Transitioning to Product Management

March 11, 2014
by Eileen Chow

The most common question when getting an MBA seems to be “what will you do afterwards?”  At Rady I realized that many answers from people (especially engineers in MBA programs) tend to be product management.

What is product management?

I’ve heard it described it as a mini-CEO position and couldn’t agree more.  I love being a product manager because it lets me interface with so many different departments and make important decisions that determine the success of a product.   It’s the perfect sweet spot position in between pure sales/marketing and super technical engineering.  A product manager isn’t just keeping tabs on the different teams.  We define what people work on and that’s what is exciting.

On a daily basis about 50% of my time is spent with engineers.  I create feature specifications that the engineers work on.  This is why having a technical background adds respect and ease of communication.  It can be challenging because you are responsible for the product’s well-being, but at the same time everyone only indirectly reports to you.  My other time goes towards giving product demos, testing, managing vendors, budget costs, marketing messages, sales support, and roadmap creation.  I am the point person for all product questions and this gives me the chance to recognize how the product is performing as a whole in regards to every business unit.

Because of the nature of the job, some commonly recognized top qualities of product managers include:

  • Domain and industry experience including technical skills
  • Communication skills
  • Decision making ability
  • Dealing with uncertainty
  • Business understanding

How do you transition to product management?

I’ve transitioned successfully to product management about 2 years ago.  The hardest part of getting into product management is that almost all openings require 10+ years of experience.  No company wants to hire a product manager to control their product destiny without experience.  I have an engineering degree and 5 years of work experience at IBM in a sales engineering role.  I literally applied to over 100 product management positions before I found an associate product role that gave me a chance.  The lesson is to not give up.

I struggled initially, but Rady helped improved my product manager skillset.  A lot of my struggles had to do with dealing with uncertainty and figuring out where the product should be moving towards.  Rady increased my confidence and my presentation skills that helped me communicate product definitions to all business units.  It was important for me to listen to others, trust my business instincts, be creative, and not let other agendas influence the product inappropriately.

The easiest transitions to product management seem to be from sales engineering or development.   An MBA is definitely a plus.  Make sure you emphasize that you understand not only how to build a product from scratch, but also the trends that will make it wildly profitable.  There is no clear cut product management route, so you have to be persistent.  Good luck.

Eileen Chow is currently a technical product manager for learning management software at Blue Sky Broadcast.