They say that a product manager has to be good at communicating, storytelling, prioritizing, executing and obsessing over the user. On top of all this, a technical background is a plus but not a “must.” According to Omaze Product Manager, the thing that is more important is to be a builder.
Keep on reading to find out what she means by it, and read her answers to other Product Management related questions.
Ariel will be speaking at #PRODUCTCON LA on October 24th, 2018!!
Don’t worry if you’re not in LA, we’ve got a free live stream for you 😀
Ariel is a Product Manager at Omaze, a fundraising platform that uses storytelling and technology to disrupt charitable giving. Prior to joining Omaze, she was the product owner of ZEFR’s BrandID suite, a dynamic media planning tool. Ariel is a graduate of Media Studies program, which gives her a user-focused lens on building entertainment technology. Ariel is also a published author, produced playwright, and proud mentor with Young Storytellers Foundation.
Well, I consider myself a “middle brained” person in that I am equally creative and analytical, which I think is pretty standard across product people. Aside from having a passion for great products and the ability to unpack them into concrete features, I think one of the biggest skills that have led to my success is that I’m very comfortable digging into high-risk problems and having difficult conversations. There is a certain amount of bravery necessary to succeed in product.
What made you want to become a Product Manager? What were some of the paths you took early on?
I tell this story a lot, but this is how I got into product: early in my career, I was in an account optimization role and working on an internal tool. I felt like the tool was inefficient, and I desperately wanted someone from engineering to make changes to it. I didn’t know anything about product, but after asking around, someone suggested that I talk to the Product Manager.
He sat patiently with me while I walked him through my flowchart, and at the end, he said he couldn’t prioritize a fix for the tool, but that I should consider product management. After that, I moved briefly into a product marketing role and eventually found an opportunity to become a product manager at that same company.
What would be the basic skills to acquire coming from a non-technical degree?
You have to have an architectural mind. Although Product Managers spend a lot of their time communicating value, you also have to be able to unpack a problem into features and functions. Product Managers don’t have to be technical, but they have to be builders. Beyond that, you have to be able to communicate with engineers with enough proficiency to be credible. Small tech teams are a good environment to increase your technical literacy.
What steps would you propose one take to switch fields to product management?
I think just getting exposure to how product managers talk and evaluate problems. There are a lot of great networks and blogs out there. To be honest, since there’s no formal path to product, the best step I think you can take is just to make the switch. Starting applying for APM positions, or meeting up with Product Managers in the area. For me, I saw an opportunity and made sure I was prepared to shoot my shot.
How does analytics factor into your product strategy at Omaze?
Aside from basic traffic and marketing analytics, Omaze does a ton of A/B testing. We A/B test campaign assets (titles, marketing language, images) to see what has the most traction, and we do bigger testing initiatives to see where we can maximize growth. For our strategy, we focused on six key product areas that we wanted to explore in 2018, articulated our hypotheses we wanted to test, and are now working on iterative designs to test those hypotheses.
I have accepted a Product Manager position. Any tips on skills I should brush up on for the role?
This isn’t specific to Product, but one of my tips for starting any new position is to make sure you’re mentally ready for a new team and new challenges. A lot of people carry assumptions or fears with them from their past role or past situation.
As far as once you start, I believe it’s critically important for Product Managers to understand how their organization functions (every company has its own vibe!), so make sure you take time to get to know co-workers on teams with whom you may not directly interact.
How does storytelling fit into your role as a Product Manager?
I do consider myself first and foremost to be a storyteller, and my educational background is in media production. Storytellers have to be clear, persuasive, and visual, and they have to be able to compel audiences to come on a journey into an entirely new world they’ve created. Product managers have to do the same thing!
Product managers also have to be strong influencers who present data and explain things a lot, so being able to craft a strong narrative will take you so, so far in product. As far as tips go, check out some books on screenwriting structure. (“Save the Cat” is my favorite.) Feature screenplays have a very strict structure, and you’ll be able to extrapolate all the key elements of a great narrative from that.
I am having trouble transitioning into Product from a web dev/project coordinator background. Any advice?
Not sure if this is helpful, but rather than focusing on building products, maybe try ‘un-building’ products. As you go through your day, start looking at every tool you use (software or physical) as a product, and challenge yourself to unpack it. How exactly does it solve your problem? How do you feel about it as a user? Can you pick out features that seem innovative, or features that seem useless?
Being able to talk about products might be helpful. And stay tuned into product communities like this one.
How do you get entry-level experience or a job without having any prior product experience?
Honestly, my best advice is to stay ready. I got lucky because an opportunity opened up at the company where I worked, and by all of my prior product marketing experience, I was already the best person for the job. There are lots of great communities, and some product teams offer internships — although, since product teams tend to be small, flat organizations, product internships are less common than internships in other areas.
If you’re more market-y, see if you can swing a product marketing gig. If you’re more analytical, try a business analyst or data science role. Moving to product can be easier as a lateral move.
From a technical role, i.e. Software engineer or data scientist, what skills are required in product?
In my experience, it seems easy for engineers-turned-Product Managers to get bogged down in the minutiae, and to fall more into a project management role, where execution is everything, and there’s no clear long-term vision. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten is “don’t let your strengths become your blind spots”. If you’ve already got the technical chops, see what you can do to boost your customer and business-driven mindset.
Is a computer science/IT background necessary?
Nope! I find it helpful for me to be out of my technical depth sometimes. It keeps me honest and solid in my role. Product Managers tend to be very driven, by-all-means-necessary people, and if I had any confidence in my code, I’d probably be tempted to solve the problem myself from time to time, and that’s not a good habit to get into.
