The Journey to Becoming a Product Manager

 

Some people know what they want to be or what they want to do, but others, fall into roles based on their experiences and the twists and turns of life. Clement Kao, falls into the latter category. While Clement didn’t know what Product Management was in college, he eventually found his way into the function and is now a Product Manager at Blend. He shared his story on his journey into Product Management, and his advice for those looking to break into the field.

CareerSchooled: What attracted you to Product Management?

Clement: To be totally honest, I fell into product management by accident. Back in college, and for the first few years of my career, I had no idea what product management was.

But, once I started working more closely with product managers, I learned a couple of key details that excited me about the role.

First, product managers are really digital product managers. I find that making this distinction is crucial, because traditional consumer goods product managers (also known as category managers) have totally different roles from what digital product managers do.

I fell in love with digital products because they have essentially zero variable cost, defined by Wikipedia as “costs that change in proportion to the good or service that a business produces.”

That single fact unlocks a couple of awesome phenomena. Build something once, and you can ship it to millions of people simultaneously.

You can run tons of experiments, and you can iterate quickly without needing to worry about outdated inventories.

As for product management, I think of the role as really two jobs: coach and janitor.

As a coach, you’re empowering your stakeholders and your teammates to deliver the highest possible valuable. You’re defining what problem to solve, for who, and why.

As a janitor, you’re unblocking your teammates. You’re shielding them from blame and from pressure, and you’re tackling work that is high value but low prestige.

For example, product managers have to write product specs, meeting notes, and test cases. It’s not fun, but it’s critical to document what we expect from our products, so that everyone’s on the same page. Similarly, product managers need to deal with crisis communications and with angry customers.

I love that I’m working with folks of all kinds to create a powerful engine of experimentation, creativity, and improvement. I love that we’re always pushing ourselves to be better, and that I get to lead these initiatives.

I also really enjoy filling the white space in between the business, the customers, and the development team. I love defining the problem crisply and coming up with innovative ways to solve it.

CareerSchooled: How did you initially break into Product Management?

I actually wrote about my journey in a couple of separate articles! You can read the details below:

  • Here’s the article that discusses how I pivoted from consulting into analytics and user research, and how I pivoted from there into product management.
  • Here’s the article that draws my entire trajectory from the end of high school through today.

As for a quick summary: as a consulting at a big data company, I found out that our powerful analytics product was hard for new users to master. I started sending across user feedback to the product team, which led to a new role in user research and analytics.

Then, as a user researcher and analyst, I worked with my executive team to find a new customer segment to serve. We found an amazing customer segment that was attracted to a particular value proposition, which powered a profitable business model.

We pitched the business model to the executive team, and they agreed to run with it. They needed a product manager to lead the initiative, and asked me to tackle it!

 

CareerSchooled: What is your role now, and what gets you excited to come to work each day?

I’m currently a product manager at Blend, a San Francisco-based startup that partners with banks, lenders, and independent originators to re-imagine the mortgage borrowing experience.

There, I serve as a New Products product manager. I’m currently driving an initiative to transform one of the hardest and most time-consuming workflows in mortgage lending into a one-click experience.

For the fintech geeks (of which I’m one now!), the flow that we’re tackling is a pre-approval flow, which requires multiple integrations and multiple workflows, ranging from credit pulls to loan structuring to product & pricing to automated underwriting.

I’m so excited that I’m touching hundreds of thousands of mortgage applications, and making all of them easier, faster, and more transparent for both borrowers and lenders! That fits directly with Blend’s mission: to make consumer finance ecosystem more transparent, accessible, and compliant for everyone.

I love that my team is so passionate about the mission. Every day, all of us wake up excited to change the consumer finance industry. I love that my teammates are so supportive, collaborative, friendly, and driven!

CareerSchooled: Can you give us an example of something that you work on as a Product Manager, and some of the exciting opportunities/challenges that come with this project?

I’d actually like to focus on a challenge, because I think few product management resources discuss failure in an understanding, supportive, and constructive way.

As a product manager, and especially as a new products product manager, you make intelligent bets. Some of your initiatives will win big, and some of your initiatives will lose big.

Remember, product managers are both coaches and janitors. I wound up with a losing initiative due to external forces that I couldn’t control, and so I had to cut losses and sunset my own product.

This initiative was to take an enterprise product and downscale it so that it would work for much smaller clients. Generally speaking, enterprise products are highly configurable and complex, whereas consumer products aren’t configurable but intuitive. My initiative was to essentially turn an enterprise product into a consumer product.

As an organization, we worked for more than a year on this initiative. We got lots of amazing feedback and huge fans of our product – people told us that they couldn’t imagine life without us anymore.

