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How to Become a Product Manager?
Kate Banasik
Kate Banasik
December 23, 2019
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How to Become a Product Manager? My story of moving from Digital Marketing to Product Management

With this post, I'd like to give you an overview of my personal story and challenges that I faced during my transition to Product Manager position in a big, international company.

You will learn:

  • What are the two main types of Product Managers.
  • What responsibilities are you likely to have as a Product Manager.
  • How to understand IT without background in technologies.
  • What challenges can await you during your transition
  • How to get started.
  • And more.

If you're sitting on the fence, unsure whether Product Management is the right career choice for you, you will definitely find this post useful.

Ready to dive in? Let's go

Who is a Product Manager? 

Product management reveals and understands customers’ current and potential needs and works out the products to meet them. Product managers aid decision making across a team of designers and developers by identifying customer pain points, sizing their impact, and leading the team towards a solution. Product management provides a vision and direction for product development to build or update a product.

How to become a Product Manager?

Most of the product managers come from a different field, there is no “product manager” specialization at a university, internships in product management are not so common yet. It is a fairly new “specialization”, where all: engineering, data analytics, sales, marketing and design skills are valuable.

Ideally, to start as a Product Manager, you should be skilled in at least one of these areas. You should have some experience working with (designing, ideating) products or managing projects, end-to-end. Project management skills, specifically prioritization, assertiveness and being able to calculate and prove business value are much needed for this role. You need to be customer-centred, listen to users and turn their inputs into tangible next steps. You need to multitask, ad hoc problem-solve and be a good negotiator.

You do not need to “have it all”, marketing, design, data analytics and technical skills, from the start. 

I came to Product Management from marketing, customer-focused background: I have studied Digital Marketing, learnt only the basics of data analytics. I have a feel for design but I am terrible at drawing, even being a Product Manager now, I still do not know how to program (neither do I have a strong need to learn). 

Types of Product Managers

There are 2 main “types” of Product Managers: customer-facing and a technical one. 

Customer-facing Product Manager works on the features where the customer is the end-user. They focus more on user research, building business cases for the features, defining the non-technical, functional requirements from the customer side. Then a Product Owner (PO) (project manager with a more technical background) or the team itself (if there is no additional PO in the team) takes over the feature, splits it into smaller parts and defines the technical requirements. Such Product Managers need more knowledge in business/marketing, design, user research and not necessarily technical background (although it is useful). 

Technical Product Manager works on developments where deeper technical knowledge is required, either in non-customer-facing, back-end systems (payment systems, booking mechanism, databases, company internal systems etc.) or works on customer-facing features in case of a more complex product (like SaaS). They need mostly technical knowledge of the domain, some knowledge of marketing - user research and rather do not need to know much about design (useful if it is a SaaS product, rather not important in the case of supporting systems, without customer-facing interface). 

What are the tasks of a customer-facing Product Manager, based on my experience?

  • Collecting feedback from users.
  • Analyzing data from your website/app as a source of inspiration for new features.
  • Coming up with a new idea for a feature. 
  • Detailing the feature description, working out the business value. 
  • Figuring out, with the help of engineers, whether the feature can be built and how much time and effort would it take to deliver. 
  • Prioritizing product backlog.
  • Sharing the information with relevant decision-makers to get the necessary resources to develop the features. 
  • Performing user research (working with the UX researchers) that will help with the feature design, forming questions the research should answer to get enough inputs for the development.
  • Working with the product team (developers, designers, UX researchers, QA) to further break down the feature into incremental developments that can be delivered in sprints, developing a feature delivery plan. 
  • Staying in sync with the product team throughout the sprints to clarify requirements, check on the product, give feedback, testing the product’s increments with the users (if possible), A/B testing before the whole product is delivered. 
  • Measuring the success of the released features.
Skills of Product Manager
Photo by NiemanLab

My transition to being a Product Manager

Having a Digital Marketing MA, in the past 4 years, I have been working mostly on “Marketing” positions but I have always gotten close to the product development: 

