This article is for recent graduates with an entrepreneurial mindset who are thinking about what would be the perfect job for them. It’s also for people thinking about moving into product management. I’m going to start with a question. Raise your hand if someday:
- You’d like to start your own company?
- Be your own boss?
I’m visualizing lots of hands raised out there. I mean, dang, who wouldn’t want to have their own company, be their own boss, and call the shots? For that reason, I’d like to introduce you to a job title you may not have heard of before, but that could give you some runway to practice the skills you might need to start your own company someday — while you still get a great paycheck, benefits, and learnings from a more established company. That job title is Product Manager. Here’s why product management should be your career choice.
You’re in great company. There are some famous people out there who were first product managers before they started being CEO. Here are just a few:
- Jeff Bezos – Amazon
- Kevin Systrom – Instagram
- Marissa Mayer – Yahoo
And while I’m nowhere close to those three groundbreakers, I have worked at Citrix for over 14 years, leading teams developing and releasing the GoTo branded software that generates millions of dollars in annual revenue. Do I have a degree in computer science or human-computer interaction? No. What might surprise you is that I was a Liberal Arts major in college; I studied Spanish. Long story short, by taking various jobs in the software industry and constantly learning and moving up, I was able to grow my career from web designer to user interface designer to product manager. I ultimately became a product manager because of some of the skills below that I realized I always had.
Loosely put, the product manager sets the tone for a product, understands the customer’s pain points, leads a team, takes various forms of input, and ultimately makes the product-related decisions. The elephant in this picture is the leader of the pack. It’s almost like her trunk and her feet are pointed in one direction, and as if she is saying:
“We’re going that way.”
“We are passionate and are we’re on a mission.”
Ok, I’ve got you to this point and so you ask, “What companies need product managers?”
Kind of a simple answer, but any company that has a product or service needs someone to truly understand the needs of its customers and to set the vision and tone for the product and for the people who work on it. In a small company of 1-20, it’s usually the founders, but at some point, the founders have other things to do and may appoint a product manager. In larger companies, there’s almost always a need for many product managers.
Quick gut check. Searching on LinkedIn TODAY, I found (obviously subject to change on the day of search but this gives you a sense):
Before I go too far, let me just say: different companies call “product managers” different things. You find similar jobs under the following names:
- Product Marketing Manager
- Program Manager
- Project Manager
- Product Owner
Use those terms and you’ve just expanded your search 3x.
So now that you know what it is and what it might be called. Let’s see if it might be a fit for you.
Are You a Ringleader? Then product management might be the career choice for you.
People who like other people, who have the ability to wrangle and lead various folks, (while respecting their opinions and differences) are what I might call Ringleaders. If that’s you, take note. Ringleaders make great product managers because they:
- Recruit other passionate people who never give up to be on their team.
- Enable their teammates to shine and do their best work incorporating their feedback.
- Gather champions and mentors to guide them along their product journey.
- Buy the pizza, bring the donuts, and make sure everyone is fed — literally and figuratively. If anyone needs something or is blocked, the product manager is the first one to help.
- As servant leaders, they eat last and let others go first.
Are You a Curious Observer of Life?
There are some people who love observing the curiosities of life and work. They wonder why things work a certain way and if there might be another way. This is just how they tick — all the time. If that’s you, good news: constant and relentless curiosity is the most essential tool in a product manager’s toolbox. They use it to:
- Ask a lot of questions about their customers, their teams, and the market. Why? is their favorite question.
- Lean in and listen to the answers thoughtfully, without bias.
- Observe people in their natural setting (because “actions speak volumes”).
You’ll hear them say, “Huh, isn’t that interesting.”
Do You See Opportunities?
Once you spot a problem or something that could be made better, do you instantly go into thinking, evaluating, and what-if mode, running quick calculations in your head, sketching rough ideas on the back of a napkin? Do you brainstorm with a friend asking, “How might we…?” or “What if…?” If yes, you really should think about a career in product management. Because product managers constantly:
- Narrow in and focus on the most pressing problems that offer the biggest opportunities for their customers and their companies.
- Believe, hypothesizing the possible ways they can make a difference.
- Experiment and iterate rapidly so they can learn fast if their beliefs are true or false and how they might make their solution more irresistible.
- Tell stories that are easy for anyone to comprehend and get onboard.
