“My background is in product management for software products for the last twenty years. The nature of the job of product manager requires a broad range of skill sets: technical, business and design. The role requires you to be good at juggling multiple priorities across different parts of the company. I like the diversity that comes with working with engineers one minute and partners the next minute. It makes the job a very interesting and challenging one. Overall, I like the satisfaction of helping customers solve real problems.”
You studied engineering in undergrad and now you are in product manager. How did you first get interested in the tech world?
“I worked at the Media Lab at MIT and then I ended up going to a startup. It was a startup set up by graduate students at MIT. That was my first exposure to the startup world and the work world outside of academia. There were a couple things that emerged from that experience. First, I found that I had a love for the technology—not just pure tech from engineering stand point—but how people were using it. I liked to help out by taking a piece of tech and applying it to real customer solutions. You quite often have people who focus on technology for technology’s sake rather than focusing on what people really need.”
“Eventually, I moved more into sales and marketing positions. The product manager role wasn’t really well-defined at that point. I worked for two startups and then, I moved towards more formal training. I got a job at a more established public company, where there was much more structure around product manager functions. I was learning more formalized product management methodologies like feature requests, working with development, customer presentations—things that I was just kind of making up before that.”
“It’s great when you’re in a startup, because you get to do lots of different things and just jump in and make it work. However, there was a point where I felt like I could benefit from working with other people, who had more experience in product management. In my new job, I was able to spend more time with larger, more significant customers than in my startups. I also completed an executive MBA program at Babson College, where I learned about product management through customer case studies.”
Tell me a bit about the challenges you face at your job on a daily basis.
“The biggest challenge all product managers face is juggling multiple priorities and effectively managing their time. The typical product manager is pulled in five different directions every day. You could spend all of your time with development and engineering and never really get a sense for the real issues customers are facing; or you could spend the bulk of your time with the sales team and customers and not give sufficient attention to making sure the design and development teams are building the right products. Product managers need to make sure they are spending their time and priorities on the most important things.”
What do you wish colleges knew about your job? What should they teach better?
“There’s no real formal product manager program that I’m aware of at the college level. I could imagine a semester-long program that gives liberal arts students some exposure to tech and related business concepts. One of the projects I’m working on right now is looking at ways to do that. We look at ways for people, who are coming out of liberal arts programs, to learn more tech-related skills. There’s a lot of skills around tech businesses. We want to integrate teaching those skills into the curriculum.”
What skills did you learn outside of college?
“I would say two categories of skills: on-the-job training and working with customers. I really had to understand what the customer issues were and look for ways to translate that to product features and benefits. I also learned basic business skills like how organizations are structured. I didn’t get a lot of exposure in school and I ended up taking classes in my MBA program.”
What books do you read? What would you recommend to college students?
“I have a book on my desk that’s really interesting called The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. Eric Ries has books on startups called The Lean Startup. A lot of companies follow this model.”
What advice do you have for students just getting out of college who want to get started in the tech world? What would you tell your twenty-one-year-old self?
“Well, my twenty-five-year-old son went into tech and he did it on his own. Only after he got the job did he start asking me questions! However, there are many roles that are interesting that aren’t strictly product management. It depends on the kind of program you are coming from.”
“I would go back before my twenty-one-year-old self and start to do some tech related things while still in college. Even simple stuff like building a website or learning some basic programming skills are very helpful. For example, in the product management immersive class I taught at General Assembly, there was one guy who had done projects like helping nonprofits raise money more efficiently while he was still in college. That put him in a much better position for getting hired into a product manager role after finishing college.”
“Also, networking is helpful. You should go to events and talk to the people especially if you have no background in tech. LinkedIn is a good avenue for networking or really anywhere you can find interest groups and you can promote yourself. That’ll be better than just sending in a cold resume.”