“Product management” is that position that product managers have a difficulty in describing to others what they do. In general, Product Managers help solve problems and develop new products or features for their customers. Or they say, they “get s*** done.” The customers can also be anyone – either internal stakeholders in the company or users/consumers of a product. But either way, product managers do tend to be the glue between designers, engineers, and business people when the company is sizable and there is a lot to do with so little time.
How folks get their start in product management can also be quite unconventional. There are MBA programs that allow you to specialize in product management, but there are also many “career switchers” who start off in one career path and somehow find themselves in product management. It’s one of those roles that benefits from people with different backgrounds coming together to solve problems that may require unique solutions for the company. (This is a great article that also describes the different kinds of product managers that exist in a company – and based on your background, it can help define the type of product manager you can be.)
We asked Senior Product Manager Rezwan Khan from MongoDB a few questions about what it’s like to get into product management and how he views his role. It might help others figure out whether product management is the role for them.
How did you get into Product Management?
RK: While, I would like to say that I followed a script, the truth is I stumbled upon the role accidentally.
I spent my early career training to be a research scientist. While, my research was intellectually interesting, I realized that it wasn’t for me. While looking for an alternate career, a friend convinced me to try a vague role called “Solutions Engineering” for a 150 person startup called AppNexus, building an even vaguer technology called “real time bidding”. The idea behind the role was to support the sales team of AppNexus, by being technical experts and helping sales prospects understand how our technology would help solve their problems. While initially skeptical, it turned out to be an incredible role – AppNexus’s clients were the largest, most sophisticated media and tech companies in the world. And I got to work with founders, CTOs and CPOs from those companies to help map their requirements to AppNexus’s product suites.
It was there I realized that more often than not, we couldn’t actually solve their problems and that lead me to work with these folks called “product managers”, who seemingly held the keys to getting stuff built that helped my customers. I was hooked – since I can go out in the field, figure out what customers wanted, have them promise me a deal if I solved their problem and working with product managers to build the technology which eventually helped close the deal. Over time, I fell in love with what they did and decided to jump into trying the role myself.
While, I never was formally trained as a PM, prior to that, looking back, I think my time out in the field talking and understanding how customers think, my time with PMs trying to convert customer requirements into real products and my time as a researcher definitely helped in providing the tools I needed to succeed as a PM.
What’s an average day look like for you?
RK: Each day is very different, but if I had to categorize, the major buckets of my work are:
1. Talking to customers, including internal ones (ex: executives, sales, services etc).
2. Planning and evaluation (what do we build? why? what is the data telling us? why now?).
3. Working with engineers as we are building the product.
4. Miscellaneous activities, all generally related to figuring out what we should be doing as a company 2+ years later.
And there are some days where I just yell at the computer (#5), because nothing is going right.
You live or die by how your team does, so invest in lifting each other wholeheartedly.– Rezwan Khan
What do you do now that you didn’t expect to be doing in your role?
RK: Probably two things:
1) I spend a lot of time making sure my team (engineers, designers, marketing, technical writers etc.) gets recognized for the good work they do and removing any blockers from doing great work. It took me a year to realize this, but I strongly believe there is no such thing as individual success as a PM: you live or die by how your team does, so invest in lifting each other wholeheartedly.
2) I think a lot about how to improve internal systems and processes in the company. This implies always asking the hard question of whether we are moving as fast and as efficiently as possible. A non-trivial part of my week goes into helping build systems and operations, which helps the company operate smoothly as we continue to scale up.
What’s a common misconception about what you do?
I think a lot of people expect the product manager to be the “CEO” of a product. The inherent expectation is that product manager is responsible for making all the decisions. The reality is that the decisions are made as a team and your job often is to ensure that everyone has the context and information to be able to make those decisions effectively. As a result, the PM is less a CEO and more of a coach – creating the right environment where smart people can come together, bringing their unique expertise and help make great decisions which solves the user’s problem.
What’s your advice for someone that wants to get into product management?
I think the best way to get into product management is via your current company. PM-ing is an “apprenticeship” role, which implies that it is hard to learn by reading books and taking courses and hence it’s easier to convince someone to give you a chance to be a PM, if they already know you. While over time, you need to master many different skills, the core ones are being able to understand customer pain very well and being able to make decisions logically (ex: understanding the pros/cons, priorities etc).
Rezwan Khan is a senior product manager at MongoDB and previously worked at AppNexus and Arcadia Solutions.