  • I have worked with an early stage start-up, setting up their platform connecting bus-offering companies with the bus-demanding clients, working mostly on user research, platform (website) design, collecting the requirements for the platform, managing testing it with multilingual staff, building a business case for market expansion. 
  • I have worked with a huge manufacturing company supporting the new CMS and DAM system developments (requirements collection, following up with the development teams); managing the website redesign project with the IT development project manager (user research, benchmarking and putting together requirements based on that); supporting with the new e-shop opening (requirements for the UX and UI). 
  • I have worked with a cybersecurity company, offering B2C cybersecurity home solutions, mostly on benchmarking, market research and preparing the first design drafts for their website (information infrastructure) based on the research.
  • Currently, I am working with a big travel-industry company, first joined as a Content Manager but after the first 5 months I changed the position to a Product Manager of Digital Content, working with the development team on search and inspiration for features, building new content pages. I also manage the more “technical” back-end side of content: CMS-related developments, whether it is custom developments or integration with new suppliers.  

I have always worked closely with the development teams on planning or delivering a digital product: website, platform, e-shop or features for these. It was not a “Product Manager” position before, but rather as a project manager. It was not very difficult to transition to a “Product Manager” role from this background as I was used to a similar scope of tasks and communicating with developers (giving clear requirements, being a non-technical person to a developer, is a learning curve). 

The challenge was, I have never had to work on the back-end, non-customer-facing developments and prioritizing these. I have never had to choose between 2 feasible approaches to deliver 1 feature based on the time required and benefits of each, I have never worked so closely with the developers (in my previous roles, the IT team was outsourced, sitting in another country and I had mostly contact with their team manager, not directly with the testers, developers, designers). I have never had so many stakeholders and priorities to manage and my backlog was never so huge. 

Becoming a Product Manager
What challenges have I faced during my transition?

What were the challenges of transforming from a Marketer to a Product Manager position? 

  • Learning the development terminology, related to your company’s architecture. It is quite an effort to understand it in the first weeks. 
  • Learning about your development team - you do not need to know how to code but you need to understand how your team delivers the feature - which processes they follow, have some basic understanding of the architecture of your product and the stack the team works with. 
  • Learning a new project management technique.
  • Learning to communicate more often and more clearly. I have never before worked with so many different stakeholders with competing priorities. It is a challenge already to prioritize the features and an even bigger challenge to get everyone’s approval for that.
  • Balancing between fast time-to-market and quality of the code. Sometimes it is worth to make shortcuts and work on them later, to get the product launched earlier and you need to convince your developers on why this is necessary. Sometimes it is not worth it and you need to explain to the management why the development takes so long and why the quality is important.

I am still improving in the areas that challenge me but I certainly feel more at ease talking with my developer-colleagues about the features after the initial 6 months on the position. 

How do I learn about IT? 

I did not have much time to prepare for this position as the change was sudden. I try to read a bit on the latest trends in technology, especially related to my area of product - content, CMS on the news websites. I subscribed to Mind the Product newsletter, which is pretty good for beginning Product Managers. The biggest source of information, though, is my development team. Every time I do not understand something or want to understand something I heard about, I ask. They already know everything about the current tech we use and a lot about possible alternatives/integrations I could think of, they can come up with various approaches to each of the developments we have to implement and explain to me, from a technical perspective, all pros and cons, which paired with my business perspective can lead us to the optimal decision. I usually start with talking to my colleagues before I go into looking up something online. 

What is my advice if you want to move from Marketing to Product Management? 

Each Product Management job is different, depending on the industry, company organizational structure, workflows, knowledge levels of the people in the existing teams. For some of the jobs, you will need more learning beforehand, for some you can start with your current skills.

If you consider becoming a Product Manager, check the job descriptions of your potential new workplaces, check what would be your exact scope of the responsibilities and try to work on the gaps you have. Once you join, rely on your colleagues’ knowledge and learn from them. You can, of course, do some “product management” certificates to kick-start your career but they won’t prepare you for the job requirements and there will always be areas where you won’t be experienced in if this is a new position for you. Focus on what you need at each moment of this journey and learn it on the go. As a Product Manager, you will need to be flexible, humble, open for others and ready to jump into the unknown. You will need to experiment and innovate as entrepreneurs do. Be prepared for feeling unprepared. 

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