How did you become a Product Manager or Product Owner?

Dear Product Owners / Managers using and working at Codecademy,

I’m looking for stories, advice and insights from anyone working as a Product Owner or Product Manager on how to succeed and get into the Role. My goal is to then aggregate, order and distill the advice I receive to create a roadmap on how to get into the role both for myself, and to share with the Codecademy Forums.

I’m graduating college with a business degree this summer. The main questions I’m wrestling with are:

  • What are the best entry level positions to either get directly into the role, or to gain relevant experience for it?
  • How deep should I develop my knowledge on the general technical concepts and specific programming languages and tools used by the dev team?
  • What should I learn to better listen to, understand and uncover the needs of a product’s customers and stakeholders?
  • What should I learn to better communicate between the different groups involved in the product development? (i.e. Developers, Executives and Customers / Stakeholders)

If you can share any insights or advice related to my questions, or if you can just share your experiences and general perspective on the role, please do! And to anyone who want’s to share a lot but doesn’t feel like writing, please DM me if you would prefer to have a quick chat via Video Call to share your experiences in with me in that way.

Thanks in advance!

Best,

Dylan

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Hey Dylan,

Great to hear that you’re interested in product management! Happy to help :slight_smile:

What are the best entry level positions to either get directly into the role, or to gain relevant experience for it?
Product management is tricky because there’s no specific undergrad degree that trains you for product management. There are several things you can do:

  1. Apply to an APM program for new grads - a lot of the big tech companies like Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn have such programs
  2. Apply for one of the following roles: product analyst, business analyst, marketing associate, management consulting, product designer, or software engineering. I’ve personally found that those roles have the highest rates of transfer into product management later in the career because they share skillsets.
  3. Network really hard with product directors at different tech companies to open up a role for you if you have a unique skillset or set of experiences to offer. For instance, maybe you know lots about payment processing, and can leverage that experience to get into a payment PM role. Even if nothing pans out, you might get some invaluable insights

It’s extremely helpful to your resume and chances of landing an interview if you have experience building and shipping products on your own. For example, if you can start a Shopify store and drive traffic/sales through it or build your own app and get downloads.

How deep should I develop my knowledge on the general technical concepts and specific programming languages and tools used by the dev team?
I’d say that technical fluency is important as a product manager, especially given that you have a business degree. It’s important to understand how technology is built, but you don’t necessarily need to know how to code (usually a bonus). I’d look into the following areas:

  1. Technical fluency: understand how APIs work, how microservices work, systems design, the difference between client vs. server, databases, what is tech debt, etc. You can google most of these concepts, plenty of resources online
  2. SQL: a large part of the job is understanding data and having the ability to query on your own will help you go a long way as a product manager
  3. Build a simple app (bonus): the best way to understand technology is to build something simple, I’d recommend you go through Codecademy’s web development path for instance, and work through one of the web projects.

What should I learn to better listen to, understand and uncover the needs of a product’s customers and stakeholders?
Asking clarifying questions to truly understand the needs of your customers and stakeholders is an important step. There’s a technique called 5 why’s, where you drill down on a level deeper by asking why repeatedly. In practice, you might rephrase your “why” in different forms, but the idea here is to always be curious.

What should I learn to better communicate between the different groups involved in the product development? (i.e. Developers, Executives and Customers / Stakeholders)
Part of this comes with experience, but the fact that you called out “listening” in your third question is a really good sign! To better communicate, you need to be able to listen first. Generally, I’d say you can bridge some of these communication gaps just by listening and empathizing with the stakeholders. To further bridge the gap between each department, I’d take the time to learn about their objectives, needs, and gain some surface level understanding. For example, to better communicate with designers, you should try to understand the importance of design thinking (this can be done by googling articles or just asking your design counterparts).

Hope that helps! Feel free to shoot me an email richie@codecademy.com, I’d be happy to share some product resources.

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Great reply Richie. For PM roles, do you think it would be more beneficial to focus on the front end or the back end?

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Hey @bit9444539676 i’d say have an overall understanding of both, but it might be more beneficial to go deeper on back-end related items as it is closer to some of the systems related items i mentioned around technical fluency

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Hey Dylan,

Great question, I am also a PM here at codecademy and work alongside Richie.

To reiterate what Richie said, there really is not a single path into product management and there are lots of different backgrounds that make successful PMs. I’d focus on the path that you think gives you the best chance of breaking in.

The APM route is a great one however these programs are very competitive and I’d suggest looking at the people in those programs on Linkedin to see the types of experience they are looking for. If you have a similar background (typically really strong academics, possibly an MBA, possibly engineering/technical experience) definitely give it a shot as they really help your career.

