Lately, I’ve been talking to a lot of people who are interested in becoming Product Managers.
Two pretty common questions are “How did you become a Product Manager?” and “Wow! How did you manage to start off your career as a PM, without being an engineer/design/analyst first?”
When people started asking me, I had no idea. My answer for a long time was “Oh it’s just how I am,” which is an absolutely terrible answer. Being a PM is not an intrinsic personality trait. I also spent a while thinking it was luck. Also not true. The more people shared elaborate plans to become PMs, the more I realized there was more to my story, too.
I am lucky that I found the field relatively early in my career, but I started developing the necessary skills to be a PM years before I’d even heard the title. By the time I graduated from college, I had a couple years of experience with the role. I did a lot of work to become a PM without realizing I was doing. I’m hoping this explanation of how I became a PM will give more depth and weight to my suggestions when people ask me about how to become a PM.
How I became a PM:
I doubt I’d be a PM now if I hadn’t gone to engineering school.* I didn’t really want to go to engineering school, but my dad said “well, I think you should go to engineering school. It’s harder to get into engineering school later, so you might as well just go and if you hate it you can always transfer out.” So I did.
Most people at Engineering school actually want to be engineers. I went in saying I wanted to “think like an engineer, but not be one.” When I got to Olin, I wanted to try everything. I couldn’t make a decision about a major, or what I was going to do after Olin (no joke: MD-PhD-MBA was on my list of options). Being at engineering school, but not wanting to “be an engineer” meant I was constantly searching for new, interesting things to do. I’m not exaggerating: I joined 11 committees.
There is one major downside to having lots of cool opportunities. I did many things badly instead of one thing well. As a result, I’m not a particularly good “Electrical and Computer Engineer” the way many of my classmates are. I often wish I had a technical specialization. But, trying many different activities and not spending as much time on the technical side of the degree allowed me to develop a few important PM skills early on:
- Prioritization – I did too many things. One should not join 11 committees. I never had enough time to do everything. But there was an upside to that: I got really great at picking between multiple things and prioritizing what’s most important. I always knew what could be a bit late, and what would below over if it never got done.This was my personal version of what happens in Software Engineering: companies have a lot more work than they can ever do. The PM helps pick the most important things to get done. The PM decides what can wait a little while, and what needs to get fixed right away.
- Synthesis – All of this work also helped me to build my synthesis skills. Many of the committees I was on were things like “Curriculum Advisory Student Team (CAST).” We had to go through all of the student course feedback and figure out ways to aggregate and make improvements to the process.This sort of work is also similar to being a PM: having a problem area that already has tools, doing research on what exists, and what works and doesn’t, and proposing a new directional strategy.
- Driving to Consensus – All of the committees and projects I did were with other people. Lots of people had ideas on “what we should do” – but that didn’t always mean they were right, or that other team members would be on board. Even after I’d prioritized or synthesized, I never had any official authority. I’d have to come up with good reasons it would appeal to that team of people. You know, just like being a PM.
Picking up these skills from committees and projects during my first semester built on itself. Since I already had some of the skills, I kept playing a specific role during other team projects in my first two years.
My main role was always helping make sure we knew everything we had to get done, who was doing it, and that no one was blocked. I helped define what was “important” to the project, and what we should present. Playing that role in teams helped me get better at these skills, which led to more projects in which I used them. I can think of over a dozen team projects that reinforced my skills, but it all goes back to my early start as a generalist and trying lots of different things.
After two years of developing skills through classroom projects, I had three experiences that made my skills much more valuable in the “work” world.
- Alight Learning – After attending Olin for two years, five of my friends and I decided to take a year off and have a startup. We weren’t really sure what we wanted to do, but we all agreed that we’d quit school and go live in a house in Waltham together to work on it.Alight Learning was the first time I actually used my skills in a “Product” context. We did user interviews, market analysis, and business analysis of what we were building. We prioritized feature lists, and made hard design decisions about what to make and what to cut.There’s a big difference between doing a project for a few weeks in class, and actually trying to get a business off the ground. Alight was the time where in addition to using Product skills, I worked on a real Product.Because of Alight, when I interviewed for Product roles, I had much more substantial “real world” examples and experiences than I would have otherwise.
- Microsoft PowerPoint Internship – This is a pretty obvious one. My last summer before graduating, I ended up at Microsoft for a PM internship.The reason I bothered to list it is to call out that I doubt I would have taken the internship if it hadn’t been for PowerPoint. Alight Learning was focused on education, and PowerPoints are a big (problematic) part of education.Even in the Summer of 2009, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a PM. I’d developed lots of skills, and I liked doing the work at my startup. I didn’t necessarily believe there was a “canon” of being a PM. I thought of it more as a skill set I’d use to do my own things.The PM internship at Microsoft taught me there was a lot I didn’t know about it. How do you convince people you work for instead of your peers? How do you deal with internationalization? Localization? Accessibility? How do you deal with non-web products when you can’t fix things all the time? On top of giving me more real world Product experience, my internship at Microsoft intrigued me: What really was the “full time job” version of being a PM?
- SCOPE PM – After I concluded my internship, I returned to Olin. Olin has a Senior Capstone program in which a company sponsors a team of 5-7 students to work on a non-trivial project one day per week.I was chosen by our team to be the Project Manager, meaning I was on the line for organizing the team. I took the role very seriously: it was the first priority out of all of my classes. Two other students were also interested in the role, and we planned to rotate midway through the year.When it came time to rotate, the team decided to let me keep the role. Their confidence in me was what gave me confidence that being a PM was something I could do well, and that wanted to continue doing.
So, throughout my college experiences, I spent most of my time developing the skills necessary to be a Product Manager. In my later years of college, I specifically spent time doing “Product / PM roles.” My diploma says “Electrical & Computer Engineering” – but it should probably just say “PM!”
When people say “Wow! It must have been really challenging to get a PM job right away!” they aren’t entirely correct. “Getting a job” as a PM was challenging for me, but the same way all job interviews are.
What was genuinely hard was becoming a Product Manager. It required developing a specific skill set, and working on it for a period of years.
Addendum: Since it’s confused a few people – I went to Olin College of Engineering. I took a year off during school for Alight Learning. I went back to Olin, finished, spent two years at Microsoft, and then started at Kickstarter.
* This is a reflection on myself: not on you. You can still be a PM even if you didn’t go to engineering school. My younger brother actually went to business school, did a summer program in graphic design, did a Product Management internship at a Startup, and then ended up a PM at Microsoft.