But, but at the end of the day, we found that it would take us significantly more investment than we currently had available. Especially due to external forces, our bar for “an intuitive consumer product” became a lot higher, which meant we’d have to sink in lots of design time and engineering refactor time to get there.

So, we put the initiative on pause. We had higher ROI initiatives to go tackle. While the initiative itself was placed on pause, we still succeeded in maximizing our organization ROI – we learned a ton about the problem space, found users who loved it, yet still made the right call to focus elsewhere.

That’s one of the blessings and curses of product management. You get to make the decisions, sure – but no one ever said they would be the easy ones or the fun ones!

CareerSchooled: When you interview candidates for PM roles, what are some qualities or characteristics that you look for?

I shared my framework in a recent podcast here!

For product manager interns or associate product managers, I’m looking for 3 traits.

First, I’m looking for speed of learning. Someone who is willing to dig in with grit will quickly surpass someone who has more experience. I’m looking for curiosity and fearlessness.

Second, I’m looking for genuine excitement in the mission of my organization. Too frequently, I see candidates use a gunshot methodology to job applications – they send a generic cover letter and a generic resume out, without actually understanding why the organization exists. The people who do pre-interview research stand out to me, because they’ve demonstrated grit, curiosity, and a value-oriented mindset.

The best candidate isn’t just focused on how my organization can provide value for them. She’ll also be looking at how she can provide unique value for my organization. Essentially, the best candidates treat themselves as products, and treat my organization as the customer.

Finally, I’m looking for cultural fit. Product management is inherently a role that requires interaction with people on a daily basis. I want to know that they’ll likely work well with my team and with my stakeholders.

If I’m looking to fill a product manager role, I’ll add on a fourth criterion. I want to know their previous behavior in shipping products, because I want to understand their frameworks and predict their future performance.

Then, if I’m looking to fill a director of product role, I’ll add on a fifth criterion. I want to know whether they have a proven track record of leading and mentoring other product managers. That is, I want to see indicators that demonstrate that they’ll push me and my fellow product manager peers to new heights.

CareerSchooled: Many of our readers are interested in Product Management, but don’t yet have the experience to break into the field. What advice do you have for those individuals if they want to get a PM job, but don’t yet have the experience?

I’ve found that when people treat themselves as applicants, they approach the interview process with fear, anxiety, and powerlessness.

A much more powerful way to think about becoming a product manager is to treat yourself as a product, and to treat the hiring organization as your customer.

You’re looking to find product / market fit. You’re inherently valuable, but you need to find a good customer who will leverage you to maximize value.

Remember, just because Instagram is an awesome product for Millennials doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for grandparents. There’s no such thing as “universal fit,” so be fearless in finding a good fit.

When you approach the process from this perspective, you focus on how to provide value for others, and you become much more confident in yourself. That’s exactly what a hiring manager wants!

The other principle to keep in mind is that hiring managers seek to reduce risk. As an aspiring product manager, you carry two kinds of risk. You have skills risk, and you have people risk.

“Skills risk” means that the hiring manager is concerned that you don’t yet have the skills or experience to succeed in the role.

“People risk” means that the hiring manager is concerned about whether you’ll gel with their organization.

To reduce risk, break up your journey into two parts. If you’re an analyst at Org A and you want to be a product manager at Org B, you have two options:

  1. Get promoted into product management at Org A, then move to Org B
  2. Move to Org B as an analyst, then get promoted into product management at Org A

The first path cuts down skills risk, because you’ve proven to the hiring manager that you have what it takes to be a product manager.

The second path cuts down people risk, because you’ve demonstrated that you fit well within their organization, and have an understanding of their products and their mission.

For more about this topic, here are the presentation slides from one of my talks, and here’s a recent podcast.

CareerSchooled: Product Management looks vastly different at different companies (e.g.: size, industry, vertical, growth trajectory, etc.) How can someone identify what makes sense for them?

Here’s the secret – product management is actually not a single role. Rather, product management describes an infinite variety of related roles.

Literally every product role is different. Even within the same company, two product managers may have vastly different responsibilities, skill sets, and stakeholders!

For example, a business-to-business product manager is very different from a platform product manager, who is also very different from a consumer product manager. In all of the product organizations that I’ve worked in, we had all three kinds of product managers within the same company!

Therefore, when embarking on your journey into product management, learn from other people’s experiences. Get their thoughts on their current role – what they like, what they don’t like, and everything in between.

Then, reflect on your own experiences. What sorts of roles do you like? What kinds of companies or products are exciting to you? Create hypotheses, and test them out – speak with product managers at those kinds of companies, and dig to see whether their role sounds interesting to you!