Are You Problem Maker or Problem Solver?
And then there are people who don’t make problems but solve problems. They’re the first ones with an idea, a fix, or a plan. They are not phased — in their eyes, if there’s a will, there’s a way. They aren’t complainers but doers, makers, fixers and dreamers, envisioning a better or new way. Does that sound like you? If so, product management is all about solving problems; jumping through, around, over and under obstacles; and asking questions like:
- How might we solve this?
- What’s the one standout thing that makes our solution different, better, easier, or cheaper than what is out there today?
- What competitive advantages do we have that we can run with?
While I was at Citrix, we had the opportunity to come up with a startup app idea when the company was interested in developing lean and scrappy ideas to compete with ankle-biting startups. Along with 4 teammates, we came up with a phone app called Convoi that was targeted at every day business people who were tired of using their personal cell phones for work, but needed a mobile phone number for texting, calling, and business voicemail with clients.
- Our one standout thing was that within 15 seconds of downloading our free app, we got you any phone number in any area code. You could immediately be calling and texting from it. It was magical experience for people.
- We had a trusted audience from GoToMeeting that we could advertise to for free.
- In the app store, we could be a sister app to GoToMeeting that had over millions of downloads each year. We could ride that wave and get eyeballs and attention without spending a lot of money on marketing.
- We had the advantage of being part of a large company that had resources we could use to build the app, validate it, and get it to market fast.
- We knew the company was interested in the virtual phone system business but hadn’t yet pulled the trigger on a large scale development project.
- We could afford to offer something as freemium to test the interest.
- We found mentors and champions internal and external to the company to guide us on our way.
You Understand That You Have to Show Proof
Because they have so many ideas, these kind of people are anxious and want to know if their solution will work — if it will hold water. The bosses funding these projects also want to see proof that they’re on the right track. They usually come up with metrics, triggers, or tests to tell themselves and their teams whether they’re on the right track. Is that you? If so, product managers routinely ask themselves and their teams:
- How will we know it’s working?
- What does success look like at certain points in our journey?
- What are some success metrics or numbers we hope to hit?
In the Convoi example above, we had some metrics we held ourselves accountable. Here were just a few of ours:
- 25 interviews of our target audience saying that they had this problem and were actively looking for a solution
- Time To Value < 30 seconds
- First text sent/received < 5 mins
- > 5% new users per week
- Net Promoter Score > 50
- 40% Daily Active Use (It was a business phone so in order for it to be successful you had to use it every week day)
By hitting these we knew we were on the right track.
Are You Adaptable? Then product management might be the career choice for you.
Some people crave change, love the challenge of it and can turn on a dime. They actually thrive on the adrenaline. They love hard things that might not have been done before. They are on a relentless pursuit of “yes”. The word “no” doesn’t phase them for too long. “No” might be a no for today, but tomorrow the game is different. Product managers know that:
- Change will happen. Companies, plans, roadmaps, and management change.
- You have to be willing to pivot when the data is telling you to do so.
- They are constantly iterating and reinventing themselves.
- They will ask and be turned down 80x. It’s part of the journey.
- They write their own playbook when there isn’t one (which is quite often).
- They learn from others. They figure, why reinvent the wheel?
In short, a product manager’s job is all about solving problems for people. If your life has led you to creative thinking, problem-solving, and curiosity, it’s quite possible product management is the perfect career choice and you’d be a perfect fit for a role where you can practice, learn and grow a ton. A role in product management will look terrific on your resume, and the learnings will be great while the risk is minimal. What’s more, you will likely earn a favorable salary (check GlassDoor for product management salaries — not too shabby) and be instilled with the confidence that you might just start your own company someday.
About the Author
Carey Caulfield (@careycaulfield) works at LogMeIn in the GoTo business division previously part of Citrix Systems in Santa Barbara, CA as a Principal Product Manager. Her background is in Software Design, User Research/Experience and practicing LeanStartup within large companies. She’s helped to design and launch three of their flagship products – GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar, and GoToTraining. Most recently, she and four other hackers lead from behind with tiny startup idea called Convoi that turned your personal iPhone into a second business phone, influencing the decision to go into the virtual phone service business. She mentors user researchers, product managers and Engineers unfamiliar with the principles of LeanStartup to be 120% customer focused at leanproductcoach.com.