Where Do Product Managers Come From?
February 22, 2016

Where Do Product Managers Come From?

by Brian de Haaff

When was the last time you saw a formal product management internship? That’s because Product Managers rarely start their roles right out of college.

Product Managers often grow organically into their role after having another position that is related to making a product or service great. Marketing, sales, project management, and engineering are areas that can help you demonstrate deep product knowledge and insight.

In fact, some of the best experience in a product management career comes from what you did beforehand. Gradually learning what it takes to sell, customize, or develop a product is the first step towards leading a product team. I learned this myself after transitioning from an engineering background to a new career as a Technical Product Manager.

My past life as an Engineer informed how I led product from the front. I had already lived the pain points of an Engineer on a product team. So, I went out of my way to be the product management leader that I had yearned for — one who understood the product development process, wrote clear requirements, and always explained the “why.”

Your past product experience will influence how you lead a product team. But here’s the paradox — you have to enable others in those roles right now if you want to lead product with conviction.

It’s natural for all of us to apply our experience in earnest to a new role. In fact, it can be a basis for a “natural affinity” that shapes into a style of product management. You may have spent countless hours with clients, neck deep in code, or communicating the voice of the customer. Exploring where Product Managers come from — marketing, sales engineering, etc. — helps those transitioning see how they can stay open while leading collaborative product teams.

Use where you came from to stay curious about these roles and their contributions to your product. That curiosity keeps you receptive to what your team members in these respective roles can now tell you. Their insights will help you lead product more effectively.

Here are the roles that I typically see product managers emerge from. Each provides a unique perspective and set of skills for an emerging Product Manager.

As the Marketing Manager, you drove your product’s positioning. You led go-to-market activities, designed quarterly campaigns, and explained your product’s value. Clear communication is your core skill set — and luckily for you, it is essential for Product Managers. Now, that background will help you supply the strategy your product marketer needs to position the product and upcoming releases with the right goal-first approach.

You remember always being the one to see around corners in the market. Now, you can use your experience to help your marketing team to do the same.

Remember those weekly customer site visits? How about working through product pain points with your prospects? Your former road warrior days can become your product team’s secret weapon. That’s because your past experience gives you a great opportunity to connect with your sales team.

So, ask your current sales team about aspects of your product where they “get creative” to demo it successfully. Then, ask direct questions that address potential problems. When do sales reps feel like they lose trust as they show off your product? What simple changes would reveal more of the product’s true value?

The answers to these questions might not have easy solutions. But that is precisely the point. You should be asking sales how your product can better sell the big picture, and close the customer deal. And you know which questions to ask — because you once had a quota, too.

This transition hits the core of the product development process. You owned the “how” as an engineer. Now, as a product manager, you own the “why,” “when,” and “what.” That requires a different skill set. And it can be jarring at first.

We all have been tempted with our own version of the, “Gee, can’t we just make it work this way?” impulse — especially when we think it’s technically true from way back when we were writing the code. But take it from someone who has been there: resist this temptation. Even if you think you are right, the “how” is no longer your job.

Instead, explain the customer experience you are trying to deliver and why it matters to the business. When doing so, remember how great it felt to code with conviction based on the fact that the work you were doing mattered to customers and the business.

Product Managers come from many places. So, use your past job experience to empower your product team members who hold the same roles today. This is the key to being a great Product Manager — building a team of passionate contributors who ignite your product’s success.

No matter where you came from, when you transition to product management from a previous role, you bring invaluable “in their shoes” empathy for your team members. And you can use your past experiences to be a more open Product Manager.

Your value as a product leader will be measured by how well you build your team members into great leaders themselves. So, look back at where you came from and allow it to shape where you and your product are headed.

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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