Launching a career in product management can be difficult, from finding the right mentors, building your network, and learning the processes. And there’s no single path to landing that perfect job. The secret is in hard work and determination. That’s why it’s important to be open to learning from those who’ve already done it.
That’s also why we’re connecting you with current product managers every week during our live AMA’s in our Slack Community. This week’s live chat was with Vivek Bedi, Head of Product at LearnVest, who had some great insights, pointers and resources on breaking into the industry. Here’s what we learned:
How did you get started in product and your transition into now leading product teams?
I personally started at Goldman Sachs as a technology developer and transitioned to product. It wasn’t easy but it is possible. It’s important to make sure you spend equal time learning the business and user. Think of the world from a user’s perspective.
What are the best ways to find mentors in the industry?
Reach out on LinkedIn in one way. Don’t ask for a job just ask to learn and get coffee. Go to meetups. There are regular meetups where product folks get together.
How do I find a new product opportunity/idea?
Look all around you. No in all seriousness, I spend quite a bit of time reading and networking. Networking is key. For the past 15 years, I have carved out 2 30 minute coffee chats with folks. This is the best way to learn what’s happening around you and what’s hot. I also in every coffee chat get a list of 2 more folks to talk to for the following week’s schedule.
How feasible is it breaking into Product Management from another industry such as Architecture? What steps should one take if coming from another field entirely?
Take a course at product school! 🙂
No in all seriousness. It’s not that hard. It’s important to think of things from a different perspective. Take some courses, find some mentors, and especially coming from technology it not that hard. The questions you ask yourself is not how to build but why should I build. Will the user care.
What are the steps to become Head of Product in big/small company? What are good initial positions?
The head of product role is more an art than science. It takes quite a bit of time. I would say first find your opportunity as a product manager. Now product manager roles are not something you go to university for. Mostly people come in from different disciplines. It’s important to network and find the right opportunities that give you the right blend of technical, business, and soft skills.
Are [small/mid/enterprise size] companies open to hiring candidates with good engineering background but few months of part time product experience?
Yes! I am a technologist by background and my bias is always to hire a more technical PM. It’s important to understand what you are building with your tech team. It makes you stronger as you talk about it. Being close to engineering is the mantra I live by. Many PMs for your best friend is the development team.
And more on:
What you need to know
Is having domain expertise or product management experience more important for a PMs success in a project?
Have this debate all the time. It’s important to learn the domain but at times being too much of an expert in the domain can be a hinderance. I have met many domain experts that are so set in their ways it’s hard for them to think as a user. It’s important to find the right balance. Learn the space enough to be dangerous but stick to be a digital PM equally.
How important is it to have an MBA/Master of software management from a top tier school 1. in getting into mid-size/big companies and 2. in succeeding in PM role eventually?
Not at all! An MBA will obviously help you in career positioning but nothing beats real life experience. Find a way to do your own project and build your own experience. I personally always hold a lot more credibility to that.
In product community, is there a distinct difference/barrier between software and hardware PM positions in the way their career progresses?
Interesting. There generally is a product manager that is more digital and software oriented. The hardware side usually has platform managers. They are generally much deeper when it comes to technical breathe. Also the users are different for software it’s usually a client or a consumer. For the hardware side it can be another tech team. So tech depth and communication styles can vary. The platform manager is still an emerging space to be honest. I see a lot more of those roles in the near future.
Methods to drive the vision as a new PM
What would you recommend as a 90-day plan for a rookie PM when starting in a new role?
The first 90 days are key! It’s important to learn the softer skills. Become a good storyteller, start your own projects (a webpage, a marketing plan, an idea). It can be anything. It’s important to show you are passionate about building new experiences. Also get close to the technology. You don’t have to be a developer but it’s important to understand technology and the tech team since you will have to defend them at times and also will partner with them.
As a junior PM, one may not get to drive new product ideas or vision. What area the key areas that junior PMs can focus to learn and increase your share of pie?
We don’t have junior PMs and never think of yourself as one is the first point. If you are a PM you probably have went thru some of your own challenges. Being respected and having a voice at the table has nothing to do with seniority it’s more about ideas and the way you carry yourself. Make your points and back them up! Back up points with user feedback and visuals. You will probably get heard more often!
His advice on working with your teams
Good tips on how to communicate effectively with programmers and engineers?
Yes don’t BS them! Most engineers know if you are “faking it”. Don’t act like you know how to code if you don’t. Don’t pretend. Be there to support. Most engineers actually don’t like doing the product job of user stories, wireframes, talking to stakeholders, etc. Once you make them feel you are here to help they will respect you more. Beers always help too!
