The World's Most Unlikely Product Manager
November 10, 2016

The World's Most Unlikely Product Manager

by Brian de Haaff

What degree do you think most product managers have? I will bet that you did not answer “B.A. in environmental science.” But I do know of at least one product manager who studied just that. After college, his first job was supervising the removal of asbestos (and asking his onsite teams not to smoke while they were doing it).

That was long before he accepted a technical support position at an emerging software company. However, those interdisciplinary skills that helped him excel in environmental science carried through to this new field of product management. The product management group took notice of him, and when one of those leaders left for a new company, my colleague was hired as a product manager.

Who would have guessed — from environmental science to software product management? He was certainly an unexpected product manager. But then again, most are.

In fact, I studied philosophy in college before diving into business and marketing, which led to roles in product management. Several product managers shared their own divergent paths on Some started their careers as software developers, while others came by way of project management and even industrial engineering.

My colleague’s degree did not matter — because he had all the hallmarks of a great product manager. He was organized, worked well with people from diverse experiences, wrote succinctly, and was focused on achieving great outcomes.

Seriously, you could put 10 product managers in a room together and find that their career paths are markedly different.

More important, though, are the core skills and attributes that great product managers have in common. If you are a product manager — however unlikely — I will bet these traits will sound familiar. Here are a few:

You understand that strategy must be the starting place and the driver of all product decisions. (This is especially helpful when everyone is clamoring for you to implement their groundbreaking idea.) You know that focusing on your goals will help you prioritize competing concerns.

Never bored, you have a natural wonder about the world and what makes people tick. You think deeply and critically about who your customers are and the problems they face. You keep asking “why” (even after everyone else is satisfied). You stretch to keep learning and are eager to try anything new.

Do you have an intrinsic desire to accomplish great things? Do you search for solutions on your own? Great PMs are independent and have the confidence to tackle what must be accomplished without being told. But they are also willing to accept direction and ask for help when necessary — and look for opportunities to help others.

So, a promising idea landed with a whimper instead of a bang. But you do not let it get you down — you keep moving, applying what you learned to the next iteration. Great product managers are quick-thinking and thrive in fast-moving environments, embracing change and rebounding quickly from disappointment.

Engineering just alerted you to a potential hiccup that may put the next release behind schedule. Your first thought? “Not on my watch.” Whatever challenge you face, you work harder than everyone else to see your way through it. You set high goals for yourself and tenaciously pursue them, no matter how impossible they appear to others. And if you ever fall short of your goals, it is not for lack of trying.

Everyone enjoys hearing “Nice job!” once in awhile, including you. But you do not live for praise or seek glory for yourself — or delude yourself into thinking you achieved success all on your own. You recognize that you are part of a larger team that shares in the success, and you go out of your way to build up others.

If you are a new product manager or considering a career switch to a PM role, do not worry that your background might be different than the next person. Your history, however unique it is, is valuable to you and the rest of your team.

In fact, just like my colleague — the former environmental science major — your diverse experience will help you become more well-rounded as a product manager. But no matter what path you take, it is important to cultivate those essential skills that will help you become truly successful in your role.

How did you become a product manager?

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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