’ts in a PM job interview? What is it like being the Product Manager at a massive company like Salesforce? We had a live chat session on Slack with the Product Manager at Salesforce, Jared Long, and our community to ask him all these questions.
Can you talk a bit about your background and how you got into product management?
I have a marketing background. I studied marketing both in undergrad and business school. I first got into product management at TripAdvisor through their Marketing Rotation program as my first job out of school. There, marketing was closely aligned with product, so I had the opportunity to gain some exposure through three product rotations. I fell in love with it right away. Not very often are you able to have the opportunity to build and market your products.
Can you speak about how much technical knowledge a PM should have?
I don’t have a technical background at all. I’ve studied marketing, I like qualitative analysis over quantitative, but that hasn’t stopped me from progressing in my career as a Product Manager. There are more technical product management roles that will focus more on APIs and server architecture/implementation, and these will inherently be more technical.
However, there are many roles in web/mobile that are more user-facing which would require less technical expertise. As long as you’re not afraid to learn on the fly, you’ll be fine.
How has your marketing background helped you as a PM? What do you wish you would have known before you started?
Learning on the fly is your best friend! I wish I knew that product management was a thing when I was in undergrad. Even after getting my MBA, product management is not something there are a lot of classes in. Marketing has taught me how to love my customer, and understand what needs they have that will be the most impactful for driving business.
Salesforce is a massive company. How does the product management organization influence and encourage agility within a company that likely has a ton of stakeholders?
I’m new to Salesforce myself. My last company was acquired by Salesforce in September ‘16. Salesforce is quite large, but all of the development teams are organized into scrum teams. From my experience, while we do have a hierarchy, Salesforce is extremely efficient in the decimation of information which enables people like me to know what the top priorities are and execute on those.
Do you still feel that you’re part of the tight HeyWire team or do you feel like you’ve been swallowed up by Salesforce?
It’s a little bit of both, and it has to do with how well certain members of your team adapt to the new culture. Some jump right in, and some are scared to get their toes wet. Personally, I’m trying to be all Salesforce. But we do all still sit with each other, so we do get the HeyWire feel still.
How do you perform user interviews/surveys and what are your favorite methods?
Being at a company like Salesforce, our customers are all businesses which take PMs one step further from the actual users. Because of this, it makes industry conferences that much more important because that’s the easiest way for us to get in front of our customers and hear what they’re saying.
We also do onsite visits, but this is much more infrequent because of everything else on my plate. When I was in a consumer-facing role, there were tons of online tools like usertesting.com that allow you to specify tests you want their community to run through, and then will provide you with a nice set of results of your tests.
As a PM, do you have the “Product Owner” role on one or more scrum teams? Given the size of the company, how much decision making/ownership do you get?
I am the Product Owner on two teams. This is not typical here at Salesforce. Many only manage one team, some do manage more. Salesforce is a company that loves autonomy and trust. That’s a big part of our values here. As long as decisions are substantiated, you do pretty much have free reign to make decisions. There are always cases where your manager has lined up a couple of projects for you, though. That will almost always happen.
Can you highlight on how intuition is also pivotal for a PM in cases where data isn’t of much help?
Intuition is pivotal, you are right about that. I recently switched to a more technical role at Salesforce where I have less experience. This has exposed to me that I don’t yet have the intuition I’m used to having.
In situations like this, you have to learn how to ask the right questions, and not be afraid of continuing to ask until you have the information you need to make bold decisions. In previous roles that are more user-facing, studying up on design guidelines and case studies helped form my intuition.
How are your product teams structured? Do you have a designated team of devs? Do you work with design?
Our product teams are structured around our high-level product grouping, and then gradually become more granular as you get into specific departments and products within that department. Product Managers and Engineering Managers will typically work together to ensure that skills mesh together well when assembling a team.
There’s usually a scrum master who will manage the team to the timeline they agree to. Some companies will have a dedicated designer in a scrum team, and others will assign design resources for projects as needed before the project reaches the scrum team.
What kind of defined processes are there in Salesforce’s product management organization. And what is left for the individual PM to define for themselves and their teams?
