Monday, November 23, 2009

Career Change: Gaining Product Management Experience

This is part three of a series on making a career change into product management. In part one, I discussed the some of the career paths that lead to product management. In part two, I discussed the change in focus that is a requisite part of becoming a good product manager. Now let's talk about gaining experience!

Get a Mentor!

Much like driving, product management is most often learned by doing. There are a ton of resources available to increase your knowledge (We'll discuss many of them in part 4 of this series!), however, the more experience you can get on the job, the easier your transition will be.

Fortunately, most product managers are overworked and are more than willing to get some help. In addition, as I was making the transition from software engineering to product management, I never found a product manager who wasn't willing to mentor. He gets help; you learn. A win-win.

Your ideal mentor needs to be a good product manager. If you are frustrated with him in your position, he may not be a good person to be mentoring you. That is especially true if many people on the product team are frustrated by him! It will work best if he manages the product you are working on, but that is not necessary.

Structure Your Learning

To the right is the Pragmatic Marketing Framework™ (click to open a larger version in a new window). Pragmatic Marketing is one of the preeminent sources of product management training and knowledge. The Framework gives a guide to what a product manager's job is. I strongly encourage you to enroll in their seminars if you have the opportunity. You will learn a lot!

Even if you don't enroll in their seminar, you can use the Framework as a guide for experiences you should gain. If you've been involved in any portion of product development (anywhere from requirements to sales and support), you likely have experience that overlaps with the Framework. This is good, and we'll discuss how to present that experience in part 5 of the series.

From Here to Product Manager, With a Map! (An Example)

Let's look at an example of how you can use the Framework to guide you. In this case, we'll be a hypothetical engineer wanting to move into product management.

Engineers are very familiar with the whole product development cycle, as they are usually involved in some way from soup ("How long would this take?") to nuts ("Our biggest client's migration went bad, we need you to fix it!"). The earlier and later you can be involved in that process, the better.

The down-side is that engineers are often kept behind closed doors. This is done primarily to protect engineers from distractions and, occasionally, to protect customers from some engineers. Customer face-time is a major hurdle engineers need to cross.

For our hypothetical engineer, the priorities and associated Framework tasks to get involved with are be:

  1. Interacting with customers. Looking at the Framework, Win/Loss Analysis is a great place to start. I would follow that with as much of the Support column as possible.

  2. Understanding the market. If you've been working on Win/Loss Analysis, you have some great insight that can be added to the Buy Personas. You also could have some valuable insight into Positioning. You may not get the whole box for these tasks, but you can provide valuable input to them.

  3. Figuring out the business. Now you are providing help on items like Distribution Strategy, Pricing, and the Business Plan.

Getting "Career Progression" Support

Often, you will need to spend your own time working on this. This is no different than a software engineer reading technical books on her own time. Ultimately, to succeed, you have to expand beyond your nine-to-five responsibilities.

You also need to have the approval and support of your boss. Even if you are working on these things after hours, these activities will take time from the normal office routine. You can't get input from a customer on a win/loss analysis at 11:30 at night.

Again, fortunately, most employers see this type of activity as a win-win. Career progression is critical to employee satisfaction, and your boss won't have to do anything to give you progression. If you are providing more time on the job, then you are also giving extra value to the company.

If your current employer isn't willing to be supportive, then I strongly encourage moving on to a supportive environment before moving forward. If you don't, you will experience a lot of frustration trying to work around that.

Wrap Up

Get a mentor, identify your weaknesses, identify a path to strengthen those weaknesses, get your boss' support, and get to work. Keep track of specific achievements: "Instrumental in closing 10 sales worth $25M" and "Performed 75 win/loss analyses that drastically altered the selling processes and increased win-rate by 8%" type statements are gold on your resume.

Tricks to Get in Front of Customers

As I mentioned before, customer face time for non-customer facing individuals can be very challenging. It is also absolutely critical. As such, I'll end with a few tricks I used to make that happen. These tricks require your boss' support, so make sure you've got it!

  • Meet sales people. Sales people love to bring other product people into sales calls. Your mentor should be able to introduce you. If the sale call is a live visit, Sales will often have budget to pay for your trip. This keeps your boss happy!

  • Present at user group meetings and other conferences. As a product manager, you will need to be able to comfortably present to a group of people. Depending on the specifics, there may be separate budget for this, so, again, your boss is happy.

  • Attend focus groups. If your company does live focus group meetings, ask to be present. Depending on your current role, you can sell this as an opportunity to learn more about your customers so you can do your job better.

  • Manage the beta program. If you can volunteer to run the beta program, you have a great opportunity to interact with customers and learn how they use the product. Additionally, it may save somebody else who is very uninterested in doing that.


Steve said...

IN addition to 1) Interacting with customers, 2) Understanding the market, and 3) Figuring out the business, I would add 4) look for patterns. Good product managers see patterns in the data to create processes and solutions to a market-full of customers. Many, particularly former developers, see one person and want to solve that problem. product managers need to see enough people to see the bigger problem--the pattern of the problem--to build a comprehensive solution that meets the needs of all.

Thanks for the kudos on our training seminars. You and your readers may also enjoy my free ebook, The Strategic Role of Product Management, at

bob said...

Extremely well done, Mr. Software Maven. This will become required reading for all aspiring PMs.