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You can run tons of experiments, and you can iterate quickly without needing to worry about outdated inventories.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

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