CareerSchooled: As a Product Manager, how do you think about your own career development, and what do you do to develop yourself?

I wrote an article on the topic here! Essentially, I think of myself as a product, and I think of my career trajectory as a product roadmap.

What’s the highest possible value that I can provide? That’s where I’ll invest and ask for more opportunities to tackle new challenges, so that I can grow those skills.

—–

Clement Kao is a Product Manager at Blend, a San Francisco-based startup that partners with banks, lenders, and independent originators to re-imagine the mortgage borrowing experience.

Clement is also the Product Manager-in-Residence at Product Manager HQ (PMHQ), where he has published 40+ product management best practice articles, provides advice within the PMHQ Slack community (6,300+ members), and curates the weekly PMHQ newsletter (22,000+ subscribers).

 

Drop Clement a note on LinkedIn!

Mastering The Art of The Career Transition

Here at CareerSchooled, one of the questions that keeps us up at night is “how can we help our readers navigate their careers?” After thinking and writing about this topic for over a year, we’ve compiled the lessons that we’ve learned and the insights we’ve gained into an ebook titled “The CareerSchooled Career Strategy Guide.”

The purpose of this guide is to help our readers who are considering a career change understand both a high level level strategic goal for making their next career transition along with a tactical step by step process filled with tactics they can complete in order to achieve the next goal. This plan is based off of our experience working with people through various career transitions, and from the numerous interviews we’ve conducted with professionals who have recently made a career change.

We hope this helps our readers understand what it takes to be successful in their career search. To download a copy of the ebook, simply sign up with your email address and a copy of it will be emailed to you shortly. As always, we’d love your feedback, so don’t hesitate to let us know what you think!

 

Download The Guide Today!

Introducing The CareerSchooled Career Strategy Guide

Here at CareerSchooled, one of the questions that keeps us up at night is “how can we help our readers navigate their careers?” After thinking and writing about this topic for over a year, we’ve compiled the lessons that we’ve learned and the insights we’ve gained into an ebook titled “The CareerSchooled Career Strategy Guide.”

The purpose of this guide is to help our readers who are considering a career change understand both a high level level strategic goal for making their next career transition along with a tactical step by step process filled with tactics they can complete in order to achieve the next goal. This plan is based off of our experience working with people through various career transitions, and from the numerous interviews we’ve conducted with professionals who have recently made a career change.

We hope this helps our readers understand what it takes to be successful in their career search. To download a copy of the ebook, simply sign up with your email address and a copy of it will be emailed to you shortly. As always, we’d love your feedback, so don’t hesitate to let us know what you think!

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How to Succeed In a New Job

Getting a job is just the beginning

Successfully navigating an interview process to get a job is a challenging and arduous process, so it only makes sense to celebrate and breathe a sigh of relief once you land an offer. However, the real challenge begins when you show up on the first day and you are expected to start delivering results. Afterall, we’re not rewarded for getting the job, but for what we do in the job.

A few months ago, I started a new job, and since it was the first time in a few years that I’ve actually started a new job I wanted to take a thoughtful and strategic approach. In a recent survey, 75% of hiring managers said they made a bad hire, and I was determined to not fall victim to that statistic.

 

Furthermore, as someone with goals and aspirations, I really was excited about succeeding and taking on a ton of responsibility for my new exciting job. But I recognized there’s a learning curve, and that Rome certainly wasn’t built in a day, so I created a plan to do my best to decrease the learning curve and accelerate my “time to market” in my ability to deliver results. I believe have been instrumental in helping me get up to speed, contribute quickly, and build credibility and my reputation within my team.

 

Go on a listening tour

As Alexander Hamilton said, “Talk less, smile more.” Politicians use listening tours as a means to shake hands and kiss babies, but in the context of a new job they are a great tool for meeting people and learning the ins and outs of the culture of your new organization.

 

Listening to others to learn about their job, department and place in the organization helps you understand the organizational structure, builds your reputation, and gives you information on how things get done at your new company. Furthermore, in the event that the person you talk to is someone you have to work with, it helps build a relationship.

 

During my first week, I asked my team to help me to put together a list of people that I should reach out to and talk to. I asked for people that were either A) people I would be working with or B) people who had a good reputation within the company and had be a veteran of the company.

 

From there, I went and made the effort to reach out and speak to these people, to learn about their role in the organization, best practices, and if necessary, how we might work together. This was a valuable opportunity for me to learn but also to start building relationships, which was critical for me as I work in a very large company.

