3 Must-Have Skills for becoming a Great Product Marketer

Over the past five years, Product Marketing has become an increasingly popular role at tech companies ranging from emerging startups to established tech titans. But the role and responsibilities of a Product Marketer varies company to company. Shyna Zhang knows this well, having launched products and led Product Marketing teams at fast growing startups (Marketo) and large tech titans (Microsoft)

Recently, Shyna left to start a new venture, and we got the chance to talk to her about what she is working on as The Founder of Rigging Academy. During our conversation, Shyna shared her journey to becoming a Product Marketer, what a good product marketer looks like, and her advice for those interested in transitioning into or building a career as a Product Marketer.

CareerSchooled: Over your career, you’ve made your mark doing product marketing for a number of multinational organizations and tech startups. But thinking back to your childhood for a second, what did you think you were going to be when you were growing up?

As with most of America, I was glued to the television watching Michelle Kwan try to bring home the gold medal in the Salt Lake City Olympics after getting ‘robbed’ in Nagano. Growing up in Louisiana, there were few Asian role models around me, let alone female, let alone in mainstream media. I was convinced that despite living in a place that averaged temperatures of 100 degrees with 90% humidity for the better half of the year, my future was in figure skating. As you can imagine for obvious reasons, that quickly didn’t work out.

When declaring a major for college, I realized that I was really interested in people – understanding what makes them tick, what motivates them, and how they work well (or not so well) together. I floated the idea of being a Sociologist or Journalist with my tiger mom, who quickly dismissed that idea and a more practical Business Finance degree was decided upon :). 

Although in hindsight, it wasn’t a good choice or fit for a number of reasons. One of the main ones being that I’m probably one of the only Asians in history that scored better on her SAT Verbal than the math portion.

CareerSchooled: How did you get your career started in Product Marketing?

Getting into marketing was a combination of luck, curiosity and hard work. During my junior year of college at the University of Texas, I realized that I wasn’t good at finance – the degree I was studying – and that the bachelor’s degree in finance that I was going to end up with would be useless for me. I was fortunate to get internships at Accenture and Microsoft in their marketing teams, through alumni of the University of Texas who were willing to take a chance on me. The experiences I gained during those internships helped me to realize that a career in marketing offered me the opportunity to be creative, plus I could define and own what success looks like.


My early marketing roles, like my internships, were in broad marketing roles that provided clear visibility into how an entire business operates and makes money. At Microsoft, I learned about general management – that is, how to run a business across marketing, sales, customer readiness, partner services and more. The job also gave me the opportunity to live in Singapore working in a regional role with responsibility across Southeast Asia, Australia and Korea. Joining Marketo taught me the importance of the story-telling aspects of marketing and how important it is to create messaging that’s repeatable, concise and memorable.


CareerSchooled: What are some of the challenges that Product Marketers face in their day to day jobs?

Measurement is a huge challenge that some of the most talented PMMs struggle with. Sales has a clear quota that they need to hit, while Product teams may have clear adoption or MAU goals. Product Marketing often owns messaging, positioning, storytelling – functions that can seem nebulous when it comes to defining a hard value to the organization. I’ve found that aligning with revenue metrics is always a good place to be for PMM (ie. revenue, share, time to chose, win rate, etc..) as well as developing good partnerships throughout the organization.

Impact and influence is also something that’s hard to achieve within the organization, but critical to the success of PMM. Often PMM doesn’t have direct ownership via reporting structure of Sales, Demand Generation, Customer Success etc.., yet are held to business outcomes such as pipeline, revenue, time to close, win rate, renewal rate, etc… It’s important to be able to make your case, build the relationships, and lay the foundation to be able to drive change throughout an organization.  

CareerSchooled: Throughout your career as a Product Marketer, what’s a project, deliverable, or experience that you are especially proud of?

I left a pretty cushy life in Seattle at the age of 24 to move to Singapore to run a $500M P&L for Microsoft across Asia Pacific and launch a product in less than 3 months. Don’t feel sorry for me, but it was probably the most challenging professionally and personally for me. Leaving my support network and everything that I knew behind and jumping into a stressful work environment (in addition to figuring out my personal life) covering 9 countries led me to lose a patch of hair about the size of a half dollar from the side of my head. Yes, I had a bald spot at the age of 25 :).