I will say, it can help to be familiar with software architecture from a high level, and it’s good to know SQL so that you can run analytics queries yourself if you have to.
I’m a Business Analyst trying to transition into a Product Manager role. Any tips?
Business analyst to Product Manager seems very sensical to me. If you have a good product resource at your current organization, use it. Ask if you can work on more product-focused initiatives, and see where you can go above and beyond with product recommendations based on your analyses.
What are some of the most challenging parts of being a Product Manager?
For me, it was decision exhaustion. Whether it’s your first time in product management or just your first day at a new company, you have to start making critical decisions on day one. A lot of them. I struggled with days where I just wanted someone else to tell me what the right answer was, especially because I was also leaping from basically no product experience into the owner of a high-profile product suite.
So to that point, it’s important for first-time Product Managers to have a solid boss: someone in product, whom you see every day, who can help you work through problems when you’re stuck.
How can I transition from a client services/success, or account management role into Product?
Well, that was my path to product, so it’s doable. My best advice here is to leverage your current organization (or potentially, your clients’ organization, if you have that kind of relationship with them.) Pattern recognition is key in product management, so see if you can find common problem patterns across your clients or services, work out a solution, and then pitch it to the powers that be.
If your developers are slow or your content writers aren’t producing the needed pieces how do you motivate them?
Oh man… this is a problem close to my heart! The very first thing I’d say is that you should put on your magic PM supervision goggles and try to figure out where the problem is. Do the developers have a tedious process of committing code, or the wrong project management tool? Do they not understand the customer, or are requirements changing too much? Is your content team understaffed? Are either team lacking in strong, consistent leadership? Are they unclear on what your relationship is to them?
I’m an optimist, so I feel like it’s rare that groups of people just straight up don’t care. Take an empathetic view and see if you can find where there’s a gap.
How can a Product Manager with skills in user empathy but that lacks vision in the financial scope of the product, improve their work?
Do you lack vision in financial scope because it’s not made transparent to you, or because you feel like you’re at a loss for what the financial scope is? If it’s the former, have a frank conversation about why it’s important that you know the long-term financial scope of your product. If it’s the latter, brush up on market analyses skills. I was pretty intimidated by the finance of product, but in the end, forecasting is still “guess work.” It’s just “guess work” with specific algorithms.
What was the preparation that you decided to make to become a product manager?
In my case, it was to deeply understand the customers and product at the organization where I worked and wanted to become a Product Manager in. But I also did a lot of independent study about product management. Inspired by Marty Cagan is one of my favorite resources.
What are your top 3 Product Management web bookmarks?
I wish I had a more impressive answer to this, but I don’t check product blogs. About once a week I check the homepage of Crunchbase. Other than that, my top three web bookmarks are my work email, my work calendar, and JIRA.
Do I need any course/certification to get to Product? How do I justify I am the right candidate for a job without any experience?
Transitioning to product requires some self-road mapping. In what industries have you worked and what skills can you actively demonstrate? What kind of company or product can serve as a bridge for you? I don’t have any certifications, so I’m not sure about that. But if your background is in development, my first suggestion would be to look at developer tools and see if they have product management opportunities.
How demanding have your Product roles been, i.e., whats your work-life balance like compared to your marketing role?
Marketing is a fire-drill department, and while there are still the occasional ‘fires’ for Product Managers, it’s much more structured. My time is in higher demand, but I also have more autonomy and long-term clarity to structure it. I tend to shy away from the phrase ‘work-life balance.’ Even though I have lots of challenging personal endeavors, in the end, it’s all my life, and all of my time is equally important. I’m comfortable turning off my work notifications
Is there anything that you feel is important that too few Product Managers are doing?
Great Product Managers balance right in the sweet spot between vision and execution. Some Product Managers spend too much time managing execution (solution: push to hire a project or program manager, and spend a workday out of the office to open up creativity), and some Product Managers talk a lot of big ideas but consistently miss critical launch dates (solution: pare down the roadmap, heavily).
As a college student, what is the best way to have Product Manager role as an intern?
I honestly don’t know. I never interned as a Product Manager, and while Omaze does offer some internships, we haven’t offered a Product Manager Internship. If you’re having trouble finding a Product Manager role, see if you can find a role that is ‘close’ to product, which can differ by organization.
Or you could just start emailing companies. When I was much younger, I got a few internships by just cold-calling and being like, “have you thought about hosting an internship?”
Do you have any responsibilities for a Business Analyst role?
I don’t think I do! Omaze has a business analyst. I work with him to gather data on our optimizations, but he does all the analysis.
Sometimes a product manager role can have a pretty wide reach, are there any things to be mindful of not to overstep in your role?
Yes, product management is inherently political. Overstepping – and the friction it can cause – depends heavily on the organizational dynamics. In a culture of collaboration and mutual respect, doing something that is technically someone else’s responsibility will be appreciated, especially if you’re upfront about it and don’t present it as a challenge to their competence.
However, in a culture of psychological insecurity or internal competition, overstepping can make your life miserable, and can have a serious detriment to your credibility. And you’re right; Product Managers do naturally touch everything. At some point, you just have to radically accept boundaries where boundaries exist and try to be as diplomatic as possible about it.
Oh, and be mindful of any implications by your superiors or colleagues that you’re on the hook for someone else’s responsibility. Remind them, “I’m going to let people do their jobs.”