Learn and Set Expectations

Understanding what’s expected of you is critical to success. Learning what the expectations are helps you prioritize your work, and helps you understand the quality and effort you need to exhibit in order to be a top performer. The earlier you do this, the better off you’ll be in ensuring you are meeting and exceeding expectations.

 

To do this, set aside time with your manager to ask about what the expectations are, and clearly articulate them to make sure you both are on the same page. In addition to explicitly asking about your roles, responsibilities and general expectations, consider asking questions like:

  • Who’s an example of a top performer and what does she do that stands out?
  • What are some best practices around working and collaborating with others?
  • Is it better for me to schedule a regular check in, or are you more comfortable coming on an as needed basis?

 

While it’s important to learn the expectations of someone in your role, it’s also important to acknowledge that you have a role in setting those expectations as well, so don’t be afraid to use your judgment in shaping those expectations based off of your own opinion and perspective.

During my first week, I made sure to talk to my manager and my team to get a better sense of what my role was going to be. I asked questions around what projects I should be working on, how to prioritize my time, and the best ways to ask for feedback.

 

Create Your Information Diet

As a regular consumer of content, I rely on digital and social channels for relevant information and to help with informal learning and “getting smart” on topics in a quick manner. Since I was starting a new job, I had to make sure my content sources were up to date.  I went and updated my content and information intake diet to reflect the sources of information and topics that I wanted to get smart on for my new role.

That meant finding new sources and websites to read for industry information, finding new sources industry experts to follow on Twitter, and updating the terms I get reminders on via Google News. From there, I made sure to check these sources daily, and tried to read during the evenings and weekends to make sure I was informed. If you aren’t doing this, consider signing up for a Twitter account, downloading a content reader like Pocket, or setting Google alerts to key topics that are relevant to your job. If you want to go a step further, ask your colleagues what they are reading. I think you’ll be surprised at how much you can learn.

 

Take on what you can take on

Research suggest it takes about 8 months to be fully productive in a new role.  While you do have time to learn, a great way to get started is to start raising your hand for anything that you feel you can take on or contribute to.

 

For example, if your team needs someone to do a research report and that’s something you’re comfortable with, raise your hand to work on it. If you are a little uncertain, offer at least to be a reviewer, or to tag team it with someone else. Taking the initiative will allow you to contribute, get you more familiar with your job, and also win some brownie points with your co-workers and manager.

 

During my second week, I was in a meeting where we began talking about a project that needed some support, and it was on something that i had done in my previous job. While it wasn’t in my direct job description, I volunteered for it anyway, and made an impact right away on the project because of my previous experience. The project lead was very grateful for my support, and it also gave me confidence in my abilities to contribute.

 

Leverage your strengths (and weaknesses) to your advantage

Everyone has a set of strengths and weaknesses, and since you got a new job, clearly your new employer is betting on you using your strengths to make contributions. Take the time to articulate out your strengths, and to share them with your manager or your teammates, so you both can begin thinking on how you might contribute to projects or deliverables. And while everyone has strengths, all of us have weaknesses. Use this as a chance to identify training or learning opportunities, and to build up some competency in areas where you can improve upon.

 

Create a User Manual

Last year, I stumbled across Abby Falik’s user manual that she created for her direct reports. The purpose of it was to explain her values, preferences, quirks, and overall leadership style to others in a transparent way, so others could understand her better and ultimately work with her more effectively.

 

Since it can take time to adjust to a new environment and build relationships with colleagues, I decided to write my own user manual. While I’m not a CEO of an organization, since I was new, I thought it would be helpful for my teammates to know me in a more transparent way, and to start our relationship off as best as I could. In it, I shared my values, preferences, workstyles, and offered tips on how to work with me.  

 

Additionally, I offered to help other write their own user manuals. My team embraced the idea, and while it’s early, we seem to be working together well. Additionally, they shared it broadly with the rest of the organization, and now user manuals are sprouting up on a number of different teams.

 

Build a question log

There is so much to learn when you start a new job that at times, everything can seem overwhelming. To combat the information overload, I created a document on my computer called a question log.

 

On the first day, I started a question log, and everytime I had a question that I didn’t know the answer to, I would write it down. Each week, I would meet with someone on my team, and for 10-15 minutes we would go over the questions that were in my question look. Not only was this helpful to me, as I got the answers to my questions, but on a few occasions the question helped identify an issue or an opportunity and it got raised to the broader team. Being new is tough because there’s so much you don’t know, but it’s also a great opportunity to question the status quo to uncover opportunities that others who have been there might have overlooked.

 

First impressions mean a lot, which is why it’s really important to start off a new job in a positive manner. While it’s unreasonable to expect to knock it out of the park right away, investing the time and being proactive about beginning your job will set yourself up for longer term success.