This week our #AskMeAnything session welcomed Katia Suchkova, former Senior Product Manager at ServiceNow, to give us some tips and tricks on how to start a career as a Product Manager and to explain the more advanced skills of a PM.
Katia Suchkova is a passionate Product Leader and entrepreneur that has worked across various B2C and B2B product areas during her 10-year career in both startups and large organizations.
Katia spent several years re-imagining enterprise products at ServiceNow where she pioneered a custom version of GV Design Sprint to help teams uncover valuable insights and build better products. Applying design thinking in Product Management has since become her passion and expertise.
Currently, Katia coaches Product Managers and Designers at HireClub, trains product teams and consults enterprise and non-profit organizations on how to use design thinking to accelerate innovation, and builds meaningful products and services that solve business, social, and environmental problems.
Starting Your Product Management Career
What is the most important tool a Product Manager should always employ?
Question everything. Even your own ideas and opinions. Great products start with great questions that help uncover fundamental problems.
What are the key differences between exceptional Product Managers and normal ones?
Great question. Exceptional PMs have a T-shaped personality. IMO, they are very skilled at one thing but have a ton of other interests and qualifications. Exceptional PMs always think from the perspective of a user: what’s their pain, what’s the problem we are solving, they are strategic yet can roll the sleeves, they are both intuitive yet make decisions based on evidence and not based on weak signals.
What are some good ideas as to how to break into Product Management and do you see this being a stable field? Some people have said product will get absorbed into engineering…
Product organizations do get absorbed into engineering sometimes but that happens mostly when you join an engineer-driven company. Overall, this is a thing of the past.
Best way to break in – well there are too many. You can start with joining a startup, wearing multiple hats, trying yourself in the product. You can join as a project manager, program manager, you can build your own product (physical or digital), you can build a company.
When choosing between Product Manager jobs, what would you prioritize? How would you approach choosing the best fit for you? Team? Opportunity? Manager? Location? Product/problem?
This is how I think about: take some time to think about what is really important to you in your professional and personal life. Do you get motivated by just money? Or impact? Do you want to be remote? Do you care about culture? Do you care if a company that is offering you a job has a positive/negative impact on the world? What do you value in your life? What type of life do you want to have?
I know these are big Qs and most of us don’t ask them when choosing a job. Work takes most of our time so select wisely. For me, over the time, 2 things are super important: I want to work on meaningful, impactful products (I don’t do Uber for X, etc.), and team/company culture.
In your PM coaching experience, what have you found to be the greatest hurdles for a PM candidate’s success in both hard and soft skills?
Honestly, not practicing enough, doubting yourself, not believing in yourself, underselling yourself. Not practicing enough – given PM interviews are very hands-on, we really should be well-prepared to answer what comes our way in the way we build products: telling a story, providing evidence (cases from the past), asking good questions.
How critical are technical skills for a PM? In most of my interviews, there is a lot of emphasis on system design/being able to work with engineers, etc. This is not something I have seen before. Thoughts?
Technical skills (like coding) are different from being able to work with engineering, IMO. You should be able to speak their language without a translator, the same goes for designers. I picked up some Ruby back in the days, some CSS and HTML so that I could speak the same language as they are, but I do not code. And you do want to build trust and respect from your engineers – this is done by wanting to understand where they are coming from, how they think, etc.
Is a Product Management course necessary to step into Product Management? Or are there other ways available to practice the skills required?
IMO, it is not. When I started off (which was almost 10 years ago), no PM courses existed. There are SO many free resources out there: you can learn any skills, connect with any person to get time to mentor you, etc. The best way to learn is by doing it. Courses give you the fundamental understanding though if you don’t have any.
Can you help us understand what skill sets a Product Manager would learn from pursuing an MBA?
I don’t know. I don’t have one and never thought about having one. Why do you think you need an MBA to get into PM? PM is a practical field. No Biz School can teach how to build product, how to listen to users, how to emphasize with them, how to see someone’s else perspective, how to diverge and converge on the problems and solutions. Building your own product or startup – this is your MBA.
I’m currently pursuing a product evangelist role in my SaaS-based company. I am looking to go further with education. Should I choose a Masters in Management or should I just do an MBA?
Why do you think you need to continue your education to pursue Product Management? PM is a very practical role, you learn on a job, being coached/mentored, making mistakes and learning, building products.
Any advice for someone transferring from B2B to B2C?
Pick up some understanding about user testing, metrics, and user research. Data-driven decisions are much more prevalent in B2C than B2B.
What books and resources are your favorite or you would say are a MUST for aspiring or newly minted Product People?
Start with reading Marty Cagan blog and his book. He is one of the best Product Coaches out there. Other books: Don’t Make Me Think, The Design of Everyday Thing – these 2 would introduce you to WHY we are doing in PM and design what we are doing. Product School has an excellent blog – check it out!
How can I add an edge to my profile when applying to big companies?
Edge? IMO, this is not a good way to think about it. You want to add to your skills not to add an ‘edge’. You want to solve problems and build great products
Do you have any final advice for aspiring Product Managers?
Product Management is about people. It is not about coding, etc. Those are just skills you can learn. If you approach from the perspective of a problem, improving someone’s else life (users) – you will have an easier time to break into PM because it’s all about the people who build products and the people who use them.
Advanced Product Management
What do you think are the main differences between Senior PM and regular PM? Are they both similar to the T-Shaped Personality you mentioned?
Yes, it is very similar to a T-shape. Senior PMs are the ones who start thinking more strategically and develop a core expertise/competency that differentiates them. Think about it this way: a PM is someone who is doing day-to-day things, they see what’s happening in their team only; As a Sr. PM, you are starting to look beyond your immediate team, you think about the organization and the bottom line of the company.
Do you use or can you recommend any Product Management frameworks?
I love frameworks, they’re like systems of thinking that help you make better decisions when you’ve reached the limit of human capacity. My favorites:
- Design Thinking
- Product Tree
How do you keep the momentum going for a product after you conduct your version of the GV Design Sprint? And how do you make sure that the results of the Design Sprint are executed upon?
Excellent Q and yes, this is very challenging. I always partner up with designers who are responsible for keeping the momentum going. Ideally, they have to be as excited about DS as you are, they should own what happens after.
But I always follow up with the teams myself, sending them a checklist to keep the momentum going (e.g. share the newly created mission statement with the entire team, brief others, go back to your problem statement every time there is a new feature/idea, always come back to what your users expressed, etc.).
Designers are your greatest friends and resource to keep the momentum going. It is all about the momentum: checking on the team, iterating on the prototypes, getting user feedback, coming back to your team with more Qs, etc.
How would you approach the follow-up/follow-through if you are a consultant versus an internal advocate in an organization?
1) Make sure there IS an internal advocate who becomes your extension.
2) Make sure your contract includes some kind of follow through. IMO, DS are not come in and go. We have a responsibility for nurturing what we did in 4-5 days which means empowering the teams to make better decisions and reaching out to you when they have questions.
Should an early product adjust itself to fit the the particular market, or the other way around (look at the market and adjust the product).
You are looking for a product-market fit always. There is no product if there are no buyers/users – which is your market. You can certainly create a new category but this is more of a rare case than a common thing (think iPod).
What do you do when your product doesn’t find a market-fit? What do you do when the proposed changes (based on user feedback) is against your vision for the product ? Do we re-analyse the vision? Or continue on the journey to invent a new market?
Vision is dogmatic. As PMs we cannot be dogmatic, we cannot take things personally. Questioning product-market fit? Go back to the problem you are solving. What are you solving? For who? Why? Are you sure this is the problem? Pivot if not.