As the saying goes, ‘what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.’ I learned a lot about resilience, grit, determination and my pain tolerance from that experience. I ended up getting promoted at the end of that year, but more importantly, I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of.

CareerSchooled: Like any job, there are numerous skills needed to be a great product marketer. What are 2-3 skills that you believe are critical to being a Product Marketer?

Communication through impact and influence across the organization (storytelling).

PMM doesn’t own sales, demand generation, customer success, etc.. however, we need their partnership to hit our goals and provide us feedback. Building these relationships and being able to share ideas/proposals across the organization in a way that clearly demonstrates the value to them is important to make impact.

Deep buyer (and stakeholder) empathy.

Any marketer worth their salt can talk about their own solution/product. The trick is to figure out how to speak to the value/benefits of your solution in your user’s language. You’re selling to Oil and Gas Executives? How does your solution benefit upstream vs downstream initiatives? To effectively talk about the benefits of your solution, you have to develop deep empathy for your buyer. Starts with speaking with them and getting into their shoes. What are their dreams? What are their aspirations? What are their painpoints? What are their fears?

Ruthless prioritize to get shit done.

You’ll never have enough time and resources to get all of the things that the organization is requesting complete. You’ll have to work with your stakeholders to ruthlessly prioritize, otherwise, you’ll never get anything done or burnout. Figure out what’s urgent vs important and where your points of leverage (scale) are. If you create this collateral, are there additional use cases for it or is it just a one off to close a deal or a one specific campaign?


Careerschooled: What advice do you have for someone who doesn’t work in Product Marketing, but wants to make the transition into Product Marketing?

1.Build your PMM portfolio

Similar to an artist who may have a portfolio of their best work that they are proud to display, I always ask to see a PMM (or a potential PMM’s) portfolio of work. It could be a compilation of blogs, ebooks, content, decks, etc.. that they have created for personal value or for previous roles. I want to see that you’re a talented storytelling, that you understand how to get across a message in a compelling way, and that you are able to succinctly explain something that may be complicated.

2. Build your Network

I find that the term ‘networking’ can be really awkward and painful and have found myself eating chocolates on the couch instead of going to an industry event to shake random people’s hands while awkwardly juggling a drink in the other hand. However, I’ve found that often going in with the mindset of learning something new through interesting people helps. Instead of

3. Be curious. That can help you to hustle to get as many informal, social interviews as possible.

It can be easy to be tunnel visioned when looking for job or career transition. People will be much more open and willing to help if you invest in building a relationship first. That requires being genuinely interested in their journey, their learnings, and seeking their guidance. People want to help, however, when the ask comes off as purely transactional, it can not feel as fulfilling. Once you learn about other people’s interests and initiatives, brainstorm how you could be of value and help. Beautiful things happen when we are willing to bring our cumulative gifts to the table. 🙂

CareerSchooled: While you’re a seasoned Product Marketer for many notable tech startups, you recently transitioned into the role of a Founder. What are you up too now and what are you working on?

Specifically for product marketing, I help run a community called Product Marketing Masters. We’re on a mission to educate the next wave of product marketers with real world examples and practical guidance. We hold monthly events and workshops on topics like Messaging & Positioning, Go To Market Strategy, Pricing and Packaging, etc.. in the Bay Area.. I frequently have people reach out to me for career advice or information about product marketing. Without a single source of information to point people towards, I wanted to bring practical guidance to help create the next generation of product marketers.  I was lucky enough to find a tribe of other women who felt the same way – we now work together as the Product Marketing Masters. I’d encourage anyone interested in product marketing to join our Product Marketing Masters Facebook group, Meetup, and www.ProductMarketingMasters.com.

I’m also passionate about developing talent, especially those earlier in their careers. I run a minority talent incubator called Rigging Academy. Minorities tend to self-select out of opportunities consciously or unconsciously due to lack of confidence or not knowing the rules of how Corporate America operates. I’m focusing on helping people develop the soft skills they need to succeed in a professional environment (ie. negotiating salary, marketing yourself, etc.). I’m building an online community consisting a virtual classroom, group work, and 1-on-1 coaching. Sound interesting? Sign up for the Spring 2019 waitlist!

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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!


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