I’d love to hear about how you work with your product designers, particularly with regard to process.
It’s a difficult relationship, to be honest. We bring design to the table early in discussions. It’s important to not only think of wires and roadmaps but also experiences. It’s not always smooth but as a partnership, we find bringing designers in early is always most efficient.
What if engineers think you are irrelevant for them as in their mind they think they can handle PM job easily. how to tame them to work for you?
Beers, beers, and whiskey! No in seriousness, this is pretty common. After all the PM job is a little bit of everything. It’s important to build trust. You are there to protect them. They won’t think you are irrelevant if you spend time with them. Ask questions , opinions, if you dare also bring them in front of “safe” users. It’s important to show you are a partner. It’s more an art than a science!
On tackling challenges
Where do you draw the line from owning the vision and not being stuck in the weeds akin to a Project Manager (to execute said vision)?
Product is not project management! It’s important to delivery but have a strategy. Make sure you are thinking of the strategy and vision and backing it up with data and user feedback. If you find your self doing project management then you might not be doing many components of product.
How do you manage your time?
I only go to meetings where I will contribute something. I empower my team. I block out “me” time. Where I am catching up on work, on an AMA slack, or at the gym. Time is as important as money in this generation. It’s precious. Use your time wisely and empower others.
How do you manage the challenge if the client/dev-team/users are remote? Does your workflow change?
Yes absolutely. Listen nothing beats face to face (maybe I’m old school). But that’s not practical in today’s work environment. I think skype, google hangout, etc for video are great but I use them more for show and tell. When remote it’s important to keeping showing and less talking! People remember visuals 10 times more than words. Also, it’s important to have proactive calls even if it’s just to catch up and there is no work agenda. It’s a virtual coffee chat!
How do you cope with ever changing targets and roadmaps that are “locked”? Should a roadmap be more like a locked down strategy for mid to long term or a living document to help navigate day-to-day operations?
It’s not practical, to be honest. Things can never be locked but you need to make sure you work in iterations. Scopes can change but can get added to a second iteration. Try to keep iterations small so you can get things out more quickly. We release in 2 weeks sprints here. Whether it’s big features or little we still do.
The Tools and Techniques
How do manage backlogs ? Especially when there are deadlines and the team is overwhelmed?
Iterate, iterate, iterate. Break things down. If your team is stressed you probably have too much in the backlog for this version. Break it down.
Do you use some “inception” techniques on your products? Do you have a favorite technique/framework for product development?
I really don’t. I think Agile, Scrum, Lean are all great but my favorite technique is what works for you. Talk to you dev lead and your stakeholders and find the right way of working for you. It’s the job of the PM to bring people together and get sh+t done. Everyone has different styles. We have teams doing daily standups, some doing weekly, some writing long requirements docs, some writing small user stories, and some just drawing pictures. Find what works for you!
How often did you work on product strategy? and How far into the future do you look with your product roadmap?
Good question. It’s hard to look too far in the future. I try to have my vision roadmap which can be 18-24 months. Also in your back pocket have your 5-year plan. But most important have you next few quarters pretty nailed down in what you want to do.
What are the tools that you use? – Trello etc…
Trello Yes. Roadmunk is my favorite for roadmaps. JIRA for working with developers. Slack and Google Hangout for communications.
Where to continue learning
Are there any go-to blogs/websites you visit every day?
I follow mentors like Ken Norton on twitter, watch storytelling TED Talks, read books like true north, etc. Blogs are great, follow as many as you can. I follow Ken, Marisa Meyer, product tank, alpha UX, and listen to tons of podcasts.
What books/articles do you recommend for a rookie PM?
Books are great there are tons out there but nothing beats practical experience. Try to find a mentor and learn from them how the role really is. I have many mentors and also have many mentees! I am learning from them all the time.
Which podcasts do you like?
As mentioned before I like listening to other’s perspective. So follow Product Hunt, product tank, alpha UX, digg.com is good. Try Alpha UX and Design your Thinking. Good resources! I have one on each as well. 🙂
Do you have a list of books to consult for PM’s on an ongoing basis?
Get stuff by Steven Haines. Like PM’s survival guide. He’s a good author in this space.
Final words of wisdom
My last thought here is “don’t get married to your product”. I have seen it too many times. In most cases, the product manager is rarely even using the product they are working on. It’s important to separate yourself from the product and the actual users.
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