Personally, I took path number 2 so I can talk a lot more about that. I did mgmt consulting/finance, then started my own company, then came to Codecademy as kind of generalist (technically called an “operations manager”) but my job was really to do anything the company needed to grow.

I worked across a ton of different projects for 2 years (customer service, partnerships, M&A/Strategy, analytics, B2B product research, content production) and then was pulled into product management by our first VP of product when we were expanding the company.

In retrospect, my time as a generalist really helped as an early product manager because I already had relationships across the company, understood our product/business, and had enough technical knowledge to communicate with engineers.

I am a big fan of this path as I think it leaves a lot more in your control and hard work goes a long way. You can’t guarantee or predict when you will make a transition to product management but most companies want to retain their best employees and make them happy, so if you keep working hard and make yourself valuable, the odds are pretty good that it will eventually work out.

If you want to take this path, I’d suggest looking for companies that have the following attributes:

  • Strong product leadership/culture - You’re going to need to learn the fundamentals of this job, so you want to learn from people who are really good at it. Look at the backgrounds of the people in leadership jobs, ideally they have a good track record of success and/or come from companies known for good product mgmt.
  • Headcount/Revenue Growth - To hire more product managers, the company needs to hires more engineers, and to do that they need to be growing revenue or raising money. Ideally, they are growing revenue. Typically, they are not going to put a new PM in charge of a core team that they are counting on to hit business/financial targets, so ideally this company is expanding their product squads and can support smaller teams that make good training grounds.

Hope that helps, happy to answer any follow up questions.

  • Dan
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Hi Dylan,
I am a Business Analyst who uses Codecademy. I’ve had a long and winding career in my 8 years since graduating college. I started as an intern at a large retail clothing company, functioned as a nots and bolts business guy planning the inventory, became a business intelligence analyst responsible for building and automating reports, then moved into their IT department as a BA on their database. I am now a BA at a mid sized fintech payments company. I find communication and empathy to be keys for success in any role that interfaces with stakeholders. These are not hard skills that are easily gained through books or courses, but are best practiced throughout one’s life. Showing empathy and clearly communicating with your friends and family will actually lead to clear communication with your stakeholders and executives. Empathy for developers is something that you can work on concretely. Learning to code beyond simple apps to the point where you fail for hours on end for days on end to only get what seems like a modest incremental gain, will allow you to better hear your developers and better plan for the unexpected sh*t that comes up while coding.
–Harris

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Hi Richie,

thank you so much for the great and detailed response! I feel a lot more prepared for the job application process. Just out of curiosity, how did you end up as a PM? Would love to hear your story :slightly_smiling_face:

Best,

Dylan

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Hi Dan,

I really liked hearing your story. Reading it makes me feel more sure that the second path is the right one for me :slight_smile:

I’m curious about how your transition went from being a generalist to a PM. How was the adjustment? And was there anything you learned or discovered that helped you through it?

Best,

Dylan

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Hi Harris,

I will definitely add this to my list of unorthodox coding goals for the purpose of developing that type of empathy haha. Thank you for sharing! Are you aspiring to work in a PM role as well? If so, would love to hear how you’re going about it :slight_smile:

Best,

Dylan

Hey Dylan

Glad it helps! There were a lot of adjustments that I had to make and it’s a challenging transition, but a really rewarding job all in all.

In summary, I was going from a job where I largely did solo analysis work, to a job where I am defining requirement for a team of engineers to build. The pace as a PM is much faster.

In terms of adjustments, this is what I remember as the major ones:

  • Lots of information to process - My days became a lot busier, both in meetings and in the decisions that I needed to make daily. I needed to read and process dashboards, user interviews, internal/eternal opinions, what competitors are doing, what your team wants to do, etc. I am not sure there is a way to prepare for this, you just eventually figure it out. (In retrospect, this was partially because I wasn’t doing a good enough job helping my team define things for themselves and the tickets/specs that I wrote weren’t clear enough, however I think this is always there)
  • Defining direction and requirements - Before being a PM, I had a decent grasp on our business and ideas on generally what we should be doing to grow. As a PM, my general ideas weren’t helpful and I needed to define exactly what has to happen. Down to the screen layout, copy on the pate, database tracking, when it gets release, who needs to be informed, etc. Learning to figure out and then articulate this level of detail to engineers in a way that they can understand it took some time.
  • How to run a product team day to day - It took me a while to first feel comfortable running our sprint structure, then to try to understand why each part of the process is there and what I need to do to make it work. To start I just figured out what had to happen in each of our sprint meetings and then I could later figure out how to make those meetings work better.

