It has been a while since I have picked up pen and drafted a post, but I came across a Tweet last week that really made me pause and think.
As a Product Mentor, I've seen these career paths to Product Management:
– Business Analyst
– Product Marketer
– Software Engineer
– Visual/UX Designer
– Project Manager
What was your path?
You're not alone!#productmanagement #prodmgmt
— ToluAyeni (@Tolu_Mercie) August 27, 2020
Now, I am not here to rain on this tweet as such. The author is bright, and clearly gifted at product management, and she is giving back to the community, by mentoring and coaching.
That is fantastic. I wish I had the time to do more of that. However, the list of people she has mentored has a problem. Can you see it?
With the exception of the Product Marketer, these are all inwardly focused roles, working on the business problems directly, and tangentially on customer specific problems (yes, I know that I am painting with a wide brush, trivializing the complex. Bear with me.)
Do you see the problem here? Product Management is not a list of technical skills. It is not a role that you can “learn” per se, but instead it is a role that you grow into. Adding the technical skills can be done later, but what really drives product management is the concept of customer empathy. It is the ability to see the customer’s problem, to get their struggles, and to empathize with them on their journey.
In short, you need to grok1 their problem, in depth, with feeling, before you begin solving it.
To be a Product Manager requires customer empathy, and that means spending time in a role that will give you that perspective
And that is where the list of roles falls short. While I can pink nits on each of these roles, and their likelihood of “making it” in product management, I will instead look at what makes a good product manager. I have written about it in the post Attributes of a Product Manager, and will add that one thing that I have found, across more than two decades as a product manager, is that people who are successful come from a variety of backgrounds, very different educational and work histories, but all have one thing in common: They have spent time in a role that gives them a customer intimacy that connects, and drives their desire to help, and solve the customer’s problems.
My own path, from Applications Engineer, where I spent about 3 weeks a month on the road, at customer sites, helping them with our instruments, building scripts to do their day to day work, and teaching them how to use the rather expensive microscope they bought. But this also taught me to understand what mattered to them, what their problems were, and how spending $250K for a microscope helped.
It is that sort of customer intimacy, that deep understanding of their pain, that you can’t get from a series of webinars, or a weeks’ long class, or from reading a book, or browsing the blogosphere.
And thus, I think that while all of those roles listed above are good technical starting points, they lack in that implicit customer intimacy. For that, I look for people who have been in senior support roles, who have done customer implementations (professional or advanced services), who have come from a customer realm (but beware, these an be people who can’t separate their experience from the general market), who were technical sales engineers (those people who help account managers from over promising), who were technical marketers.
These people have embedded with customers, grokked their day to day problems, and are able to articulate to the development team what is needed to address these problems, and provide value to the customer.
I will add, it doesn’t require a CS degree. My degree is in Physics, but I have worked with great product managers who had degrees in History, Art History, Psychology, Comparable Literature, among other non-traditional seeming backgrounds.
So, if you are one of those people outlined in the original list, look for a trip through a customer facing role!
To Tolu: Please keep on mentoring and coaching!
Grok – a term from “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein. It loosely means to deeply understand something. ↩