My company pre-acquisition was a team of 28, two of which were Product Managers. There was little to zero processes. It drove me mad. Salesforce is much more structured, as they should be, but the hardest part in the switch was understanding the role I’m supposed to have.
At Salesforce, I can focus on the roadmap, and the “why” of the projects we work on. It’s up to engineering to figure out the “how.” Salesforce want’s their PMs working six months ahead of the current development, so we have tons of processes for reviewing roadmaps, updating departments on statuses leading up to releases, etc. As an individual, we have to define why we want to move forward with a project and describe what it is we’re trying to achieve. But even this is a team effort to some extent.
What are your top 3 data-driven methods/tactics to influence engineers?
I don’t know that I have the best answer here. I’ve learned that if you can get access to data, using numbers to show the logic behind decision making can strengthen your case if you’re trying to convince engineers to pick between one solution and another. I’ve found that simply giving engineers the feedback around a certain project that was released typically brings them a lot of satisfaction. Engineers aren’t close to the customer at all, so as a PM I try to bridge that gap and always tell them (positive or negative) what the customer is saying.
What advice would you give to someone who is transitioning from design research and product design into a PM role?
I think that your background is set up very nicely for the transition. Having spent time in research and product design, I would go out on a limb and say that you have a very good understanding of how to learn about your users. Not many people switch from your background to PM, so that’s an advantage to you. I would advise you to reach out to your manager or HR at your company if you’re looking to switch internally.
If looking externally, look for associate product manager roles (or product manager roles) and network via LinkedIn to get your foot in the door. When you get to an interview, stress your training in understanding user behavior and understanding the methods to finding out what user pain points are.
How critical is it for your Roadmap to have timelines (while you are a PM presenting it to the leadership)?
I think the desire to not communicate timelines mostly stems from what makes engineering more comfortable. They don’t want deadlines, which is understandable. On the flip side, everyone else in the organization, PM included, wants to know how they can plan for when a product will hit the market. It is such a fine line to tow as a PM because I’m always pestered for dates, but it’s not until development is further along that I’m able to communicate dates.
I typically address this by communicating timelines around when I’ll know the date. If we have grooming sessions planned, I know that’s a date I can communicate as a time where I’ll have more information to better predict a release timeline.
What skillset is more important in a PM role: technical or softer team oriented skills?
I would probably say the soft skills. You HAVE to know how to work well in a team. The interesting thing about product managers is that you rely on the output of people you don’t directly manage. This means you have to be a good communicator.
What are the dos and donts for a PM interview? Also What is the process to get an interview call from a company like Salesforce?
DOS: Research the company, look at all of their products, evaluate the products, know what you like, know what you would change – and have a very good list of reasons for why you would make these changes. Ask how they make their money, understand how much revenue your product is responsible for. Be vocal about teamwork, and you MUST demonstrate knowledge of who their customer is.
DONTS: Say that their product is perfect. Say that you like working alone. Say that you don’t like talking to customers. Say that you don’t like learning. Just apply to jobs online, or have someone at the company refer you. That’s the best way to get in the door.
How does product management differ from product marketing at Salesforce?
Our Product Marketing teams are more sales focused and communication focused. They align the sales teams on the product terminology to use with customers, which ways to speak with customers, and they also focus on the presentation of information to the customers. Product Managers are solely focused on the product lifecycle.
How often do you meet and discuss with the customer service support management team?
I interact with customer service/success on a daily basis. It’s important they know everything about how to troubleshoot your product. If you don’t take the time to teach them how to solve problems themselves, then they will always need some of your time. We’re undergoing a big effort to build tools specifically for this team so that they can better debug customer issues themselves.
How is the PM role different between a consumer-facing company vs. an enterprise software company like Salesforce?
The biggest difference is that you have to work harder to get in front of your users and understand that the people you sell to are different than the people who use your product. They care about different things. With enterprise software, there’s also typically bigger demand from sales to be supported on customer calls, so it’s very important in the enterprise that you communicate efficiently internally so everyone can speak about the product values the same ways.
These are important because it’s just like playing telephone, the more people between the PM to the user, the more likely information is going to get jumbled. You still want to make sure the buyers are buying for what they like, and your customer’s business sees the benefits they need.
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