There are some things that you can kind of prepare for, other things there is nothing but just figuring it out on the job :slight_smile:

Hope that helps.

  • Dan
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Hey Dylan,
I am a PM at Tencent in China for 6years . when i was gratuated ,i worked in a consulting company as a consltor but i tought consulting industry would be subverted by dight industy like internet ,so i joined a internet company .
I have a bachelor degree as management and a master degree as communication,you know i did not get a STME degree.But as a PM ,I think you should have some hare skills ,like design \date analyse :SQL,Python,R.it’s good for your to enhance your competive.
Now i am learning date science path in codecademy.

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Hey @beta2988402020 ,

Apologies for the delay. I studied electrical engineering in my undergrad, and landed a job as a consultant as my first job. So I was able to pick up both technical chops and business acumen. I started my career in product as an associate product manager at a fashion e-commerce company. I’d say that I got a bit lucky to convince to leadership at the time to take me on given the little experiences I had.

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Hi Dylan,
At the moment, I’m not aspiring to work in a PM role. My company is in an interesting part of it’s maturation process and I see a lot of opportunity in growing the BA role as a means to support the company scale. I’m also semi-aspiring to be a developer :slight_smile:

The first thing you need to understand is that a Product Manager is different than a Product Owner. Owning the product means you’re responsible for making the decisions on how the product will evolve based on input from stakeholders and customers, managing the product is making sure you follow a plan defined for you. When you’re the owner, you are trusted to make the right decisions. When you’re a manager, you’re enforcing the decisions other people made. Not a lot of companies have a good definition for these roles, it is up to you to make sure the expectations are clear during the interview process.

What are the best entry-level positions to either get directly into the role or to gain relevant experience for it?
There is no good answer for this. I’ve been working in QA for 12 years and saw a lot of different people performing those duties. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, I applied that to my last job and ended up being the Product Manager. It wasn’t intentional, it was a natural progression within that team. I would saw that knowing the Agile principles is a good step, take a CSM course, and go from there…

How deep should I develop my knowledge on the general technical concepts and specific programming languages and tools used by the dev team?
As deep as you’re willing to go. A Product Owner\Manager with good technical skills is extremely valuable. This allows you to both give direction to the dev team on what to do as well as understand what they decide to do. Notice I said give direction, not tell them what to do. It is not your job to tell them how to do their job, it is your job to coach and help them to make the right decisions based on what you want for the product.

There are several online resources that can give you definitions on things like microservices, but it’s better to be part of a team and see how they make those decisions, make mistakes, and fix them. That is the kind of experience you need to be a good Product Owner\Manager because that is how you can coach a team on how to do it successfully. I don’t know of a course that teaches these things, I’ve learned on the job (I’m a QA Engineer turned Project Manager - I never owned the product)

What should I learn to better listen to, understand and uncover the needs of a product’s customers and stakeholders?
Things you can’t really learn:

  • empathy
  • have the customer’s best interest at hand
  • be selfless

Things you can learn:

  • how to say no (stakeholders are not always right, sometimes you have to fight back. If you have to fight back all the time, leave and get another job)
  • you’re building a product to serve the customer, not to serve stakeholders. Stakeholders are usually interested in revenue, not service. I would advise you to stay away from said people as they tend to make bad business decisions.
  • don’t work overtime (unless you’re getting paid for it)
  • how to manage focus groups (listening to your customer is extremely important) → stakeholders, product managers\owners, developers, qa, etc. can get tunnel vision. They all know what the requirements are and things always seem logical. This is never the case with the end-user, you need to see things from their perspective, why something is not intuitive or why it goes against industry best practices despite being logical and efficient.
  • how to manage people: you need to be a leader and a mentor, this allows you to successfully manage a team. Some people are natural leaders, others can learn the basics.

What should I learn to better communicate between the different groups involved in the product development? (i.e. Developers, Executives and Customers / Stakeholders)
This is where technical knowledge is also very useful, you should be able to translate technical requirements to your stakeholders and customers. What does the higher price for an XL ECS instance in AWS mean for system performance, site availability, why is it worth it?

Public speaking courses would be good, being comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Writing courses would be good. If you can send a well-crafted email instead of having a meeting, please do that!

If you need to make a presentation, make it concise.

Reports and dashboards that can reduce meetings and provide instant access to information. You don’t necessarily have to build them but know how to manage and access the data.

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