How Product Women Find Success: Key Takeaways & Career Advice from Women in Product
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Product careers can have varying roadmaps. Some have engineering or science backgrounds like myself, while others may be experienced in marketing, journalism, and even history. It's unlikely for anyone to become an expert in all the knowledge required to be a successful product person.
That’s why no two paths to success in product careers look alike.
American mass media company Condé Nast in New York City hosted a special event which included a discussion about the many roads to becoming a product management professional. The panel included five people that hail from startups, midsize and large companies.
Among other things, I am a product manager at Nucleus, a photographer, and a Oakland native transplanted into NYC. In my journey of building product, I’ve found that it is crucially important to think about the meaning and value you want to create in the world, and what it is about who you are that lets you add something unique and meaningful to the products you build.
Define Product Management for Yourself
Product management continues to evolve as new products emerge in the market, and as the discipline and practice itself matures and adjusts to the fast-changing world we live in. With all of this change, it can be challenging to determine where to begin. As you learn more about product management, it’s critical to understand what it means to you, as well as what changes you want to see in the world.
As a Product Owner and the CEO of Scrum.org I was invited to speak at ProductTank NYC earlier this year about the conflict between the roles Product Owner and Product Manager. And how organizations need to consolidate on one overall decision maker for the product, and that person should be engaged with the delivery teams as a representative of the business / customer.
Who Is The Boss Anyway?
Scrum has become the de-facto standard for how teams deliver software with some 12+ Million people using Scrum every day. In Scrum, the person who has the ultimate responsibility for the product is called the Product Owner. But, what happens in organizations that already have product managers? Who makes the ultimate decisions about the product?
There Can Only Be One Product Owner?
Scrum is very clear, there can only be one Product Owner. By having a single individual responsible for the product, that doesn’t mean they do all of the work, the Product Owner role removes a lot of inefficiencies that exist with group ownership. That doesn’t mean that a Product Owner is not influenced by different stakeholders, but ultimately they need to make the decisions. They decide what is the most valuable backlog items to deliver and they work with the team to shape the product. And because it is Scrum, those decisions are quickly delivered into the product, which allows for transparency and adaption. The Product Owner is the ultimate decision maker, but because the product is delivered frequently, everyone involved has insight into the overall direction allowing for feedback and change. The Product Owner however is not all knowing, if you find that person who knows all, hire them as it is very rare. That is why they will rely on people like business analysts, product managers, etc. to help them with understanding the product direction and what needs to be delivered.
Ellen Chisa has an educational background in engineering and is currently working on her MBA at Harvard Business School. She has worked for companies like Microsoft and Kickstarter, and is currently the VP of Product at Lola. They connect travelers to travel agents for hotels, restaurants, and any other travelling needs. In her ProductTank NYC presentation, she explains the importance of learning and becoming a better product manager.
How Do You Know if You’re a Good Product Manager?
There is a generic checklist of skills needed for being a good product manager, including things like writing your own code, coming up with A/B or A/A tests, or doing multi-armed bandit tests. However, there will always be new things to learn. No matter how many things you check off of the list, someone will always be able to find something you haven’t learned yet, so Ellen argues that you shouldn’t focus on your checklist.
How Do You Get Better?
In fact, Ellen doesn’t even think you should focus on how to get better. There will always be things that you don’t know, and it will always be beneficial to learn those new things, but it’s much more important to establish what you already know and create your knowledge baseline.
Shendi Wang is a Business Leader of Product Development and Innovation at Mastercard. In her ProductTank NYC presentation, she discusses her own personal experiences in product and how they have helped her to discover the types of products she wanted to create.
Shendi’s experiences in product started at American Express, developing prepaid products in a startup environment with their own tech platform. From there, she moved to The Street, a financial news website. Today she leads a brand new group at Mastercard, with a team of only five people.
Experiences in Product
“Product” can be a very broad term. The nice thing about that broadness is that it allows designers and product managers to really focus on the specific products that they want to work on. That is what Shendi was able to do. Before she did that, however, she had to consider a few different factors.
She first looks at product from one of two perspectives; product development and product management. Some companies have both of these roles on the same team, and both will see the product through its entire life cycle. Other companies, however, separate the roles, so once the product is developed, the product manager then takes over.
Next, Shendi asks herself if she is working closer to business or closer to tech. The answer to this question will vary company to company, and it is also somewhat dictated by your background.
Shendi uses these two questions to decide what products and companies she wants to work with. Another factor she takes account for is where the product is in its life cycle. If the product is pre-launch, her role will be closer to product development and tech heavy. If it is post-launch, her role will be closer to product management and business heavy.
Sophia Huang started her career in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eventually moved to New York City to work with InVision, the makers of the popular InVisionApp software. In her ProductTank NYC presentation, she goes over the challenges of onboarding as a product manager.
Sophia explains that it is extremely rare for a company to have a smooth and proper onboarding procedure. The process at times can be chaotic, and you should work quickly in identifying someone in the organization who can direct all your questions to (especially in the first two weeks of starting your role). In Sophia’s experience, she has directed all of her questions to one team member (a “buddy”), in favour of using the “proper” frameworks and points of contact for onboarding.
Onboarding as a Product Manager
Sophia pulls research from Forbes and The Next Web to find what the first 30, 60, and 90 days of onboarding as a product manager should be about. What she found was that most articles became somewhat repetitive as they discussed things like metrics, iterations, and talking to stakeholders.
However, she did find valuable insights from Ken Norton, based on his experiences from Google Docs, Yahoo, and NBC Internet – specifically, his article outlining tips to your first 30 days as a product manager. His three major areas of focus were people, product, and personal setup.